My name is Leanna, and I’m from Minnesota, but I live in California now. I was adopted from Ukraine.
I lived with my birth parents and my younger brother Sergei until I was about seven. My dad was abusive and got sent to jail. My parents had their parental rights taken away. From seven to ten, I lived in an orphanage. My mother came to the orphanage where my brother and I were staying and basically stole us. We ran away and went to Russia. When we got to Russia, we met a homeless lady on the train. When my mom stepped away, the homeless lady kidnapped my brother and took him to Moscow. I thought I was never going to see him again.
I lived with my mom and her new boyfriend in a tent in the mountains. After a couple months, I was sent back to the orphanage because I wasn’t going to school—I was just walking the streets everyday. That was the last time I saw my birth mom. Today I don’t have any contact with my birth parents because I don’t really know where they are, and they don’t have Internet, so they have no way to reach me at all.
When I was in the orphanage in Russia, the director said, “We’re going to take you back to Ukraine, so get your things.” I thought that was kind of weird, but they took me on an overnight train and brought me back to the orphanage that I was previously at—the one my mom had stolen us from. I walked into the orphanage director’s office and I saw my little brother sitting there on the couch!
I thought, Oh my gosh! This is crazy. They didn’t want to separate us because we’d been separated before.
Being in the orphanage was a positive experience because I met a lot of people who became like family. I made a bunch of friends there, and being with my little brother was really helpful. It wasn’t the cleanest place or the best place to be. I didn’t go to school until I was in the 3rd grade and I ran away from the orphanage ten times. I kept running back to where I lived with my birth parents. Eventually I stopped running away. And then one day they said, “You’re going to get adopted.”
Adopted from Ukraine with my brother
Originally my adoptive parents wanted a girl; that’s what they had in their minds. They picked Ukraine and it took two years for them to finish all the paperwork. Then they flew to Ukraine, but the girl they originally wanted to adopt had already been adopted. They were ready to give up, but since they were already there and had done all the paperwork they started talking to another adoption agency.
In Ukraine you’re not allowed to pick out kids before you adopt them. Instead, you go through lots of different pictures and you don’t get to know anything about the kids. My parents didn’t want that and told the translator they didn’t want to adopt a random kid without knowing anything about them.
So the translator showed them some pictures of kids that she knew personally from the orphanage. My picture was one of them. My mom looked at my picture and said, “That’s her. That’s who I want.”
Then they told her I also had a brother and they didn’t want to separate us. “You’ll have to take both of them,” she said. My parents said ok, and we were adopted from Ukraine together.
My adoption was fate
The girl my adoptive parents were originally going to adopt was actually my best friend in the orphanage. They sent her a music box for Christmas. Right after she got adopted, she gave the music box to me for my birthday. Inside the music box it said, “This is from parents who want to adopt you.” When my adoptive parents came to my room, they saw the music box on my desk, and they looked at each other like what the heck? They told me, “That’s the same music box we gave the girl we were going to adopt.” I told them the story about how she was actually my best friend. It was really crazy; like fate.
When I lived in Ukraine, I always watched movies about California, where it was warm all the time, and everybody was rich, and it was always my dream to come here. When I moved to Minnesota with my adoptive parents nine years ago, it was two days before Christmas, in the middle of winter. My brother and I were looking around thinking, where are we? This isn’t America! We’re still in Ukraine.
When I moved here I went into 6th grade. The kids were kind of mean and made fun of me because I had a really strong accent and really long hair. I was still very, very Russian. For a long time I was ashamed of who I was. I would look at my friends like, They aren’t adopted. Why do I have to be adopted? I wanted to be just like an American girl, like everyone else. And it was really hard to move past that. At first I didn’t tell people I was adopted; when my friends asked about my parents, I’d tell them that my dad had a job in Russia and then we moved here.
My adoptive parents are really brave
I think my adoptive parents are really brave because they adopted older kids. When you adopt older kids, we have so many memories of childhood that it can be hard to move forward with life. My brother was younger than me, so he doesn’t remember most of this stuff so it was easier for him to adjust to his new life. But for me, I pushed my parents away when I first got here. I used to say to my adoptive mom, “You’re not my mom.” The first month I was here I basically didn’t talk to her. I felt like she couldn’t replace my birth mother. My mom just kept trying. She never gave up on me, and after a year we got very close and I stopped pushing her away.
I felt like they weren’t going to give up on me the way my birth parents did. Now I’m extremely close with my parents—I tell them everything. It’s really nice to have people who love you. I’d say they are really brave people, and really caring.
I wrote a memoir two years ago about my whole adoption process; it’s called Music Box. Writing it helped put the past behind me. I want other people to read it and have faith that everything can work out. Adopting is scary, and it’s easy to think something bad is going to happen or the kids are going to turn out badly, but it’s all about not giving up.