Florida Keys

For Key West family, tension as 2 are detained in Turkmenistan

The Petro family is (front from left) Mercedes Petro and Michael Petro III; and (back from left) Aziza Petro, Lola Petro, Mike Petro and Julianne Petro. Aziza and Michael III remain in Turkmenistan.
The Petro family is (front from left) Mercedes Petro and Michael Petro III; and (back from left) Aziza Petro, Lola Petro, Mike Petro and Julianne Petro. Aziza and Michael III remain in Turkmenistan. KeysInfoNet

Key West Realtor Mike Petro boarded a plane bound for London Friday night with no guarantee that his 11-year-old daughter would be on the other end.

But once his plane touched down on the Heathrow Airport runway Saturday morning, he knew he would get to see Mercedes again for the first time in months.

"That was a pretty joyous text," Petro said of his daughter's message that she would be landing in London. "I didn't know if she was going to land or not."

Since June 10, Petro has been involved in what he describes as a geopolitical mess. His wife Aziza, 4-year-old son Michael III and daughter Mercedes left for Turkmenistan, a Central Asian country that borders Iran and Afghanistan, on June 8.

Michael III and Aziza, whose birth country is Turkmenistan, haven't been home since. The purpose of the visit was for Aziza and the children to visit her brother, who had a baby in December, and visit her mother's grave site.

But Petro said his family was "misled" by the Turkmenistan embassy. Aziza, who has been a U.S. citizen since 2005, has a dual citizenship. But Turkmen law no longer recognizes dual citizenships.

According to the State Department, dual citizens such as Aziza who do not have a visa in their Turkmen passport "may be denied departure." That's what happened here.

Petro's family was under the impression that his wife and children would be able to leave the country after she renounced her Turkmenistan citizenship, flying back on her U.S. passport. But renouncing that citizenship requires the president of Turkmenistan to sign the paperwork. Aziza and Michael III cannot return to the U.S. until that's done.

Turkmen officials have told Petro for months that Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow would sign off on his wife's citizenship renunciation.

Petro has sought help from the Turkmenistan embassy in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, and the State Department, to no avail.

"There is a light in the near tunnel and then having it pulled away has been one of the really, really frustrating parts," Petro said. "Now it's 'nothing yet.' I call their embassy in D.C. on a regular basis."

Petro met with Curbelo Monday.

"My office has been in frequent contact with both the U.S. State Department and embassy and will continue to strongly advocate for the immediate return of Mrs. Petro and her children," Curbelo said in a prepared statement. "I remain hopeful that we can convince the Turkmenistan government to release the family so they can rejoin their husband and father, Mike, as soon as possible."

State Department spokeswoman Katy Bondy said Tuesday the State Department has "raised this case with the Turkmenistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

"We take our obligation to assist U.S. citizens overseas seriously," Bondy said.

Petro stays in contact with his wife and son via Skype and WhatsApp, an instant-messenger type service. However, the inability to protect his wife and children is a challenge.

According to Petro, the logistics are "next to impossible" for Michael III to leave the country similar to how his sister did, since a 4-year-old cannot fly unattended.

As for Mercedes, she went shopping with her father for school supplies Monday back in the Keys. She started sixth grade Tuesday at Sugarloaf School. Turkmenistan's migration services issued her an exit visa, which allowed her to leave the country.

However, flying as an unaccompanied minor into London was the risky part. A "50/50 shot at best," Petro said.

It has been a whirlwind of emotions for Petro the past several months.

"I run into people on the street in Key West and they just start crying," Petro said. "The emotional side of it is just heart-wrenching."

"My objective is clear: Get my family home," he added.