Sunday, January 28, 2007

Goodbye to Tokmok Orphanage

“I’m only one. But still, I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still, I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”
--Edward Everett Hale

Today was our last day at the orphanage for awhile; tomorrow we start our journey home (which will take about 24 hours). It was hard leaving Rita and Sergey; they are now a little possessive and jealous when we come to visit, and they push away other kids who try to climb on our laps. “No, this is MY Mama and Papa!”, Rita says to them. They have seen other children leave the orphanage with new parents and it’s a very special thing to each of the kids there to find their forever family. We left with Rita and Sergey a small photo album of some of the photos we took during our visits, so they will have something concrete in hand to remind them that we are coming back for them. We also included a photo of Zachary, who Rita proudly introduces to others in the room as “her new brother”. She pored over this little photo album, going through it front to back, over and over again.

And little Aigul, the infant we went to meet at the beginning of this trip? We visited her almost every day, not knowing if things would work out with Rita and Sergey and figuring we didn‘t want to go home empty-handed. We really fell in love with her--she has an adorable smile and now just lights up when either of us walks in the room. We finally asked the inevitable question--insane as it might be--could we take her too? Unfortunately, we will be leaving her behind, we were told it was impossible to take three at once unless they were all siblings. Probably for the best, but it is hard to leave her here. But she is an infant girl, and in high demand by adoptive parents, so the agency will have no problem finding her a family.

We started the 2-week trip with three other families. One family went home after the first 4-5 days, unfortunately, because they decided that the little girl they came to meet was not a good match for them. The other two families, however, are thrilled with their little boys, both 7 months old. It has been a wonderful experience, meeting and spending virtually every moment with these other families and their new children. It has become a very tight-knit group, with potentially lifelong relationships in the making. We all travel home now, while the legal wheels turn in this country, and will return for about 10 days in March to pick up our children.

A little about the orphanage--it is not the awful, depressing place that you might be picturing. Though it is definitely rather primitive by our standards, they do an amazing amount with what they have. The facilities are a collection of small buildings, with each area housing a group of about 12-15 kids of similar ages. The 100 kids housed here range in age from newborn to about 5 years old, with 3 caregivers in each group of 12-15 kids. The caregivers truly care about these kids, and it is clear from watching their interaction that the kids love them too. I am sure there is no abuse. There seems to be a good amount of clothing and toys for the kids, though there are no “personal possessions” (yes, this would definitely be the type of place you might want to send your own kids to take a look at when they are whining about not getting exactly what they want). The area where Rita and Sergey live houses kids from about 2-4 years old (Rita is 6 and should be in the “next” orphanage, in Bishkek, but is only here in Tokmok because they don’t like to separate siblings) is pretty nuts when they all get going--they don’t see many men, so they all adore John, and the “rougher” way he plays with them. We have gotten to know most of the kids in that group and there are some real diamonds…I hope they find their family soon. Actually three of the kids are leaving this week, their new parents from the US are coming back for the second trip to take them home. We are so lucky that we can take even a few of these wonderful kids into a new and better life than they are destined to here--so fortunate that they will be enriching our own lives…
Well, hopefully our journey home will be less fraught with obstacles than the one here--we really miss Zachary and can’t wait to see him…

Love to all.

Some photo credits on this post to Scott S.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Brother of the Stranger

“Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not.
Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own.
Thou hast brought the distant near, and made a brother of the stranger….”
--Rabindranath Tagore

Well, the news from the orphanage today is wonderful--the father of Rita and Sergey has signed the papers to release his children for adoption. So, our adoption of these two kids will be allowed to move forward. Though we are excited to know that our dream for these kids is coming true, it saddened us greatly to think how this man must feel, despite his neglect of his children over recent years. He is still a father, giving up on being a father. We pray that he finds peace with his decision, and know that the burden of turning these kids’ lives around has been placed now with us…

We have spent at least an hour a day with Rita and Sergey for the past 8-9 days, and they know us pretty well now. Yesterday the translator asked Rita if she would like for us to be her “Mama” and “Papa”, and she said, “Oh, yes! Can we leave today?”

