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People of the Golden Vision Unlikely activists take up the cause of imprisoned Chinese refugees

THE BALTIMORE SUN

York, Pa. -- A cloud of dust and pollen rises above a field of overgrown weeds as Birkenstocks, Reeboks and Docksiders tap the parched earth, keeping time to the strumming of a guitar. A 6-month-old wriggles his bare toes in delight at the music, alternately sucking his thumb and squealing in his father's pierced ear. The baby's grandparents beam at his antics.

As protests go, it doesn't look like much. Just a dozen or so people in T-shirts and shorts gathered across from the York County prison to pray, sing and strategize.

It is their commitment rather than their numbers that make these activists remarkable. Sunday after Sunday, they have endured wilting heat and bone-chilling cold to stand for one hour where they can be seen by 108 Chinese refugees being held across the street.

For two years, ever since the freighter Golden Venture ran aground near New York harbor, the refugees have languished inside the prison, awaiting deportation back to China or political asylum in the United States.

Their plight has transformed the lives of a small band of York residents. It has made them question their government, live out their faith and devote hundreds of hours of their time to free a group of people they didn't know and still have difficulty communicating with.

Housewife and lawyer, conservative and liberal, fundamentalist and New Ager, these are the People of the Golden Vision. Today, they will gather in the field across from the prison for the 100th consecutive Sunday, an ordinary group of men and women who refuse to give up on their crusade for justice.

"These are just average-Joe Americans, not people who go around with save-the-whales T-shirts and save-the-rain-forests T-shirts, wondering what's the next cause they can sign up for," says Craig Trebilcock, one of Golden Vision's activists. "These are people from the heartland who feel their government has gone astray."

2 Change of heart

No one in York, a conservative, blue-collar city of 42,000, had much sympathy for the Chinese detainees when they were brought here in June 1993.

Like most people in town, Craig Trebilcock figured they were a bunch of illegal aliens trying to steal jobs from Americans. "I had a pretty jaded attitude," says Mr. Trebilcock, 35, who comes from a family of United Auto Worker union members in Michigan.

He could understand why people would flee a communist regime. He had spent three years as an Army defense lawyer at a base in West Germany and was there when the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989.

Still, he didn't have any burning desire to help the Chinese. And he didn't know a thing about immigration law.

In the Army, Mr. Trebilcock defended soldiers accused of everything from insubordination to espionage. As an associate at the York law firm of Stock and Leader, he mostly represented people injured in car accidents.

But the Chinese refugees had to have lawyers to represent them. The Immigration and Naturalization Service asked members of the York County Bar Association to donate their services. The INS estimated it would take about eight to 16 hours to represent each refugee from start to finish.

Jeff Lobach, the bar association president at the time, assembled 30 attorneys and paralegals. None of the lawyers had ever handled an immigration case before. Mr. Lobach himself chose a client, Wang Li Bin, because he could pronounce the name.

Mr. Trebilcock was drafted as the coordinator of the pro-bono program.

His first client was 28-year-old Pin Lin, who said he had fled his village in the coastal province of Fujian after resisting the forced sterilization of his wife.

She was still in bed, having just given birth to the couple's second child, when the local authorities arrived and demanded that she be sterilized. Pin Lin tried to stop them as they were dragging her out the door, and his parents and neighbors jumped in to help. A melee ensued.

Afterward, Pin Lin and his family went into hiding. He spent a year scraping together about $3,000, enough to book passage on the Golden Venture. He would owe another $27,000 after reaching the United States.

For four months, he and 284 other immigrants lived in the ship's hold, subsisting on rations of rice and peanuts as the steamer made its way to the United States. It nearly capsized once in the raging seas off the Cape of Good Hope. Then the boat ran aground just a few tantalizing miles from New York. Ten immigrants died in the desperate swim to shore.

But their ordeal wasn't close to being over. Pin Lin and about half his shipmates -- all men -- found themselves jailed in southeastern Pennsylvania. The rest of the refugees, including 18 women, were divided among prisons in Winchester, Va.; Bakersfield, Calif.; and New York City.

In response to the Golden Venture, President Clinton ordered a crackdown on immigrant smuggling. The government wanted to send a message to the smugglers by granting asylum only to Golden Venture's "authentic refugees." The rest would be deported to China, Justice Department officials promised.

At first, Mr. Trebilcock had his doubts about Pin Lin's story. In Germany, the soldiers he represented had often lied to him to save their skins. Why should this guy be any different?

Mr. Trebilcock tried to poke holes in the story, cross-examining his own client.

Eventually, though, he came to believe Pin Lin and thought he had a strong case for political asylum. If Pin Lin were sent back to China, he would be forcibly sterilized and quite possibly imprisoned, his lawyer argued at his asylum hearing inside the prison on Aug. 19, 1993.

