Dirt Roads, a Donkey and a Life Transformed

This is a short story I wrote and was published in “Drinking Camel’s Milk in The Yurt” which you can purchase on Amazon by clicking on the link.  I hope you enjoy.

I have always had a place in my heart for unwanted children. I am a single mom to two US-born bi-racial children through the miracle of adoption. As a little girl I dreamed of living on a large farm filled with children and animals. Being an artist I dreamed in full color and I envisioned children of many ethnic groups learning about life through gardening, animals, and life on a farm..

Due to many detours in life, that dream had been shelved – until I heard about a group helping to put on a camp for orphaned children in Kazakhstan. Crazy as it seemed, I knew in my heart that I had to go. The faces of the children shown on the screen were the same ones I had dreamed of as a little girl. My decision led to an 18-day trip that changed the course of my life.

As I boarded the plane in October 2000, I was all of a sudden filled with panic. What was I doing? Why was I leaving my own precious kids to go halfway around the world? I didn’t know anything about the land of Kazakhstan. What had I agreed to? After what seemed like days of travel, the plane landed in the middle of the night. Things had surely improved since Kazakhstan’s independence, but the old airport in Almaty was so different from anything I had ever seen in my limited travel around the US.

I stepped down off the plane and onto the tarmac. Military personnel stood with large guns. I hadn’t a clue which kind, as guns are not something I encounter every day. But my most vivid memory of that night is of looking up into the vast sky and seeing the millions of twinkling lights shining upon us. A flood of emotion poured into my heart as a gentle breeze blew across my face. I was home – a land where I belonged. I was surprised by the feeling. The smells, the sight of armed men, the sounds of an unknown language did nothing to take away that feeling of being in a place I had long missed. The seeds of love for Kazakhstan in all its majestic beauty and contradictions were planted that night.

Before catching sight of the orphanage I was beyond tired. I was hungry, aching from head to toe. Fortunately the majestic mountains and sweeping views of the steppes kept alive my excitement. After a grueling 10-hour ride in a van loaded full with passenger and supplies, we pulled into the Ulan Orphanage in Taraz. As we rounded the corner, we were greeted by more than 150 children standing out in that cold October day, waving and cheering as we came to a stop. I stepped out of the van, all my weariness leaving me as I was greeted by smiling faces. As I shook their cold hands, my heart melted and was captured forever. 

Every human desires their life to matter, their story to be known. I could tell you stories about so many of the children, but this story is about Oldana, a waif of a teenage girl with a big smile and a love for dancing. Her graceful movements were a stark contrast to the sadness her eyes held. She was shy and hung back, unlike most of the children who pushed and shoved to be near the Americans. These children were so desperate for love and attention they clung to strangers.

By  2009, I had relocated to Kazakhstan to live and work with the children. My own children were adults by this stage.  I wanted to do what I could to assist the caregivers in preparing their Kazakh charges for life outside the orphanage.

Oldana had left Ulan in 2002; the children ‘graduate’ at age 15 or 16.  What a surprise then to be called down from my office a few weeks after my arrival to see her standing at the reception desk! She was still tiny and the lines on her face were that of a girl more than twice her age, but her beautiful smile lit up her face as I came down the steps. For a girl so frail, her hug was tight and strong. Her hands were calloused, but her face shone with joy. She had heard from the other children that I had moved to Taraz. She wanted me to come see her house, meet her children and husband. It was hard to imagine this young girl with girls of her own.

The following week, my Kazakh colleagues, Assel and Aben, and I took off to find her house. When she had given directions they had seemed fairly simple. The day was bright and sunny and I expected the trip to be short and easy. However, I should have remembered to expect the unexpected.

Most Westerners can’t begin to imagine the state of the roads in Kazakhstan. Though some major roads are improving, most of the back roads are full of potholes and driving them involves dodging livestock, donkey carts, pedestrians and the other cars, who drive like they are the only ones on the road. 

Oldana’s directions had suggested only two turn-offs, but the actual trip had a lot more turns to it. We persevered, and the road started to become more like a path between houses seemingly placed at random. We stopped at intervals to ask bystanders for help. No one seemed to know of Oldana, but all said we were on the correct road.

