When Julia Flesch first learned about the business of mail-order brides two years ago, she was an 18-year-old college student living in her Russian homeland. Her first, fateful exposure came in the form of a newspaper ad about American men who wanted to meet and marry Russian women.
Julia, who had also heard American men were "nice," next went to the agency in Moscow for a videotaped interview.
A few months later she met Bill Flesch, a Pablo, Mont., man, at an agency sponsored party in Moscow. There, they chatted and flirted with the aid of an interpreter. Bill was in Russia for only two weeks and he wanted to use his time there well. Within three days, he was staying with Julia's family in their flat.
Bill Flesch, 34, says he initially learned of available Russian brides through Sweetheart magazine, based in Montana. He paid $2,500 to travel to Russia, where he met Julia at a social in a Moscow hotel.
At the time, he says, he was hoping to meet a "beautiful wife, young, without children or emotional baggage." Three months later, Julia was on a plane, on her way to the States to marry and move in with Bill.
Today, Julia Flesch says her marriage to an American is far less romantic and loving than the agency in Moscow led her to believe. She wishes her husband would spend more time with her and that he didn't dislike Russian cooking. "American men must understand [women from Russia] are very different. I just want to come here and have a family. I don't want money," she says.
Such is Julia's story. A similar one belongs to tens of thousands of foreign-born women who have come to America seeking financial stability and possibly love with men they barely know. The importing of foreign brides, through pen-pal clubs and other dating organizations, means big money for a handful of businesses which connect such women with American men, who are as often as not divorced, middle-aged and-as one bridal consultant puts it-"out of the loop" socially.
There is no way of knowing precisely how many women enter the United States each year through international match making enterprises, because nobody tracks it. The companies try to keep track, says Mike Krosky, who describes himself as the "big cheese" at the Hawaii-based Cherry Blossoms, one of the largest international "personal service" companies. But, he adds, not everyone follows up with him if they do end up getting married.
Sharon Rummery, a public information official with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in San Francisco, says her agency is far too understaffed to keep track of all the foreigners marrying Americans, let alone through mail-order bride arrangements.
"That would require a whole different level of statistics. It's one of many situations that exists, but we just don't keep records on it," she says.
Regardless of precisely how many thousands come, the concerns for many are the same, and domestic abuse tops that list. The U.S. already has a high rate of domestic violence. But when women-who fear loss of citizenship if they don't do what they're told-marry men who expect their wives to cater to their every need, experts say the increased potential for abuse is there.
Leslye Orloff, founder of the domestic violence unit of Ayuda, a Washington, D.C., organization which provides legal services for abused immigrants, says domestic violence involving immigrant women is a huge problem in the U.S.
"Domestic violence is very widespread in general," Orloff says. "Close to 50 percent of American women will experience it at least once in their lives. When you look at foreign women married to American men, the number jumps to 77 percent.
"Men who want traditional marriages and want total control of their wives fall prey to the marketing of submissive women by international match-making organizations. The problem is, they should be learning that when there's an imbalance of power and control, it fosters abuse. That's what we want to avoid."
There are few legal protections tailored for such women. Ayuda finds some help in the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which allows battered immigrant spouses and ex-spouses to obtain citizenship independently if they can prove abuse, have no criminal record, and if deportation would potentially have dire consequences for them or their children.
For people arranging international marriages and profiting from it, the industry takes on a different hue. Both Mike Tessitore, of the Great Falls-based Asian Rose Travel, and Krosky both say their clients are older men, almost always divorced, who feel they are too "out of the loop" to participate in any kind of singles scene.
"A guy gets married [for the first time] for the wrong reasons-his hormones are running, he wants sex," Tessitore says. "The couple drifts apart, they get divorced and now he's 40 years old. He's been out of circulation too long. So he finds another divorced woman and the same thing happens-they get married for the sex and get divorced again.
"A woman from the Philippines has never been through that process. Often they are still virgins at 27."
Those looking for love in the pages of a catalog have little trouble obtaining the addresses of willing women. One could look in the back of Rolling Stone for instance, or any of a dozen popular magazines, and find the addresses and phone numbers for more than a half-dozen of these companies.
