Rescue in the Urals

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Orphanage in Orenburg, Russia

Thirteen years ago I wrote a piece for our subscriptions travel newsletter, Gemütlichkeit, about an adoption trip to Russia. It was a fascinating, heart-warming story but since it didn't really fit our newsletter content, it never saw the light of day. Today, December 21, 2012, for complicated, political reasons, Russian president Vladimir Putin is in the process of pushing through a law that would prohibit Americans from adopting Russian babies. Given that context, perhaps you'll be interested in this quasi travel story.

Summer, 1999—A few weeks ago, Nancy Bestor, wife of son Bob, and mother of our two terrific granddaughters, agreed to accompany her good friend Sally (not her real name) on a trip to Russia. A single woman bent on adopting a Russian baby, Sally needed help and moral support. What with Russian politics and bureaucracy, the adoption was on and off at least half a dozen times. In late May it seemed definitely off. Vladimir Putin, the new Russian President, was scrapping the program. Sally, who had known the name of her baby for months and had pictures and videotapes of her, was running on emotional empty and seemed ready to look elsewhere for a baby.

Then came an early morning phone call that changed everything. A Russian court date had been scheduled and Sally and Nancy needed to be in Moscow within 72 hours.

Getting to Russia

Buying airline tickets on short notice at the height of the season is not a budget proposition, but for $2,100 per person they could fly from Los Angeles to Moscow and back via Zürich on Swissair. Getting to L.A. from southern Oregon was another matter. United has two non-stops daily from Medford, Oregon, and with a 14-day advance purchase the fare is about $225 RT. But United has a big heart in these matters and charged them $500 each. Two days after the phone call, they were in the air. They expected to be gone two to three weeks.

Arriving in Moscow at 1am on a Sunday morning, they were to be met by a representative of the adoption agency. But all that greeted them when they emerged from customs was a gauntlet of cab drivers begging a fare. After being up for some 30 hours it was an unexpected and annoying curve ball. For a time they roamed the airport in a fruitless hunt for their contact, a squad of beseeching taxi drivers shadowing their every move. While half a dozen cabbies watched and waited, Sally made a futile phone call to the U.S. adoption agency in Ohio. After nearly an hour of unsuccessful phoning and searching, the entreating pursuers had dwindled to a lone, dogged taxi driver who was rewarded for his persistence: "o.k., take us to the hotel."

Told the destination, he produced a laminated list of Moscow hotels with the fare from the airport written next to each. It was 68 U.S. dollars for the hotel in question. No way, they responded. "What you pay?," he asked. They offered $40 and the deal was struck. In retrospect, they realize they should have offered $10. The "taxi" turned out to be a private car. In a country where $30 is a month's salary, it was a very good night's work for the cabbie.

At the hotel, the American adoption agency had either failed to book rooms as promised, or the hotel had lost their reservation. But fortune smiled at last; rooms were available and the travelers bedded down, far too exhausted to worry about the next leg of the journey, an Aeroflot hop to Orenburg, a grim city of 600,000 on the Ural River 900 miles southeast of Moscow. There, after a 10 to 14-day wait, and the court's blessing, they would fetch 16-month-old Anna.

After a day in Moscow (food and hotel decent, Red Square and the Kremlin "amazing," shopping impossible), they flew south.

The Orphanage

Orenburg is a charmless city with no tourists or tourist attractions but many large, ugly buildings. One of them is an orphanage for children aged three months to three years, though one can't tell its purpose from the outside or, for that matter, from inside — at least based and the experience of Sally and Nancy. On each of their twice-daily visits they were shown to a small room where Anna (not her real name, either) was brought to them. They never saw where she slept, was fed or where she played, if indeed there was any of latter. Outside, there were no swings, no sandboxes, no slides, nothing to signify that some 80 children lived within. In fact, in her 16 months on earth, she had never been out-of-doors.

At the plain hotel where Sally and Nancy slept (for $45 per night they had an apartment of some 1,000 square feet) and ate all meals, they met other Americans who had come to adopt children. The group ate most meals together. One couple had been waiting more than a month. Three others had been told the children they thought they were adopting were no longer available. They were advised to go home and come back later.