The village was divided up into three areas, each with the same set of road names. The streets were unnervingly narrow, but Aben assured me the car would fit. As most of the inhabitants didn’t have cars, I guess the road width didn’t matter. The houses were dachas: small, mud brick homes with white painted plaster and sky blue metal roof and trim. They were originally built by city folk to escape the summer heat and to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

Spotting an elderly woman, we stopped to ask directions. Victoria, a small woman with gray hair swirled up in a bun, had a welcoming smile. If she was surprised to have an American at her gate asking for directions she didn’t show it. Instead she graciously invited us in for tea; the warmth with which she greeted us surprised me. She showed us around her humble home and we shared the details of our quest. In response she jumped up and started clipping grapes that hung ripe from the arbor above and gathering tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden – to share with Oldana. She assured us that Oldana did not live on this street, but encouraged us to head to the next area of the village with a street of the same name. Our visit with Victoria was an unexpected but delightful detour. As we backed the car down the path (it was too narrow to turn around) she stood waving with a big smile on her face.

After a few more detours, we were told to go down the large hill on the left, turn right at the fifth road and we’d find her house. Once we had figured out what to count as roads, we found the narrow path that led to Oldana’s house.

 

She and her husband, Daurin, also raised in the orphanage, were trying to build a life for themselves. Despite the odds against them, they were working hard to make it. They had scraped enough money together to buy this small dacha that measured five by seven meters and was in disrepair. The plaster was crumbling off the walls and the patched metal roof revealed daylight when looking up from the inside of the house. The small plot of land lay barren and muddy. An old metal barrier encircled a well with its  beat-up rusty bucket attached to a rope. The only other thing in the muddy field of a yard was an outhouse at the back of the property that leaned precariously to one side.

As I looked at Oldana’s tiny frame, she holding her youngest, I was touched by the look of accomplishment on her face. There was hope in her eyes that life for her girls would be better than what it had been for her. Hope is not something you find often in orphaned children. Kazakhstan’s statistics tell a bleak story for these children, with less than 10 percent managing to build a life for themselves and many dying within the first five years of leaving the orphanage. And yet before me stood one young woman working hard to build a life for herself and her family.

Some Americans may have looked around and seen utter despair and poverty. What I saw was great promise and potential. Looking into the neighbor’s yards I saw apricot and apple trees. I saw the remains of summer gardens, a good indication that the dirt was fertile. Even though the house obviously needed many repairs, it seemed to be structurally sound. My mind was whirling with the possibilities of what could be done here, although I was also mindful of not taking away their sense of accomplishment.

All their money had gone into purchasing the house, leaving no funds to repair the roof. Winter was coming and they had their two young girls, Eliana and Diana, to look after. After some discussion it was decided that Daurin would provide labor and I would get supplies.

A couple weeks later a work crew of six men, American and Kazakh, showed up to replace the roof. They were able to remove and replace the rotten timbers and install the new metal roof. By nightfall the only task remaining was to finish off the gable ends and trim. I often wonder what the neighbors thought and, more importantly, what Eliana and Diana thought of having their home invaded, torn apart and then put back together. We brought a picnic lunch for all to enjoy and, typical children, the girls enjoyed the chips and cookies as much as the kielbasa and bread. The girls call me apa,,which is Kazakh for grandmother.

The following spring they put in a huge garden, including flowers, to make the place look beautiful. During one visit I noticed an old donkey cart and got excited, thinking they had bought a donkey.

“No,” was the answer. Daurin had found the old cart and was working on repairing it in the hopes of one day having a donkey. Seeing all the hard work they had done, the initiative they had shown, a friend and I talked over the idea of giving them a donkey as a gift. Friends of mine donated the funds and plans were made to meet Oldana and Daurin at the animal bazaar, a mostly male affair.

Daurin had never been to the animal bazaar, nor had he ever bought an animal. If he had grown up in a typical Kazakh home this would have been commonplace. It isn’t unusual to see a small car driving down the road with a live animal (often sheep) tied up in the backseat or in the trunk. The family will then slaughter  the creature for a special celebration.

As we walked down the hill to where there were donkeys gathered, I could see the hesitation on Oldana and Daurin’s faces. I wanted Daurin to take the lead in purchasing his donkey and fairly quickly he had pointed out a young colt. Then there was the matter of getting the donkey home. I have a friend in Kyrgyzstan who had once delivered two donkeys to a family using the marshuka (local minibus), but I was pretty sure that wouldn’t go over well in Taraz. We had a SUV-like vehicle and I figured the donkey could sit in the back, but my co-worker didn’t think that was a good idea. Daurin went off in search for a truck.