Krosky guesses that the women who place personal ads through his company garner a total of 30,000 responses annually, and he estimates 1,000 couples using Cherry Blossoms get married every year. He puts the total number of marriages arranged through similar channels at 10,000 annually.
Approximately 5,000 Filipinas alone enter the U.S. each year as wives, selected from a company catalog or met on company-sponsored bridal tours in the South Pacific, according to Carolyn Antonio of the Gabriela Network. Founded in 1989, GABNet works on issues arising from U.S. policy decisions which affect women and children of the Philippines, and has strong alliances with Gabriela Philippines, one of that country's largest and most militant women's groups.
Recent immigration law changes have watered down the Violence Against Women Act. Under the original law, abused immigrants could petition for a green card without leaving the U.S. or paying a fine, even if their visas had expired. Under new changes, foreigners wishing to become American citizens must jump through a multitude of hoops, making it even more difficult for women to get out of abusive situations.
Currently, however, the group Ayuda is trying to guide legislation through Congress which would make it easier for imported brides to become American citizens. Leslye Orloff says she's optimistic the new legislation will pass. The proposed law, which would increase access to government agents, passed the Senate last Friday, and a parallel piece passed the House last week as well. It remains up to the Congress to mesh the versions before President Clinton gets the chance to ink the measure into law.
For his part, Krosky says that he's in the business of assisting both men and women, helping them to find true love through letter writing, which he describes as a "lost art," charging $10 per address or under $10 for his publication containing multiple addresses.
Krosky defends his business this way: "It's like if you were driving a Sunfire and you started to make a lot more money and realized other things were available to you. Why wouldn't you go after them and buy yourself a Lexus? Why should anyone fault a woman for wanting a better life with a man in another country?"
Likewise, Tessitore claims that American men are known world wide for the way they treat women, and that foreign women know Americans will support them better than men in their own countries.
His clients, tired of independent, career-minded American women, want a wife "totally committed to making their husbands happy."
Tessitore insists there's nothing wrong with what he does, although critics call the mail order bride industry a flesh trade that's nothing more than modern-day slavery. "The government doesn't like what I do, but what I do isn't immoral or illegal," Tessitore says. "Some guys actually want a slave, but the majority just want a wife who will treat them well."
Tessitore specializes in Filipina women, and charges his clients $2,485 for a standard tour, including air fare and accommodations. He says most men who fly over with him to the Philippines to meet their pen pals don't end up marrying them. Besides introducing existing pen pals, Tessitore arranges meetings, as his brochure states, with "additional lovely ladies, should your pen pal relationship not work out as you desire."
Despite the brochure's wording, and the fact that it comes in the same envelope as advertisements for a guide to the brothels of Thailand and X-rated sex videos filmed in Southeast Asian clubs, Tessitore flatly denies his operation offers the notorious sex tours. None-theless, 60 Minutes sent a reporter under-cover on one of Tessitore's tours for a show devoted to that subject.
In the segment, which focused on mail-order brides, Tessitore was shown as a jovial host at a party where clusters of Filipinas milled about in dresses, smiling sweetly as music blared in the background. The men, for the most part white fellows with ruddy faces, appeared to be jubilant and not a little anxious. There were far more women present than men, and to say the scene looked like a meat market would be putting it mildly.
When 60 Minutes caught up with Tessitore, he refused to be interviewed by Leslie Stahl. But he recently told the Independent, "There are a lot of corrupt [organizations]. Some of them right here in Montana, actually. But I don't do prostitution tours, I take my pen pal club. Some of these other guys are crooked as a snake's hind leg."
Regardless of those buying Tessitore's services, few are buying his line. The citizens of the world should be alarmed not only that men are essentially buying wives, but that women are willing to sell themselves, says Olatunde Ojo, a visiting University of Montana professor of political science from Nigeria. Ojo expresses disgust with the services offered by Tessitore and others-whether they're outright prostitution rings or more closely aligned with businesses such as Asian Rose.
"The mail order bride syndrome," Ojo says, "is an extension of the international prostitution industry caused primarily by lack of opportunity and poor economies in other countries. Everybody is looking for a way out. The ones that get married may be the lucky ones."
