Two years ago, shortly after we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Rita took us to tour The Children’s Place orphanage. It was the first time I had ever been to an orphanage, and, as I wrote at the time, it was a gut-wrenching visit for me (click here to see that post). With the emotional scars from the loss of Jonathan still very fresh, it was painful for me to see so many children grappling with their own loss and with such uncertain prospects ahead of them. They get plenty of love at the orphanage, to be sure–but they are nevertheless orphans. I left The Children’s Place that day emotionally drained. Yet two years later, the most enduring image I have of that tour is the first: the door of the orphanage being opened by a 10-year-old boy named Usukhbayar who immediately struck me with his sweet and gentle spirit. In ways too deep to convey in words, his opening of the door opened my heart.
Over the next several days I got to know Usukhbayar and his younger sister Oyundari, playing soccer and basketball with them or spinning her around. (Usukhbayar was a little big for the spinning.) The more time I spent with them and the more I learned about their background, the more they seemed to root themselves in my heart. At nights I spoke to Cathy (my wife) of them, and when I returned to the U.S. I found that I couldn’t shake them from my mind. Cathy and I explored the possibility of adoption, but an adoption would be impossible: while their mother is dead, their father is alive (albeit unable to care for children) and retains parental rights. So while I kept the two photos below on my cell phone, I tried not to think about them.
All that changed, however, when this past January brought Rita back to our home in Jacksonville. Quite unexpectedly, over dinner one night Rita blurted out: “Are you two still interested in those kids [Usukhbayar and Oyundari]? Because it is possible that you could become long-term host parents for them. Give it some thought and let me know when I come back next month.” Cathy and I agreed to consider the opportunity, but the truth is that we knew instantly that we would like to bring Usukhbayar and Oyundari to live with us as exchange students/foster children. Indeed, providing them the opportunity to have an American education and helping to prepare them for lives on their own as adults would be a great gift . . . to us. When Rita returned to our home in February, we shared with her the news that we would love to bring the children to America.
But to do so would require clearing several hurdles. First, we would have to have the full support of the orphanage Director–and we were delighted that she immediately bought into the idea, which is really quite novel in Mongolia. Next, the father would have to approve the plan. Amazingly, he did. Then we would have to have the authorization of the Mongolian social services agency, which is still in its post-Soviet growing pains and trying to figure out what it means to send kids to foster families abroad. After 3-4 rounds of documents proving that we were people of good character who actually have jobs and a house, etc., they agreed to allow the children to live with us for a year. The final hurdle was the U.S. government, which had to decide whether to issue the critical F-1 student visa, without which the children would not be able to enter the country. As fate would have it, Usukhbayar and Oyundari had their first interview at the U.S. Embassy while the Mongolia Bound 2014 team was in UB. I had not been expecting to see the children while I was in Mongolia because I knew they were at the orphanage’s Summer House, but on the afternoon following the interview Margie asked me if I would like to visit with them–they would be staying overnight at The Children’s Place before returning to the countryside the next morning. I couldn’t say “Yes!” fast enough and caught a cab to the orphanage, where, with Margie as translator, I got to spend an hour with them talking about their hoped-for life in America. Margie took the photo below during that magical hour:
After a follow-up interview on August 14 with the U.S. Consul, who has proven exceedingly kind, the visa was finally granted last week. Thus I am now on a plane bound for Seoul, where I will meet up with the children and their escort from the orphanage, along with Margie and her kids (who were already planning to travel to the U.S.). After a scant 5 hours at Incheon airport, we will all catch a flight to Atlanta, where Cathy will meet us. Then the nine of us will board one last flight to our home city of Jacksonville.
Needless to say, Cathy and I are thrilled beyond words. (We’re also really nervous, too!) Obviously this is a potentially big risk and a HUGE change in our lives, but our hope is to give Usukhbayar and Oyundari a future they would not otherwise have had. Likewise, though, they will give us a future we would not otherwise have had. After the catastrophic loss of Jonathan, these children in a very real sense offer us a type of redemption: a chance to bring life from death, and to help close the circle between Mongolia and Jacksonville, between the Mother and Child Hospital and the Nemours Children’s Clinic, between The Children’s Place orphanage and Jonathan’s hospital bed on 5 Wolfson.
As we have informed friends and family about this exciting development, many have wondered aloud what would prompt us to take on such a challenge. For me, one particular Scriptural passage has reverberated in my mind these past 7 months: to paraphrase James 1:27, “true religion is to care for widows and orphans in their affliction.” Paradoxically, we hope that as we care for these two orphans, Usukhbayar and Oyundari will in turn help give our lives renewed purpose.