In Kazakhstan bread is taken from the bakery to where it will be sold in small trucks. The truck beds are covered and there is a small door at the back. This is exactly the kind of truck Daurin found to haul his donkey home. (I found myself imagining these trucks were used to haul animals on a Sunday and bread the rest of the week.) Oldana and Daurin bade goodbye after giving hugs and words of thanks.  I couldn’t wait to see what they would do with their new donkey.

I was astounded the next time I went to visit them. Daurin had used the donkey to haul dirt and straw and was manufacturing mud bricks. He had sold some to neighbors, but mostly he had used them to improve their home. I felt like a proud mama as they took me around their place and shared with great pride all they had done. Oldana showed me how they had expanded their home by adding a small room. Daurin beamed as he opened the door to his new outbuilding to reveal the contents: coal, wood and canned vegetables from their garden. I didn’t have words. Tears slid down my cheeks as I surveyed all that they had done.

My journey to Kazakhstan in 2000 opened the door to a life I could never have imagined. With this came an opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself, to be humbled by the generosity and kindness of people half a world from where I started, and to find a place to call home.

One of the children who captured my heart..

In 2009 I moved to Kazakhstan to work with a non-profit whom I had traveled with on short-term trips beginning in 2000.  The organization went into the local orphanages doing monthly Birthday Parties, weekly activities and a week-long summer camp.

I met 5-year-old Saule for the first time on one of those visits. I noticed her spark and zeal for life right away.  At first, she watched with interested, evaluating the new people who entered her room.  Once she decided she wanted to be part of what was going on she boldly came forward giving direct eye contact and reaching out to grab my hand.

Saule’s was born with amniotic banding syndrome causing a cleft lip, lower eyelid deformities as well as a club foot but none of those seemed to slow her down.  From what the caregivers told me, her birth family did care about her but weren’t sure what to do about her birth defects.  They were afraid and upon advice from doctors placed her in the orphanage.

It may be hard for us from the West to understand this thinking in 2015.  Doctors haven’t encouraged parents to put children with disabilities in orphanages since the 50’s.  But it did used to be a common practice in the USA before parents started to advocate for their children.  I have a friend here in Kazakhstan whose brother went blind in one eye as a boy due to an eye infection.  My friend’s mother is a very loving caring mother as well as a strong independent thinking woman.  I can’t imagine anyone convince her of anything she didn’t agree with.  But the doctors did convince this mother that she should place her 10 or so year old son in the orphanage just because he was blind in one eye.  She visited him often and after a couple of years of hearing about the mistreatment he was enduring she finally took him back home against the doctor’s advice.  He is now grown and doing well but has deep hurt due to this period of his life.  It wasn’t done as uncaring thing but rather out of a lack of knowledge. Things are changing now and parents are advocating for their children. They are seeking expert advice on how to help their children be the best they can be despite their birth defects of disabilities. I have met over a dozen of these families and been so moved by the dedication, love and commitment to their families and children.

In 2009 Saule quickly captured my heart and a close bond was formed between the two of us.  Oh, how I wanted this one particular girl. I believed Saule deserved a mother and a father and I couldn’t offer her that, but I longed for this child to have a good future.

One morning while I was visiting Saule jumped up into my arms.  She is one of the few young children in the orphanage that enjoyed being picked up.  Since it isn’t common most children don’t enjoy it.  She took my face into her little hands looking directly into my eyes and asked; “When are you going to find me my mom and my dad and when are you going to get my foot and face fixed?”  Wow, those were big request.  Out of all the children I have worked with, no child has ever asked me specifically to find them their own mom and dad.  All of the children are desperate for families, need families and love.  But this child captured a great deal of my heart.  I had no idea how to accomplish these request in a county where I had no control over anything.

A couple of years later in 2011 dear friends in Virginia felt like they were to adopt Saule into their family and I was thrilled.  They jumped through all the hoops, paid all the money only to have Kazakhstan close adoptions to Americans right before they could adopt her.  Oh how my heart broke.  About the same time I resigned from the previous organization to pursue the vision to provide a safe place for the children that age out of the orphanages, single mothers, disabled children and marginalized to grow and heal.  I thought about all the children I loved and cared about.  Making this moved would keep me away from them for a while.  I was gone from Kazakhstan for about a year and a half.  I often thought of all the children, especially Saule.  I keep track of her as best I could.  She got moved to a boarding school for disabled children and in Feb 2012 I was able to visit her on a short visit back to Kazakhstan.  It was an emotional visit for us both.  She told the caregivers I was her mother.  This broke my heart.  A “good” mother wouldn’t leave her beloved daughter in an orphanage but I had to leave her.

