World Affairs – Times Publications, February 2011

world affairs

Exotic gardens and tropical palm trees punctuate the landscape of the South American seaport of Cartagena, Colombia, a popular tourist destination off the Caribbean coast. Within the city walls crumbling Spanish arches loom in the Old-World-style plazas above the restored colonial mansions. On the outskirts of the city, guitar players and street vendors stroll through the cobblestone alleyways as locals soak up the sun on the white-sand beaches at the edge of the tranquil Caribbean waters.

Each year this exotic setting attracts thousands of well-heeled American tourists seeking a serene South American getaway. But for Arizona resident Sam Baar, the city’s scenery was secondary. In November 2004, the divorced 35-year-old computer technician traveled 3,000 miles from Phoenix to Cartagena for the most unconventional of vacations—to search for a bride.

Baar’s trip was part of a “romance tour” organized by Phoenix-based A Foreign Affair, one of the largest international marriage brokering agencies in the United States. Hopeful husbands-to-be pay thousands for the company’s overseas singles vacations, which include champagne-soaked socials with hundreds of eligible foreign women in countries around the globe.

On the South American tour, Baar and the nine other American bachelors were promised the chance to meet “literally hundreds of stunning women from Cartagena,” who just so happen to be “some of the most beautiful, genuine and sincere women in the world.”

For Baar, it was more than just a vacation; it became a life-changing adventure. On the first night of the trip he met the love of his life—a beautiful 25-year-old school teacher named Lucy Alvarez. Four days later he proposed. The couple married in August 2005, shortly after Lucy had secured an American “fiancé visa.”

“We just fell in love while I was down there,” Baar says. “She had all the qualities I was looking for in a wife. It just felt right.”

Sam Baar is among a growing group of lonely, culturally adventurous men who have set their sights overseas in search for the perfect mate. In the era of Internet dating, the modern mail-order bride business has deserted post offices and found a flourishing market on the web. But while many couples, like Sam and Lucy Baar, have discovered marital bliss through overseas matchmaking services, others say a failed foreign romance can become an international disaster.

The Marriage Broker

Framed catalog covers featuring photos of scantly clad Russian and Ukrainian women blanket the walls of A Foreign Affair’s Phoenix offices. These mail-order catalogs are remnants from a different time in the international matchmaking business, when American men met their foreign brides primarily through classified-like brochures. Bachelors would then purchase the mailing address of the women they were interested in pursuing and romance them through letters.

The modern international matchmaking business is more of an Internet dating service that requires a passport and an international phone card, says John Adams, president of A Foreign Affair, which launched in 1995 as one of the pioneers in the industry.

“When we started, we used to give away postal addresses and people would actually write letters and send them in the mail,” Adams says. “That stopped a long time ago because of the Internet.”

Today interested bachelors peruse online profiles, searching by a woman’s country, profession, even zodiac sign, and write to them by email. In addition to A Foreign Affair’s membership fees — $29.95 per month — the site charges extra for international phone calls and to translate each email. Love-sick bachelors can even send gifts through the site, including flowers, candy and private English lessons.

But for those truly serious about finding a foreign bride, the most effective method is a “romance tour”— the typical cost of which runs between $1,500 and $5,000, Adams says. Traveling to various Latin, Asian and Eastern European countries, the tours include one-on-one introductions, romantic daytime getaways and nightly socials featuring a ratio of about 10 foreign women for each American bachelor.

As the online dating business has expanded—racking up more than $2 billion in revenue in 2010—so has the international matchmaking market. In the last decade, dozens of international matchmaking companies have emerged.

“The stigma is starting to go away, finally,” Adams says. “It’s become more common and accepted to go online to try and find your match. Actually, it’s a great way to do it because there’s such a large population to choose from. Instead of limiting yourself to the girl next door, now you can search the world over to find your perfect soul mate.”

Between 1999 and 2007, mail-order marriages more than doubled, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, a non-profit organization that protects immigrant women. The center estimates that each year, up to 12,000 American men find wives through for-profit international marriage brokers.

A Foreign Affair alone features 35,000 female profiles and estimates that it has 100,000 American members. Most of the company’s male clients are educated working professionals in their early 40s to late 50s, who are either divorced or have never been married.

“These aren’t guys who just can’t get a date here,” says Adams. “These guys just aren’t quite finding what they’re looking for here and want another option.”

The services have proven to be successful, Adams says. The company boasts close to 1,000 engagements per year. In fact, both John Adams and his business partner Ken Agee both met their Russian wives on one of the company’s romance tours.

“You don’t stay single very long in this business,” Agee says with a laugh. “My first trip to Russia, when the ladies found out I was American, they were following me around like I was a celebrity. You just don’t get that here in America.”

