The Petros are happy to be home in Key West again. Shown from front to left: Michael, age 5, Aziza, dad Michael and Mercedes, age 11.
KEY WEST, Fla. – June 10, 2015, started out like any “first day of vacation” day for Aziza Petro and her children Mercedes (now 11) and Michael (now 5). It began with a very long plane ride to Turkmenistan, where Aziza was born.
“My wife had dual citizenship in the United States and Turkmenistan, a country located in Central Asia, which used to be a part of the U.S.S.R.,” says Michael Petro, a sales associate with RE/MAX Keys Connection in Key West. However, in January 2015, Aziza had submitted her renunciation of citizenship application at the Turkmenistan Embassy in Washington, D.C.
“We were informed that, when traveling there, she should bring both passports, submit her paperwork to renounce her Turkmenistan citizenship and then they would issue her a visa on the spot, allowing her to visit,” says Michael.
Aziza and the children were visiting her brother and his wife, who recently had a baby. “She planned the summer trip to see him and visit her mother’s gravesite,” says Michael.
Instead, what happened was the Petros’ worse nightmare.
“Upon entering the country, she was told by authorities that she would not be able to leave,” says Michael, who notes that the children are both U.S. citizens and should not have been held. Michael immediately got to work contacting the U.S. embassy in Turkmenistan and the U.S. State Department.
“However, we didn’t seem any closer to getting my family home after a month,” he says. So, he contacted a local attorney and tried to get as much media attention as possible.
“The Realtor® community was very receptive and cooperative. Frank Kowalski (with Metro Dade Realty in Miami) had a relationship with a congresswoman who helped us get the attention of Congressman Curbelo’s office,” says Michael.
Then, Michael did an interview with Radio Free Europe. Soon after, things started happening.
“Suddenly, things started coming together. They allowed my daughter to come home,” he says. “She was depressed. She was supposed to be starting middle school but missed the first month. She also plays travel soccer. We stepped up the pressure with the State Department and the embassy, and they finally did something about it.”
Michael met his daughter in London and flew home with her from there. Their son, Michael, was too young to travel alone. “In addition, we worried that we would lose our leverage if he left too since there was no question the children were both U.S. citizens,” he says.
Finally, after threatening to make a big deal during a visit by Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow to New York City two weeks after allowing his daughter to come home, Aziza and their son were allowed to leave on September 27, 2015.
“After refusing to let them leave for three months, they basically kicked them out. They gave them 72 hours to get out of the country,” says Michael. Once they got home, says Michael, “we never heard from the State Department or the U.S. embassy again.”
The fallout from the ordeal, however, has been substantial.
“My wife lost her job,” he says. “Plus, it wasn’t cheap. Aziza had to fly to the U.S. embassy several times because the 8-hour drive is too dangerous. Thankfully, the family was allowed to stay with Aziza’s brother,” he says.
The Petros also remain leery about international travel – and their son still, every once in a while, has dreams that the police are coming to take him away. However, Michael, says the outpouring of support from the Realtor community has been comforting.
“Things have been getting back to normal, and it feels good,” he says.