Love to all.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

About Kyrgyzstan

"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a long time...." --Unknown

I know you might be wondering what Kyrgyzstan is like--the people, the city and countryside, the food, the weather. While we are waiting on the word about the children’s father, I will tell you a little about our experiences here.

Centuries of migration over the Silk Road, and invasions, have ensured this area’s ethnic diversity. Faces that you see here are an interesting mix of Turkish, Slavic, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Mongolian, and Russian. I can say that, almost universally, the people we have met have been exceptionally nice and are happy to see Western travelers in their country. The principal language is Russian, and boy is it a difficult language to read, understand and speak. We have not gotten much past “yes”, “no”, “please” and “thank you”, even after 10 days. In the city of Bishkek, a fair number of residents in restaurants, retail stores, hotels, etc. speak at least a little English. In the smaller town of Tokmok, where the orphanage is, there isn’t much English spoken or understood. There is a native Kyrgyz language, but it is not evident on signage, nor have I heard anyone speak it.

The country itself seems sort of frozen somewhere in the 1960’s-1970’s, when there was a lot of building of “Soviet-style” government buildings, apartment buildings and retail stores. In Bishkek at least (the capital of Kyrgyzstan) little has been done to maintain these buildings, seemingly since the ‘70’s, and they are slowly crumbling. With the demise of the USSR in the early ‘90’s, I think there was initial optimism here that life would be better, that democracy would bring prosperity to the area. Since the Soviets left, these buildings continue to decline, and we have spoken to a number of residents who feel they were better off in the USSR days. This region, however, remains extremely poor, with an average wage being about $30/month, and a high wage being maybe $100/month. There are a few more affluent areas of town that seem to be building new office buildings, hotels, casinos (!), and large homes. Our hotel, the Golden Dragon, is brand new, with many of the modern conveniences of typical 4-star hotels in the West--in-room internet, a business center, pool and spa, minibars in the room, a nice restaurant, and excellent English speakers among the staff, all for a reasonable rate of $95/night. We (there are 3 couples together on this trip, all adopting) have been well-treated in this hotel and plan to stay here on the second trip (yes, we have to return in 6 weeks for 10 days).

The weather has been unusually warm. The first few days were cold--near zero, with a storm that included 6-8 inches of snow, but recent temperatures have been in the 30’s and 40’s during the day. I think we hit their January thaw. We seem to have more clothes than we need, though there are still a few more days to go and the weather is variable.

The food has been very different, but quite good. Because of the snow early on and the fact that the sidewalks aren’t cleared very well, it has been a little difficult to explore the area surrounding our hotel to find different restaurants, at least until the last few days when it warmed up. The “national” cuisine is an interesting blend of Mediterranean, Asian, and Russian dishes and flavors. There are familiar vegetables and meats, mostly cooked together in various medleys with different sauces of curry or light creams or “barbeque”. There are a lot of potato dishes, and some meats that we don’t see much in our country, like mutton and horse (by the way, this area of Central Asia has been famous for its beautiful riding horses for millennia, so I guess the fact that horse chops are a big menu item here is an extra incentive for our equine friends to perform well). Tonight, though, we had decent Italian food, and we have eaten several times at a good Chinese restaurant, so there are European-style restaurants scattered around the city.