Language of Love

On their first date, David O’Dell and his Colombian bride Christina Ospino communicated through a translator. O’Dell didn’t speak Spanish, and Christina didn’t speak English. But despite the language barrier, the couple fell in love while O’Dell was on a South American romance tour organized by A Foreign Affair.

“When I went down there I was hopeful I would find a woman that I had a good connection with,” says O’Dell. “I never expected what happened.”

Just last summer O’Dell was single and searching for a mate. Recently divorced with a grown daughter in college, the 50-year-old project manager for a civil engineering company had grown weary of the American dating scene and began looking at options abroad. While his friends and family were skeptical, O’Dell says he was ready to try something “outside the box.”

“I knew everyone thought I was nuts, but I didn’t care,” he says. “I thought it was a good opportunity. I figured, why limit myself to my city, my state, my country?”

Once center stage, surrounded by 100 gorgeous Colombian women at the nightly social, however, he began to have reservations.

“It was like speed-dating on steroids. I’m a one-woman type of guy, so this was pretty overwhelming for me,” he says. “I looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Literally, I was so nervous I couldn’t think straight.”

After a whirlwind of introductions, O’Dell finally began to gain his bearings. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he got a glimpse of Christina, a 40-year-old insurance agent and mother of one.

“Our eyes met and it was like this instant connection,” O’Dell says. “I had never, ever experienced that kind of chemistry before in my entire life, and I had been married for 19 years. It was like nothing I had ever felt before.”

That night, after the social, O’Dell took Christina dancing and stayed glued to her side for the remainder of the trip. When not accompanied by their interpreter, the couple used a computer translator program to communicate. At times the language barrier was difficult, but they say they discovered alternative methods to understand each other.

When O’Dell returned to America, his relationship with Christina continued by phone and through nightly webcam chats. After three short weeks, he proposed on the webcam and she enthusiastically said ‘Si!’ In December, they were married in a small ceremony in Mesa.

“She gave up her friends, her family, her job and her way of life—all for love,” O’Dell says. “She’s a fantastic woman. I am a very lucky guy.”

As for Christina, she is slowly learning English and hopes to be proficient in a few months. Regardless, she says she is very happy with her new life and her new husband.

“He is what I always wanted in a man,” Christina said through a computer translation program.

Mail Dominance

While international matchmakers say their services are similar to domestic dating websites, critics argue that modern mail-order brides are often exploited and vulnerable to domestic abuse.

Foreign women who sign up for the services are promised a chance at economic prosperity and a better life in America. Meanwhile, many companies market them as “submissive” and “unspoiled by feminism.” Often, the women are equated to a free live-in housekeeper. One matchmaking website even calculates the savings of a foreign wife who will do all the cooking and cleaning as $150 per week.

“These websites are basically commoditizing women. We think that the risk of abuse is definitely heightened when they have these types of marketing and business practices,” says Heather Heiman, a public policy attorney for the Tahirih Justice Center. “We see websites where they’re marketing their foreign brides as ‘traditional, submissive, subservient or docile,’ and doing things such as promoting them as great investments. We’ve even seen satisfaction guaranteed clauses, which just sends the wrong message.”

Allegations of domestic abuse are common in marriages facilitated by foreign matchmakers, says Heiman. In fact, in rare cases these unions have even turned deadly.

Seattle resident Indle King was 37 when he married 18-year-old Anastasia Solovieva, whom he met through a foreign matchmaking service. Two years into their marriage, Anastasia, who was from the former Soviet Union, was found strangled and dumped in a shallow grave. In 2002, King was sentenced to 28 years in prison for her murder.

California computer genius Han Reiser chose his Russian-born bride Nina Sharanova, a beautiful 22-year-old obstetrician, through a mail-order bride catalog in 1999. After two children and a tumultuous five-year marriage, Nina filed for divorce. Shortly after, she disappeared. In 2008, Hans pled guilty to second-degree murder, after leading police to Nina’s remains, which were found buried a few miles from the couple’s former home.

Most recently, in January, Scott Huss, a 48-year-old Florida man, was found guilty in the stabbing death of his Russian-born wife Yana Huss. The couple had met in 2002 through a mail-order bride service. Yana, 31, who called police dozens of times during their four-year marriage, had filed for divorce and was preparing to start a new job as a nurse before she was killed.

These tragedies are troubling and way too common in the foreign matchmaking industry, Heiman says.

“Foreign brides are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because they are dependent on their husband for their legal status,” she says. “When they come over here, they’re isolated. They don’t have their family, friends or support network that they had in their own country. Often they just don’t even know that domestic violence is a crime.”

In 2005, after a few highly publicized murders of mail-order brides, the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act was created, requiring international matchmaking companies to conduct background checks on all of their American clients. The legislation also provides methods for women who are the victims of domestic abuse to gain U.S. citizenship.