The immigration judge found Pin Lin's story "credible" -- the first hurdle in winning asylum. But it didn't matter.

Sixty asylum decisions were handed down by the judges on Aug. 19. Every one of the detainees lost, including Pin Lin.

The York lawyers were stunned.

"Even the people with strong cases were getting slammed," says Mr. Lobach, a partner with Barley, Snyder, Senft and Cohen. "The judges were making decisions that didn't seem to make sense based on what came out at the hearings."

Some of the refugees had presented credible evidence of being victims of forced sterilization and abortion; others had irrefutable testimony that they had been involved in pro-democracy movements.

"They were going to send them all back anyway," says Mr. Trebilcock, half-incredulous and half-indignant. "That was completely foreign to my sense of justice and concern for human dignity and compassion. The way I was raised, when someone is down, you don't kick them again."

Since then, he has logged close to 2,600 hours of legal time on behalf of the refugees.

"Some days it's the only thing I do from the time I walk in the door [at work] until the time I go home," Mr. Trebilcock says.

In addition to his legal work, he attends the weekly vigils outside the prison, visits the detainees, writes letters to politicians and helps resettle those who have gained their freedom.

So far, though, only five of the York refugees have won political asylum. Another 26 have given up and asked to be returned to China. The rest still sit in jail, where they pass the time taking English lessons and making sculptures out of magazine paper and glue. It could take years for their asylum cases to wind their way through the American court system.

But Mr. Trebilcock has no intention of giving up the fight. Though it has taken many hours away from his wife and two sons, he's in it for as long as it takes to win freedom for the refugees.

"If I don't do it, who's going to do it?" he asks. "Who's going to look out for these people?"

St. Joan of York

"Some really good immigration stuff has happened this week in Washington," the Rev. Joan Maruskin announces to the 16 People of the Golden Vision who have left malls, pools, hammocks and Sunday suppers to join her in the field across from the prison for the weekly Service of Exodus, Freedom and Justice.

She herself has left her own ordination party, having just become a deacon of the United Methodist Church.

With a euphoric "Alleluia," she tells the group that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill making forced sterilization and abortion grounds for asylum in the United States.

She also shares a letter from one of the refugees: "I am grateful to see you praying outside the prison every Sunday evening. It gives me a lot of hopes and courages. Although I have been housed for 2 years, but I have not given up. May Gods peace be with you always."

Although she insists God is at the group's center, many believe Ms. Maruskin is the glue that holds Golden Vision together. In fact, her friend Rod Merrill, who plays the guitar at the Sunday vigils, has written a song in her honor. It's aptly titled "St. Joan of York."

She looks the part, with her strawberry blond hair and ankle-length white linen dress. At 51, she believes she's finally found what she was born to do. Or rather, it found her.

"It absolutely found me," says Ms. Maruskin, the single parent of an two grown children and a former teacher at the Hannah More School for emotionally disturbed children in Reisterstown. "I didn't have a clue in the world two years ago I would be doing something like this."

In August 1993, Ms. Maruskin was in seminary school and already serving as a pastor at Christ United Methodist Church when she read a newspaper article about a three-day hunger strike being staged by the Chinese detainees.

"I preached a sermon that Sunday saying whoever feels called to something for these men of the Golden Venture needs to do it; and if they don't answer that call, [they] will have to answer to Jesus Christ," she says.

A pastor, not a protester, she didn't have a clue about what to do. Then, on Monday morning, she opened the scriptures to Exodus, Chapter 3, and read about God's promise to be with Moses as he led God's afflicted people out of Egypt, to a good and spacious land.

"I called Craig [Trebilcock] that morning. His name had been in the paper. He said, 'What we need is some people standing outside the prison and saying they want to know what's going on [in the hearings inside],' " she says. "So I organized a presence and prayer vigil."

She became a tireless cheerleader for the refugees, with an infectious sense of purpose. Her enthusiasm for the vigils has kept them going, inspiring -- and sometimes embarrassing -- others into coming each week.

It isn't always an inviting way to spend a Sunday evening. Mr. Merrill, Golden Vision's guitarist, remembers one frigid winter day in particular.

"I called Joan to make some excuse, to back out," says the 52-year-old fifth-grade teacher. "As soon as she heard my voice, she launched into an excited commentary about how she knew these Chinese were going to be freed soon . . . and thank God for my support."

Mr. Merrill sheepishly showed up, guitar in hand, and revealed to the shivering circle of faithful how his friend, without realizing it, had shamed him into coming.

For Ms. Maruskin, the refugees have become a crusade.

