A Russian Fairytale
Olya's sister, Stefanie, was "excited to teach her," says Barb Vanderbeek. With help from her sister, Olya was easily able to learn a new subjects and a language at school. The Vanderbeek's from left to right: Dmitri, Barb, Stefanie, Kraig, and Olya. (Photo from Olya) Every day for nine years, a strong willed girl scratched her lice-infested, bowl-cut blonde hair. Olya slapped at mosquitos biting her arms and toes. She always woke up shivering in her uncomfortable bed in the cramped white room. Her eyes wearily gazed at the other fifteen girls combing their dry fingers through their own disheveled hair. Olya opened the tall, narrow, green door and headed down the hallway to the main room. She skittered nervously by a door leading to the downstairs rooms. “Don’t ever go down there,” one caretaker told her. “Those rooms are only for the boys.” The danger of this threat hung over Olya’s head. She rushed to the bathroom. The toilet? A hole in the ground. And no showers. Since the bathroom had only two sinks, lines of children waited anxiously to wash up. Olya later plopped down on the stage in the room, fingering her frayed T-shirt which was shared with the other girls. She watched the television in the corner located next to a gaping hole in the wall. “We could see the sky,” Olya recalls, widening her eyes as if still seeing the blue sky peeping through the walls. Olya noticed the scary movie they had been watching had been switched to Tom and Jerry, her favorite cartoon.
The children were told to go outside to the small playground, the place of Olya’s first bee sting and cigarette. Olya liked to chill out in one of the bunk beds located inside the tiny playhouses, alone. Always alone. Christmas time meant twinkling lights on an enormous tree in the main room. Children of all ages danced, sang, and cried. Olya, 9, was one of the latter. She would grab her one, small, colorful bag of candy-her only present from Santa-and sit in a chair with tears streaming down her cheeks as the Christmas music played happily in the background. “I don’t know why I would cry,” Olya says. Happy days popped in and out of Olya’s life. One day her cousins picked her up from her dreary habitation. They bought her colorful, sugary, sweet bread-a Russian treat. They presented her with her one and only toy, a Barbie doll. A Barbie doll with blonde hair, just like her. Her brother received two walkie-talkies so the two could communicate secretly. “They (her cousins) visited me only because they were building the school at the orphanage,” Olya explains. Those were the days in Yamskaya, an orphanage in Russia. An orphanage where the mean girls hit hard and jump ropes became whips.
Olya (middle), with her caretakers and brother Dmitri (right) at the Russian orphanage, smiles and shows her “love for life.” Despite rough times, Olya was always able to see the bright side. (Photo from Olya) Allah, one of the girls in her room, was cruel and would hit Olya consistently. “You’re annoying,” Allah yelled with one skinny arm posed threateningly above her head.
One of the caretakers at the orphanage, who “dressed like hooker,” would swing a jump rope at Olya. This same woman was also the only source of income for nine-year-old Olya. Olya was ordered to give the tall woman a massage. But never for free. “There you go,” the woman would give her a quarter so Olya could buy gum with prizes in the middle. She came to Yamskaya as Olya. “I totally just forgot it,” Olya says when trying to recall her original last name. “Oh yeah, Kroskovskaya.” Olya was only four years old when she was sent to the orphanage. “I wish I could remember my parents,” Olya says but shakes her head, squints her blue eyes and corrects herself, “I don’t want to remember them at all.” Olya stares at her short, chewed, pink painted fingernails, “I don’t think I ever want to meet them.” Olya was taken away from her biological parents because “they abused me and never took care of me.” When she was seven, Olya had a new family lined up for her in Missouri. The family already had a little girl, but had contacted the organization to adopt. But suddenly they changed their minds. “For some reason, they didn’t,” says Olya, flipping her hand out nonchalantly. Luckily though, Barb and Kraig Vanderbeek heard about the almost adoption at a big picnic. The Vanderbeeks already had one daughter, but still wanted more children. Like the Vanderbeeks, many couples are interested in adopting orphans from other countries. In fact, the US Department of State reports there were 233,934 intercountry adoptions between 1999-2011 with the numbers growing every year. It seemed like fate so the Vanderbeeks started the process to adopt Olya.
