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Bulgaria: Donors Help Stranded Seamen Return Home

Bellingham, Wash.; 16 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Six of nine Bulgarian seamen who were stranded in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington are home today, thanks to donations by Americans made aware of their plight by local newspaper and television accounts.

Lila Smith of the International Transport Workers Federation in the port city of Seattle tells RFE/RL that donations are still being sought to buy passage home for the remaining three who are staying with families in the area.

Local television covered the sendoff of the six seamen from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday. Smith, who was there, says the scene was one of "hugs and kisses -- like family."

The same station had earlier broadcast an account of the seamen's plight. Smith says that program, along with previous newspaper coverage, generated a tide of donations that enabled the International Transport Workers Federation, which has been working with its Bulgarian affiliate, Bulgarian Syndicat, to send the six home. She says further donations are expected to allow the remaining three men to be repatriated soon.

Smith says that, though the men's transit visas expired last week, an extension has since been granted.

The seamen's story had begun promisingly enough in the Black Sea port of Varna, where a man named Svetoslav Ivanov promised them that, for $1,500, he would fly the nine men to Seattle, provide necessary visas and place them as crew aboard a fishing boat he described as the Motor Vessel Sofia. A check by the U.S. Coast Guard revealed that 29 vessels have that name, none of them near Seattle or Alaska fisheries.

The nine arrived here about three weeks ago with visions of earning $15,000 a month, but instead found nothing awaiting them at the airport -- and certainly not Ivanov's promised "agent" to direct them to the Sofia.

After a few nights spent at the airport, sleeping in chairs, the charitable Catholic Seamen's Club took them in and, with Smith's help, spread the word of their plight.

Smith says she got word Monday from Bulgarian Syndicat that the company in Varna that employed Ivanov, which she described as Black Sea Skippers, had fired him. That same message confirmed the safe arrival in Varna of the six men she had seen off at Seattle-Tacoma airport on Friday.