 

Oct 2012 I finally returned to Kazakhstan for this next chapter of life.  It took time but finally I got to see Saule.  She had grown. A local family and friends who Beth Turnock and I have known for many years talked about their heart to foster children. They asked if we would help with Saule’s medical needs if they fostered her and my answer was a resounding “yes,” not knowing what doors would open exactly I knew I would knock on as many as I could. I could be her “Grandma” and be part of her life. I was thrilled!

The end of December 2013 Saule came home. In February I went to America for the birth of my first grandson. Tucked in my backpack were x-rays of Saule and Natasha (a young woman with severe scoliosis who needed surgery too). Once in America I knocked on every door I could think of in my city but wasn’t getting very far.  I had to admit to myself maybe it wasn’t possible for either of these girls I loved so much to get the surgeries that would greatly improve their lives. I turned to a friend of mine with a big heart.  He and his wife have 17 children – 6 biological and the rest from Kazakhstan and China. He said bring the x-rays to him and he would see what he could do. He is a radiologists in my home town. After dropping off the x-rays and pictures I went on with my visit with my new grandson and friends but never the thought of these two girls left my heart and mind.

Two weeks later I received a call from my friend saying it was a go. I was literally jumping up and down with joy in the parking lot where I was. What joy! It was such amazing news. All the doctors, medical supply companies, and hospital had agreed to donate their services for the surgeries. It was a miracle. Only God could orchestrate such a thing.

The official letter from HCH Chippenham Hospital came the end of May.  That began the process of raising the funds to get visas for Saule, her foster-father, Natasha and her six-year-old son. We weren’t sure if visas would be granted. There were many reasons the US may not grant visas even with the letter from the hospital and from me taking responsibility for them. But again a miracle happened and all 4 received visas.

Then the task of raising the funds to fly 5 of us to the US and finding host families for Saule and her foster-father and one for Natasha and Max began. Saule’s host family was a quick find. It took a bit longer to find one for Natasha and Maxim, but before we flew to the states July 12th, we had one.

When arrived in Richmond, Virginia we were warmly welcomed by a large group of friends and then the whirlwind of doctors appointments and testings began. Saule was scheduled to have surgery July 29th and the doctors performed three surgeries in one day.  Dr. Hubert, a top plastic surgeon in Richmond, Virginia repaired Saule’s cleft lip and did reconstructive surgery on her lower eyelid making it so it could close.  Dr. Kim amputated Saule’s severely deformed club foot making room for a new prosthetic which was donated by Hanger Prosthetic. The surgeries went very well and the next day Saule was able to leave the hospital. Her strong spirit shone bright through all of the surgeries and recovery.

 

There were so many people in the Richmond area and across the country who came together to care for Saule, her foster-father, Natasha and Maxim.  Gifts of clothing and toys came from all over as well as financial support for doing some fun things like a trip to the ocean, horseback riding, trips to museums, parks and more.  The doctors, nurses and staff cared for Saule with such great compassion and kindness.  Saule’s host family welcomed her and her foster-father as members of their family. The stories of their time in Virginia could fill a book of their adventure and new friends. Saule’s spunk and spirit shown through. Growing up in the orphanage has left it’s effect on her heart but she desires to rise above and build a good future for herself.

 

Natasha and Maxim are still in America as Natasha’s surgery was a bit more complicated and she still needs surgery to repair her cleft palate.  Maxim is in kindergarten in New Kent County and doing extremely well. Their story will be another blog post.

I was in the Virginia for Saule’s surgery then left to return to Kazakhstan Aug 7th with 2 professionals who met with 12 families with disabled children in August.  Oct 1st I returned to Virginia to be with Natasha for her surgery.

In December Saule, her foster-father and I  returned to Kazakhstan. It has been a bit of a transition, but Saule is settling in. She still needs physical therapy daily in order to build strength and learn to walk with a regular gate after 9.5 years of walking with a limp on a foot and lower leg that didn’t function normally. She has several of us around that help make sure this is done but at some point she is going to have to desire this herself. She also has much catching up in her studies so she can study in regular school and again at some point she will have to desire to reach beyond her current level. There are many challenges that lay ahead for sweet Saule but her strength and courage will help her obtain her goals.  She has been given the gift of family and friends to encourage and support her as she works towards her goals.

Saule is a sweet gift to me. I love this child beyond what words can describe. Loving a child for the time they are in your life without focusing on the uncertainty of the future can be a challenge at times. It is natural to think about how my heart will hurt if our paths go different direction. But I can’t imagine not having this opportunity to love this precious child no matter how long I have with her. She captured my heart in 2009 and will always have a piece of my heart.