In addition to working full time at the Methodist church, she logs another 20 to 40 hours each week serving as coordinator of the local and national branches of the Golden Vision. When she learned there were other Chinese detainees imprisoned elsewhere, she began visiting those places to see what was happening there.

"It's my private ministry, my hobby," Ms. Maruskin says. "Some people watch TV or movies, or go on vacations. I go visit INS detention centers. It's my passion."

The lawyer's wife

At 1:25 on Saturday afternoon, Cindy Lobach eases her Voyager van -- the one with the Bush for president bumper sticker -- into a shady parking spot at the York County Prison. She hurriedly joins a long line of visitors signing in with the guard, who smiles at Mrs. Lobach and chats amiably. He doesn't need any identification.

In oppressive heat, she waits idly on a bench for more than an hour, mentally planning her evening.

She's got seven coming for dinner and has to edit a Golden Vision newsletter before tomorrow's vigil. At 2:30 p.m., she runs to her car to phone her husband, Jeff.

Someone's coming to the house at 3 p.m. to look at the 2,000 pieces of Golden Vision art that are crowded into every nook and cranny of the Lobach home. Since she won't be admitted into the prison until about 2:45 p.m., she can't be back in time to give her sales pitch. She asks Jeff to pinch hit.

"We had people wandering in our house for 2 1/2 hours on Tuesday, poking around from room to room, trying to decide which of the pieces to buy," complains Mrs. Lobach, 37, the mother of three sons who range in age from 5 to 16.

Although sales of the art have netted about $75,000 for the refugees' cause, her phone rings incessantly with orders, and people show up unannounced at her door, as if her home were a 24-hour convenience store. She's tired of it, frankly.

Mrs. Lobach never envisioned any of this when her husband, Jeff, began representing Wang Li Bin, a pro-democracy student activist who fled China aboard the Golden Venture.

But they were riveted by the stories of the refugees and found they couldn't turn their backs on people in such desperate need of help.

"These guys aren't criminals," she says. "They've been singled out for this special horrible treatment by our government. The tactics here are worse than questionable. They're just outright wrong."

The cause has consumed the Lobachs for the past two years -- art sales, vigils, newsletters, jail visits, legal proceedings. Wang Li Bin, who now goes by the name Alan, even lived with Lobachs for a while after he was granted political asylum in 1994.

"This is bigger than volunteering," Mrs. Lobach says. "I eat and breathe this. Everything is this issue."

She finds herself feeling sorry for her sons, especially on the days when it's 3 p.m. and they haven't had lunch yet, or the nights when the family is watching a movie together and people interrupt, wanting to buy art. But she's also glad that they see their parents living the values they preach.

Finally, at 2:50 p.m., she is looking through a smudged window directly at Lin You Quan, a 23-year-old detainee she visits at the jail at least once a week.

She smiles and waves as she arranges herself on a metal stool, crisp-looking in a red-checked blouse and white shorts. She's used to this place. When Alan was in prison, she sometimes went to see him twice a day.

"I wasn't at ease the first time," she says. "I had never been in a prison before. I wish I weren't an old pro at this now; I wish it was over."

She and Lin You Quan grasp black receivers but talk as much with their hands as voices, tracing letters with their fingers on opposite sides of the glass.

Mrs. Lobach produces a yellow legal paper crowded with Chinese characters for Lin You Quan to decipher.

It's from one of the Golden Venture detainees being held in Winchester, Va. By scratching his arm, Lin You Quan indicates the letter writer wants someone to help him get medical care for a skin itch and -- Lin You Quan hesitates, searching for the English word. "Insomnia."

Incredulous, Mrs. Lobach laughs and shakes her head: "How do you know that word?"

Lin You Quan tells her that the letter writer says he was severely depressed, but feels more hopeful about the future since he saw an article in a Winchester newspaper about the Golden Vision.

"Most of the guys in the other cities feel so forgotten," Mrs. Lobach says.

And that is why she's still selling artwork, attending vigils, writing newsletters and making weekly visits to this dreary jail. Without the Golden Vision, the refugees would have no one.

Continuing interest

This week's vigil is winding down. Jeff Lobach issues an urgent request for boxes and packing peanuts. Cindy has just about run out of both and has lots of art orders to ship this week, he says. He also announces that the Golden Vision newsletter has been saved by donations after the Lobachs had to pay to for the previous one themselves.

More than 600 people get the newsletter, which started out with a mailing list of just 38 names. In a recent attempt to save on postage, Mrs. Lobach asked anyone not interested in receiving it to please let her know. Two people responded that she could stop sending it to them; they'd share with others who received it.

Ten others asked to be added to the list.

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