Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Monday morning, my inner night owl awakens with a grudge, as I gradually become aware of a din in the hall. I hear the word “explosion”, remembering with a start the Coca Cola I forgot in the freezer overnight. Rolling out of bed and slinking from my room to clean up the mess, I overhear a most alarming exchange between the receptionist and a host. Retreating, I go online to find a suicide bomber attacked the metro one-half mile from our hotel twenty minutes ago; at least fourteen people at our station are dead, and scores more injured. I grieve the senseless loss of life in a tragedy that feels more real by its proximity, knowing leaving that station was almost the last thing I did Sunday night. Suddenly, I panic, realizing Faith isn’t here. She planned to come early for gift distribution before our trek to Red Square. I can’t find my phone, and I’m frantic to call her, now. My terror, real, is short-lived, as I bolt out my door to find her arriving. I hug her tightly, overjoyed she’s alright. Delayed visiting with family on Skype, she left her flat later than intended. Arriving at our station to find mind-numbing carnage, she’d missed the explosion by fifteen minutes. The scene left her shaken, and quick to obey the barked command, “Leave the station now!” Outside, ambulances queued to transport the injured, as helicopters hovered overhead.

Hope, the Lighthouse Project director, is drifting off to sleep in the States when she hears the news on the radio. Having lived in Moscow many years, it’s a second home, with many Muscovites dear friends. I e-mail her immediately to confirm our safety, but she is so distraught she calls Faith anyway to be sure.

While the devastation sinks our plans, we don’t burden the kids with the news. After breakfast, Faith shepherds them aside, where she reads from a treatise on Moscow’s history. Meanwhile, the hosts and I organize piles of clothes, toys, school supplies, and treats. The tendency is to spoil orphans, and each of us is caught red-handed. Based on my own kids’ experiences, I have cynically warned families to avoid presents with sentimental value. Older children might retain some items, but younger children, or those at less-endowed orphanages, will likely keep nothing, the gifts becoming communal property, at best.

When Faith finishes her lesson, the kids bound into the common room to tell us about their orphanages, schools, chores, meals, and classwork. Elena, fifteen, on her first trip after a quintet of attempts to find a host, calls her orphanage more spacious than others. She beams describing the beautiful curtains the teachers sewed, and raves about the food, singling out the omelets for accolades. (Hopeless?, 10/6/09)  Anastasia, twelve, is less effusive in praise of her orphanage, one for delayed kids and not as welcoming as Elena’s. She attends school in the orphanage, and claims the food doesn’t matter. I expect compelling blog fodder when Faith queries them about their dreams, but impatient eyes are on the gifts. The conversation stalls when Erik, four, dreams of owning a cow, promptly countered by Artem, five, and his dream of a horse. Faith adjourns with, “They deserve some presents. Can I announce them?”

Four kids go hostless, brought in hope I’ll learn enough to promote them more winsomely next time. I gift these kids. Vladimir, ten, politely accepts, but I wonder if Sasha, a three-trip veteran from Vladimir’s orphanage, has divulged that gifts from the coordinator is a harbinger of no forever family. The other kids are young enough that the significance of gifts from me is lost on them. Artem, five and HIV-positive, is overjoyed with his haul. The cherubic tyke thanks me with an angelic “Spaciba!” and heaves the bag to his shoulder. He is so little that he lists perilously; even so, it is with effort that the chaperone cajoles him to release the bag; I have never seen a child so pleased by a windfall. Yuliana, like Artem five and HIV-positive, plows through the crowd, resolutely dragging her bag behind her to her room, where she can sort the treasures.

After the kids have seen their gifts, we leave on foot. MuMu is on the lunch menu, after which we visit the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Walls inscribed with names of Russia’s war dead line gold-ceilinged halls. The cavernous interior is illumined by candles and perfumed with their wax, but the church is new enough that its bold frescoes are untamed by soot. Devout babushkas in blue frocks and head scarves use paintbrushes to sweep wax drippings from brass candelabras. Some in our band light candles and pray, while I seek out a spot on the wall, made sacred my first trip, when darling Denis, ten, stumbled through a prayer in Old Russian unfamiliar to him. Faith gently guided him through the foreign words, clasping her hand to her heart as he whispered with a poignant passion. His family waits in the hotel with us now, leaving tomorrow on the train for their court appearance to complete his adoption. When I think of Denis, breathing life into an ancient devotion in this place, but now giddy in an orphanage asking incessant questions about the arrival date of his family, I meditate on God’s acceptance of what He calls “true religion”: care of widows and orphans.

