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From Russia to love: One girl’s long journey home to the Island
Today Anya DuVivier is a 21-year-old American college student — intelligent, vivacious, and looking forward to a bright future. But not so many years ago she was staring at a future that could have dead-ended on Russian streets as a prostitute or drug pusher — or be truly dead long before she saw 21.
That’s how she looks at the grim prospects her life would have had, if an American couple from Ohio and Shelter Island had not adopted her from a Moscow orphanage in December 1996 and brought her home.
Despite the traumatic roller coaster of her young life, she remembers thinking at the time, looking at her new parents, Roxanne and her husband John: “Where have you been? I have been waiting for you my entire life.”
Not only did Anya at last have a mother and father, but she also had an instant big family, meeting John’s four other children from his previous marriage.
Typically, older children in Russian orphanages — and at 5-and-a-half, Anya was considered older — don’t get adopted. She would have soon been moved out of the orphanage to make room for younger children and into an institution for older children where she would stay until she was about 12 or so. That’s the age when many orphanages release children to the streets, her mother Roxanne said. Without the adoption, she added, Anya could have been lost.
Anya never forgets the day she left the orphanage in Moscow. She was naked, holding a balloon.
Humiliation wasn’t the motive. Orphanage officials had little in the way of clothing for the children in their care and as one child was adopted, his or her clothes had to be given to a child left behind, Roxanne said. Every trip she and her husband John made to Moscow prior to the adoption, they brought clothing and teddy bears for Anya. But Roxanne fully recognized that the best items brought to the orphanage would likely go to daughters and sons of the staff.
“It’s natural to want to take care of your own children first,” Roxanne said.
When little Anya arrived in America, her first stop with her parents was the summer home on the Island to meet her grandparents, Claire and Theodore Switzer. John and Roxanne had bought a house in Hay Beach in 1991 and it was there that Anya began spending her summers and vacations.
“Shelter Island is her home,” her mother said. “It’s mine too.”
Caught in the middle
The ongoing crisis of Russian adoption, played out for geopolitical reasons as much as humanitarian concerns, has hit home hard for the Duvivier family.
Russian published reports reveal that more than half of the children who grow up in Russian orphanages become drug addicts or alcoholics or commit suicide. And that’s a conservative estimate. Even those who are adopted by Russian families, the reports state, are nearly 40 times more likely to die earlier than those adopted by western families.
The Russian government enacted legislation that takes effect in January 2014 banning Americans from adopting Russian children. When the ban was first announced at the end of December, it appeared it would take effect immediately, stopping a number of adoptions nearing completion. But an agreement between Russia and the United States about such adoptions requires 12 months’ notice before either side can withdraw from the pact. There have been protests in both Moscow and the U.S. over the ban, believed to be a reaction to Congress passing the Magnitsky Act, named for Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in a Russian prison after he uncovered an alleged fraud amounting to $230 million committed by Russian officials. The legislation denied visas and froze the assets of those Mr. Magnitsky charged were involved in the fraud. The Russian government has denied the ban on the adoptions is related.
Nonetheless, those in the process of adopting Russian children are hoping they can bring their children home before next January, while those, like Anya, hope to see the ban lifted to afford them the opportunity to adopt orphans in the future.
A chance at life
“I was a very sickly child,” Anya said, describing a malnourished little girl with sparse hair. “You could see every bone,” she said about her five year-old-body.
Anya had a friend at the orphanage, a younger child to whom she clung. Children bonded with one another because they had no other love. It wasn’t until years later that Anya was able to communicate her feelings. She worried whether or not her friend had survived.
Fifteen years after her rescue, Anya looks to a future that will include her own adoption of two Russian orphans by the time she’s in her late 20s.
Roxanne had always wanted to adopt. She was in her late 30s when she started the process with few options open to older couples. At first she thought a child might come from Latin America until she encountered multiple difficulties from that region. Rather than find themselves embroiled in legal controversies, the Duvivier’s were referred to a woman specializing in Russian adoptions. She estimates that it cost about $35,000 to adopt Anya.
The transition from half-starved, frightened Russian child to the well-adjusted, sophisticated Anya today was not without trauma, both mother and daughter agree.
Roxanne watched as her daughter was quickly abandoning Russian soon after adoption. She began garbling her Russian words and had not yet learned English so communication was difficult. But Anya began to assimilate quickly — learning English and becoming an American kid. Roxanne had heard Russian orphans had been filled with tales that if they escaped the institution, they would be found and punished. This was why when Anya heard Russian spoken or was introduced to a Russian immigrant, her response was terror. After her hair grew out and Roxanne took her to John Sieni on the Island for a haircut, she was initially traumatized. Again, she had been warned by the orphanage staff, for some reason, not to allow her hair to be cut.
But with constant assurance from her new family that she was here to stay and had freedoms she had never before imagined, she began to shake off her fears and embrace not only the new American culture, but to reach back and learn about her native country she’d left behind.
Today, she is a Russian studies major at Wooster College in Ohio. After graduation, she hopes to earn a law degree, possibly from Boston University.
“I was saved by U.S. citizens and I now have the opportunity to save other children’s lives,” she said.