Updated: Apr 2, 2022
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March 21, the first day of spring, is the day I first met my adopted son Stephan 18 years ago in Russia. He was in an orphanage 50 miles and what looked like 100 years outside of Moscow, with very little food, too little medicine, his tiny body draped in tattered hand me down fabric. Given that he had been born months premature and weighed only 2 pounds at birth and then fought pneumonia for at least the first 6 months of his life, he was not expected to survive a day much less months. His chances of finding a Russian forever family were diminished further by the fact that he does not have the coveted blue eyes (his are a beautiful amber), so I was told that he was unlikely to be adopted by a Russian family.
All of what we see unfolding in Ukraine right now, the tragic and senseless loss of life, makes me think back on not only the time I spent in Russia and how I finally found Stephan, but also of all the children that are likely still languishing in orphanages there with very little hope of a better life. Given Putin’s ongoing stranglehold on the economy and on the freedoms of his citizens, I doubt that the number of needy orphans has improved, though I certainly hope I am wrong.
It’s painful to even let myself think of it, but when I was in Russia there were numerous orphanages in every single city and town, large or small, each one bursting at the seams with hundreds of babies and children. Many of those children were tragically unwell - fetal alcohol syndrome, cerebral palsy, other permanent maladies – and some were simply malnourished. Every single child I saw (though the orphanages, like everything else during my trips to Russia, were shrouded in secrecy so most doors were literally closed to me), was at the minimum terrified and depressed and confused to a degree that their possible recovery would be their lifetime’s work.
My Russian interpreters and adoption agency hosts at that time told me that this was the norm in Russia, this shocking multitude of full orphanages, a result apparently of a tragically bad economy, strict religious restrictions that made a woman’s right to choose impossible, rampant alcoholism, stubborn Russian pride, and a long history of women sending their children to the local orphanage when times were so bad that she couldn’t caretake or feed the child (as my own Russian immigrant grandmother had done with her 2 kids, including my mother, when she found herself a then rare single mother during depression era Chicago).
My maternal grandmother emigrated from Belarus back when it was part of the larger Soviet Union and landed in the US with her mother and sister when she was a child. My mother was the first generation to be born in the US, so like much if not most of America, we are largely immigrants (my father’s side was German and Irish, though I never knew them well).
Still, roots run deep and intense; when I first stepped foot in Russia back in 2003, I had the unshakeable sense that I had come home. Everyone there looked like me, like my family. These were my people, this was my planet! Folks on the street spoke to me in Russian though I couldn’t speak it fluently, but it was obvious that at least part of my ethnic roots had sprung from there. I was surprised by how comforting the feeling was, an unintentional return to a homeland I never knew I had missed, and a feeling I am guessing that many immigrants feel when they visit the land from which their ancestors came, either recently or long ago.
But today I am thinking of the many peace-loving citizens everywhere, especially of course in Ukraine but also in Russia and the surrounding areas. Most Russian citizens do not want this war, they do not support this war, and many are risking their lives by protesting against it. I can’t help but wonder if my Stephan might have ended up in the Russian military had he survived the orphanage and stayed in Russia – when orphans age out of the system, I have been told their options can be very limited, with child trafficking and/or the military being common outcomes.
Like so many people the world over, today I am wishing for peace as well as for more leaders with the integrity to steer us towards a brighter future. And I cannot shake from my mind the picture of the hundreds of orphans I met in Russia, all the way from Siberia to outside Moscow. It is my fervent wish that, once this shameful war is ended and the world makes sense again, one of the things we can do is end Putin’s declaration that no Americans can adopt Russian children (his payback for Obama’s having enacted the Magnitsky act after the torture and death of a whistle blower lawyer who dared to tell the truth about Russian corruption).
So as the start of spring 2022 nears, March 21, the day I met my beautiful and savvy Stephan nearly 20 years ago, I wish for all of us a new beginning, one with less conflict and more resolution. Of fewer restrictions on who deserves to parent a child, and a more transparent, fair-minded Russia that serves the needs of all of its people, not just the wealthiest among them. Frankly, any country that has that many orphans, likely hundreds of thousands according to what I was told and saw, ought to be paying people to come and offer them forever homes instead of making it prohibitively expensive, a price the orphans themselves too often end up bearing.
After all, unconditional love rather than mere bloodlines is what makes families; showing up every day, putting those you love first even when it’s inconvenient, being there in the trying times as well as the joyous ones.
For now, it is my hope that by March 21 I can celebrate more than simply the unforgettable day that I met Stephan – I hope we can all celebrate spring’s promise of renewal, and hopefully even peace.
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