January 23rd, 2017. It’s official! The children are ours! The court document will be ready to be picked up on the 25th. A farewell party was planned for the evening of January 24th. It would be pizza from Mama Mia’s with pop to drink. Everyone was excited that evening but there was mixed emotions as it was to be the last night Niamh, Conor and Declan would be able see friends that they had made in the orphanage in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi.
Conor was laying on the stairs, waiting for us, when we arrived at the orphanage that evening. He first took my hand and then Sharon’s and said “I love you Papa”, I love you Mama.” This was very special. Conor continued to demonstrate his generous heart as he refused to sit at the table but helped Sharon and I distribute food and drinks to all the hungry mouths. He ate on his feet with a plate in hand with us.
After the meal Niamh, Conor and Declan gave each of their group workers a gift and then it was time to cleanup followed by a few final group photos. Tomorrow they would leave with a few precious belongings . . . those did not include the clothes on their back . . . those were the property of the orphanage! It was time for a final good bye to those at the orphanage!
Now what had been a waiting game, became a virtual race to get birth certificates from Odessa, Passport Photographs and passport applications made and return to Kyiv. We were delayed in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi at the Notary and were not able to pick the children at the orphanage until almost noon on January 25th.
We had not been allowed to bring the children out of the orphanage to fit them for clothes so there was a lot of ‘guess work’ in getting the correct sizes for both clothing and footwear. Sharon was a much better ‘guesser‘ than me. Maybe that’s something to do with her being a mom already. The children had to leave everything they had been wearing that day in the Orphanage Director’s office and change into their new clothes. Following the court hearing many trips to the markets were made bringing items of clothing to the orphanage for the children to try on. Frequent exchanges were made at the various shops until we had successfully acquired just enough to get them home.
Niamh was so thin and underweight that the clothes which fit her waist were far too short for her legs! We finally found 2 pairs of jeans that could be tightened in enough to keep her warm and decent. We brought one pair for her to try on a few evenings before we left and once she tried them, she refused to take them off again. Even the orphanage workers could not persuade her. Bar us holding her down and forcibly removing them (which we wouldn’t even have remotely considered doing anyway) there was nothing we could do! We just didn’t want them to get lost in the orphanages’ clothing as we already seen numerous items vanish that we had brought to the orphanage for the children. It had taken us considerable time to find something adequate for Niamh. It was only afterwards we realized that these were probably the first new clothes she had ever owned in her short 12 years and she wanted to wear them to school! Niamh was very careful and the jeans were with her, neatly folded, on the day we came to get our children. Conor was easiest to find clothes that fit. Declan was about 2 years smaller in size than his age.
The children left the orphanage with only a handful of items. Declan still recalls not being allowed by orphanage staff to take the first Christmas present we bought him. The workers told him to leave the toy; he was getting new parents who would buy him lots of toys.
Now it was off to Odessa to pick up birth certificates and apply for passports, so we could get the Canadian Visas for the children and return home. It became apparent once it Odessa there was some conflicting data on the court papers and birth certificates – “Oh Lord I thought not another delay!”
Yana reassured us that she would stay behind to sort out the apparent discrepancy as we continued to Kyiv with the children. It was the difference of one letter in the spelling of Conor’s name. We should still expect the arrival of the children’s passports in Kyiv by the middle of the following week.
It was dark by the time we left Odessa for Kyiv, a nearly 6 hour drive. The weather was deteriorating with another cold front settling over us from the north. Arrangements had been made for accommodation again in downtown Kyiv. Yura, our driver had great difficulty finding our apartment and actually solicited the help of 2 other taxi drivers before we finally arrived at #9 Mykhailivs’kyi Ln. A series of one way streets turned the search into a maze.
We reached Kyiv in early hours of Jan 26th 2017. The 3 photos in the upper left were taken from our 5th floor apartment windows. The pigeons served to be great entertainment for the children. This flock fed regularly just down the street from our apartment less than 1/2 a block and were probably the best fed pigeons in the city during our stay!
Now all we had to do was wait for passports and visas for our children. Clearly a time to connect, spend time together and truly become a family. No work routine or schedules to adhere to. Communication continued to be a challenge and we relied heavily on iTranslate as the little Russian we spoke was nowhere near enough to communicate everything that needed to be said by both sides. The single most important challenge was safety. The children had a tendency just to run off to play if they felt like it. We explained that as we are in a very big city, not everyone can be trusted. When outdoors, we must stay together.
We made frequent walks once or twice a day past Saint Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral to Volodymyr Hill, a huge park on the southwest banks of the Dnieper River.
