All over Ukraine kids are returning to orphanages from summer. Some kids return from summer camp after a long lonely summer, still hungry, still hopeless. The go back to their orphanages and watch all the kids who were hosted return from America with their swag, unpacking their brand names clothes, toys, and texting each other on their new phones. Some get jealous, and some are just happy that some of their friends might make it out alive.
For 13 seasons Alina patiently returned from summer camp to reunite with her friends who told her stories of a faraway fairy tale. Some day she dreamed of what it must be like to go to America, to buy new things, to be part of a family, and to return full of hope instead of the empty belly and longing she felt year after year. Every year Alina wondered where her family was. She wondered if she’d ever find one, and tried to focus on the stories to quiet the panic of every minute she was closer to 16. Every second of a childhood of voicelessness.
This summer she did it. She made it out of the orphanage. She had a great summer, she gave it all she had. She worked hard to learn new things, to acclimate to a strange world, with strange rituals. She danced around what she thought we might want with nothing more than 13 seasons of warnings from her veteran friends. Some of these friends remain in the orphanage, some travel the same summer like a mentor. Some of these kids are already in America, like kings they say.
“Americans are so rich, everyone in America is like a king!” Alina’s first sentence into the translator.
“No, it isn’t like that Alina, you will see.”
She sat back, weary from over 40 hours of travel and no sleep to ponder what it would be like, and choke back the fear that the only truths you know might be lies. She uneasily set back into the car and I could see the contemplation on her face, what had she done. What was the summer going to be like? I might be to scared to do this. It is no wonder she refused to use the translator for two more days.
The first few days passed. She was so thankful for the generosity she offered us a bite of everything she had. Stuffing it into our mouths if we said no thanks. She was so desperate for us to know she was thankful to be living her dream, she didn’t have the words to tell us. She was boisterous and constantly seeking attention. My kids then started to wonder, what have WE done.
The summer continued and we relaxed. She was expected to act like one of the family, with margins allocated for lack of reference. We focused on her adjusted age as we challenged her, and every challenge we offered she met and exceeded. She finally settled into our world.
The day we finally put her on the plane she was one of us. She was comfortable, she built relationships, she had something to miss aside from her sweet room, bags of swag, and endless fruits and yogurts. She BELONGED. For the first time she understood the feeling her friends would describe when they returned. She remembered how painful it was to watch her friends brag of their summer and she promised to return with grace. She clung tightly to her suitcase which was only filled half way with her clothes and belongings, the rest was stuffed full of presents for her beloved teachers and friends. She understood 13 seasons of waiting, she wanted to share her summer with her friends in any way she could. With grace Alina returned to a place she knew, a place she grew up, a place that was home, and a place she was outgrowing.
When we talked about her summer in America as it unfolded she often would reply with “I don’t know, it’s only my first time in America”. I always was puzzled with this answer, I obviously knew it was her first time. What I realize now is it was her way of telling me “So far I love it here, but it is so new I don’t know what to think. I love Ukraine because it’s all I know. I don’t know if I will come to love America the same or not, I can’t decide yet”. Toward the end of the summer the “It is only my first time” was replaced with “And we can do that at Christmas”. The futuristic statements showed me her love was growing. Her relationships felt good, she felt safe. She wasn’t ready to ask to live here yet, but she knew it would only be a matter of time. She knew the ride, she knew her friends were hosted several time before they left forever. Alina knew this was her first season as a host kid, and within a few short seasons she would go home forever.
While she was here the Host Ukraine community embraced her. She found kids from our organization on facebook, familiar faces she sat near on the plane, in the airport, and followed their summers through social media. The media keeps these kids connected in their special way. She met a girl through Host Ukraine she frequently mentioned, she liked her photography. This girl lived at an orphanage in the same region, but not close enough they’d ever meet in person. She found friends from Maine, she kept in touch with her summer camp teachers, with the friends and family that made her “first time” so special. Social media is a life line in a world where you are often alone, and hungry. The life line a cellphone can provide greatly reduces the stress to the kids, they know someone out on the internet will give them attention, I feel obligated to reply to every kid that asks me for some. I have endless friend requests from the Ukrainian orphans. I show them through social media what a mother looks like. I say encouraging things, I teach my kids to reach out to them, to talk to them, because this might be the first time anyone ever has.
When the kids return it is one giant reunion. They see others that traveled with other agencies, they see the kids that stayed behind. They hear and share stories of the things they did, and settle for the school year. This year one of the orphanages closed. These kids were dispersed to other locations, the details I only vaguely hear down the grape vine. Turns out orphan teen girls aren’t the most reliable source of details. When the transfers arrived at Alina’s orphanage she looked at them with pity. She has been known to take a new girl under her wing, this was how she met one of her oldest friends. She has been at this orphanage her whole life. She was born in this town, but every season she watches new transfers come in, alone, scared, and disoriented. This season thanks to her fairy-tale summer she recognized one of the girls from social media. She offers a friendly guidance but still can’t help but enjoy the feeling of having stories to tell. This girl, also spent the summer in America, and although she’s knew to the orphanage, she has a lovely new family as well. The love and support from her own new mother eases the blow of the new schedule and environment. She can do this till her new family comes to save her.
“What are you doing” She texts Alina. Thankful to have someone she can connect with in the building.
“Talking to my mom” Alina replies. She likes how it feels, she enjoys trying it on. It feels good to finally be able to say MY mom.
Alina has never called me mom. She’s never insinuated it. She even told one of the girls at summer camp that I was NOT her mom, but I was the mom of Bella and Lori. She has made progress in her growth. The light is shining brighter and brighter through the holes in the wall she works to tear down. Every kid is different. Some jump right in to calling you mom, and some need to see how it feels before they commit. As the love grows stronger, she can’t help but smile to herself, you’ve really done it Alina, you found your family she thinks.
The time passes and things start to feel reliable. The days are long but they band together, some in their last few seasons of being an orphan, some in their last few seasons of being protected before their forced out into the world alone. Not all of the kids have someone to call in America. For me I’m thankful to be seen as accessible to the girls who have no one, enough to offer a friendly message, a note of love to remind them, you are good enough. Alina is thankful she won the lottery before the deadline.
This journey isn’t easy. It isn’t easy for the families to raise the money, to process the paperwork, to work hard to get to know a teen you just met. It isn’t comfortable to have conversation through a translator, or accidentally do or say things that trigger the kids. It isn’t easy to always be thinking what message is this behavior sending, what do they need from me that they don’t know how to ask for. It also isn’t easy to grow up without a mom. It isn’t easy to watch season after season your friends return with a light at the end of the tunnel while you stare out the window praying for your family to find you. The pain accumulates, the walls get high, and you don’t know how to cope.
It isn’t easy to host an orphan, but it isn’t easier being one. I will help end this, I don’t know how, but I hope with enough people banding together we will find a way. We will lead the orphans out of darkness. Right now we trickle them out one by one, some day I dream that the dam is going to break. Maybe you can’t host. Maybe you can’t encourage teen girls. Everyone can do something. Everyone can donate a little of their time, love, money, energy toward this amazing cause. This is so much bigger than us. I’m humbled to be on the journey.
I’ll give one girl the chance at life, and the skills to do it. I’ll work as hard as I can to raise the money to save one girl’s life. While I focus on saving my one girl, I will breathe as much hope into as many kids as I can. I’ll answer messages from families, I’ll offer love to the kids. I’ll do whatever it takes to inspire love to spread as far as possible. I’ll advocate for the host kids that need new families, I’ll help families grow as they challenge themselves to learn through their adoptions. I’ll spread as much love as possible.
Everything is possible with love.