An ornamented bridge joins the Moscow River’s banks behind the church. From it we revel in a spectacular view of the Kremlin, snapping pictures of myriad combinations of people. Behind us is a 315-foot tall statue depicting Peter the Great, the tsar who dragged a reluctant Russia westward culturally and the father of the Russian navy, at the helm of a ship. An almost-universally loathed part of the Moscow skyline, the statue is doubly incongruous here: the navy was never associated with the Moscow River, and Peter moved his capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, his new eponymous city, in 1712. Wagging tongues claim the Russian-made behemoth was Christopher Columbus, but rejected by several American cities, remained here, undergoing metamorphosis into Russia’s greatest tsar.

On the route back, we patronize a small convenience store near the hotel. Two cats lounge on the windowsills, watching ice cream coolers with feline detachment. The store has three rooms; the overlap in merchandise between the rooms perplexes until one in our group gets a dressing down, Russian style, leaving room three, for room two, with unpaid merchandise. Only then does it become apparent that each room is a separate store run by an independent proprietor.

The hotel dashes my plans to blog tonight with the malfunction of the wireless connection. As reels of the morning’s events play out silently and endlessly on the television before me, I spend the next five hours in the common room, discussing adoption, travel, and children with host families, the parents-to-be of Denis and Lima, and Inna’s mom, who calls her October adoption of the fifteen-year-old “the best thing I ever did.”  (Lima, 1/16/09 and Struggling, 2/2/09)

When our little group left America, we left in faith. Hundreds of Lighthouse’s adoptive families, harkening to God’s call, have made the journey to Moscow in faith. Hundreds of Lighthouse children, with the courage to leave the known, and venture into the unknown for the promise of a better life, have made this same trip in faith. The Lighthouse Project has been guided by faith from its inception: We came in faith before, we’re here in faith now, and the good Lord willing, we’ll return in June with the same faith, and our friend Faith.

It’s always been by faith. Nothing’s changing now.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Update on Status of Russian Adoption: April 15

As of now, Russian adoption to the US remains open; there is no moratorium. The Ministry of Education is the Russian government entity responsible for adoption; the spokesmen interviewed on CNN, FOX, and other media outlets are spokesmen from other Russian ministries without jurisdiction over adoption. Unless and until jurisdiction for adoption is given to another ministry, the Ministry of Education is the entity that must agree to a moratorium. Currently, this has not happened.

Two of our adoptive families were at the US Embassy in Moscow this morning (Thursday) and were given the passports and visas for their children to return to the United States. The embassy confirmed that courts are still being held for American adoptive families across the country of Russia, and that the embassy is continuing to grant visas to children (

A delegation from the US State Department is scheduled to meet with Russian officials April 20, 2010, in Moscow regarding the ongoing situation. While there is always the risk of shutdown in international adoption, including Russia, most insiders are optimistic and do not believe the situation regarding the Russian adoptee from Tennessee will lead to any moratorium on adoption to American families.

Most agencies and adoption facilitators, including ours, receive e-mail newsletters from the US Embassy when there are any changes in adoption climate. If and when the US Embassy is made aware of changes in laws affecting American adoption, they will send e-mail notification immediately. We, among others, will receive this word then. For now, news outlets are reporting this story in an uninformed, sensationalistic, and irresponsible manner.

For those who wish to remain updated accurately on this subject, we offer these suggestions:

1. Visit the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCISC) website at for the latest updates. JCICS is an internationally-respected clearinghouse for adoption advocacy and information; they are also leading the charge to keep adoption open in Russia.

2. Recognize the media has an interest in stories that are alarming, and accuracy sometimes takes a back seat. While some in positions of authority within Russia are calling for a moratorium, no one with the authority to actually implement one has done so. The media either does not understand which ministry is in charge of adoption within Russia, or they are ignoring this detail in an attempt to produce a sensationalistic story.

