Nine-year-old Anna’s dream of having a doll hit a roadblock Thursday. Her eleven-year-old sister, Anastasia, aspires to be a rescue team member someday, though now she could stand rescue herself. The sisters, having faced unusual difficulty in life measured even by the low bar of orphan expectations, were scheduled to travel on the August Tulsa Lighthouse Project trip. Tragically, the past tense “were” is operative here.
Two decades removed from the Cold War, the powers within Russia still seek to capitalize on any perceived flaws of the West, gleaning a grim self-satisfaction in construing facts to suggest things are worse elsewhere than at home. The current Western trouble du jour is the so-called “swine flu," claimed by the Russian media to have consigned Americans en masse to sick beds and hospitals. Never mind no one I’ve met knows anyone ill from the disease: to hear the Russian media tell it, the West is in its death throes, crippled by the flu’s virulence.
My good friend Hope, director of the Lighthouse Project, lived in Russia for eight years. She calls this most recent exaggeration of the woes we Americans navigate a different chapter of the same playbook used daily during her Russian sojourn. In a misguided attempt to redirect focus from the rather blatant problems within Mother Russia, a spotlight is beamed on other, more prosperous, parts of the world, magnifying their relatively inconsequential hobgoblins. The insinuation is existence elsewhere is even more precarious than within the motherland. That facts demonstrate otherwise is less material than is seemly.
This coping mechanism propagated by the tradeoff of reality for fantasy might be politely overlooked were the ramifications of such cultural pride less pernicious. On Thursday afternoon, I received most unwelcome news when Nadia told me my August trip was cancelled due to, of all things, swine flu. A resolution passed by the regional government forbids group travel by children to several countries, the United States included, until the pandemic subsides. It matters not that host families were eager to share ten days with the children, or that several of said families expressed intentions of adopting the child they planned to host. In its wisdom, the regional power hierarchy has protected the orphans, not by sending them to American families who might love them and want to adopt them, but by keeping them at “home” in their orphanages.
While exact numbers depend on the source consulted, most agree the statistics for Russian orphans who age out of the system without families are grim. Kids leave the orphanage by age 18; lacking productive alternatives, many girls turn to prostitution, many boys to crime. Life expectancy on the street is brutishly short and measured in months. Aged-out orphans are as likely to commit suicide as to become productive members of society: 10% of kids fall into each category. Meanwhile, I must dutifully derive comfort knowing these orphans are securely cloistered in their orphanages, safe from the pervasive ravages of swine flu, though at the expense of their one realistic chance of a family.
Alexander, 12, described by his orphanage director as needing a family “very much,” gushed, “The whole orphanage is my friend!” when asked about his friends. He’ll make do without American friends for now. Evgeniy, 12, speaks a little English and hoped to practice in America. His dream of making the world a brighter and happier place is on ice, and I’m less a cynic than a realist believing it will be longer, if ever, before the world is a brighter and happier place for this effusive boy. Sisters Elena, 14, and Lidia, 12, had a potential adoptive family in Missouri for July. When a passport issue kept them off the trip, Missouri coordinator Elaine and I solaced ourselves thinking they’d be on the August trip. Elena, a very good student, would like to be an attorney, but she doubts she'll be able to. If she stays in Russia, she’s probably right.
The Lighthouse Project exists because few families set out to adopt older children. For adoption purposes, kids even two years old are considered “older,” and therefore, harder to place. Most families will not go to Russia to seek out an older child, and a majority of the hosts I’ve found in my nine completed trips hosted without the intention of adopting. Typically, adoptions have occurred when people met children already here and then realized they wanted an older child. During this travel embargo, people could still travel to Russia to meet kids, and I’ll be encouraging them to do so. But for this to happen, I’d have to improve my record of finding families committed enough to meet kids overseas.
I skew optimistic and generally find silver lining in any situation, but my Pollyanna-ish outlook is strained by this state of affairs. Since acceptance is our only option, I suppose my spurned host families and I will have to find our peace knowing Anna, Anastasia, Alexander, Evgeniy, Elena, and Lidia won’t catch swine flu from you, or me, or any of the other Americans like us wallowing in swinish contagion.