Tragedy was part of one couple's long wait. While in Orenburg, the pregnant wife had unexpectedly given birth. The tiny baby was not only premature but critically ill and taken immediately to another Russian hospital. Understandably concerned about the quality of care in this desolate corner of the earth, the couple sought a way to get the sick child to a U.S. hospital. Finally, in desperation they hired a private jet to come from Dallas to fly the baby to the U.S. — at a cost of $85,000. After six days of tenuous life, and the chartered plane in the air on its way to Moscow, the infant died.

Virtually no English is spoken in Orenburg. Sally and Nancy had a translator/driver ($10 per day) who was with them at all times away from the hotel. Except for the daily visits to the orphanage, the women were kept in the dark about each day's activities. There was no written or even verbal itinerary. They knew nothing about what was to happen until it happened. The car would stop in front of a building and their driver would open the door; "Do we get out here, too?" they would ask. "Yes, now you meet Minister of Education," or "Today you see lawyer."

In what seemed a bit of bad luck, Sally drew the toughest judge on the bench. What the adoption agency had characterized as 45-minutes of routine questions, turned out to be a three-and-a-half-hour inquisition. Sally got the third-degree about her finances, employment, and personal life. Doctors were grilled about the true identity of the birth mother (she had given the hospital a false name). Orphanage officials were upbraided by the court for not trying hard enough to find suitable Russian parents (that Anna has some Asian blood was a plus for Sally, as such children are difficult to place in Russian homes).

After a long deliberation by the judge, the participants and other interested parties filed back into the courtroom to hear the decision: Anna was awarded to Sally and, stunningly, the 10-day waiting period was waived. It was now a party of three and they were headed for the U.S. of A.

Headin' Home

Though clearances had to be obtained at the Embassy, and flights re-booked (Swissair has a no-extra-charge-for-changes policy on adoption trips, but United nicked them each another $100), you can be assured they did not let the door hit their fannies on their way out of the country. They had been in Russia nine days.

The final visit to the orphanage was to collect Anna. She was brought to the visitation room clean as a whistle and — just one more little Russian surprise — naked as the day she was born. She had rickets, was underfed, had seldom seen a male of the species and never been outdoors. But she was on her way to Ashland, Oregon, a world of stroller rides through a glorious park, 4th of July parades, great schools, and plenty of food. Score one for capitalism.

One final, but revealing aside; on the trip home, Anna ate everything put in front of her. She quickly became especially fond of dry Cheerios. But, like any 16-month-old, once in a while she'd drop one or two. Your kids and my kids would ignore that bit of disappearing food and grab another handful. Not Anna. She searched for every single lost Cheerio; often a little frantically, I'm told.

Anna has been here almost a month. She's seen American doctors who say she's on her way to being a healthy, vital kid. Of course, she's getting around the clock love and care.

We're all gonna have fun watching her grow up. — RHB

(Final Note: It was not my intention to imply that the care at Orenburg orphanage was indifferent or cruel. The baby was always clean and the women who brought her to the visiting sessions seemed to care about her. In fact, several of them wept when Anna left. But there are few resources—human and otherwise—to care for such children. Anna's clothing no doubt had to be kept for another child. Even diapers, which she did not wear, are a luxury. Orphanage children are potty-trained at a very early age.)

(Update 2012: Anna and Sally thrive here in the foothills of the Cascades. Anna is now 14, tall, athletic, and has two loving parents. She will start high school in the fall. Once in a while I see her at a school function. She doesn't know me, but for a couple of minutes from afar, I watch her interact with classmates and teachers. She looks like any other 14-year-old girl: active, boisterous, and full of life. From my vantage point, she's shaken off every trace of that orphanage in the Ural mountains and is just another American kid.)

(Update December 2015: A few days ago over morning coffee I noticed a photo of Anna on the front of our local newspaper's sports page. The once undernourished orphan is now a top-flight high school athlete. As a 5'-8” high school junior she's a mainstay of the school's girls' volleyball team. They're 7-3 in league play.)