However, some foreign brides have exploited a loophole in the law in order to secure a green card, says Phoenix immigration attorney Nicomedes Suriel. He says he’s seen numerous cases where women have been coached to make false allegations of abuse as a way to gain U.S. citizenship.

“The system is being used,” says Suriel. “It’s clear to me that someone is coaching the foreign nationals into how to manipulate the system. It’s unfortunate but it’s a reality that I’ve seen time and time again.”

John Adams admits incidents of domestic violence and false allegations of abuse do happen, but maintains these cases are rare.

“I wish that every marriage was successful and there was never, ever a case of domestic violence,” Adams says. “That, unfortunately, happens.”

Most of the foreign women who come to the United States do so with a fiancé visa, which allows just 90 days to get to the alter. In order for the wife to secure a green card, the couple must stay married for two years. Because of these deadlines, some couples marry too hastily, Suriel says.

“It’s all well and good that we have all these methods of meeting people,” says Suriel. “Just use a little common sense. Don’t rush into marriage with someone that you don’t really know because terrible things do happen.”

Return to Sender

Twenty-five-year-old Ukrainian beauty Anna Kobzar clutched a fur coat around her chest and smiled seductively in her online photograph. In her profile she described herself as 5’5, 105 pounds with blond hair and hazel eyes. Her interests included “cooking and aerobics” and she was looking for a “generous and loving man” who she could “make happy.”

The moment Scottsdale salesman Robert Williams saw Anna’s picture on an international dating website, he knew they had to meet.

“She looked totally incredible, just gorgeous,” Williams says. “I just wanted to get to know her better, see if there was a connection.”

At 44 and twice divorced, Williams says had given up on “Western women,” and in the summer of 2007, began scouring international matchmaking websites in a search for the perfect bride.

Williams purchased Anna’s email address through the website and began sending her letters. Months later, he flew to the Ukraine to meet her in person. By then, he was already sure she was “the one.” He proposed that very day. She moved to Scottsdale and they were wed.

“When we first got together it was great. It was just like any other marriage. She took care of the house while I worked and paid the bills,” Williams says. “She seemed happy; I was in love.”

Sadly, marital bliss didn’t last. Within the first six months, Williams says, Anna changed. She began staying out late and talking to other men. Eventually, Williams says, he began to realize Anna was a much different person than she had purported herself to be.

“She told me she wanted to settle down, have a family. I believed her,” Williams says. “Now I think she just saw me as a one-way ticket to America.”

The couple began to argue frequently and during one disagreement Williams says he threatened divorce. That night the police showed up at his house. He says he was falsely accused of domestic abuse and prevented from returning to his home. For weeks he lived in a motel and ultimately spent thousands in legal fees. When Anna never showed up in court, the charges were dismissed.

When he moved back into his home Williams says he discovered Anna had cleaned him out, taking nearly everything of value. They are currently engaged in divorce proceedings.

“The last thing she said to me was if I tried to leave her, she would ruin me,” he says. “She pretty much succeeded.”

Amore Abroad

As for Sam Baar, he says his 2004 vacation to Cartagena was one trip he’s definitely doesn’t regret.

When his plane first touched down in Colombia, he says he wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I like to travel and I was interested in Colombia,” Baar says. “I just thought it would be a good vacation to go down there and see some of the sights. It just sounded like a fun trip. I wasn’t expecting to get engaged or find somebody.”

As advertised by A Foreign Affair, the socials were indeed filled with hundreds of beautiful Colombian women. But Baar didn’t find a connection with any of these ladies. By then, he only had eyes for one woman—his translator, Lucy Alvarez.

A Colombian native, Lucy was living with her parents, working as an English teacher for a bilingual school, when a friend approached her about working as a translator for the night at a matchmaking social. At first, Lucy was reluctant.

“I didn’t want to go,” she says. “I told my friend I don’t believe in those things because I don’t believe a person can fall in love in one or two days.”

She eventually decided to take the job, and although she immediately caught Baar’s attention, Lucy says she wasn’t looking for a husband. She was finishing up her degree and focused on her career.

“He’s was not my type. He’s white, he’s tall, he has blue eyes. I never thought about dating someone like him,” Lucy says. “But when he looked at me and started talking to me, I can’t explain it… something just clicked.”

The couple fell in love in Cartagena and got engaged. Today, they have a 3-year-old son, Sam Jr., and this year will celebrate their sixth anniversary. Through the trip, Baar even discovered a new career as a Colombian emerald importer.

Although Lucy says it was difficult to leave her family and to adapt to many aspects of American culture, she says she is living her dream.

“For me, everything is beautiful,” she says. “Every day is like magic.”