3. Understand there is, now and always, a risk of shutdown in international adoption. There is much frightening posturing and threatening now within Russia; however, if we stopped working every time someone in the Russian government threatened a moratorium, we would never bring any children home. Until a moratorium is announced by the appropriate ministry within Russia, we continue to process our cases as expeditiously as possible.

As always, if there is news of interest to our Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project waiting families, they will be informed by telephone as quickly as possible. Further updates will also be posted in this space, and on Facebook, as news becomes available.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Her Lora

Lora, 11, and Zulya, 15, snuggled in close to Catherine as she read to a swarm of younger children before leaving the orphanage for the evening with her new son Anton, 14. “Are there any friends you know of who would adopt us so we could live close to you?” Zulya implored. The question took the new adoptive mom aback; the girl craved affection, but she’d only met Catherine 45 minutes earlier. In the five subsequent days the family visited, both girls trailed them, barraging with requests to play with their group. Zulya, especially, is unhappy at the orphanage; Catherine witnessed kids tormenting her about her full name, Zhuleikha, because it isn’t Russian.

Gentle Zulya longs for a family, but circumstances make it most unlikely she’ll get one. Orphans are generally prohibited from entering the US at sixteen, unless adopted concurrently with a younger sibling. Zulya and Lora, though having spent much of their lives in the same household, are niece and aunt. Arriving at the orphanage together three months ago, the girls were reticent to reveal what drove them there, deeming it too sad a story to share. Whatever their history, difficult as it must have been, they have each other, for now. And while their biological relationship is not sufficiently close to qualify Zulya to immigrate to the States with Lora after her birthday, they’re close enough to want to stay together. Pressed to name her best friend, Zulya smiled toward her younger aunt, saying, “My Lora,” adding, “We really are sisters. We wish we could always be together!”

At this, the interviewer invited Lora to join Zulya; the older girl pulled up a chair for the younger without a hint of begrudging the shared spotlight. Both girls enjoy crafting, and Zulya beamed as she helped Lora display a flower she’d created from rolled paper. Another student produced a swan he’d made, which Zulya showed on camera, thoughtfully turning it side to side so it could be better appreciated, though it was the work of another.

Lora is a reader, preferring scary stories and those with mother characters. She reminisced of summers past, helping her mother, Zulya’s grandmother, garden, and gather strawberries, mushrooms, and nuts. Since arriving in the orphanage, Zulya attends a new school; she likes her instructors, whom she says explain concepts well. Her English study is difficult, though she believes if she tries hard, everything “will be alright.”

But effort may not make all things right. There is little Zulya can do to secure her future with Lora, except to profess her desire to remain together, and with pleading words shadow families who come to claim other kids. To stay “sisters”, the girls must be adopted by early September, or Lora can decline her chance at a family later, if she’s willing, to remain with Zulya in Russia. By then, the gentle girl with the Turkish name will likely be working the streets to support herself, and maybe her Lora, not because she wants to, but because she arrived at the orphanage too late in childhood for anyone to help.

Zulya desperately wants a family to share with the one person who understands what she’s been through. Perhaps no family will choose them, act with the requisite speed, and tolerate the uncertainty of Russian adoption. But I’ve seen too deeply into their souls to look away, so I must assess the merit of the mission not by its likelihood of success, but by its rightness.


To be adopted together, Zulya and Lora must have certain documents filed by the first week of September.  This would require a home study-ready family to step forward almost immediately, and the adoptive families would need to act very expeditiously in all remaining paperwork.  Having USCIS approval already would be a major plus.  There are many uncertainties in this adoption, which will be discussed with potential adoptive families.  If you are interested in adopting Zulya and Lora together, please contact Becky at (616) 245-3216 until 11:00 p.m. EST any day.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Sunday morning we lose an hour to Daylight Saving Time. Attending church in a building with a magnificent Kremlin view, I’m humiliated by a farewell presentation that stretches 30 minutes and a moralistic lecture delivered by a man who screams much of his message. One in our band manages to nod off during this ear-splitting homily that leaves me with tinnitus long after the speaker has fallen silent.

