Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Moscow: A Perspective on Angels

Perspective is valuable. Getting to Moscow and becoming part of an amazing group that hopes to resurrect the East-West Accord, and do what we can to preserve a semblance of civil discourse between the east and the west, was not an easy thing. There will come the matter of what to call this thing and how to agree on how it will operate, and where, but for now, it is enough that we find places to agree.

This journey would not have been possible without a lot of help...as well as angels...along the entire path. After my passport and visa application got hung up in the San Francisco Russian Visa Issuing Center, the strong endorsement of Deb Palmari, the Honorary Consulate of Denver, as well as a few key people at the Russian Embassy in DC, shook loose my Russian visa. The day before my planned departure, it was rescued and issued by a wonderful Consul, named Alexey Kovalenko-Narochnitskiy, at the Russian Consulate of San Francisco.“This meeting is important,” said Kovalenko. “We will make sure that we help you to get to Moscow and appreciate what you are trying to do.”

While the Russian Embassy did their part, a certain international overnight carrier did not; loosing the envelope with the precious passport and visa somewhere in Memphis. Not being a shy retiring thing, I did the only sensible thing and called the CEO's office and demanded answers. Turns out that when you do that (well, his email and phone number ARE on their website) things begin to happen. I would not call them angels, but many calls and twenty four hours late, I did end up going to their distribution center here in Denver to retrieve the documents, without which, I could not travel. Their fumble resulted in a day's trip delay and nearly nine hundred dollars in flight changes for FRUA, which I am determined we will recover. As a tiny member group, that money will make a big difference to our work...for them, it will be merely public relations...or it will be if they don't make us whole.

Having ordered rubles at my bank's foreign exchange desk over a week prior, I went to pick them up a few days before leaving, only to discover that they had never arrived and would not, although no one chose to inform the customer. The result; a higher exchange rate at the airport, but a pleasant experience while in Moscow dealing with a Russian bank. Thank heavens for their wonderful bank representative, because, unlike my children, my Russian is quite horrible. 

While in Russia, my friend Daria, a young Russian journalist who has been my guest here in America, tried very hard to help me with my appointment at the Moscow department of Social Welfare.  We didn't succeed, but we tried together, and that is important. She represents millions like her, who carry the true spirit of the Russian people, and who understands our mission, as I hope that we do, regardless of what our governments do.

Most of all, I thank another true Angel and friend, Bea Evans, President of Ties Adoptive Homeland Journey program for facilitating my trip arrangements from flights to hotel to drivers, and translators. FRUA has a long-standing, mutually respectful, relationship with Ties Adoptive Homeland Journey. Had I attempted the usual web travel resources, and not asked them to facilitate my travel arrangements, when the delay happened, I doubt I would have had options. Bea re-arranged all my departure arrangements, and managed to make it happen while on vacation in northern Wisconsin!

While I was in Russia, the rest of the FRUA National Board, angels to all of us in FRUA, kept our other initiatives moving – the new Family Focus Digital Edition, the membership drive, the new educational initiatives, the 20th anniversary winter edition of Family Focus to celebrate our big anniversary. And wonderful FRUA Regional Chapter volunteers for Mid-Atlantic, Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest put together three amazing events to honor our guests from Ukraine, Latvia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Armenia, which helped us maintain our balance among our children's birth countries.

The critical contacts we have made will play out over the coming months and years, as FRUA continues this effort to raise awareness and extend the reach of our important mission. Our efforts are focused on offering hope, help and community to adoptive families. “Actions,” for which we have been commended just recently by no less than Sergey Chumarev, Senior Consul at the Russian Embassy, "which are in full compliance with the principle of the best interest of the child." 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Moscow: also that week

Against the week's background of need, and hope, and protest, I balance an incident from Tuesday afternoon at the US-Russia Forum.

Most of the attendees of the Forum had carefully skirted the situation with Ukraine, but one fellow put it right in my face. One of the Russian speakers, Vladimire Kozin, Professor of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, said to me during a break, that there had been a Russian attempt “to liberate the Ukrainian orphans near Donetsk, who were being shelled, but we failed to protect them,”

I resisted the urge to let my jaw drop. “What do you mean?” I asked evenly.