My own children, Marc and Sarah, were influential in the person I am today. Because of them I desired to be a better person. Saule has influenced my life greatly too. The gift of her in my life has expanded my horizons, given me strength and courage beyond what I had. I will always be grateful for this sweet child’s influence on my life and heart. I dream of being part of her wedding and holding her children but no matter how many days I have with her is a gift. I love you sweet Saule forever and always no matter what.

A New Year!!

2 January 2015

One of my New Years resolutions is to start blogging again.  I have been using Facebook primarily as a way of communicating my journey for several reasons.  To me it seems easy – being non-techie that is important. I also don’t feel the pressure to be a literary genius. Since I am not a great writer I get a little self-conscious but have enjoyed journaling as an outlet as well as a way of chronicling the journey.  Facebook isn’t known for being of high literary standards so I didn’t worry as much about my lack of skills.  With life being as busy as it is to send off writings to get edited before posting can seem overwhelming to me.  Thank you Pam, Chip, Beth, Lois and Edith for your willingness to – I will at times still ask for edits for important post.  🙂  I do realize my run on sentences, poor punctuations and (even with spell check) spelling mistakes can be distracting for some.  I humbly ask your forgiveness.  I still hope in the mist of those flaws you will be encouraged and get a glimpse of grace in action in and through this journey.  It is a surprise that I, a poor student all those years ago in grade school who shied away from any writing, now finds the journaling process therapeutic for me.   I have missed blogging, so as I reflect back on 2014 I figured it was a good first post for the year.

I’m as surprised as anyone to find myself halfway around the world being part of what is happening with an ever-expanding community of friends. Since I first went to Kazakhstan in 2000 the whole journey has refined me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.  Learning to love wholly and selflessly has brought me to my knees as well as a keener awareness of my self-centeredness and flaws.  I’m humbled, utterly amazed and thankful that this is my life.

Here are some of the highlights but really just a glimpse of a year bursting with joys, tears, laughter, love, second (and third) chances, new life, uncomfortable situations, lots of traveling, new friends, surgeries, doctor visits, border crossings, more laughter, more challenges, uncertainties, beauty, pain, suffering, restoration, and more love.

Life was full starting in January with the addition of Jenya and Nikita then Vera, Nikita’s mom in Feb.

 

Feb/March I found myself in Virginia for the birth of my daughter – Sarah’s  first son – Gabriel.

 

 

After knocking on many doors during that same time, a door finally opened and I received word that HCA Chippenham Hospital, the surgeons and medical supply company would provide surgery for Saule and Natasha pro bono.  I called back to Kazakhstan to wake Beth up in the middle of the night so I could tell her before posting to Facebook. What an amazing generous gift.

Lots of visitors came to visit us – from America, Russia, Germany, and Netherlands to name a few.

In June we received the official letter from the hospital.

We also moved to our new house after we – mostly Beth – looked at over 50 houses before we found one that would work for us.

June 15, just 5 days after moving Vera gave birth to sweet Jasmine.

Applications were made in June for visas to the US for Muhan (foster father), Saule  (then age 9.5 years) Natasha (age 28 years) and her son Maxim (age 6 years). Visas were received and airline tickets purchased me and the group to fly to Virginia on July 12.

On July 29th, Saule had her surgeries – all 3 in the same day – her eye to allow it to close, her cleft lip and amputating her club foot in order to fit her with a prosthetic to give her full mobility and relieve the pain the shorter leg was causing the rest of her body.

July flew by way to fast and I left August 7 to fly back to KZ along with Jennifer and Bethany who meet with 12 families with disabled children and kids who come to our home.  Their professional advice was invaluable as were the videos and OT/PT plans for the families and our gang.

We were sad to see Jen and Bethany leave but life kept us busy.  In September, Nikita started school for the first time in Taraz and Maxim started school in New Kent, Virginia.  We bought school uniforms and supplies for the children that come to visit.

Every journey begins with a first step! For Saule’s 10th Birthday she got her new prosthetic Sept 12 (her Birthday is the 13th).

