They arrived in Chicago together as immigrants from the Soviet Ukraine last January, but Michael Polovchak, 42, and his son, Walter, 12, have in effect been living in two different countries ever since. To the father, the U.S. is a hostile place where the vegetables are “poisoned” and the air gives his wife, Anna, headaches. He hates his job as a factory custodian and has stubbornly refused to learn English. By contrast, young Walter and his sister, Natalie, 17, have taken to their adopted home with a passion. Walter loves rock, Big Macs, seventh grade and the Chicago Bears. “I like everything here,” he exclaimed recently. “I would rather not see my parents again than return to the Ukraine.”
Sadly, Walter may be forced to make precisely that choice. Last month Michael Polovchak announced that he was taking his family back to their native land. The decision angered and puzzled his U.S. relatives, who had even offered him money for a down payment on a house. “My brother never gave it a chance,” says Polovchak’s sister, Anastasia. “He had hardly been here a day when he began to complain.” When Walter and Natalie refused to go back, a relative took them in. Now the Polovchak family is engaged in an unprecedented legal showdown. Because Natalie is nearly 18, Michael Polovchak is willing to allow her to remain in the U.S. But Walter is a minor, and his father refuses to leave him behind. “I think if there hadn’t been so much publicity, he probably would have consented,” says one observer, “but now he’s afraid to lose face, and he can’t do that.” Illinois Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Mooney is scheduled to decide Walter’s fate next week.
To his father the issue is basic. “Am I a drunkard?” he thundered in Ukrainian at a hearing last month. “Do I starve my children? Have I broken any laws? No. Does a 12-year-old boy tell his father what to do?” Some immigrants believe Polovchak created the crisis himself, through his unrealistic expectations about life in America. “What many immigrants don’t realize is that you have to work and pay bills here like everywhere else,” says a friend. “Michael is very disappointed and confused.” His son feels differently. “Walter has changed from a robot to a kid learning to laugh, cry and have a good time,” says math teacher John Mesyk. Adds Walter: “The children in school here smile a lot—and they don’t at home.”
Further complicating the case is Michael Polovchak’s distant relationship with both Walter and Natalie. According to relatives, the boy was brought up primarily by his grandmother, and Polovchak himself admits he has never taken his children to a movie or on vacation or attended any of their school events. “That is for the state to provide,” he has said. Under a court order, Walter and Natalie meet three times a week with their parents, but the get-togethers are frequently stormy.
Even so, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers representing Michael claim that his rights as a parent are paramount. “If this were a 12-year-old kid whose family was moving to California and he didn’t want to go, there would be no issue,” says one. Walter’s Ukrainian-born attorney, Julian Kulas, agrees, but argues that his client would be deprived of his rights in the U.S.S.R. “If Walter were to return,” he says, “he would lose any chance for a higher education. I know. I deal with dissidents all the time.” However the case is resolved, the Polovchak family seems irretrievably broken. “This often happens,” a Ukrainian friend says sadly. “It takes the parents longer to adjust than the children. The first months in this country can be terrible.”