“We tried to bring them back to Russia to protect them,” he said, his face the color of ripe beets and his shoulders in military line. “They were taken. You know that there have been forty eight deaths of orphans at American hands. (referring to his number for Russian-born children believed abused in the US.) We were trying to keep them safe.”

I clamped my teeth shut. 

The topic of orphans in the eastern regions of Ukraine is actually something about which FRUA has been approached about becoming involved (more about that another time), but not from the perspective he described. I wanted to say, “Don't you think Russia has enough orphans already?” But I didn't. Instead I said “I think you may have missed my message here; ninety nine percent of our adoptive families and kids are doing so well in the US. And frankly, those children are Ukrainian citizens and it is the job of the Ukrainian government to decide what is best for them.”

He glowered at me, and opened his mouth to respond but before he could say a word, a tactful professor from Moscow University pulled him away.

The week held a seesaw of news. I had not been able to secure a meeting at an individual orphanage. Then my friend, Daria Danilova, a young and influential Russian journalist (who visited my home in Denver for dinner last December while in the US as a guest of our State Dept) arranged for me to meet Vladimir Petrosyan, Head of the Department of Social Welfare of Moscow. I was delighted; he is in charge of all Moscow's orphanages and if there is ever a chance to begin to change the impression of western adoptive families, he would be it. 

Then, the day before we are to meet, he suddenly decides he cannot meet me without proper “diligence.” He requests credentials, an agenda, the purpose of my visit. I comply and hear nothing. By Friday, the day of my departure I take matters into my own hands. If he won't meet me; I'll go to him. I take my packet of materials about FRUA, arrange a cab to Moscow City Hall, and proceed to find the Office of Social Welfare. I find it, but am told he is not there. “That's fine,” I say handing over the FRUA packet. “But here is information about our adoptive families." Russia want's information about the success of our families and now you have some here. I hope Mr.  Petrosyan will meet with me next time.” 

 I get back in the cab and go to the airport. But this is not the end of the story. You see, Moscow is doing something very major with its orphanages. All of them. They are being turned into "social family" homes. 

It was explained to me that half the children in every Moscow orphanage are being shipped out to country orphanages, to be warehoused. I cannot imagine that overcrowding, or the confusion of where and why they are moving. Those who remain are about to become “social families” of seven to nine children, sorted into age-ranges, then into social family apartments in the remodeled orphanages; complete with a weekday “mother” and a “weekend mother.” Now I know people sometimes joke that none of us get to pick our families, but this is something else. These kids truly are the luckier ones among Russia's orphans...but what about the ones shipped to the country? Of course, Moscow gets to say that it has reduced the population in Moscow orphanages by half.

Against this backdrop, the Kremlin held a massive rally on Red Square that week; a celebration of Russian “Big Families.” I missed the actual event hosted by President Putin, but for days after on Red Square, they were taking down the the massive stadium scaffolding and young Russian families wandered about pushing baby carriages and holding the hands of multiple children. To complete the celebration, GUM Department store on Red Square was holding a major exhibition celebrating Soviet autos. I'm no expert on the square, squat, notoriously capricious transportation of that era, but nostalgia for all things Soviet is in the air.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Moscow: At Maria's Children

Wednesday finds me at the Moscow center of Maria's Children Art Center, hosted by Coordinator, Natasha Khasanova. FRUA has donated directly to Maria's Children in the past, and we sell posters and art cards with the art created by the orphans in our FRUA online store. After a couple of days of high level thinking and even higher level elbow-rubbing, I planned Wednesday to get outside the confines of conference and immediate Arbat area.  I wanted to meet people working with orphan children and "non-commercial" organizations actually doing something here.

