A Tsunami of Loss

“You are so lucky!!!!”

A Tsunami of Loss
A Tsunami of Loss

It’s a refrain heard almost universally by children who have been adopted, and also by my orphan children here at Shishur Sevay.  “You are so lucky.  You have such a good life!”  In truth the girls would easily give it all up to have their families back.

At some point in the lives of each of these children, every person they knew, every thing they knew, and every place they knew were all gone.  Strangers replaced relatives; institutions replaced homes or tents in the fields, or a corner of the rail station where they had lived.  I’ve watched them grieve. I’ve watched them not wanting to eat because they didn’t know if their siblings were hungry. Sometimes they were more like mothers who had lost their children than children who had lost their mothers.

At Shishur Sevay they soothe each other and thus also themselves.  The bonding and love between them is powerful. I’d had a dream one night during the time we were waiting for our license.

I was sitting near a pond.  It was a quiet place and I was feeling at peace.  Then the words came to me, “It’s a place where a girl can bring her little sister too.”  

One of the girls desperately missed her little sister and brother.  I promised her that if we ever found them, they could join us.  We can’t take boys, by law, but I said we would find a place for him right nearby and he would come and spend his days with us.  When we eventually found her family, we learned that the little boy had disappeared 2 years before.  Her sister was not there either, though the relatives tried to convince her that another child was her sister.   They kept plying her with answers to questions and our girl kept insisting this was not her sister.  These are not lucky children.

Yes, I understand what some people mean that they were lucky to find me, as I was lucky to find them, but it has an entirely different meaning to the orphan child, to the adoptee.  It is not a lucky thing to be born with this destiny ahead of you.  It’s not something we would wish on any of our children.  It’s a loss that they carry forever,  a hole in their pasts filled with questions that cannot be answered and longing that cannot be fulfilled.

It was and is a tsunami of loss.

One Baby’s Heart and So Many Questions!

Talking it over with Seema Aunty

Talking it over with Seema Aunty

Tuni is her name, but I added “Harrison” as I do for the kids with disabilities who have no surnames.  Having a chart read, “Baby Tuni” is not as good as “Tuni Harrison.”

Tuni is about seven months and has Down Syndrome.  At about three months of age she was hospitalized in a government hospital about four hours from Kolkata.  I don’t have records of why she was hospitalized, but we were told her family never came back for her and never responded to calls from the hospital.  That district has no facilities for children with disabilities, and was one of the children the Child Welfare Committee pleaded with me to take.  We picked her up last week, on Friday, the 19th of July.  I knew in taking a child with Down there was a possibility she would have other medical problems including heart disease.

Today I took her to Medica Superspecialty Center to see the pediatrician for a check-up and to start whatever investigations were in order.  Tuni was a charmer.  Yes, she has heart disease.  She was seen by the pediatric cardiologist, the same one who saw Ganga in the past.  He did a brief echocardiogram, enough to see that she has a “complicated heart situation.”  Tomorrow I take Tuni back for  a more thorough testing under sedation.  And then we will talk… as the doctor put it.

So much goes through my mind. Is it fixable?  What will it cost?  How will we manage it all?   I dare to even think, should we do it?  And then I get mad at myself for even asking.  I think about her family.  Maybe this is why they abandoned her.  Maybe they couldn’t afford treatment.  Maybe a mother is mourning. Or, maybe it was just the Down Syndrome… but they did put her in the hospital.  I hold no judgments any more.  This is a harsh place with harsh realities.  You don’t take a child to a government hospital unless you have no other alternatives.

This work has changed me too.  I now more easily see the person separate from the illness.  When I hold her and talk to her, I ask her, “What happened to you, Little One?”

Looking worried... with reason.

Looking worried… with reason.

Good night from Kolkata at 12:50 am.  I need to get some sleep before the day begins.  Lots on my mind….

She Wasn’t an Orphan

I faced a hard decision.  The child we brought home from CWC on 24 September is not an orphan.  She has a mother, sisters, aunts, uncles,  and cousins.  As I had guessed, she was part of a community of beggars, thieves, and goondas.  The woman who brought her in was some sort of boss.  All of this has unfolded over the last several weeks.  The woman who had brought her to CWC called us almost daily, showed up unannounced, and the child mostly did not want to see her.  Over the next few weeks we learned that the child’s mother lived right next door to that woman, with her younger sister, and that “L”, our girl would take care of her mother in the day (maybe).  The mother was said to be mad, but L told us this was just so people would give her money.  L missed all of them, and missed the freedom of her life.  At the same time she also loved being here, enjoyed the other girls, and started to learn the alphabet.

