I never will forget the first time I met a Russian orphan who had just been adopted by American parents.
It was 2003, and I was on a flight out of Moscow. A little boy with big brown eyes sat in the seat next to me. A man sat on the other side of the boy, and it was clear from their clenched hands that they were traveling together.
I was scribbling in a notebook when I noticed that the child was leaning over, trying to read. I smiled and asked his name.
“He doesn’t speak much English,” the man said, smiling. “My wife and I just adopted him and his younger sister.” He pointed to a woman sitting with a little girl several rows ahead of us. His story bubbled up.
“This is our fourth and final flight from Russia,” he said, patting the boy’s head. “This time, we fly out as a family.”
Over the course of the next couple of hours, I learned a lot about the brand-new family. The adults, both teachers in the Midwest, had learned about the two children through an American agency that worked with Russian orphanages. The children had been split up, and the couple were determined to reunite them.
The story of their young lives — as much of it as the adoptive parents could discern — was heartbreaking. The biological father abandoned their mother; she died in their apartment when the girl was a toddler. The boy, barely 4, took care of his little sister for weeks, carrying her wherever he went in search of food. Eventually, authorities discovered their mother’s body, and the children were separated and sent to two different orphanages.
It took more than a year for the American couple to adopt the children. They visited Russia several times to get to know the boy and girl. The father, who was clearly exhausted, could not stop smiling at his little boy.
I haven’t thought of that family in years, but recent news that Russia has passed a law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian children brought it all back. The law went into effect New Year’s Day. Now thousands of American families who already have invested a lot of time, money and emotion to adopt Russian children — children they know by name, whom they’ve visited and promised a better life — are grieving.
The Russian prohibition is widely believed to be retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law last month and imposes U.S. travel and financial restrictions on human rights abusers in Russia. It is named for Sergei L. Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested after attempting to expose government tax fraud. He died in prison in 2009 amid allegations that he never received proper medical care.
Russian officials say they’re protecting their children, citing rare evidence of parental abuse among the more than 45,000 U.S. adoptions since 1999. U.S. officials insist the law has nothing to do with the safety of Russian children, who now may be doomed to lonely lives in orphanages.
Meanwhile, the primary stakeholders — the orphans of Russia — have no say at all.
There are, however, plenty of American opinions floating around out there, particularly online, and the discussions often veer into heartlessness as they hammer away at a single theme: Why don’t these families adopt American children?
There are as many answers to that question as there are parents in the world. Some want to avoid the long waiting period typical in the U.S. Others feel called to rescue children from orphanages. Still others have ancestral ties to Russia.
Let’s stop the list there. It’s none of our business why any parent chooses to have a child, but it’s in everyone’s interest to support children, no matter where they were born.
I was so moved by the little boy’s story in 2003 that I wrote it down in a notebook, the same one he had tried to sneak a peek at during our flight. Reading it a decade later, I was reminded of what else happened during that flight.
After two hours of talking, the father felt comfortable asking me to watch the boy while he visited the washroom. I happily agreed.
The man slipped down the aisle, stopping to tell his wife where he was going and pointing to me. She mouthed “thank you,” and I nodded.
As soon as that father was out of sight, the boy shifted in his seat. A small hand wrapped around mine and held on tight.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.