 

Before I knew it – it was time to fly back to Virginia to check on the gang there.  Oct 1st, I arrived in Virginia and on Oct 28th Natasha had the first of two surgeries to repair her severe scoliosis.  I’m thankful Saule’s was first and thankful that I really had no idea what either of us were in for.  It was a most difficult time for Natasha and me yet brought us even closer together.  I also was humbled and amazed once again by the generosity of so many people.  The doctors and nurses at HCH Chippenham during Saule’s surgery had shown themselves to be truly first rate, caring and compassionate that I had no idea I would find out during Natasha’s surgery that they were even more caring and compassionate.  Natasha was in the hospital over 50 days.  It was an experience several of us will not forget.  I could not have done all that needed to be done without some amazing God-given women around me.  There are so many who came together to make the surgeries and the time in Virginia possible that I couldn’t begin to list everyone.  From host homes, to donations from all over the country, it will always be one of the most amazing things I have ever been part of.  So many selfless, gracious acts of kindness and generosity I haven’t words for.

WTVR 6 in Richmond did a small piece on Saule. http://wtvr.com/2014/11/20/hero-vicki-charbonneau/

While in Virginia I didn’t have much time to see many friends and family with so much time spent in the hospital but I did sneak a couple visits in with Marc and Sarah and grandchildren.  Thanksgiving with a special time with family from both sides of the world.

December 1st Muhan, Saule and I flew back to Kazakhstan.  It was an emotional time leaving Natasha still in the hospital but knowing God had brought an amazing team of folks together to love and care for Natasha and Maxim.  Back in Taraz Beth had been holding the fort down and welcoming Kara, an intern from Canada.

Christmas came with all the joy it holds and because of the generosity of many and Two Hearts for Hope we had a delicious Christmas dinner and were able to give gifts of towels and other items to our extended family here.

There are stories behind each picture.  This is just a peek of all that happened this past year, so many miracles.  Back in January 2014 most of what happened this past year wasn’t on the schedule Beth and I thought about.  There was no plan to move, no plan to fly 5 of us to the US, no plan for host families, hospital stays, professional therapists visiting, and so many other things that happened.  There was a plan to learn to love whole-heartily those who come to our home.  There was a desire to engage with one another in ways that enrich each of our lives as we are all empowered to be who we were uniquely created to be. We may not have done these things perfectly but we did keep that a priority.

I have many hopes and dreams and Beth and I have a tentative schedule of what we think at this point may happen – God willing.  We’ll have to wait till next January to see how things actually come about.  My first New Year resolution is to seek to have a compassionate heart, filled with kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. To bear with one another – forgiving as I remember all I have been forgiven for.  To love as God has loved me with a heart full of thanksgiving.  

Happy New Year friends and family.

 

Part 2 Limited Choices and a desire for home

There is a girl who had to leave Savva Orphanage several years ago because she had reached the maximum age allowed there.  She was 15 years old.   She was then moved to a local technical school to study a trade.  These schools are over crowded, understaffed and not safe places for the children.  The orphanages are trying to track down families to take children back.   Some families gave up their children as enfants because a doctor told them it was best for the child and them due to a malformation of the child.  I some cases these children didn’t die and later the families were told the child lived and then were given the child back.  This after the child was 8, 9 or 10 years old and spent those formative years in an institute.  Families, single parents, or relatives who had their children removed due to abuse and neglect are asked to take children back or sign off legally as their parents.  All in all a very difficult situation.

Shortly before “Anne” (not her real name) “aged” out of the orphanage her grandmother was found in Russia.   The grandmother came and visited “Anne” and even took her for a visit.  “Anne” is a very beautiful girl of Gypsy descent was scared and reported when she returned from the short visit that she did not want to go with this grandmother. The grandmother made no secret that she thought she could make money with “Anne” and planned to take her back to Russia with her.  By the time it finally came for her to leave she was 17 years old and living at the technical school.  I and 2 Kazakh women were spending time with her and talking through her options.  The technical school is paid by the government per child.  With a family willing to take this child they would receive no more funding for her which then made it impossible for her to stay.  There was no other place for her to go at that time.  Some national friends and I gave Anne a card with our numbers on it before she left and told her not to forget that we would be here if she needed help after age 18. (Until that age, legally we could do nothing.)  It was an awful feeling for all of us when we could offer so little to a young woman of 17 who didn’t want to go into an unknown future in Russia.

Good news is recently she showed up and asked for help from one of the women listed on the card.  “Anne” had been married off to an older man who was unkind.  This man and his family abused Anne, stole her documents so they could get a loan, and treated her in a demoralizing way.  Currently, she has a place to stay at the Youth House here in town and someone bought her some new clothing. We also learned that she may be pregnant, which means she will be choosing between aborting her child in order to stay where she is or she will have to leave.  Of course, we desire for her not to end her baby’s life  We are looking for a house to rent so we then could offer her a place to live.   Her spirits are low and she is struggling emotionally.  The Youth House has more than 80 children crowded into a very small space.