So, what’s the problem?  First of all, I’ve been at this work for 12 years and I have a good idea of who I can help and who I cannot help.  I cannot help this child.   I can feed her, but I cannot change the direction of her life.  Ultimately she would not stay and ultimately the family/community would not leave her here.  As long as she wants to go home, she will not tolerate any of the discipline, self discipline, and work of being part of our life, family, home.  She will always be different.  I’ve seen it too often.  She has a place to go, not a great place, but she has family, people of her life, who she wants to be with.  She will never feel, “Amar barrie Shishur Sevay.” or “My home is Shishur Sevay.”

Second, I left the US, sold my home and took my savings to come here and do this work.  I want to care for orphans, the one’s who do not have what this child has.  The girls at Shishur Sevay are without choice.  The one girl who has a family still wants to join them.  She probably will when she is 18 in seven months.  India has a horrible problem of beggar children.  There even are laws against it, but they are ignored.  It’s a problem I cannot begin to address because it’s fueled by organized crime, police, politicians, the people who get paid off to do nothing.  It’s simply not what I sold my house for.

Third, my commitment to the girls here is really lifetime.  That’s what my money is for.  I stay here, miss my family in the US, including my grandchild, because I care for children who would not be OK without me.   I’m not willing to make that sacrifice for a child with alternatives.   My daughter and son-in-law in the US feel a commitment to our girls, but this one is not an orphan and does not belong here.

Fourth, it is not OK to have a home of orphans, children who unfortunately carry the “shame” of  that label, to have a child who is automatically “above” that label.  Whatever WE may think of L’s community, she is accepted there.  Our Shishur Sevay girls have NO PLACE they are accepted.  Our girl who will return to her family when she is 18 wants to be where she IS ACCEPTED.    Before taking L back, the girls and I talked, because for them also it was hard to have her leave.  But our girl who is almost 18 was clearest, ‘Mummy, she will be like me.  She will want to stay with her family.”

So we went, Gibi, Purba, Maggie, “L”, and me.  I had prepared a letter for CWC stating much of what I’ve written above.  I also had the original CWC Order giving her to us, which described her as an orphan.   I brought the government form for signing a child out of care.  We arrived to be met by an angry group of her relatives, fighting with each other and accusing us of keeping her in a bad place.  Gibi threatened to call the police for fraud.  I missed a lot of it as I took the child inside and Purba made sure we got ourselves on the appointment list.  Among the group were the woman who signed her in, the woman who said she was the child’s mother, the younger sister, a woman who said she was the community representative of some sort, and a couple of others.  They were there to reclaim their child.  They were angry with the woman who had “relinquished” her, and now said she was actually the grandmother and the woman said to be mad was her daughter.

I had prepared myself for this CWC meeting differently.  Bringing this child back was difficult.  I had to do this for the security of Shishur Sevay, and the protection of the other girls.  I took out my business card, kept it in front of me as a reminder, and tried to stay in the mode of being the lawyer for Shishur Sevay.  Shishur Sevay became my client.   The CWC woman whom I’ve known now for years, was very astute with these people and ended up saying she had no idea who was telling the truth, but since no one could prove they were even a relative, she couldn’t return the child to them.  She turned to me and said I’d have to keep her for now.  I said very calmly, “No, I don’t have to keep her.  This “Order” you wrote says she is an orphan and she is not.  This is your failure to find out.”  She agreed I was right.  Sitting at the long table was also someone from  CINI (Children In Need Institute), which is the largest organization working with these children.  The official said that CINI would take her.  This is actually very good because they will investigate and they will keep her in a shelter if they decide not to return her to those people.  They have staff, social workers, project and program directors, informants, investigators, and connections to high places.   A social worker came into the CWC meeting room and took “L”  back to the waiting area where she joined about 20 other children sitting on mats, also waiting to go to CINI.  “L” was tearful and another girl moved closer to comfort her.

Hundreds, thousands of children pass through this way.   That’s really where the label “SHAME” belongs.

Today I did what I had to for, Shishur Sevay.

