The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia has made a horrific and devastating stain on protecting children, youth, families and the people of Ukraine. When I heard the news of the invasion, I knew that it was going to impact families struggling to make ends meet, but more importantly, our most vulnerable population of children in Ukrainian orphanages.
I was once in one of those orphanages, and here’s my story.
I was born in Mariupol, Ukraine, in 2001. My parents, my brother and I lived in extreme poverty until my parents could no longer afford to take care of us. Officials took us into custody and placed us into an orphanage.
One of my earliest memories of the orphanage was a single woman who told us that she had come back and forth each year for seven years to complete adoption papers and during that, had assured us that we were the ones she wanted to bring home to “the States.”
I still to this day remember when I was in the orphanage. It was painted exteriorly with neon yellow, blue and purple shades surrounded by willow, peach and apricot trees. It was excruciatingly cold in the winters and warm and humid in the summers.
I lost many items that were gifted to me by the single mother seeking to adopt my older brother and I. Things that were important to me such as teddy bears, candy and money given to me for special events such as my birthdays and holidays. Later, I was told that staff at the orphanage had confiscated these items for themselves and they were never given back to the orphans like myself.
I vividly recall the moments when they used willow tree branches as a tool of punishment because it was the normality of Ukrainian culture. When I recall these dark memories, it really haunts me and diminishes my self worth — they make it hard for me to give and receive love, which affected my later relationships with adults who took care of me as a child.
Ultimately, I had to learn as a child to fight each day to please the adults around me, something that no child should have to express in order to get basic needs met. Conversely, my best memories revolve around talking to my peers in the orphanage at bed time. We would talk for hours about our dreams of reuniting with our biological families or the benefits of being adopted into safe, nurturing, forever homes.
This single woman, myself and my older brother attended court on a Thursday morning of May, 2008 to finalize our adoption and get the judge’s approval. My biological mother and father attended the hearing without hesitation, yelling and crying in court because they desperately wanted the best for us and our future.
We were humbled to be adopted — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that many orphans can only dream about during their stay in orphanages, where so many will be kicked out between 16 and 18.
Since that day — which was Mother’s Day of 2008 — when we all arrived in the states, I’ve put everything into perspective to be grateful for all I have. I’ve worked hard for all of the opportunities I’ve had since becoming a U.S. Citizen due to the adoption of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. It allows foreign-born, biological and adopted children of at least one U.S. citizen parent to automatically become a U.S. Citizen.
I came to the United States with the hope of having a better childhood and future. Unfortunately, my childhood journey didn’t end up with a “greener grass on the other side.” It was filled with pain, abuse and abandonment which resulted in scars of trauma into my adulthood. After spending five years at a private boarding school in the U.S., I ran away from the boarding school to get closer to my family in Arizona; something I have always sought out throughout my childhood. When I got to Arizona to be with my family, I was faced with life-threatening abuse that ultimately led to entering Arizona’s foster care system as a teenager until I aged out at 18.
According to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, Ukraine has been a partner in Intercountry Adoptions, contributing to some of the highest rates of adoptions from outside of the United States. Although intercountry adoptions help some orphans bring a dream to reality, I urge efforts to ensure that orphans can stay within their family lineage if at all possible. Most importantly, adoptions can be harmful to those who want to reunify with kin because it is known that these adoptions are commonly sealed. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we recognize the humanitarian cost of this invasion, especially for children most in need.
I am thrilled to acknowledge the United States’ efforts toward supporting Ukraine’s children and families at a time like no other. Many child welfare advocates and experts are expressing the importance and urgency of supporting the legal pathways for Ukrainians seeking amnesty to prevent the separation of families in the nuances of the southern border crisis. I want to encourage public officials to consider kindness and compassion above everything else when tackling this controversial immigration issue.
Since turning 18 years old, I’ve been fortunate to participate in Arizona’s Voluntary Extended Foster Care program, a federally funded, state-administered support which affords me a safety net of resources. It provides minimal but critical case management, and a monthly subsidy to support the costs of living independently while I am required to be actively working and/or enrolled in college or a trade school. It also provides continued support and guidance from the Arizona Department of Child Safety. This June, I will be officially aging out at 21 and can now say I’ve utilized all resources and supports toward my success into a thriving adulthood.
There are Ukrainian and international efforts to ensure the nearly 100,000 orphans in Ukraine are safe and protected from this catastrophic attack, but many worry these orphans will fall into the cracks of the governments’ control. I request that governmental and humanitarian efforts be prioritized for helping children and especially orphans, so they can be safely evacuated away from harm and cared for by loving adults. Nothing happening around them is any of their doing or fault. Their entire future, well-being and lives are at stake.
Lastly, I want to extend my solidarity and support for the Ukrainian children and families impacted by this horrific event. Despite the atrocities, it has prompted allies around the world to share their love and extend humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian people.