I may have gotten more than I bargained for. The first thing I did wrong was that I dressed in a business suit and high heels. Somehow I thought that I needed to look official. I also thought that  hiring a taxi to take me to the address would mean no walking, which wasn't exactly correct. I forgot about the standing part. The cobblestone streets had me wishing I were brave enough to go barefoot, and after a few hours of standing (peering over the art projects tackled so enthusiastically by the young adult classes) I was stopped from bare feet only by the paint and glitter and felting materials on the floor.

Out of the cab, I went down a cobblestone street and through an ornate wrought iron gate, around the corner and passed between two enormous poplar trees. Ahead lay big glass windows bursting with joyful color, full of children's paintings of sky and flowers and animals and buildings and swirling patterns. The sign was in Russian, of course, but I assumed I'd arrived. Down the step stone stairs, around the corner and through rooms overflowing with artist supplies, paints, paper, cloth, found items, and no one in sight. I pass through the kitchen, where where I tap a FRUA magnet on the refrigerator, and find Natasha near the back of a tiny office filled with a group of desks covered over in books and folders. The air feels energetic, happy.

For those of you who may not know, Maria's Children is an art rehabilitation project begun by Maria Yeliseyeva, an artist in Moscow, who wanted to help orphan children to process the trauma they had experienced in their young lives. She was familiar with this need because she and her husband, already parents of five children, adopted five more daughters from Russia's orphanages, who now range in age from young adult to age five. The goal of Maria's Children has always been to use art as a means of self expression and a vehicle for self-discovery for those warehoused in Russia's orphanage system. Through the years, her art programs have expanded, and she has taken on partners to help fund the work of offering free, rehabilitative art instruction to orphans in their Moscow studio, including American, Patch Adams who visits every year. She has also created summer camps for orphans and disabled orphans, who for the first time had the chance to go to the ubiquitous children's summer camps favored by all Europe, including Russia.

During my visit groups of young adults from Psycho-Neurological Institution (Internat) #11 arrived at Maria's Children for art classes. These are young adults who have graduated out of the system, but are not capable of living totally on their own; they receive a stipend which allows them to live at the institution, which contracts with Maria's Children to offer them a creative outlet. “It is the bright spot of their week,” said Natasha.

Natasha is concerned at the moment, because their biggest orphanage contracts are up in the air...the changes in Moscow orphanages are having an effect, but what it will be for Maria's Children, she does not yet know (more about this in a follow-up blog). The art instructors are cheerful, talented, caring, working with the youth in one classroom at collages that marry individually-woven spheres into brilliantly-colored floral still-lifes. In another classroom, the youth worked at turning bright fibers into felt, that in turn will be turned into items like felt purses, and felt eye-glass holders. “We sell them at fairs and festivals to make money to buy art supplies,” said Natasha. “And it helps us get word of Maria's Children out to the people.”

In the kitchen, another volunteer has been at work turning ingredients into lunch. Near 2:00 pm, she comes into the art room with a big pot of pasta, a bowl of pale, shredded cheese and a giant pot of tea. All the students gather and the pasta is ladles out to all, topped with cheese and handed around. Mis-matched cups are gathered and tea is poured. Someone runs back to the kitchen and comes back with a loaf of bread and a jug of milk to add to the tea. A honey pot appears and within minutes, all the honey is on the bread and in the tea. The large bag of tiny yellow apples (many with bruises), that I spotted someone carrying in that morning, is poured into a bowl, but after discussion, the apples return to the bag, to be carried back to the institution with the students. A half hour and the meal is gone, the dishes carried to the kitchen. “We feed them, or they would not get lunch that day,” said Natasha.

When at the end of the class sessions, Natasha asks me how I was getting back to my hotel near the Arbat, I say....cab.  “Of course not,” she replied, “I will take you to the metro.”  And off she trots on Moscow streets, an incredibly brave, walking protest in her blue shirt and yellow skirt (Ukrainian colors), red flowers in her hair to match her red shoes. I limp after her. In the crowded Metro, she chats away in English and I glance around, noting that we are attracting attention. At the second Arbat stop she guides me off the car, up the impossibly steep escalator into the sunshine and to the end of the street to the Arbat, where I know exactly where I am. “Now we are friends,” we both say, and hug.

As she walks cheerfully away and turns to wave, I say “Natasha, be careful.”


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Moscow. Through the back door

We spent the second day meeting at Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO). It is Russia's Johns Hopkins, SAIS and Harvard rolled into one. When one attends a forum representing the people and attitudes of two or more nations which aren't getting along, one expects diversity of opinion, hopes for honest debate, and dreams of consensus. By and large, we achieved diversity, got honest debate and while not in unanimous agreement on what to do next, we came closer than I would have thought possible.  

The past couple of days I have listened to an entire range of views, with some common themes that should not be ignored. Humor defused what could have been a tense beginning when Mikhail Delyagin, Director of the Institute on Globalization, stood up near the beginning of the conference and said, "Experts have not yet proven that Russians are to blame for everything."

We all laughed, and the tone of mutual problem-solving was set. Among the key messages that surfaced; economic sanctions could well kill the European economy. "My objective," said, Alexis Rodzinko, President of the US-Russian Chamber of Commerce, "is to preserve what has been created in the past twenty five years. Russia has suffered through one economic crisis of its own, and two, 1998 and 2008-9, that it didn't create. What is being created now is a political crisis, not an economic one. Russia is one of our most promising markets for American goods!"

You may not have noticed, but it is nearly impossible to participate in an honest debate any more; people have become so polarized, on such a range of topics, that listening to others with an open mind, doing as my Grandmother used to say, “allowing as how other people may have a different point of view,” is rare. It shouldn't be. Walk around that term “point-of-view,” for a minute. It implies a single position, upon a fixed line, within an entire spectrum of possible views, each one a singular “point-of-view.” It suggests that in the scientific framework there may be more than one way to look at things. It directs each of us to have the courtesy and respect due another to listen to their “point-of-view."

"This dialogue is urgent," said Sergei Makov, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies. "We value the great American civilization that shaped the twentieth century. We would never try to blame America or portray it in a bad light. We believe in the American people; most are good and want a good relationship with us. We have other things to work on together. To mention two; ISIS, the rise of fundamentalist, extremist Islam, the degradation of the environment."

Nicholai Petro, a Professor at the University of Rhode Island, spend the last year on a Fulbright in Odessa, Ukraine. "To have a hope of healing this, we need to realize that we have two crisis here: A crisis of Ukrainian statehood, and a crisis of US-Russian relationship."

Dr. Gil Doctorow, the founder of the European Committee for East-West Accord, led a discussion about re-creating the East-West Accord. It existed in the 1970-80s and kept our scientific, academic, business and cultural communities talking and often working together during the cold war. “Russia,” he said “continues to be portrayed as the enemy of a values conflict, and it isn't. In fact, Putin has been heard to say that perhaps the west needs to be reminded of its own values.” He asked for ideas for cooperation.

The academics present, especially those in the field of nuclear energy, expressed the hope of direct contact with their counterparts in the west at a time when it is more important than ever to be in contact, so that misunderstandings don't happen. Key European news media present committed to balance the news about east-west cooperation. Sharon Tennison, CEO of the Center for Citizen Initiatives, who has worked in Russia since the early 1980s, said she would increase their efforts for citizen exchanges and joint business initiatives.

At that point I had chance to offer an idea to the group. If what is needed is civil society people-to-people effort, I suggests that the FRUA support structure for adoptive families is grass-roots; a positive affirmation of family that, if offered to Russian adoptive families, would make sense. And as it includes the names of both Russia and Ukraine, might be a way to bring ordinary people back together. It was well-received. Several members of this gathering offered to help spread the word abut FRUA, both from within the U.S. and Russia. Tennison will be coming to Denver at the end of this month and at that time we will meet to explore a FRUA citizen initiative.

At break, we joined the students in the cafeteria, where large color photos of famous US cities cover the walls. Many students came and went from the discussions, which had been arranged by the brilliant Igo Okunev, who only in his late 20s, is Vice-Dean at MGIMO. The day went long and late; no one wanted to end the conversation. The formation of an east-west accord is in the works. 

We had moved beyond politics into the human potential we all have to overcome obstacles and make things happen. Don't we adoptive parents know how true this can be? 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Moscow: the first day

Tension surrounds this meeting. But all of us meet anyway.

We are quite a diverse group; part  academic, part policy, part science, (including a few nuclear energy experts, and Russian policy advisers who actually consult on their stockpile) former CIA, former Duma, international journalists, Russian media, part non-governmental organizations (I have learned here, that one is actually much safer calling a non-profit a "non-commercial" entity because use of the word "government" even if preceded by the word "non," can mean that you and your organization are against the government.  A really good thing to know in Russia.)

I find myself next to one of the most famous people of the people-to-people initiatives, Sharon Tennison, President of the Center for Citizen Initiatives. I have already learned from my friend, Deb Palmaeri, the Honorary Consul of Colorado, she is coming to Colorado in a few weeks. We put our heads together.

What we share in this World-US-Russian Forum is that everyone here is really smart, not one of us wants to see our countries on the verge of war, and everyone agrees that something must be done by we people about the status of our relationship; Better heads than mine announced that it's the worst it has been since the Cuban missile crisis. That's saying a lot. I have been reminded more than once that a cold war we can handle. No one should want a hot one.

As I write, there is an ad for a computer warfare game running on the hotel lobby bar video.  Two tanks. Guess which countries they appear to be? This is followed by the news, the lead story features somber people in military uniforms, armed officers uncovering weapons in Ukraine, and what appear to be launches of anti-ballistic weapons, although I am fairly certain those are stock footage. At least I hope so.

I have pages of notes, that are going to go into my report following this meeting. For tonight, let me say that while during day one we Americans endured a certain amount of posturing from some of the Russians present, there was a lot of pain. They do not understand where we are.  They do not understand why America seems to hate them. They do not understand why the west thinks they would not be worried about what happens on it's borders. "Would America just ignore a revolt across its borders with Canada?" one asked me.

 "Well no," I respond. "But it's Canada"!

"Exactly," he said.

 Our vastly diverse group shares this view; it is inconceivable to any of us that our governments have reached a stage where they no longer talk.  We debate ways forward, we share the frustrations across our various fields. I tell everyone about FRUA and how in fairness, we need better reporting from Russia of the success of our families. If we're going to work on relationships; we need to start at the ground floor. The group agrees with me. I get commitments from several to take our FRUA materials and what they have learned and hep spread he word.  I gradually begin to realize that what I have done, what FRUA has done, is walked through the back door to Russia.

While I'm on the topic...if you haven't been to Moscow in a few years, you haven't seen Moscow. This is a European city. Those here during the economic crisis of the 90s would barely recognize it. Those here earlier this past decade would not either. Those here two years ago may not; cranes are everywhere on the drive in from the airport and throughout the city. The city skyline is glistening. The Arbat is one hundred percent built out; which I learned when I went looking for the beautiful tiled wall that shielded a view of vacant lots when my now-grown children were photographed with their small hands on hand prints imbedded in the colored tiles. I swear during my two-hour jaunt on the Arbat, at least ten street sweeping machines whizzed by...there is not a single piece of trash anywhere. 

On a Monday night, the place is buzzing. People are well-dressed, strolling, enjoying the street scene. I pass young women with baby strollers; not many, but some. My waiters are friendly and want to practice their English.  I stop for a few gifts, and discover that the Visa sign in the window does not mean that this store will take an America Visa.  They refuse and I walk out.

A fellow conference attendee forwards Johnson's List to me: russialist.org/ which begins:

"We don't see things as they are, but as we are."

"Don't believe everything you think"

Jan Wondra
National Board of Directors


Perspective from the air

I've always liked high places; perhaps that is why I live in Colorado.

This is a long trip; the length of which is familiar to every single adoptive parent reading this who has traveled half way around the world to adopt the child of your dreams. I am on my way to Moscow to represent FRUA INC at a global meeting whose purpose is to find ways to peacefully cooperate, reducing tensions between the west and Russia. Many minds more brilliant than mine will be there; scientists, scholars, cultural attaches, former ambassadors, military leaders, human rights activists, policy folks. But not a one of them is going with the view point that I want to share with them on your behalf.