The Case of Kairi Shepherd — Orders for Exile

Kairi Shepherd, pictured below at about five years, is scheduled for deportation.  Gibi, who founded Shishur Sevay with me and serves as our Vice President, was to have been Kairi’s older sister.  I had been trying for several years to locate the people Gibi had known in the US, and particularly the Shepherd family.  So when I saw the original article May 9th about Kairi’s deportation, I immediately recognized her name.  I read some of the posts written in the comments of that article, Googled a bit, found someone close to Kairi, and then reached Kairi, who also put me in touch with her lawyer.  At the same time a group ACT, against child trafficking, had started pressurizing the Indian government to deny travel papers, so Kairi could not be deported.  The current state is that the US and Indian Governments are looking for solutions.  There has been a groundswell of support for Kairi among the community of parents who have adopted children.  A team of lawyers is working pro bono in her support.  Kairi suffers from progressive multiple sclerosis.  If not for that, exile would be just a disaster in so many ways.  But with her ms, this could be a fatal disaster.

The single meeting allowed for Erlene and Kairi Shepherd with Gibi

http://www.indiaamericatoday.com/article/inside-story-lack-accountability-leaves-kairi-limbo#.T8bm95CvYxc.facebook

INSIDE STORY: Lack of accountability leaves Kairi in limbo

ARTICLE | MAY 31, 2012 – 9:01AM | BY DR. MICHELLE HARRISON

Gibi’s passport had the name Shepherd, because Erlene was to have adopted her/ Credit: Dr. Michelle Harrison

Kolkata – Kairi Abha Shepherd was adopted from India at three months of age and has no country to call home. She was abandoned at birth in a Kolkata nursing home and taken in by a Kolkata orphanage that has since closed. At three months of age she was sent to the United States for adoption by Erlene Shepherd, a widow with six other adopted children. Erlene died of metastatic breast cancer when Kairi was eight years old, but never filed the papers to make Kairi a US citizen.

Now under threat of deportation, Kairi, who suffers from rapidly progressing multiple sclerosis, is an orphan without a country. She is from India, but was not raised as an Indian. She was raised as an American, but is not American. Deportation is a sanitized word. The proper term is exile, the banishment of a person from his home, his country. Given Kairi’s progressive illness, it might be death in exile.

I am an American doctor settled in Kolkata since 2006, where I founded Shishur Sevay, a home for orphan girls, some with disabilities, who were rejected for adoption. I have a younger daughter adopted in 1984 from IMH (International Mission of Hope), the same orphanage as Kairi. I also have an older daughter, to whom I gave birth. Both are American citizens, one by birth, the other by naturalization. When my older daughter was born she was mine and the only papers I filled out were for her birth certificate.

For my Indian daughter the process was longer and more complicated than pregnancy. I carried a different responsibility. I had been entrusted with another mother’s child, to love and raise her as if she were of my body. She had already lost a mother and a family. I felt a special responsibility to be the forever family she had been promised. Everyone in the long chain of people, institutions, and governments had a special responsibility for this child, because at that moment in time, they were the only ones in a position to secure her future safety.

Kairi didn’t hop on a plane at three months of age and say, “Mom, I’m coming home. Meet me at the airport.” Her “line of possession” was from a nursing home in Kolkata, to International Mission of Hope, to an escort, to Erlene Shepherd, her forever mother. An agency from the US side, AIAA (Americans for International Aid and Adoption), had to do a home study and approve Erlene to adopt another child.

Those papers had to be approved by the Indian Embassy in Washington and the US Immigration Service, all before Erlene could be assigned as Kairi’s mother. Back in India, IMH had to show how they received the child, and then petition the Alipore Court to give guardianship to Erlene Shepherd.

The guardianship papers defined the responsibilities of Erlene Shepherd: “Your petitioner submits that she is a fit and proper person to be appointed guardian of the person of the said minor during her minority. Your petitioner further submits that it will be for the welfare of and manifestly advantageous to the said minor as regards her up-bringing, education and establishment in life, if the petitioner is appointed guardian of the said minor and the minor is permitted to be taken to and live with your petitioner in USA.” The guardianship by the government of India did not require adoption or citizenship.

A different government office issued an Indian passport so Kairi could travel, with Erlene’s name as her US contact. The American Consulate had to issue a visa for Kairi to enter the US. Once Kairi was in the US, she would have received permanent resident status (a green card), which she then would have had to relinquish when she received her naturalization papers.

What went wrong – falling through the cracks

International adoption occurs in the context of a government agreement between the sending and receiving countries. At the time of Kairi’s adoption, neither government required that the child become a citizen. In fact they did not even require that the child be legally adopted!