I am happy to know she is back, but my heart breaks for the trauma she endured these last couple of years on top of what she faced growing up in an orphanage.  Can you imagine how difficult it is for her to trust?  How difficult it is to believe there are people who truly care about what is best for her?  People who desire to help her to grow into the capable young woman she was created to be.

Another young woman – 18 years old – has been calling us since we saw her several weeks ago and gave her our telephone numbers.  She lives at the Youth House but has no job and doesn’t study at any school.  Her days are filled with nothing to do and no safe place to go.  She is scared and doesn’t know what to do.  We were able to sit and talk with her last Sunday.  Through tears she said, “I have good news. I am getting married Dec. 14th.”  I was confused and asked why this was good news, how she knew this man, and whether this was what she really wanted.   Since she was crying and seemed in great distress, it was obvious she wasn’t truly happy about this plan.  It wasn’t clear how she met the man but he lives and works in Almaty and is 30 years old.  “Mary” (not her real name) has mild cerebral palsy and limited education.  Because of her mild cerebral palsy, when she came to the orphanage at age 3 she was labeled mentally deficient. Recently, the director and vice director at the Youth House advised her she could either marry or be moved to the home for invalids.  She is terrified of going to the invalid home and with good reason. The choice to marry this man in Almaty is a way to escape that home.

My heart broke as tears streamed down her face while she tried to share the details and answer questions. I shared with her why Beth and I had come back to Kazakhstan and that we would let her come live with us once we found a place to rent.   I asked her to be patient and trust us.  On the phone several times before we could sit and talk she has asked to come live with us.  I explained we didn’t have a house yet but expected to have one soon. I asked when she needed to be out of the Youth House.  This all seemed too overwhelming for her.  She said she had already told the orphanage administrators that she would marry so she must do that.  I asked her to give me some time to find a place and to find out from some locals what could be done to help her out of this situation.

 

We were able to bring another friend into this conversation but I could see this young woman – a child really – was trying to figure out if she could trust any of us.  I could tell she wanted to trust us but her life experience had shown her no one was trustworthy.  There were two nationals there plus Beth and me, but she still didn’t know whether she could trust any of us or who she could trust in her life.

 

She knows she does not want to move into the invalid home but believing that there might be a good option and holding onto such a hope is a foreign concept when all you’ve experienced has taught you there is no hope. Hope is such a fragile commodity.  How does hope grown in a barren heart?  How do you give hope to someone who doesn’t know how to trust?  Someone who has never experienced stability or security or bonded with anyone who could be trusted to care for the simplest of human needs?

I’m thankful to be here as much as my heart aches for these precious children I know.  I’m thankful Beth is here with me and together we are meeting others who share our desire to care for these precious children.  That desire to give them a safe place where their hearts and souls can be nurtured and begin to heal.

 

I have heard so many times through the years from these orphans: “Do not forget me!” “Do not forget my name, my story, my face!”  The desire to be known and to have someone in our lives that is willing to go out of his or her way for you is in each of our hearts.  Babies long for their mothers to look into their eyes, to comfort them, to feed them and care for them, to be there with them.  When this doesn’t happen in a child’s life, the hole that is left grows deeper and wider with each passing year.  These children cannot become a successful part of society without people who are willing to invest in their lives. They each need people willing to take the time to build lasting relationships with them.  People who will teach and model family for them.  To love and care for them so they can begin to heal and overcome their past hurts and then begin building a positive future for themselves.

 

Thank you each for joining with us in this journey.  We are thankful to see how the community of those committed to care for these children is growing.

 

Grace and peace be yours in abundance

Victoria for J127 Ranch

Limited choices and a desire for home…. Part 1

Beth and I were visiting with a friend last week.  This friend has her own successful business and over the years she has hired several orphan girls to work.  This hasn’t always been an easy thing for her.  Often, the girls she has hired haven’t been model employees and haven’t received her guidance in a positive way.   She shared with us, “I don’t understand these orphan children sometimes.  They talk like “aggressive dogs” to me on the phone”.  She tries to understand but she can’t. They report to her that their way of doing things is normal when she tries to share a better way of speaking to adults.  They want to be paid, but don’t want to work.