This may not be most Americans’ idea of a great place to vacation, but we have been well-treated here and have had an interesting time. Two weeks is just too long, though, to be away from family and our own homes, and of course we are ready to come home any day now…

Love to all

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Rita and Sergey's Story

" You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should..."
--Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

Now the rest of the story about Rita and Sergey…

On our second day at the orphanage, we met with the adoption program coordinator, and told her about our decision not to pursue the adoption of the little boy Aibek. At the same time, we mentioned that we had seen Sergey in the toddler room, playing with Aibek, and told her the story of how we had waited for them last year, to no avail. When John pulled their year-old photos from his wallet (he still carried them around with him), she was stunned--amazed that we were still that connected to this two kids. The reality was she knew exactly who we were, that we were the ones who had had this problem referral. It also became clear that she herself had a very personal relationship with these two children. Her first reaction was to say again that these two were not available, that the father now lives in Kazakhstan and has never signed relinquishment papers. We didn’t press the issue at that moment, but let her think on it a while. That evening, she came to see us with the interpreter (the coordinator speaks no English), and told us that she would do everything in her power to get these kids “sprung“, available to adopt. We believe that, because of her personal relationship with them, she had been waiting for somehow the right situation--and the right people--to present themselves. “I didn’t recognize you at first”, she said….

So--for the last few days the wheels have been turning in that direction--we finally met Rita and Sergey, got their medical records, etc. What a delight these two are! There are certain standouts in each “group” in the orphanage, and these two are shining stars in their respective areas. Both are extremely social, very smart and relatively on-target developmentally. They have a “spark”, and we connected with them instantly, as we knew we would. We have just had that feeling about these kids, for a year almost.

But what a hard life--their history is not a happy one. When we finally sat down and talked to the social worker and the head physician at the orphanage about them, we learned their story. They have been in the orphanage for the past year; prior to that they had lived with a grandmother when their parents divorced and neither took responsibility for them. When the grandmother died, there was no one for them, and the Kyrgyz version of child protective services brought them to the orphanage. The kids had been staying where they could, with Rita sometimes having to beg for food on the streets to feed herself and her little brother. Both were malnourished, anemic. For the first few months in the orphanage, Rita hid bread under Sergey’s pillow every night, so that he would be sure to have something to eat if things went bad again.

Fast forward one year--it is hard to imagine what these kids have been through, looking at them laughing and playing and interacting now. How resilient is the human spirit? We don’t know exactly, but I think we are about to find out--it seems impossible that children can come through such experiences unscarred. We may be in for a tough road. But these two seem like our destiny, and I guess we will figure out how to do it.

So--the adoption coordinator is sending a social worker and child protective services worker into the mountains of Kazakhstan (a neighboring republic) this weekend, to see if the father will agree to sign the papers to release the children. The coordinator feels that there is a 95% chance that they will succeed. Why have they not done this earlier? We’re not sure, but I think it took someone who really earnestly wanted these kids to push the envelope.

We continue to visit with the infant Aigul, not knowing where any of this is going...

Love to all.

Monday, January 22, 2007

At the Tokmok Orphanage

“An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch, or tangle, but it will never break…” -An ancient Chinese belief

Well, as I suspected, it has been hard to post to this blog regularly, but I will attempt to bring you up-to-date over the next couple of nights. The truth is, the week has been an emotional roller coaster and we find ourselves mentally exhausted in the evenings. But tonight let me get to the important part--the children and where we are in the process of finding the rest of our family….

We met both Aigul and Aibek at the Tokmok orphanage (1 hour’s drive from Bishkek) on Tuesday morning, after finally escaping Moscow airport and arriving in Bishkek on Monday. We determined after that first day that Aibek was not meant for us. There is no real specific reason--I can only tell you that it is something you know in your heart right away. I know there is a family out there somewhere for him and I pray that they come to get him soon. Aigul, on the other hand, is a tiny, tiny little bundle of smiles and we have happily played with her every day since our arrival. She was 6-7 weeks premature when born, and that fact combined with the reality of her institutionalism, means that she is developmentally delayed to some extent. Not much, in my estimation--her muscle tone and strength is below that of a non-institutionalized child, but that is because there are so many babies in her “group” and only a few caretakers. These women do a wonderful job with what they have, but they can’t spend much one-on-one time with the little ones. Other than that, she is doing most of the things she should be doing at this point. Most orphanage children catch up in their delayed development within a few months after adoption, so we have no worries. We weren't really looking for an infant referral, but she sort of dropped in our lap--and how could you not go and meet such a cutie?

