KERHONKSON, N.Y. – For 17 years, families that adopted children from Ukraine have been reconnecting at the Ukrainian National Foundation’s (UNF) Soyuzivka Heritage Center during annual Adoptive Families’ Weekend (AFW).
Participants of the weekend event often look forward to the annual gathering, especially the many children who often become lifelong best buddies and even “soul mates” after spending time together at Soyuzivka.
Although some don’t remember much of their homeland and may speak little Ukrainian as they have largely grown up in the United States, all of the children expressed longing to discover more of their roots and their heritage. The weekend also marks an important time for parents to share their various experiences and talk about the challenges and rewards of adopting children from Ukraine.
UNF Advisor Bohdanna Puzyk was the original founder and organizer of AFW, which began 15 years ago. This year’s event, which took place on July 22-24, Ms. Puzyk and coordinator Annetta Hewko once again provided Ukrainian style t-shirts for everyone to color. Gloria Horbaty brought supplies for making pysanky and shared the techniques and symbolism of the traditional Ukrainian Easter egg designs.
Until adoptees reach age 18, the Ukrainian government bears responsibility for their welfare. At past reunions, Ukrainian Consul for International Adoptions Ilona Lapa would meet and speak with the children and their new families. Additionally, the Ukrainian adoption program requires that parents submit timely reports to a Ukrainian consulate.
Ms. Lapa said that, if a child has not been adopted by age 18, the government helps them find living quarters and a job. The United Nations Children’s Fund, previously known as the U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), reports that many young Ukrainian women suffer from drug addiction or become involved in prostitution, and close to 50 percent of the men are incarcerated.
Ukraine has faced various demographic challenges since Russia launched its full-scale war on the country on February 24. More than 5 million Ukrainians been forced to flee the country, while some 8 million more have been internally displaced. The war is expected to greatly increase the number of children in Ukraine who are looking for adoptive families.
At AFW last year, this writer first met and spoke with Zhenya, Ira and Treasa who have been buddies since 2007. Every summer, AFW for them has been like a family reunion, said the children (The Weekly has chosen not to identify participants by their last names in order to protect their privacy).
“It was like seeing cousins again,” one child said, amid excited laughter as they revisited photos from previous years stored on laptops.
This year, 15-year-old Vika attended the AFW with her mother, Nancy, and grandmother Lois. When her family discovered Vika’s special love for horses, they arranged for her to join a “Pegasus” equine program to be around horses. As a result, she has opened up a lot since then, Nancy said. In fact, Vika was excited to send a donation this year to animal shelters in Ukraine. In her class, she now proudly sings along with the Ukrainian anthem when it’s sung at the start of school.
Another inspiring story involves five siblings adopted just one and a half years ago by Mike and Janet. Still mastering English, Artem, Bohdan, Amelie, Oleh and Valya are adjusting to life in a new country.
Artem, the oldest, spoke about how he used to enjoy sports, such as karate and boxing, in Ukraine. Now he is enrolled at a community college and works as a mechanic in a car dealership. The siblings follow the war reports; they have an oldest brother who is now fighting in a Ukrainian tank brigade. Like many adoptees, they maintain contact thru social media with friends back in Ukraine.
Journeys of the heart
In Ukraine, only children with special needs can be adopted by prospective parents from other countries. These children tend to be older. Moreover, as it is sometimes difficult to track down their biological parents, children may respond to those who want to reach out in different ways.
One adoptee, after years of unsuccessful searching for her mother, finally said resignedly, “O well, she had her chance.” Another simply said, “I just want to know she’s ok.”
Applicants who want to adopt Ukrainian children are made aware of the history and complete medical record of each child. Some children may have birth defects, and others have physical challenges that require long term special care and patience. And even under the best of circumstances, relocating to a different country is difficult. Socialization and adjustment issues with new friends and schoolmates can arise.
The families that want to help and adopt children are often looking to fill all these gaps. Adoptive parents are special people with big hearts who open their homes to needy children. Raising and guiding adoptees takes lots of understanding, devotion and patience, but brings with it profound rewards. And none of the parents voiced the slightest regret.
In the evening, everyone got together to share their thoughts and experiences. They discussed the differing needs of infant/toddlers and older children in their new land. Parents stressed the necessity of being the child’s advocate within the school systems. And networking with other foreign adoptive families connects them with a wider community of parents who have adopted children. It also provides an avenue where parents can go for advice, help and compassionate support.
Next year’s AFW will be dedicated to a grand reunion of all the adoptive families who have taken part in the program over the years.
The weekend’s organizers expressed their gratitude to all of the Ukrainian credit unions that provided support for the event.