Niamh especially was thrilled with feeding the pigeons and her patience paid off. On more than one occasion, she caught one in her hands. The smile on her face was priceless as she tried to stuff one into Sharon’s bag to take home to Canada!
She was not at all happy when we explained that was not possible! The smile quickly disappeared replaced by a huge frown! The promise of chickens at home somewhat soothed her. During these days the children received their first experience of returning thanks to the Lord for a meal and daily devotions. In spite of the fact that very little of our English was understood, they were remarkably attentive and would ask questions through iTranslate. They willingly pitched in to help with meal prep and cleanup. What a joy!
We were in daily contact with Inna who was working on the English translation of all the documents for Canadian immigration as we waited for the courier of the children’s passports from Odessa to Kyiv. The expected arrival date was Wednesday February 1st. 2017. We received no word all day but Inna sent Sharon a text the morning of February 2nd to say the passports had arrived so we could expect to go to the Canadian Embassy likely Monday, with another 5-7 days wait for the Visa’s. I was getting exceedingly anxious as I had already received a start date extension of 1 month for my new position – this didn’t look good.
Sharon had originally been quite adamant that after the court hearing that I could return home to begin work if needed, and she would be able to navigate with the three children home on her own. It had been a prayer request that I had circulated that we be able to travel home together. I could simply not imagine her alone for 2 weeks in Kyiv, trying to amuse the children and then trying bring them through 3 international airports and manage all the luggage too (even though my wife is a very capable person) . . . no that was not sensible or wise. Our days in Kyiv solidified even in Sharon’s mind that yes, we had to bring the children home as couple for both safety and sanity. We prayed earnestly that the Lord would provide; either an accelerated schedule or an even more understanding employer!
Prior to our arrival we had been introduced to Music Ministry Kyiv and the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra. The Director, Wes Janzen, turned out to be married to a distant cousin of mine through the Steeves’ family tree. We had attended church services with them when we first arrived in Kyiv and upon our return from Odessa and we had enjoyed getting to know them better. We were thrilled to have fellow Canadians that we could connect with. We felt a real bond with them both and were so thankful to have them as family!
Our much-loved cousins, Wes and Kim Janzen who lived in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Sharon and I shared with them our dilemma regarding a timely departure. They asked if we could send them the details of our situation by email, because it turned out they were very close friends with the Canadian Ambassador in Kyiv. Sharon supplied the information and within a few hours we received an email from the Ambassador indicating we were being directed to the Head of Immigration at the Embassy with appointment for Friday February 3rd 2017 at 2:00 pm, remember our facilitator had indicated a Monday appointment at the earliest.
Since our return to Kyiv we had been hunting for an internet café to complete some immigration forms that our facilitator had indicated we needed to complete prior to our Embassy appointment. We were having no success with the computers or otherwise – how we wished we had brought a laptop!
Kim Janzen had been given a business card from the Embassy in Kyiv during the previous week when she and Wes attended a ceremony in Kyiv during which Canada donated several ambulances to the Ukraine. I don’t remember all the details but you can read about it in the Winnipeg Free Press article here (simply click on the preceding “Winnipeg Free Press” and you will be directed automatically to the original article of February 1, 2017). The business card had the direct phone number to the Head of Immigration and Kim gave it to Sharon, and Sharon made the call. Such relief when Sharon called, the lady in the Canadian Embassy told Sharon that since we were meeting directly with her we did not need to complete these forms beforehand. She would complete them at the office during our appointment. She stated during the course of the phone call that she already knew who we were and when we would be coming to see her.
We were maybe 15 minutes early for our Embassy appointment that Friday and had to stand outside in the snow as the security man would not let us in through the gates despite us showing him our Canadian passports. Declan sang to us outside the Canadian Embassy as we waited. It was so beautiful! What a gifted and talented little son we have!
Outside the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine.
The Embassy appointment went amazing. We left the children’s passports there to have the visas attached and were assured we could pick them up Monday afternoon – not even 1 full business day after application.
When we informed Inna that we had been to the Embassy and that the visas would ready early Monday afternoon with flights to be booked out of Kyiv either Tuesday or Wednesday morning – she was shocked, “I have not completed all the translation.” she told us. I have to admit to my shame, I was a bit abrupt with her, as Inna was a fantastic facilitator and help. “Well, I guess you better get to it because we are going home,” I had retorted. After 10 and a half weeks can you blame me? Don’t answer! I do not think she had ever encountered clientele with heavenly contacts working within the city. From her response she had always been able to simply establish her own timelines.
The Lord is faithful, I would home in time to meet my work deadline and still be able assist Sharon with the travel home with our new children. Sharon would NOT have to go alone. At Katie’s recommendation (from adoption airfare.com) flights were booked the afternoon of February 6th, 2017 once we had Visas in hand. We would be departing Boryspil International Airport 8:00 am Wednesday February 8th 2017. This accelerated departure required extra leg work on my part as our facilitator was forced to delegate some jobs to me to complete – which was fine by me, I was delighted to do whatever I could to expedite the process. God is good!!
It was a bit of a challenge getting through the check-in at Boryspiel Airport in Kyiv, scary even. I thought at one point we might even get arrested! The girl at the check in counter called a security man over to look at our documents. I probably was the only one that could tell Sharon was getting a little irritated with him as she showed him the visas clearly attached to the children’s passports which replaced the older separate piece of paper visa that she had when she came to Canada. He kept holding out his hand and demanding “Visas, Papers” of her. Finally for no reason other than maybe the determined look in my wife’s eye, he seemed to accept that our papers were in order and walked away, not before taking a photo with his phone of the computer screen. Not sure why?
Now to get our bags loaded in the cargo-hold. A funny thing that happened was when the girl at check-in told Sharon her carry-on was too heavy: over the 9 kgs allowed on the plane. Sharon removed the big bundle of Adoption papers with the court order that Inna said she must carry at all times in case we got stopped with the children. The girl weighed her hand luggage again: all good this time. Then Sharon put the file back in her hand luggage and the girl gave her a sticker for her “Ukrainian Airlines: approved cabin baggage” and we continued through to our gate to await our departure from Kyiv to Paris, France on the next leg of our journey.
Navigating airport security proved to be an ongoing growing challenge especially as the children began to tire. Niamh and Conor seemed to grasp the importance of staying together but Declan’s curiosity frequently got the better of him. He was constantly wanting to venture off to explore, strolling about with him helped but he did not like to always be holding our hands during these strolls. Two and half hours to Paris with a short lay-over and then our Trans-Atlantic flight to Toronto, Canada. Our Air France flight, though comfortable and secure, was not making me feel at home. The kids loved the movies and hardly slept at all – I dosed a little – so anxious to be home. Words cannot express the joy I felt when we touched down in Toronto – I was ecstatic and when we landed I even said to Sharon, “I feel like kissing the ground.” The six-hour lay-over flew by as we completed immigration paper work – the Citizenship Canada staff were amazing, helping us entertain the children as we had to patiently sit and wait and fill out papers.
It was in Toronto that Declan really tested us. Having left immigration, cleared customs and went through security again, we headed toward our gate with about an hour wait to board our flight to Winnipeg. As we approached the seating area of our designated Gate I scanned our family, Sharon, Niamh, Conor . . . “Where is Declan?” I gasped. Everyone was in a state of panic, only seconds earlier he was walking beside Sharon as we had slowed our pace at the seating zone. I quickly scanned the crowd milling about the gate and directed Sharon, Niamh and Conor to sit with the luggage as I caught a glimpse of the little gaffer about 150 feet ahead of us. I could not count the number of times he had attempted this type of solo excursion on our trip but he had never managed to succeed like this – a sign I guess of our exhaustion or the fact that we had relaxed as we were now back in Canada. “O Lord,” I thought, “How can I teach him the importance of staying together?” I deliberately made my way towards him, carefully watching him and the people close by. I came to about 10 feet from him and then stopped and watched him, he was completely oblivious to my presence. He had stopped walking and began looking around suddenly realizing he was very much alone. As you read, you may think I was being cruel as I watched him not making my presence known. Suddenly he started to call “Mama, Papa . . . Mama, Papa” in desperation he burst into tears, he was literally spinning around looking everywhere for a familiar face. I bolted those last few feet and dropped to my knees calling, “Declan, papa is right here” with my arms open wide . . . he threw his little arms around my neck sobbing, and buried his head in my shoulder. I picked him up and carried him back to others, holding him close and telling him over and over that he was safe and how much I loved him. I quietly reminded him that this is why it is important that we stay together. I am not sure how much of the English he understood at that point and I am sure that was contributing to his wandering attempts. He stayed very close to us for the rest of the journey. This experience still brings tears to my eyes when I reflect and I can almost feel myself tear-up again as I write.
We boarded our WestJet flight for Winnipeg arriving in Winnipeg at almost 1:00 am exhausted and elated. We descended the escalator to be met and welcomed home by an entourage of family and friends. Gathered our luggage and 1 hour drive through snowy Manitoba from Winnipeg and we were HOME . . . THANK YOU LORD! WE MADE IT!! I hope you can feel the relief we felt!
And now our work begins!