Then, the most amazing thing happened…

I’ll digress to tell you that, almost a year ago, even before we finished our Kyrgyzstan paperwork, we received a referral for a sibling group, a brother and sister, 3 and 5 years old. Some of you saw the photos. We really had a connection to these kids right away, and waited and waited on additional details about them. After carrying their photos around in our wallets for 4-5 months, we were told that there had been a mistake and that these kids were not available for adoption after all--the father had not relinquished his rights. It was suggested that we “move on” and consider other referrals. We were bitterly disappointed--we had such special feelings for these two--but after another month or so of waiting for additional news, we did decide to look at other referrals.

The first day in the Tokmok orphanage, who did we see in the toddler room? Yes, of course, it was little Sergey, the brother of the sibling group shown to us last year. Was his sister Rita there?, we asked. Yes, although she’s old enough to be moved to the “next” orphanage (they are segregated by age), she is being kept there until both can move over together, we were told. Were they available now for adoption?, we asked. No, not really, but…maybe we could work something out...

Tomorrow, the rest of the story of Rita and Sergey…

Love to all!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Fits and Starts...

"If not through the door, then through the window!"--Russian proverb

We're getting there, slowly but surely. It is Sunday night in the Moscow airport, where we are stuck overnight....

We finally received our visas Thursday afternoon and were able to get on the red-eye flight to Atlanta that night. Then a 12-hour layover in Atlanta which wasn't too bad--we hopped in a cab and surprised Debbie's Dad by showing up at 6:00AM at his door and spending the day with him. Then another red-eye to Rome that night. The original plan was to have a nice two-day layover in Rome to help reset our internal clocks, but with the late start due to the missing visas, the Rome stay was only one day (but a nice one! great food and sleeping in a real bed!). Then a flight earlier today to Moscow, which was supposed to be a 6-hour layover before the last leg to Bishkek, but we just found out we won't leave until 6 AM tomorrow! If we had known earlier, we could have taken a cab into Moscow and slept, but, instead we are in the business-class lounge, with blankets and pillows and a couple of glasses of wine. Hopefully, on to Bishkek tomorrow.

We should be met at the airport by the coordinator and the translator; we were supposed to go directly to the orphanage to meet the kids but it may be too late to do that tomorrow. We could use a good night's rest before meeting them...

Love to all.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

And off we go...well, sort of........

"If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin..." --- Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev

Welcome to the blog-story of our trip to Kyrgyzstan, a trip to meet two children, a little boy and a little girl. They are both living in a state orphanage and available for adoption by us, and we are going over to see what our hearts tell us to do. We may go forward with the adoption of one, both or neither. It will be quite an adventure, and it will be interesting to see how things turn out....

This is how adoptions in Kyrgyzstan work--this first trip will be 14 days; each day we will interact with our child(ren) so that we can determine if either or both of these are "our" children. At the end of this first trip, we will decide if we move forward. If we decide to adopt one or both children, we will come back to San Diego for a month, then return to Bishkek for one week to pick up Zachary's new sibling(s).

Friends and family have asked how they can check in on our progress periodically, and this blog seems the best way. Just bookmark it, and you can visit every few days to see what's going on. I have no idea how often we will get to post to it, but we will try to do so regularly.

Our first "hitch"--we were to depart tomorrow morning, but, alas, our visas/passports did not arrive today. After trying to get someone to fly it here from Virginia overnight, with no success, we got on the phone and changed our reservations to leave 15 hours later. So--we will be leaving Thursday night, staying one day and night in Rome (nice) then connecting to Moscow and Bishkek. Our first day "in country" will be Monday, where we will meet Aigul (9 months, girl) and Aibek (2 years, boy).

Laurie will be here in the morning to stay with Zachary for the first 10 days, after which Katie takes over until our return.

Love to everyone--please keep us in your prayers as we travel so far away, and as we mull over this very big decision....

Debbie and John