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Mix-up in Finland delays U. scholar

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A Chinese scholar at the University of Utah has fallen into a snarl of bureaucratic red tape in Finland, finding herself unable to return to her family and research in Salt Lake City without detouring many thousands of miles to China.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has intervened to help her but apparently to no avail as she was scheduled to leave Finland for China on Wednesday.

"For me the event is so outrageous and painful that I couldn't concentrate on my project here for a couple of days," researcher Xiaomei Jiang wrote Tuesday in an e-mail to the Deseret News.

Jiang, who is pursuing her doctorate in physics at the U., is a member of the research team led by U. physics department chairman Z. Valy Vardeny. A research report on the spectroscopy of conjugated polymers, in which she was one of four authors, was published in the journal Science in February 2000.

Her husband, Jian Zhang, is also from China and a doctoral student in the U. physics department. They have a daughter, Ailin Zhang, 7.

Jiang has a valid visa that allowed her to enter the United States to attend the U. and to teach on campus. Her visa is listed as an "F-1 in good standing" document, as noted by Vardeny in a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Finland.

About 10 days ago, Vardeny sent her to Abo Akedemi University in Turhu, Finland, to train with Ronald Osterbacka and obtain specialized computer software that will help the group's studies. The Finnish professor "actually developed a software program for our research," Vardeny told the Deseret News.

She carried documents from the U. that the researchers believed would be sufficient to allow her to re-enter the United States without any difficulty.

But when she went to the embassy in Helsinki to have her passport stamped for the return trip, embassy officials refused to stamp her visa.

"She has been asked to return to her home country, China, to have her visa reissued," Vardeny wrote.

Suddenly, Jiang faces a long trip back to Cheng Du in southwestern China, her home region. Her teaching duties at the U. are on hold, and her family is distressed about the unexpectedly long separation. She may not be able to return before October.

"My daughter is very worried and very sad about that," Zhang said.

Vardeny said Jiang was told that for students from China, a visa to re-enter the country must be issued at the country of origin. But the same rules do not apply to students from Western countries.

"It's special unfair treatment toward those people" from countries like China, Vardeny said.

"This is unbelievable. . . . It's really a disaster."

The Deseret News attempted unsuccessfully to contact U.S. Embassy officials in Helsinki on Sunday and Tuesday.

Jiang's airplane tickets will cost another $1,200, and if she has to wait in China for two weeks while the visa is reissued, that will add $800 to the bill. U.S. taxpayers will pay for the bureaucratic mess because the costs will come from the research grant the Vardeny group received through the National Science Foundation.

An Aug. 30 letter from Hatch to the American consul officer in Helsinki says, "Because Ms. Jiang is a valued student at the University of Utah, they are hopeful you will be able to issue her the necessary paperwork so she can return to the United States.

"I would appreciate your assistance with this request."

Vardeny said he is grateful for the help from Hatch's office. "I am pleased to say they were very accommodating," he said. But he has not heard that American officials in Finland have responded to Hatch's appeal.

Meanwhile, when he talked to her by phone, Vardeny found Jiang was depressed by the imbroglio.

"She was so down," he said. "She kept telling me that she feels like a bandit, like a criminal; they treat her as if they don't believe her.

"They don't believe the professor (Osterbacka), they don't believe me, they don't care about Senator Hatch either."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com