Olya was excited with new devices, such as a phone, in the hotel she stayed in. "I don't know who I'm talking to," Olya recalls when looking back at the photo today. (Photo from Olya) The Vanderbeeks traveled to Russia, went through the suspicious security, including men with guns who threatened, “If you do something wrong, you won’t come back.” After the Vanderbeeks finished loads of paperwork, retrieved their references, and were provided with a translator, they were finally ready to meet Olya. According the US Department of State, there have been around 45,000 adoptions from Russia in the last twelve years. Almost 20,000 were under the age of two compared to the approximately 8,300 who were around Olya’s age or older. However, Barb immediately knew there was something unique about Olya. Barb noticed Olya’s “orneriness and energy.” “There was something right under the skin,” Barb says. “I was so shy,” Olya recalls with a small smile. On that monumental day, Olya was wearing a simple pair of navy pants, a green shirt and a pair of socks. Olga, the “boss” of the orphanage, pushed her toward a woman with tan skin, dark hair, and a soft smile. Olya gazed up at the man with spiky, gray hair who hovered closely near the woman. “We could tell she had a spirit for life,” Barb says. At that time, Olya and her brother had only been going to school for one year. Their only source of education had been in a long, narrow brick building with five to ten students in a classroom
consisting of a teacher’s desk and a single bookcase. Naturally, having only this, the two children were overwhelmed to hear someone was adopting them. Olya was so excited her “ears heard nothing but gibberish” in the days before the adoption. Even so, Olya was “suddenly filled with fear” when she heard she had to leave. On that first crucial day, the Vanderbeeks had a gift for Olya. “They brought me clothes,” Olya says, “of my own.” This was the first time Olya would not have to share her clothes. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t expecting that,” Olya says. She definitely wasn’t expecting the red light to flash every time her foot pounded against the pavement. “I was fascinated by the red glow.”
Her last sight of her old life consisted of the lighted buildings in Moscow. Olya stayed in Moscow for one night before traveling to the United States. (Photo by Olya) The cold wind burned Olya’s wet lips and whipped her hair. “Snowflakes collected in my small hand and melted right away,” she recalls. Olya raised her eyes to see the familiar mother who pulled her baby by the orphanage every day in its green sled on the ice for the last time. The teacher at the orphanage watched her leave, whispering dreamily, “It’s like a fairy tale.” That was the day Olya Kroskovskaya became Olya Vanderbeek.
Olya jumped into the white van and slid in next to the dark-haired woman. “She knew no English, we knew no Russian,” Barb says. Even so, Barb could see the excitement in her adoptive daughter’s eyes. Olya walked into the clean hotel with all the windows and most importantly, the warmth. Olya was even more thrilled when she saw the pool in the hotel. Olya made an oath to herself that she would swim in that bright, heavenly, blue pool first thing in the morning. Boy, would that feel good. Later that night, her new mother handed Olya a small brush. Confused, Olya watched her. After seeing Barb do the same, Olya followed suit. The orphanage didn’t have mirrors so Olya “stared at the strange image.” Olya waved at her reflection in the mirror and smiled. The time came for Olya and her brother to depart from Russia, to live in the United States of America. They traveled back to the threatening, ominous airport for the last time. Boarding the plane, Olya looked forward to her new life in America as a Vanderbeek. Her excitement caused her to laugh and giggle at Finding Nemo playing on the plane. “I didn’t even know what they were saying; I just found it so funny,” Olya says. During Olya’s wild cackles of undisturbed laughter, her brother Dmitri stared at her with his red eyes sunken into his green, narrow, airsick face. Lydia O’Keefe, Olya’s best friend for five years, has been with her through thick and thin. O’Keefe has known Olya for almost as long as she lived in Russia. “She feels happy and grateful to be adopted,” Lydia says, “and a little sad and depressed because of how bad she had it over in Russia.” Lydia knows, though, Olya is “happy to be out of the situation she was in.” In December, Russia banned American adoptions, leaving half a million children who were in Olya’s situation without a home. Many officials believe this is in retaliation of the United States’ new law imposing sanctions on Russians who commit human rights violations. Russians have also been outraged at the death of nineteen orphans adopted by American citizens, but stricter regulations are now in place to safeguard children. Olya, now a junior at Millard West High School, is away from the hardships of Russia and living a new life. She is worried about typical teenage things like homework, spending time with her friends, and the latest fashion trends. “I have my own room,” Olya says, “with my own dresser and desk.” “She has a love for life,” Barb says.
Olya never takes for granted what her life really is to her, a fairy tale.
February 26th, 2013 Kassidy Arena Millard West