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Belarus Boys Set Sights on America

Friends from an orphanage come to U.S. for medical care and, they hope, a home. 'Maybe ... we can be adopted.'

May 25, 2003|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

OVERLAND PARK, Kan — OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- From the beginning, the two boys, best friends all their lives, had a plan.

They talked it over one spring day while on a bench in a playground in Belarus, imagining how different things could be after they arrived in America.

The two, as tight as brothers, shared one dream: to have a family.

They had lived together in an orphanage as toddlers. Then, as little boys, they were carted off in a blue van to a state home for older children. There, they remained for about six years.

Oleg visited Andrei in the hospital when he had foot surgery.

Andrei tried to protect Oleg from bullies who teased him about his limp.

And now, the boys, both 12, were heading from the Ivenetsky Children's Boarding School to the heart of America to receive free medical care. Afterward, they would fly home.

But as they sat in front of the red-brick building, down the road from a farm where horse-drawn milk wagons ambled by, the boys couldn't help wondering if this was their big chance, maybe their only chance.

It was Andrei who turned to Oleg and asked:

"What do you think about us staying there and trying to never come back here? Maybe somehow we can be adopted."

*

It was more a pipe dream than a plan.

Oleg and Andrei had only vague notions about America -- nice houses and rich people -- and knew just a few English phrases. Those were the least of their obstacles.

First, 12-year-olds don't pick parents; adoption is a choice made by adults. And they usually choose cuddly babies, not older kids, especially those with disabilities.

Besides, Oleg and Andrei weren't even orphans. Both had mothers who had turned them over to the state because they couldn't care for them -- a bleak fact of life among some Eastern European families who are poor and have disabled children.

Despite the odds, the boys from Belarus held to their grand ambition.

They didn't want to return to Ivenets, a town about 40 miles from Minsk, the capital of Belarus -- a former Soviet bloc country ravaged by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in neighboring Ukraine.

The boys were among a dozen or so children chosen by a group called Project Restoration to receive free surgery in America.

As an infant, Oleg had polio that left him with a withered right leg and a gait almost like a hop. Andrei dragged his left leg because of cerebral palsy.

Oleg was rambunctious, baby-faced with dark caterpillar brows and wire-rim glasses, the kind of kid who bounds into a room in a noisy whirlwind.

Andrei was quiet, with watery green eyes and blond hair, just seven months older than Oleg but almost like a big brother, able to calm his friend with a gentle pat on the arm.

At Ivenetsky, they lived with about 180 kids, four to a room, all ages, wondering if there would be enough to eat. Andrei tried to run away once, but didn't get far.

They had seen kids leave and wondered what would happen if one of them got lucky.

"What if you get adopted and not me?" Andrei asked once.

"If it happens," Oleg replied, "I will come back and get you. It would not be fair for my best friend to be left behind."

On a June day, they boarded a plane together, secretly hoping for a one-way trip.

"All I wanted to be was a normal kid, live in a normal house and go to a normal school," Andrei recalled. "I thought to myself ... maybe Americans could let me stay."

*

In America, Andrei quickly picked up a smattering of English. Just a few months after arriving in this Kansas City suburb, he asked a bold question:

"Will you adopt me?"

Already a mother of five, Jan Dieckhaus tried to let him down gently. "We can't," she said. "But we hope somebody else will."

Andrei's planned six-week stay with the Dieckhauses -- his host family -- turned into seven months when his surgery was delayed. But there were problems.

Andrei hoarded bread and apples, hiding them in his room. He didn't want to change clothes or attend school. Almost every request received the same response: "Ne khochu" -- Russian for "I don't want to."

For Andrei, life in America was bewildering.

There were all the comforts he could only dream of -- a well-stocked refrigerator, new clothes, a sprawling home -- but the rules were difficult and so were the relationships.

"I really didn't know about love very much since I lived in an orphanage with a whole bunch of kids," he said. "I love Oleg and always did and I cared about him, but I really didn't know to love a mom, dad and sisters. I didn't understand how families worked. I thought it was simple."

Andrei moved on, living with seven families. Last summer when his medical visa was about to expire and he didn't have a home, Jan's brother, Tim Dykman, a board member for Project Restoration, called her.

Would she and Mike adopt Andrei? Jan almost dropped the phone.

She worried that sending Andrei back would destroy him, but she wondered if she had energy for another child.

"I need some time," she said.

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