Saturday, August 9, 2008

U.S. Denies Visas to International Folk Art Festival

In May, He Guan Gyu was pinned under heaps of rubble for more than 24 hours after a massive earthquake struck China's Sichuan Province. It killed her parents and destroyed the factory where she worked. Despite her suffering, she hoped to be in Bountiful, Utah next week to sing the traditional songs of her Qiang culture at the International Organization of Folk Art's first youth conference. She is one of just 80,000 people who speak her native language. Her dream was dashed when the U.S. State Department refused to give her a visa to travel to the United States - she didn't have the family ties and job to convince officials she would return to China.

Almost 80% of 300 foreign artists invited to attend the international youth conference in Bountiful, Utah have been denied travel visas. Officials from the International Organization of Folk Art say despite their repeated tries - including letters from Utah's Republican U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch - just 65 of the 300 invited artists have obtained visas. The first-ever youth conference is being held in conjunction with this week's 20th Annual Bountiful-Davis Summerfest International. The International Organization of Folk Art was created to preserve native cultures and languages, forming ties over time with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

David Donahue, spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department, says the department recognizes the importance of cultural exchange. However, Donahue says U.S. law presumes a visa applicant won't return to his or her home country. "We know the benefit to America when they come to share their culture with us, and we issue visas to thousands of folk artists, musicians, people coming here to share little bits of their culture with us every year," Donahue said. "But, in the end, the office is going to have to make the decision, from the information each applicant provides them: 'Will this particular applicant, at the end of the conference or cultural event, return to their home country?' "

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