In effect, Ojo says that the federal government's willingness to reduce or eliminate trade barriers creates a situation rife with unsavory opportunities. By devaluing a nation's currency and wreaking havoc on their economy, he says, the U.S. opens the door for Americans to take advantage of desperate people. The fact that the government doesn't do more to protect disenfranchised women Ojo sees as a sign of disregard for basic human rights.
The advocacy group Ayuda has been lobbying Congress to alter this situation. Leslye Orloff proposes that one way to deter problems is to require U.S. citizens to disclose past criminal convictions or a history of protection orders when filling out paperwork to bring a fiancee into the country. "Foreigners should be allowed to marry U.S. citizens or legal residents," she says. "But they should also have the right to know about criminal histories before the damage is done."
Those fighting for immigrant women's rights want to avoid a repeat of the high profile Susanna Blackwell story, which took place in Seattle in 1995. In what could be described as a worst case scenario, Blackwell, a mail-order bride, was gunned down at the King County Courthouse at a divorce hearing. Blackwell's estranged husband, Timothy, was arrested at the scene.
By contrast, Krosky boasts that the marriages he's helped arrange have an 80 to 90 percent success rate. "Our marriages are subject to the same natural laws as all others. But in the United States in the last five years, the reported murders from international marriages is two. The total deaths of wives and children due to domestic violence from all marriages in the last five years is 250,000."
Tessitore admits that a major problem with businesses like his is the lack of screening requirements or standards for prospective husbands. "If he sounds like a nice guy, he goes," Tessitore says of his own process. "I can't do an FBI search on everyone. The Filipino government wanted me to have police clearance for any American marrying in the Philippines. That would eliminate my business there."
Krosky says if a potential client calls and he's rude to Cherry Blossoms staff, he's told to take his business elsewhere. Likewise, he has standards for the women who submit personal ads. Krosky says if "her boobs are hanging out and she has a skirt up to her yin yang and all she's talking about is wealth, her application goes in the circular file."
Despite Tessitore's and Krosky's denial that abuse in international marriages is widespread, Jasmin Nisha tells a tale of harrowing woe which raises persistent concerns about the treatment of mail-order brides. Nisha married her husband, Western Montana resident Michael Cyrus, when she was just 15 years old, and to hear her tell it in interviews and reading her testimony in court documents, Cyrus expected her to be a servant.
Her parents answered a personal ad he placed in the Fiji Times, her hometown newspaper, that she says read, "Caucasian male seeks an honest Muslim wife who will obey and respect me."
To sweeten the deal, Nisha says, Cyrus began paying her parents $1,000 per month in exchange for his young bride. Despite her youth, gaining entry to the country was simple. She claims Cyrus obtained a forged birth certificate elevating her age to 16, the legal lower limit for a Montana marriage license.
"The first few months were good, because everything was so new to me," she says. "But then it didn't seem I was living the American way of life."
Nisha explains she was responsible for all cooking, cleaning and laundry for the household that consisted of her husband, his ex-wife and son, who was older than Nisha. Cyrus rarely allowed her to leave the property unescorted and discouraged her from making friends. He allowed her to work at his restaurant and keep a portion of her tips, but refused to teach her how to drive the car she purchased and held the vehicle's title.
Cyrus calls such allegations rediculous, and dismisses all of Nisha's characterizations as "unreliable."
Judy Chen, of Seattle's Asian Pacific Islanders Women and Family Safety Center, says the type of isolation Nisha describes breeds abuse. "I don't like to use the term 'mail-order bride' because the concept doesn't paint the whole picture. Domestic violence is about power and control-money, access to family and friends, citizenship status.
"It's part of what we call the power and control wheel. Isolation is the number one factor. Especially if the spouse can't speak English."
Ojo notes that although women from many nations have involved themselves in the international match-making industry, women from Asian countries find themselves trapped more often than others. "Western men think Asian women are a good deal," he says. "They see them as shy and respectful and American women as uppity."
Nisha says it wasn't long before her husband started abusing her. "He pushed me into walls all the time, calling me stupid.