I'm going, to try to make sure that they know that FRUA, INC exist to offer hope help and community to adoptive families, and that a high percentage of our membership, and other thousands of families who come to us, have adopted children in Russia. I'm going, to tell them the real story of our families – of our challenges, yes – but also of our successes. I'm going, to share our belief that it is a basic human right to grow up in a family that loves you and protects you and gets you the help you need to reach your potential, whatever that may be. I'm going, to add the voices of our families to the conversation about what it will take to get us working together again, instead of against each other.

There is this simple truth; that when we set out to dehumanize any group of people, we divide into “them” and “us.” “Those people” and “our people.” Such words shut down conversation; divide people on opposite sides of issues, close minds, cause conflicts, start wars.

As someone who has been married a long while, I can admit that there are usually at least two sides to every conflict; neither side all right, nor all wrong. My husband would no doubt say that more often than not, I'm wrong, and he is probably right. To try to live peaceably together, let alone cooperate, all of us must resist the stark divide created when words like “good” or “bad,” “worthy” or “not worthy,” “right or wrong,” “adoptable” or “un-adoptable,” are used to describe, a government, a people, a family, or a child. “ Some say that all of us have a little graft in us. I like to think that all of us have more than a little good in us too.

For this trip, with these purposes, FRUA is not taking sides; it is standing firmly where it always does, on the promise we have been fulfilling for the past twenty years; offering hope, help, and community for adoptive families.

Jan Wondra
National board of Directors

Monday, September 1, 2014

Seasons of Change

How swiftly the seasons move, one after the other, year after year. Even if we don't notice how quickly the years go by, our children surely remind us. As each school year starts, we send our wishes with our children as they head to the next grade, the new school, the challenging course they've never taken before. For many of us adoptive parents, these years have been, by turns, joyous and difficult at best, heartbreaking at worst, as we struggle to get our children the help they need.

In FRUA, INC, we say that our long-term goal as parents is to help our children to reach their potential, whatever that may be. But for some of our FRUA families, that can feel like too big a goal; for them the goal is a more limited, often focused on just getting their kids through the school week – or the day – in one piece!

Some years ago, during a particularly tumultuous middle school year, a psychologist who we'd contacted for help gave me a piece of advice. “Don't worry so much about the grades, or having a perfect child right now,” he said about our angry, defiant, brilliant, twice-exceptional son. “Your job is to raise a whole child. By the way, no child is perfect and neither are you.”

Well of course.

The words were blunt, but effective. And we made it through those years, one day at a time.

FRUA's new fiscal year brings emphasis on education resources and awareness

This isn't just the start of the school year for so many of us, it's also the start of our FRUA fiscal year. In July we met in Washington DC for our national board annual meeting, to map our plan of action for this coming year. It's fitting that our first quarter is the July-September time frame, as I've always felt it to be a time of new beginnings. And this year we have a lot in store for you.

We have a new compliment of board members, dedicated to this organization and our mission of providing hope help and community for adoptive families. For those who may not know, the entire leadership of FRUA is volunteer: your national board members, your regional chapter leaders, and your FRUA national committees volunteers and I appreciate every single one of them. I hope you do too.

As the year proceeds you'll be hearing more about our renewed emphasis on educational programming and resources. Leading our FRUA educational efforts will be Terry Mandeville, who is moving from the board position of Outreach to that of Education Chair. Stay tuned for news of the educational topics FRUA will be coordinating with programming partners, both with the FRUA Regional Chapters and directly to FRUA members.

If you haven't given in a while, please do consider a gift to FRUA. We need funds to help us in our work on educational and resource programming, to rebuild our FRUA scholarship fund, and replenish our orphan support fund. Remember, donations are tax deductible: frua.org/donate

Regarding our efforts at raising awareness of our FRUA mission and the success of our FRUA families....there is more news to come very soon, so stay tuned.

Jan Wondra
FRUA National Chair