Walking back, one girl vomits, another feels feverish, and a boy complains of headache, so some retreat to the hotel to recuperate, while others of us wander Arbat, Moscow’s pedestrian-only street. We lunch at MuMu, an inexpensive cafeteria-style eatery, serving Russian food on dishes patterned after Holstein cow spots. The food is delicious, the stone and timber d├ęcor atmospheric, the music sprightly, and the dining area jammed with Muscovites. It’s a hit with our Lighthouse families; every subsequent suggestion of the restaurant is met with a chorus of ayes. MuMu is the place I wish would branch out to Grand Rapids.

In the evening, we visit the eponymously-named Nikulin Circus. A bronze statue of the renowned actor and clown Yuri Nikulin stands outside the pavilion; Faith claims that by rubbing his nose, we’ll become the funniest people in the world. Doug, a host dad, rubs it vigorously, then subjects us to jokes just as corny as before. Inside the arena, fluted columns support the ceiling, obstructing our view while lending the venue an air of sophistication. Though attendance hardly justifies it, every show we’ve been to on our trips has included live orchestra; Russians take their performing arts seriously. As a lover of Equidae, I’m charmed by a humble donkey, plodding heedless of the urging of his driver. As warranted, the performers stay clothed, though a clown in an ankle-length fur coat loses part of his outerwear as he parades around the ring. When the collar springs to life by a fox’s leap to the ground, shadowed by thirty ferrets jumping from the body in unison, the coat is creatively transformed into a PETA-approved style. I leave this circus satisfied we’ve done nothing to compromise the morals of our orphans. As we exit, Faith insists on a group photo by a portrait of the beloved Nikulin, whom she extols for his clean, kind humor and love of children.

We get back late, but I talk several families into venturing out to Eliseevsky’s, my favorite Moscow store. Tracy, a blog aficionado, is anxious to shop there, knowing how I love it. While the edifice is reliably grandiose, I’m disappointed to find them out of chocolate croissants, so I splurge on a consolation box of baklava instead. Successfully navigating the metro as a group without a bonafide Russian speaker, we arrive back home just after midnight. Delving into the baklava in the sanctity of my room, I am horrified to find the bottom blackened. Burned baklava stokes my generosity, stripping me of the gluttonous desire to wolf it down myself.

As I puzzle over how to unload my baklava without throwing it away, a host family taps on my door, ending the reverie. We end up visiting until just after 4:00 a.m., discussing kids they’re considering adding to their family. Having been blessed so richly by my own children of the world, being part of the conversation with other families considering adoption is unadulterated joy.

Joy, at any hour.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Rushin' Round

Friday morning I face the metro on my own. Faith plans to meet me outside a McDonald’s across town and worries I’ll get lost, but I’m better with directions than she thinks, and I arrive first. We’re investigating a new hotel for our program. The proprietor shares a numeric code for the front door and a deceptively jaunty “Come on in!” in his correspondence with me. Faith and I find the door easily, but it doesn’t budge as we repeatedly enter “005” as instructed. Via intercom, Faith cajoles a man at another business to let us in, but he adamantly refuses. Seeking pity, I beg in broken Russian, but he disdains even to acknowledge my plea. We are contemplating leaving when someone exits the building, allowing our admittance. The hotel rooms are cramped, malodorous, and reverberating with street noise; the website promises a kitchen, but delivers a sinkless, closet-like space seating four who don’t mind getting cozy. The outfit is wholly inappropriate; touring it, I realize for all the shortcomings of our current digs, how fortuitous our accommodations are.

Walking back, Faith confesses she’s purchased circus tickets, even though I’ve vowed not to attend again. She pacifies me, having asked the ticket vendor if the show “has nakedness”. The puzzled vendor assured her, “No nakedness, just animals.” When Faith complained the competing circus was a “strip show”, and explained we had the morals of orphans to consider, the seller nodded, agreeing solemnly. Feeling mildly dubious, I agree to give the new circus a chance.