"He pulled me by my neck and slammed me into the wall. He told me we were going to Fiji until my family straightened me out to how I was supposed to act as a wife and not try to be equal to him. Otherwise, he was going to leave me dumped over there and make sure I never got out," she says.
One of the first things she says Cyrus did to her upon arrival in Fiji was to slap her around in front of her family. They just laughed.
Cyrus counters that everything Nisha says is "absolutely false." "We've already hashed all this out in court," Cyrus says. "During the time when we were together I treated her with total respect and dignity."
Nisha, however, says during this time, she was not only afraid for her life, but of the immense ostracism she could face as a divorced woman in a Muslim community. So she arranged to escape from him while they were in Fiji by having a friend buy her a plane ticket and telling her family she was going to the store, instead jumping into a cab and heading for the airport.
Once back in Montana, she faced another set of problems when she found herself destitute. "I was in really bad shape because he always did everything. I didn't know which way to go or what to do."
Cindy Weese, with the Missoula YWCA, is familiar with Nisha's story through her stay at a local shelter. She says, "I have absolutely no reason to be skeptical of [Nisha's] story."
Now divorced from Cyrus, Nisha was awarded a settlement after an ugly court battle, but still lives glancing over her shoulder. "I feel really fortunate to be out of what I was in, but I feel it's a little too advanced out here. I do my best to fit in, but it's really hard to do what I please when [her ex-husband] shows up in Missoula whenever he wants. I won't be independent as long as I live here."
In court documents, Cyrus acknowledges that he brought a young girl into the country, but denies the allegations of abuse.
Julia Flesch says her husband Bill has hit her once, but she is staying in the marriage for now because she just wants a happy family for her 6-month-old son. "In Russia, I think American men are nice," she says. After a long pause, she continues, "Now sometimes yes, sometimes no."
Flesch goes on to say her husband gets mad because she can't always understand English. She also says that he sponsored her for citizenship, but now no longer wants to continue with the process. She says when they're fighting that he threatens to send her back to Russia.
By his own admission, Bill Flesch says that the fights have gotten intense between him and his wife. He acknowledges threatening to send her back to Russia, though when interviewed says that he doesn't really want her to go back. He says Russia's "a terrible place" and that he'd like his son's mother to stick around.
When it comes to Julia's claim that Bill hit her, he denies having "ever hit a woman in his whole entire life." Still, he says he might have hurt her. "It wasn't so much that I hit her," Flesch says. "We fell together. She was pissed because I was intoxicated and it blew up. And we fell into a concrete foundation."
Julia has other Russian friends married to American men, and that some of them have happy relationships. "They have nice husbands, cars, green cards," she says.
For his part, Mike Tessitore says the abuse can run both ways. He says it's common for foreign women to marry for citizenship, which opens the door for family members to immigrate to the United States. He's also seen women string men along in the hopes they will start sending money.
"Guys who just write [and don't visit] have problems. You're writing to a stranger. They find out she has ulterior motives. The photo shows a beautiful girl, but the letters are written by her male relatives to solicit money. I just took a guy over there who found his pen pal to be just a gold digger."
The fact that systems of arranged marriages for economic advancement go back centuries-and are an accepted part of many cultures-does little to assuage the image of these isolated "sweethearts" with zero domestic resources. Though the institution of marriage was historically, and perhaps sometimes still is, an agreement of ownership, when an abusive situation results, aided by a foreigner's fear of deportation, concerns are hard to ignore.
As Weese puts it, "It goes back to this idea of women being property. My opinion is that any man who would buy a woman is carrying around a lot of sexism. It's the extreme of what we see in abusive relationships.
"He feels he owns his partner, and so he has the right to control her."
Though women from around the world participate in dating and bridal services, Asian women such as those featured here in the Pacific Island Connection draw the attention of American men because of their reputation for being docile and having traditional values.
Jasmin Nisha poses with her ex-husband, Michael Cyrus, and her cousin in Fiji in early 1991, one year after their marriage.
Shown today, Jasmin Nisha hopes to write her memoirs as she recovers from the ordeal of being a mail-order bride.
Jasmin Nisha poses with her ex-husband, Michael Cyrus, and her cousin in Fiji in early 1991, one year after their marriage.