WASHINGTON — As her father catnapped at her side, Deanna Torstenson’s heart pounded and her body trembled. She fixed her eyes on the tiny airplane moving across a video screen on the seat back in front of her. Slowly, it approached Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Soon, for the first time, she would set eyes on the woman who had given birth to her.
“I’d never been in the presence of anyone who was actually biologically related to me,” she later recalled. “So I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. … This is really happening!’”
Deanna, 17, who was adopted 15 years ago from a Kazakhstan orphanage and grew up in Springfield, Va., had always felt an invisible thread connecting her to a biological family, long before she ever knew they existed.
Her parents had provided a loving home and all the trappings of American life – at West Springfield High School, she sings classical music and does madrigals in musical theater.
But Deanna couldn’t stop wondering about from where – and whom – she had come. Now, as her plane lowered over Central Asia, she was about to find out.
Americans have been adopting children from countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America in growing numbers since the 1950s, with the trend peaking in the mid-2000s. The Soviet Union’s collapse opened new adoption horizons, with many would-be parents spurred on by reports of horrific orphanage conditions in former Eastern bloc nations. After a report on Romania’s grim institutions, Americans adopted more than 5,000 children there, according to State Department statistics. Since 1992, U.S. citizens have adopted more than 75,000 children from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Many have reached their teens and 20s. Some, like Deanna’s brother, Derek, 15, who was adopted from Russia, have no interest in unearthing the past. Others have a strong desire to connect to the places where they were born.
“They’ll take trains, planes and automobiles to get to that spot on Earth … the epicenter of where life began for that child,” said Becca Piper, the founder and co-director of the Ties Program, a Milwaukee-based organization that arranges birth-country visits for adoptees. The business has grown steadily since it opened 18 years ago and accompanies about 500 families a year to 16 countries. “It sort of actualizes them, like ‘I’m actually me, I didn’t just arrive by an airplane, I’m actually part of this country, I’m part of this culture.’ I guess it’s just a human draw to find origin.”
Not all adoptive families support home-country visits. Some worry that authorities – or even birth families – will attempt to keep their children in the country. Others have planned trips and then canceled them after learning that their U.S.-citizen children are also still considered citizens of their home countries and are subject to their laws, including military conscription.
A report on dire conditions in a Romanian orphanage prompted Chris and Glenn Hulse to adopt their daughter Natalie from Russia in 1993. Weighing just nine pounds at 9 months old, Natalie came from a Moscow institution that looked like something out of another century, with broken steps, exposed electrical wires and archaic practices.
“They were strapped in cribs, so the development of a 9-month-old was like the development of a newborn,” Chris Hulse said. “We were told she probably wouldn’t walk, she probably wouldn’t talk, she probably wouldn’t be a productive member of society.”
But Natalie, now 19, grew up in a two-story home in Fairfax Station, Va., participated in her high school’s color guard and track team, and is a freshman at the College of William and Mary, where she studies international relations and Russian. When she, her parents and their two biological sons visited Baby Hospital 15 in the heart of Moscow last summer, it was an emotional reunion.
Nurses and doctors who remembered handing the infant to the Hulses reached out to stroke her long, blond hair and marvel at “this Russian beauty in American clothes,” her mother recalled.
For Natalie, just being there was enough. “I didn’t need to do any soul-searching. I didn’t need to fill a void. I just wanted to see it.”
Some adoptees, like Deanna, want to go deeper.
“They’re looking for their identity. They’re looking for someone who looks like them, they’re looking for why were they given up,” said Anna James, the founder of International Adoption Search, which locates birth families, mostly in Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. “The truth is better than not knowing anything.”
James’ researchers go to birth mothers with photographs of their biological child and a letter from the adoptive family. The birth mothers are usually happy to be contacted, James said. Many gave up their children because they were not married or could not afford to keep them.
“They’ve spent all these years wondering what happened to them,” James said. “It’s kind of a relief to them to know that the child has been adopted into a loving home with all these opportunities.”
It is not always easy for adoptive parents to watch their children investigate a different life. “I guess I’ve had some mixed feelings over the years,” said Deanna’s mother, Karen, whose reserved manner contrasts with Deanna’s effusive displays. “It wasn’t something that you expected to have happen. In international adoption, you don’t expect that you’re ever going to have the birth family be part of your life.”
But Deanna wouldn’t let it drop. “From the time that she was 4 years old, she was wondering about her birth family,” her father, Roger, recalled. “She would ask, did she ever have any brothers and sisters in Kazakhstan, what were they like and would it be possible to meet any of them?”
When Karen heard about James’s agency, the family decided to try it. Eight hundred dollars and 14 months later, they received a letter from a researcher. He had found Deanna’s birth mother, Maryam Sevastianova. A mother of eight, she sold cigarettes and beer out of a metal stall in a remote coal-mining town called Solonichka.
The researcher’s letter recounted how he had approached her in her metal stall and showed her photos of Deanna. Maryam later said that her brain registered that she was looking at one of her children. But she couldn’t figure out which one. As she realized who the child was, she began to sob.
“I don’t understand why the doctors cheated me,” she told the researcher.
Deanna, her sixth child, had been born prematurely while Maryam was traveling in a distant city, she recalled. Doctors had put the baby in intensive care and sent Maryam home, telling her to call and check in. She called often, but one day the doctors told her the baby had not made it. She went on to have more children, and she told them about their sister who had died.
Now, Maryam was confused. She wanted her daughter back. She wanted to sue the doctors. But she looked again at the pictures of Deanna, particularly one of her surrounded by Christmas presents. Maryam could afford to give her children only one present per year. She could not afford to put them through college. Deanna didn’t speak the same language as her other children. And Deanna looked happy in America.
“We’ll never know if there’s some kind of graft there or there’s a terrible mistake made,” said Roger Torstenson.
For Deanna, who was 10 when the letter arrived, the news that her birth family had been found was overwhelming. “I was, like, so confused,” she said.
The families exchanged excited letters, and Deanna began studying Russian. Her father promised to take her to visit them after her sophomore year of high school. Last summer, the two of them flew 9,000 miles to Kazakhstan.
On the plane, Deanna fretted: What if they didn’t like her? What if they thought she was a stuck-up American?
Meanwhile, in Astana, an older-model sedan pulled up to the airport. In the back seat sat Maryam. She, too, was racked with nerves, about to meet her lost daughter, her missing child.
‘SHE WAS ALL SMILES’
As Deanna and Maryam stood in front of each other at the airport, the fears were swept away. As they embraced, Deanna heard her say softly: “My Deanna. Now I see you, my daughter.”
“She was, like, crying,” Deanna recalled, “which in Kazakhstan is apparently a big thing.”
Roger watched, relieved that things were off to a good start.
For 10 days, Deanna spent time with her biological family (including an additional sibling who was born in 2006), walking around the village and swimming with her brothers in the river. “It felt natural,” she said. “We were acting just like we were brother and sister. It was so easy how we would swim together and splash each other.”
They looked like her, with the same Asiatic eyes and rosebud mouths. “When you’re adopted, you don’t have that at all,” she said. “I guess I had a kind of a physical connection with them.”
In the evenings, Deanna and Roger shared meals with her siblings, birth parents, aunts and uncles. Deanna performed arias and selections from musicals. They offered toasts of gratitude to Roger for giving Deanna a good life.
But Deanna and Roger also were struck by the harshness of the family’s life. The temperature reaches 40 below zero in winter, and snow and mud make the town inaccessible by road for 10 months out of the year. Houses have running water for just two hours each day. Deanna’s birth parents and brothers hold menial jobs. Her sister Zarina had hoped to become a dentist, and her sister Vika had wanted to be an actress or singer; both left school, one married and both had babies.
“You read about poverty, but when you see it, especially when it’s your own family …” Deanna’s chatter broke off for a second. “There’s so much they’ve never seen and will never see. … It’s kind of amazing to think, what if I had lived that life?”
On the day of her departure, the boys fought back tears. One of them, 7-year-old Aslan, tugged at Roger’s leg. “Can you adopt me and take me to America?” he said. “I want to be with my sister.” Roger gently suggested that his mother might not like that.
‘IT IS VERY HARD … TO LIVE WITHOUT YOU’
On a recent Sunday, Deanna put on a flowered dress and chose a pair of patent leather pumps to go to her accompanist’s house and make an audition videotape for summer camp.
But first, she had another appointment. Her birth mother and siblings had gathered at a relative’s house to visit with her via Skype, the first such contact they’d had since her trip.
“That’s my sister, Vika!” she squealed as the image of a beaming young woman with dark bangs materialized. “Ya vizhu!” She could see them.
The other sisters and brothers crowded in beside her. Chatting through an interpreter in Ukraine, they told her about a new railway station being built in town and local elections they had voted in. Deanna told them about the conservatories where she is considering applying for college.
Maryam asked about the Torstensons. “After seeing you, I was 100 percent sure that you have a wonderful life there,” she told Deanna. “And when I saw Roger, I realized that he loves you a lot and even realized that you look a little bit like Roger.”
Still, something tugged at Deanna: “I got to see your life, and I want you to see mine.”
“We will do our best to come visit you,” Maryam said. It was a dream, they all knew. But she went on. “I hope that in the future, you will live all together, all the siblings. I hope you will all keep in touch. It is very hard for us to live without you, now that we have seen you.”
After two hours, it was time for the Kazakhs to trek back through the snow to their house. FThe siblings made heart shapes with their fingers, blew kisses, promised to write letters. Deanna waved until their image disappeared.
“It’s not like I’d ever be like, ‘I want to live with my birth family,’” she said. “I know that this family comes first – it’s the family I was raised in. It’s just something I had to do. It’s part of me.”
She slipped on her pumps and bounded downstairs, where her father waited to drive her to her audition taping.