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Anton rediscovers his homeland

The crisis in Ukraine stirred something deep in my adopted son.

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Zina Saunders

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Thirteen years ago I adopted my son Anton from a Ukrainian orphanage. He was 5 at the time – a small, knock-kneed, skinny wisp of a boy with dark hair so closely sheared that his scalp showed through. I picked him up so effortlessly that I felt I could carry him forever.

In the interim Anton has grown into a robust, busy 18-year-old college freshman. Except for the dark hair (fuller now) and the same impish smile, the metamorphosis has been remarkable. Suffice it to say that I can no longer pick him up, but he is able to hoist me clear off the ground without grunting.

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Many foreign adoptees never look, or think, back to where they came from. There is something about the momentum and verve of American culture that carries them forward with alarming velocity: family, school, sports, clubs, friends, TV, computer games.... In this sense, America is not so much a country as an alternate reality. 

Anton, too, quickly got with the program, and by the time he was 7 his Russian was (lamentably) all but gone, his English was in place, and the timid posture of the new arrival had been replaced by the happy bounce of a well-adjusted American kid.

But of late, something has erupted, something that tells me that you can take the boy out of Ukraine but you can’t take Ukraine out of the boy. 

The recent strife in that country ignited something very deep within my son. All of a sudden Anton, who never had the slightest interest in politics, was approaching me with questions. “Dad, why is my country falling apart?” “Do you think it will split up?” “How did all this trouble start?” He was truly beset by a situation he little understood and over which he had absolutely no control.

In measured tones I communicated what I knew, and I provided Anton with a book on the history of Ukraine. That was all I needed to do, because he took it from there. He began to read; he asked questions of a local Ukrainian friend; and he subscribed, via his iPod, to a live feed of news from and about Ukraine. 

The capper was when he wrapped himself in the Ukrainian flag and trudged off through the snow to school. It was a scene Boris Pasternak could have done justice to.

In the middle of all of my son’s newfound interest in his native land, I received an e-mail from the Ukrainian Consulate in Manhattan. It was routine, informing me that, as Anton was about to turn 18, they would no longer be asking for updates on his progress as a Ukrainian child who had been adopted abroad.

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At the very end of the e-mail, though, was an invitation: If you are ever in New York, please visit. I communicated this to Anton, and the die was cast.

When summer arrived, we traveled to the consulate. Anton – and I – were graciously received by a young female legate, but the focus was on Anton. The woman served him coffee, and as we sat on the back balcony overlooking a small urban garden, she asked him about his memories of Ukraine (few and far between) and whether he still spoke Russian (just the basics). 

They also discussed the current crisis. Anton was warmed by the contact, and I think the woman was warmed in return when Anton expressed an interest in visiting the country of his birth. She told him the consulate would always be available to help him in any way it could. 

As she escorted us to the door, she turned to Anton and told him, “You are always welcome here. This is your home.”

I glanced at my son, who now understood what he needed to understand about his birth country. And I perceived his quiet joy at having reconnected, in a tangible way, with his larger family.