Back at the hotel, I pace the hall, awaiting entrance of my host families from the airport. I am giddy to make acquaintance with all who share my mission, and hours on the phone and e-mail later, attaching faces to voices and names is great joy. Our band includes an extremely well-travelled couple from Washington, a single man from Colorado planning a domestic foster care adoption, Iowans called by God to add an older child to their family, a single lady and her mom from New York seeking a little boy, a couple from Florida hosting the boy who is my favorite Lighthouse child ever, and a single Michiganian home in October with a girl she’d hosted on one of my past trips.

The group arrives, predictably bleary-eyed, but after lunch, they opt to sightsee. When I’d adopted my own kids, the five ancient churches of the Kremlin bored them silly; wizened, I’d not brought a child there since. But the kids aren’t with us yet, and as responsible adult travelers it seems a perfect day to check the seat of Russian government off our sightseeing to-do list. We meet Faith in Red Square; all are dazzled by St. Basil’s Cathedral, and it takes effort to goad them from the square and into the Kremlin. The sun joins our excursion, and we see four of the churches, the State Kremlin Palace, a massive cannon, and a bigger bell. While both the cannon and bell are the world’s largest, ironically neither fulfilled their intended purpose even once.

Next morning we rise early to meet the kids. In Moscow after a twelve-hour overnight train ride, they rode in a car with about fifty bunks for sleeping. Dima drops them off earlier than expected, and a few families aren’t ready. We’re preparing breakfast and offer it to the kids, all of whom decline. As the hosts congregate in one corner of the dimly-lit room and the kids mass shyly in another, we’re two teams loathe to mingle. Though I’ve warned the families that the meeting is typically awkward, as our groups stare each other down wordlessly, I hope they’re not lamenting they’ve travelled halfway around the world for this. I know we only need add Faith to the mix and all will be well, but for now, she’s not here. When she comes and flips on the lights with a chipper “Zdrahstveetsa!”, kids who refused nourishment before suddenly become hungry, and much-needed levity is injected into the proceedings.

I abandon the group, headed for the airport with Dima to pick up an adoptive family from the first Moscow trip traveling to pick up their son, another host, and my luggage. He shows me where to claim my bags, then leaves, thinking I’ll clear customs more expeditiously without a Russian speaker in tow. His logic passes muster; x-raying my bags, the monoglot customs agent points to shadows in my suitcase. From his gesticulations, I deduce he’s asking what they are. Providentially, I’m wearing a necklace, and I point to the image on his screen and the beads around my neck. “Beads,” I instruct, wondering how many English words he’s learned this way. Satisfied, he waves me through; Dima is incredulous to see me back so quickly.

After four days in one outfit, new clothes are a breath of fresh air. When I emerge clean and relieved, Faith is in the kitchen, finishing up a lunch she’s cobbled together from things we’d bought for breakfast. While quality and quantity might be impugned, the creativity Faith possesses in spades is on display in all her meal preparations. In my absence, the kids went outside to play. They’ve been flying airplanes and walking with the families, and already all ages are mixing brilliantly. After lunch, we take in the zoo, my first foray there in five trips to Moscow. After the negative reviews I’ve heard, I find the exhibits quite passable, with the exception of a cage housing only a rotund, but deceased, rodent. In the elephant house, a baby frolics in a shallow pool, supervised by two wary adults. As we watch entranced, I wonder if our orphans begrudge the calf the care and protection his parents instinctively lavish on him.

Dinner is at a packed McDonald’s. Even with two floors, there is insufficient seating for our throng of 27. Somehow Faith extracts permission from a churlish manager to use a festive room reserved for birthdays. To ensure equity in menu between the hosted and unhosted, I order for all the kids this time. Piles of cheeseburgers, fries, Cokes, and milkshakes later, we return to our hotel feeling like engorged ticks.

On the streets, unseasonable warmth is melting snow. Inside our hotel, the morning’s icy meeting is a distant memory. The kids have settled in, thrilled to be here. Youthful charges in bed, hosts mingle in the common room. I delight in the dynamic between families considering adoption, the family finishing adoption, and the mom so happy with her new daughter that she’s hosting on six days’ notice to see about adopting again.

I love this trip.