All the people and government officials involved in the process of obtaining the child, caring for her, sending her to the US, and approving the US family were paid for what they did, by salaries or fees. Once Kairi was in the US, no one had a financial interest in helping her to get her papers. There may have been concern, but it was not imperative.

The agency that approved Erlene did so even though she had not obtained citizenship for her other international adoptees. Erlene was also approved to adopt Gibi after Kairi’s adoption. They had a single meeting, with Kairi present, and then the adoption didn’t happen; but Gibi had gone to Denver with Erlene’s name on her passport, just as Kairi had. Today in Kolkata, Gibi is tearful, and says, “Kairi was supposed to be my little sister. Maybe if I had been there to take care of her, her life would have been better.”

Erlene, a single mother with seven children, was struggling financially and then became ill with cancer. The child services agency in Utah which looks after orphaned children did not notice that the children lacked citizenship.
The older siblings attempted to apply for Kairi’s papers when she was 16, but the US authorities did not let them, as they were not her parents.

By the time Kairi was an adult, her life had truly fallen apart. She was on drugs and was convicted of forgery for the purpose of getting drugs, but as a non-citizen, she was suddenly an “illegal alien headed for deportation.” She has been fighting this since 2007. The United States Child Citizenship Act of 2000 created a system of automatic citizenship for adopted children, but it was not retroactive to the time Kairi was born. She missed the deadline by months.

Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” First it takes a mother, and Kairi had lost two mothers by the time she was eight. Her mother didn’t obtain the citizenship papers, but the village also failed to notice. The same government that welcomed her at three months wants to send her back at age 30, because she committed a crime. Did any adoptive parent ever think that their children’s remaining in the US was anything other than unconditional, that if they broke the law, back they went? When we adopted, we were the ones on trial as to our worthiness of raising our children. For Kairi, who lost two mothers, the village absconded.

Kairi’s multiple sclerosis – the effects of exile

Kairi’s first symptoms of multiple sclerosis appeared when she was 18, and she was diagnosed at age 22. It has progressed rapidly. She has clear lesions of her brain, which are worse on each subsequent MRI. Without powerful and expensive medications, she will not be able to survive. With each crisis of her MS, she is hospitalized for infusions. Even worse, she cannot tolerate the heat. If Kairi is exiled, she will arrive in India without funds and without a destination. She could literally collapse as soon as she leaves the airport and end up in a hospital with no money and no way of communicating.

The US does not deport in a kindly way. A person is put on a plane with no possessions except travel documents and they are not even allowed to make a phone call. All the rights of Americans that are taken for granted are only for citizens. Kairi has no rights, not even to a phone call to say she is leaving. She was escorted to the US with fanfare, with people sending her off, with people waiting for her arrival. Yet there are no goodbyes, just a disappearance.

When I adopted from this orphanage, I sent ahead an outfit for my daughter to wear for her journey home. We all did that. Kairi went to the US in that special outfit her mother sent her. She will be returning in whatever she happens to be wearing at the time, with no one to meet her, to a country where she looks like she belongs, where people will expect her to respond as an Indian raised in India, but she will be alone, more alone than when her mother left her at the nursing home in Kolkata. Kairi left for America as a healthy infant. She will be returning as a very sick adult with an incurable disease and without any means of survival.

Where is the village now as she faces death in exile?

The US must face its responsibility to the orphaned children it accepted, which at the time was understood to be unconditionally. As an adoptive parent, I didn’t have a return policy. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 was a good attempt to fix the problem, but it didn’t go back far enough. Kairi isn’t the only adoptee facing deportation.

Another Indian adoptee, Jennifer Hynes, was sent back to India, leaving two children and a husband in the US. She is begging to be able to return to the US to be with her children.

The law has to be fixed. The process of exiling these sons and daughters of Americans must be stopped. They may be “adoptees,” but they came to the US to be our sons and daughters, as if of our bodies. That is what we owe them.

About the Author

Dr. Michelle Harrison

Doctor, author, educator, and most importantly, mother, Dr. Michelle Harrison is a true visionary. She came to India in 2000, drawn by family connections having adopted from Kolkata in 1984. Over the next five years she returned to Kolkata often, sponsoring children in schools, putting toilets in villages and visiting many orphanages. She established Child life Preserve Shishur Sevay as a model of non-institutional care for orphan girls, some with disabilities, in response to asking herself, “What happens to the children who don’t get adopted?”

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries

October 2019
S M T W T F S
« Sep    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  
%d bloggers like this: