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Adopting a Child from Siberia 1/21/06


Naj with child at Ulan Ude Orphanage for Young Children.

"Having a big desire to change their own life," said Yelena Vladimirovna, "is a key ingredient in a good adoptive parent. If they were childless, they lived for themselves, now they will have to live for another. Many think it will be very easy. Here is a ready made child for you. It isn't. This is a person who requires a life commitment. They should not worship their new child like a god. A child is not a god. It's a child that needs rules and structure, an open heart, trust and patience. If the adoptive parents have other children, it is important to treat them all equally."


Orphanage director with children.

Sarah Gerster, a volunteer from Switzerland.

We were sitting in her small, light-filled, and comfortable office on the second floor of the Diensky Dom Malishok, Ulan Ude Orphanage for Young Children, one of three orphanages in the city. Vladimirovna, director of the orphanage, is a robust woman, full of energy and enthusiasm, and cheerfully attired in her dark dress of many dots.

With us were Sarah Gerster, a volunteer from Switzerland nearing the end of her four-month term, James Hennessey, an Irish volunteer about half way through his year long commitment, and Vica (Victoria) Badueva, a volunteer coordinator and director of the Siberian Creative Group, who works with Service Civil International, an agency that arranges volunteers to work in orphanages and other places of need. Indeed later that day I would meet newly arrived Mara Bostelmann of Hanover, Germany.


Vica surrounded by the kids.

"Some people complain that the children are not what they expected. But of course, they come from an orphanage. The children come with problems. But what life isn't without problems? We try our best, but they will need help. They need parents. With patience they can be helped and it can be very positive. For some the problem is that they have always been given things, clothes, food, this place to live, birthday and New Years presents, but they haven't learned how to give to another. Here they live with many children. They may move to a family with no other children, or just one or two, or to a country like yours that is filled with people of many colors and nationalities and a new language to learn. This requires helping them adjust to the new environment. We are not an adoption agency. We do place advertisements in local newspapers, but there are agencies whose job is to arrange adoptions. Our business is to prepare the children for their next place in life. Hopefully that is with a new family that loves them, or back to their birth parents if they are now in a position to care for them, or for the next orphanage that takes the children from us when they reach seven or eight years of age, and must participate in full educational programs."


A boat mural with inset photos of kids.

Responding to my question as to where the children come from, she said, "The birth parents try to keep their kids, but not all can. They didn't give them enough food, they treated them badly, they were arrested and sent to jail, or some other problem. The state, the courts, decides that they cannot care for the children and, if no relatives step in to take the children, they are given to us. The parents complain, but few ever come back when they get out of jail to ask for their children back. I can think of only two cases. Some people give us their children to care for a period of time until their circumstances change, a newly single mother for instance. When they get on their feet, they return for their children. Only in a few cases are they given up for adoption, perhaps six or seven of the one hundred and fifty we care for. Some are abandoned because the children face severe mental or physical problems. They are placed into a sanitarium (Hospital No. 2) and cared for there.

Most of our children are Russian. It is very rare for a Buryat child not to be adopted by a relative. It is against their values and customs. We have perhaps five Buryat children, usually from a person who has no relatives to take the children. A difficulty for a Russian to adopt a child is the child's relatives may interfere, or that's their fear. These are relatives not concerned enough to take care of the child themselves. It is easier then if a Russian couple adopts a child from a different city so to give themselves and the child a fresh start. There are programs on television that say many children are given back. I can think of only three cases since I started working here in 1995. When a child comes back we work very hard to immediately place it with another family, as this failure is very hard on the child. It can break their trust in people. Of course we'd rather have a child back than have it live in a bad situation, but mostly it takes patience and understanding what you are getting into in the first place."

"I think of a Wisconsin couple. They adopted two children that came from two different families. These children would steal from other children. Every time they did, the parents took the child to a shop, bought the very thing stolen, had their child give this to the person from whom they stole, then went back and bought the same item for their own child. It took sixty such trips to the shops over two years before the children were secure enough not to steal. Now they are perfect young gentlemen. You would never know they had had such a problem. Their eyes are clear. They are happy."

"I have twice been to visit children who have been adopted. All the kids have worked out. Their eyes are bight. One family adopted four children in addition to the two they had. The last one had some health difficulties. They made no difference between their adopted and their birth children. All the children are fine and the one with health difficulities is happy and living a normal life. This is the best. It is the key. Treat them all equally."


Sarah and James being greeted by the kids.

"The children love it when Sarah and James are coming. Sarah can speak Russian, so she works with the older children. James can't so he works with the littlest children. I don't know how they communicate, but they do. Some now speak a little English with an Irish accent. He is like a father to them. He has about five at a time. They need the individual attention and it is good for them to meet people of different backgrounds," this said as we enter a play are where we are all immediately besieged. Sarah and James are swamped and I find myself treated as a tree to be climbed.

"I just like seeing all those smiles all the time," said Sarah. "They are so happy. They brighten my day."

"So James," I said, he now flat on his back near pinned to the floor with two young girls taking turns rearranging his hair and a young boy making google eyes at his face, "They seem to like you. They are just all over you. How do you communicate?"

"I'm not sure. They don't speak Russian too well yet. They are so young. They just smile," he said his hair now in a knot that may take some hours to untangle. "I don't speak English with them. Well maybe a few words. I can speak basic Russian. 'Take that out of your mouth.' 'Stop that.' 'That's wonderful.' The important phrases."

I now have a young boy on my hip, intently investigating the various pockets of my vest. I am standing in a room filled with children's drawings, toys, sofas, chairs, plants and bright sunlight pouring in. Yelena is working with a few kids on their drawings. James and his tribe have shifted to a sofa. Three surround Sarah. Vica is hard to see amongst her welcoming committee.

Later, after a tour of their rooms, most beds neatly made except those abandoned by the sight of James and Sarah, felt boots all in a line, and the smells of a meal being prepared waft about, we prepare our farewell. "The best part of my job is when a child is taken into a family," said Yelena. "It is very emotional. Everyone's fingers are trembling. They are all so happy. Of course they will be some adjustments. That is true of all families. There is always things to improve." Looking at Sarah, who will leave in two weeks, she said, "We'll miss Sarah. She is great with the kids. I hope new volunteers will come. Today we must make room for seven new little ones, so the seven oldest will have to move to the next orphanage. We will give them some ice cream, the first they will ever get from us. Some will call me if they have problems, or because they miss us. Best would be if their next move is to a family."

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