 

Currently only one remains in her employment.  This young woman is in her early 20’s now.  Even though she has worked there for a number of years she still has an “orphan mentality” and behaviors.  She is so beautiful and has a sweet smile when she greets Americans or those she thinks will give her things.   Unfortunately, growing up in an orphanage has taught her how to be manipulative. and this is a skill she uses well.  Any time she sees an American, she turns on her smile.  Through the years she has used her “poor me I’m an orphan” situation to get many things.   On the outside this may seem normal or acceptable behavior.  She is an orphan after all.  She has many needs.  The thing is, she has received so much for “free” without having to do anything except share her “pitiful me” story she has mastered the manipulative behavior but not grown emotionally or mentally.  There is much need in her life but the material items she has gained don’t fill the hole in her heart.  Where she lives she is known for being selfish, mean, grumpy, and boastful of what the Americans have given her.  Yet, she doesn’t take care of what she has, and is never satisfied with the quality or quantity.  She hasn’t learned the value of honesty, working hard, nor the satisfaction that comes from a job well done or accomplishing a task set before her.  She has yet to learn the value of what she can do to improve her circumstance by her choices and hard work.  During the depression in America, many people raised themselves up out of deplorable situations because of their hard work and willingness to persevere through the long haul.  Athletes don’t gain medals or improve performance without much diligence and hard work.  Working hard is a gift we are given to help us grow.

Our friend told us about this young woman’s desire to marry a 35-year-old man.  All girls long  to grow up and get married.  It seems like girls around the world desire to have “Prince Charming” come and rescue them.  However, the Hollywood versions have done women around the world a disservice.  Girls need to grow into capable women willing to work and find a husband who will be a partner to them, not a rescuer.   This young woman so desperately wants a safe place to call home.  Living at the Youth House where she currently lives is a rough and many children run away trying to seek safer lodging.  It is housing double the children it was designed for.  Both young men and young woman with only a few staff to oversee them all.   Because these children lack wisdom and the ability to make wise choices they most often end up in much worse places than where they started.  Knowing who to trust and whom to believe has your best interest at heart is almost impossible when you have never bonded with anyone in your life.

 

Our friend met with her and this man she wants to marry to try to understand the situation.  This man, who studied in Russia, says he’d like her to move in with him and his parents.   He expressed to our friend that he eventually would marry her but not until later.   Our friend was very concerned.  This is not a normal or good situation.  She expressed her concerns but was told it really wasn’t any of her business.  This man has told the young woman not to listen to our friend.  There are other nationals trying to speak into this girl’s life.   But this man is telling her no one else really cares for her like he does.  He is isolating her – which is a huge warning sign.   Unfortunately many people take advantage of orphan children.  An orphan who is older now expressed she didn’t want anyone to know she had grown up in the orphanage and is an orphan.  She lies to friends telling them she has parents.  She said if anyone – even her friends – found out she was an orphan she would be in danger because “Everyone knows orphans have no one to care for them and look after them!”

 

One of the problems with only seeing a child as they are growing once a month or every other week or so is the lack of true relationship built over time.  These orphan children do not know whom to trust and whose advice they should listen to.  Their desire for a warm safe place isn’t on a foundation of real wisdom and knowledge of what that truly entails.

Like those we allow to speak into our lives, these children need people willing to spend the time to build long-term relationships.

 

The urgency to find a house so we can open our doors is our highest priority at this point.  That will be the easy task in comparison to building positive relationships with these children that are so broken in heart and spirit.  Much time and energy will be needed in order to model and help them grow and mature into the young women they were born to be.

 

 

Thank you for joining with us in this.  The next story will be about a young woman who was taken to Russia by a grandmother who claimed her after many years of growing up in the orphanage.  The grandmother was very open that this now 17-year-old girl could make her some money.

 

Please don’t let your hearts become hardened to these heartbreaking stories.

“We learn that orphans are easier to ignore before you know their names.  They are easier to ignore before you see their faces.  It is easier to pretend they’re not real before you hold them in your arms.  But once you do, everything changes.”   David Platt

 

Be thankful this Thanksgiving for all the many blessings you and your family have.

I am so thankful the Epic Journey of my life has brought me here to Kazakhstan.  I’m thankful my heart breaks for those who have no one.  I’m thankful for my two precious “grown” children – Marc & Sarah” back in Virginia.  I’m thankful for my family and friends who join me with encouragement and support as a community of folks committed to ENGAGE with each other and the children here in ways that ENRICH each of our lives in was that EMPOWER us each to be who we were uniquely created to be.

Grace and peace be yours in abundance!

Victoria for J127 Ranch