Journey to a Family
By Cari Lynn Ugent, MA '97
Happy family: the girls with Robert and
Photo courtesy of Robert DeSimone
In the dead of winter 2004, Robert DeSimone ’78 and his wife, Maryann, of Huntington, Long Island, waited anxiously with a translator at the National Adoption Center in Kiev, Ukraine.
A clerk—who’d already been appropriately bribed—was attempting to type up the birth certificates of three sisters, ages 6, 7, and 9, whom the DeSimones wanted to adopt. Several times already, it seemed the clerk had purposely hit a wrong key on the manual typewriter, slowly pulling the certificate out and starting over again and again.
The DeSimones were on a strict timeline in a scavenger hunt-like paper chase across all of the Ukraine: a rural, putrid orphanage; an even ghastlier hospital; the adoption center; the embassy; notaries’ offices; and finally, to see a judge, often known to be fickle, who had to approve the collection of paperwork. Any misstep could cause the entire adoption process to fall apart. They’d met couples who’d seen that happen and returned to America with no children.
As the typist marred her ninth version of the birth certificates, she stated flatly that she’d run out of original forms. The DeSimones were incensed, but they’d been warned not to lose control.
Be patient, they told themselves. It would be another day before the DeSimones and their future daughters could be together.
Robert DeSimone, an organizational development consultant, and his wife, Maryann, who owns a home-based embroidery business, wanted kids desperately. For years they’d tried without success, turning to in vitro fertilization and attempting a domestic adoption before deciding to look internationally. A year after signing up with an adoption agency, they received word that two sisters were available. The DeSimones fell in love with the e-mailed pictures of the wide-eyed, smiling girls, Katia, 9, and Dasha, 7. Then, a few minutes later, another e-mail: There was a third sister, Irina, just 6. Robert and Maryann stared at the photo of the blond-haired, blue-eyed child on their computer screen.
“Well,” Robert said, “What’s one more?”
A program the agency runs allowed the girls to visit the DeSimones in America for a three-week trial. At the airport, amid the crowd leaving customs, Robert and Maryann spotted the three girls, pale and wiry, with gaunt faces and hair cropped close to their heads. The girls were wearing the same clothes they’d worn in their photographs, taken months earlier. An interpreter introduced them, and after signing some papers, they were alone together, unable to speak the same language.
But some things don’t require a lot of words, like trips to the beach and Adventureland, or just playing with toys, all of which the girls took to enthusiastically. They were in awe of America, had never seen an airplane, or eaten bananas, or, to the DeSimones’ astonishment, used—or even seen—toilet paper.
The girls’ back-story: Born on a farm in rural Ukraine, they lived in a one-room dirt-floor house. Their mother died in childbirth with a fourth daughter, who, according to the girls, was never brought home (they speculate she was sold on the black market). Their father fell into an alcohol stupor, often turning violent. He would send a starving Katia, then 6, to buy vodka with their remaining money, the girls remember. Eventually, the government took custody of the girls and placed them in an orphanage.
Conditions weren’t much better in the orphanage, which was about six hours from Kiev. About 300 children lived in a dilapidated building the DeSimones later described as looking like a burned-out factory, where electricity was intermittent and the children would huddle together to keep warm. Urine and excrement were everywhere. The children owned only the clothes on their backs, which were washed once a month. Frequent lice infestations meant the children had their heads shaved periodically.
And yet, say the DeSimones, Katia, Dasha, and Irina had an amazing resilience of spirit, a hunger for learning, a great sense of humor, and a deep desire to love and be loved. After their three-week trial in America, both parties knew they wanted the adoption to happen. But the girls had to return to the Ukranian orphanage until the adoption was finalized; the Ukranian government would summon the DeSimones when it was their turn.
The wait was an excruciating five months. In late December 2004, the DeSimones flew to the Ukraine to get their daughters. The plane ride would prove to be the easy part.
“It was like we had to start over from the very beginning,” Robert remembers.
The DeSimones had hired a translator, Olga, a 26-year-old who would become their guide through social mores and the complex, frustrating system. “Olga would instruct us precisely how to act,” Robert remembers. “She’d say, ‘When we go in this room, do not make eye contact with anyone.” Olga would say when she thought an official was lying, and she would give Robert a look that said it was time to offer a bribe. Everyone had to be bribed—directors, clerks, notaries, a driver, the police who pulled over their obviously rented car more than once.
The girls, meanwhile, waited in a hospital, fearful their prospective parents had changed their minds. The girls had gone in for mandatory physicals, but the orphanage hadn’t granted permission for them to leave or paid their $8 hospital bill.
“You begin to feel like ‘why bother?’” Robert says. But finally, after two weeks, the call came releasing the girls back to the orphanage, where the girls and the DeSimones ran into still another problem. The girls’ aunt and uncle had appeared, notified by a disgruntled orphanage employee.
At first, the girls were happy to see their relatives. But then Katia grew angry and worried her uncle was trying to stop the adoption. Her aunt and uncle didn’t help when their mother died, didn’t show up when the girls were taken from their father, and never visited them in the orphanage. As Olga translated, it became clear the relatives were too poor to take the girls, so the aunt and uncle left with assurances from the DeSimones they would write and send pictures of the girls.
One last stop at the judge’s chambers in Kiev—where a signature gave them the clearance they needed—and it was off to the airport for the long flight home.
A year later, the girls speak fluent English (flashcards taped all over the house helped) and are completely immersed in American culture, watching DVDs, playing computer games, and putting on impromptu plays.
The girls haven’t forgotten their fourth sister; as soon as they had enough English words to form the question, they begged Robert and Maryann to find her (they say her name is Vera). The DeSimones have hired Olga, the Ukrainian translator, to hunt for any records about her.
In the meantime, the sisters are thriving at home and in school, Robert says, and want to help other internationally adopted children adjust to life in America. Katia, the strong-willed caretaker, says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up. Dasha, the introverted middle child, wants to be both a police officer and an art teacher; and Irina, the bubbly actress of the group, says she’ll be a professional hula-hooper.
Laughter fills the kitchen as they prepare dinner together, then over the meal they discuss each person’s day by asking, “What was your peach, and what was your pit?” The joy is palpable. Each side chose the other, and no one takes anything for granted.
“These are borrowed children,” Robert says, emotion filling his face. “I don’t know who saved whom.”
Cari Lynn Ugent is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has written previously about international adoption. She was editor of Help for the Hopeless Child: A Guide for Families (1998).