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While the U.S. requires applicants for refugee status to undergo medical exams by preapproved physicians, there is no way the Immigration and Naturalization Service can know whether the physician was informed of past episodes of instability. The press of applications is huge. In 1998 alone more than 23,000 refugees from the former Soviet Union were resettled in the U.S. If Soltys filed his application at the U.S. consulate in Kiev, the INS officer based in Moscow who would have reviewed his case would have been a circuit rider who handled 12 countries in the region.
In the crush for asylum, not just in Ukraine but in other troubled areas, interviews are often cursory, and medical exams may not include anything resembling a psychiatric evaluation along U.S. standards. Sometimes all an applicant has to do to win refugee status is prove membership in a persecuted group protected by U.S. law. Once in America, refugees are parceled out mostly to faith-based organizations whose primary objective is job counseling and language training. Soltys went to a refugee center in Binghamton, N.Y., before moving to the Sacramento area nine months ago.
The area around the state capital of California is the end of a religious journey for many refugees from the former Soviet Union. It is the headquarters of Word to Russia, a popular Evangelical Christian radio program that in the early 1970s broke through the Iron Curtain via shortwave-radio broadcasts, extolling the wonders of life in America, particularly Sacramento, where the radio show's founder, Michael Lokteff, also heads the Slavic Community Center. So it was natural that the first refugees, and later their families and friends, moved there, building churches and futures in what they believed to be freedom. Nikolay Soltys joined them, and if the police are right, was bedeviled by bloodthirsty ghosts he brought from the Old World.
--With reporting by Elaine Shannon/Washington, Paul Cuadros/Raleigh, Kathie Klarreich/Miami, Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow