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From Russia with love

When it came to children who needed a home, Lisa and Hythem Salem were two people who could not say 'no' -- even if it meant putting their hearts on the line six times
Lisa Salem

Life, for many people on this planet, is anything but fair. Desired outcomes are often so improbable, no matter how hard anyone tries to make it happen.

This is a story about orphan twins, the couple that adopted them, the discovery of who was left behind, and the effort to do something about it.

Improbable?  It certainly is.

Lisa Salem, adoptive parent: To find your purpose in life is the most amazing feeling and this is it.

They are two regular people in an average suburb in America—Lisa and Hythem Salem. He an immigrant from Jordan, she a small town girl from Minnesota. And when it came time for a family, they decided not to have children the usual way. 

Lisa: We decided that there was more children in the world than there were parents. And that we could do something.  

And that was the fateful decision, or attitude really, that made the whole amazing story happen.

Lisa: Adoption was a choice for us, not a necessity.

For close to half a year, Lisa searched and searched, many countries, scores of adoption agencies. Yhen she and Hythem were swept into something quite beyond anything they might have dreamt.

Lisa:  You just go where you’re meant to be.    We were supposed to be in Russia. 

In August, 1998, the Salems received this videotape from a Russian orphanage, showing fraternal twins a boy and girl, who’d been given up at birth, their parents too poor to care for them.

Lisa: For us, it was a no-brainer.

But behind those faces were problems almost too many to count --  the babies were born 3 months premature, were left unattended in their crib, they say.

Lisa: They had scabies, a staph infection. Hythem Salem, adoptive father: Double hernia.Lisa: Just from crying and nobody coming.Hythem: Ear infections.Lisa: their ears were draining. We did have doctors, three in the United States, who told us not to adopt them.  That they would have cerebral palsy. That they would have brain damage.  That they would never be whole.

But the Salems refused to be discouraged and five months later, in Jan. 1999, video camera in hand, they arrived in Moscow, boarded a train and rode mile after mile before they could meet their babies.

Lisa: What comes particularly to mind as I  walked through the orphanage and saw the babies in the beds.  Is that there’s no line. It’s not a Russian baby, it’s not an American baby. It’s just a baby. That needs love and attention.

They named their children Joe and Sophia.  And the cheerful picture of this, they knew, was deceiving.  Here they were,  just 10 days shy of their first birthday, Joe weighed a mere 11 ½ pounds, Sophia 12.  About half of what they should have weighed.

Lisa: And when we took ‘em to the pediatrician here, I remember his hands shaking, because he didn’t know what to do.

There were months of constant feeding, sleepless nights tending to terribly weak, feverish babies.

Lisa:  I remember Hythem spending nights with Joe.  I’ll never forget. One night, he had tears rolling down his cheeks.  And he was telling Joe, “I’ll make you whole.  I’ll make you whole.”  They just needed food. They just needed food and love and a family. I mean, to look at them now, who would know? Joe: I’m Joe. Keith Morrison: And?Sophia: I’m Sophia.Morrison: How old are you guys?Joe: Six.Morrison: Both six?Both: Uh Huh.Morrison:  How can you be the same age if you’re brother and sister?Joe: We’re twins!

Joe and Sophia Salem were in kindergarden, when we first met them, in April, 2004.  Their medical problems gone, the dire predictions of an unhealthy childhood happily forgotten.

Morrison: What else do you do besides go to kindergarden?Sophia: I go to ballet.  Joe goes to t-ball.

Joe is the athlete, Mr. Social and Sophia, the shy ballerina.

Lisa: They’re the most loving, caring kids.  It’s like, they appreciate what happened in their life. And where they are now.

Mission accomplished, or so it seemed. 

It was as much as anyone gets such a thing, a happy ending... but who knew that somebody had thrown the celestial dice, and impossible odds were coming up?

Morrison: Where were you guys born?Joe & Sophia (together): Russia.Morrison: Where’s Russia?Sophia: Where the brothers and sisters are.

Hythem and Lisa Salem watched their children, Joe and Sophia, grow and thrive.  But always with a secret that gnawed away in the back of their minds: It was something they had heard here, in the orphanage, in 1999, when they adopted the twins.

That it was the third birth and the third couple of twins. Third set of twins? Their new babies, they discovered, were not the only children in their Russian family. And, remarkably, they weren’t the only twins either.

Joe and Sophia had four older siblings,  twin sisters, and twin brothers.

Lisa Salem: But we knew at the time they were still living with the birth parents.

As years went by, Lisa decided that she wanted her children to know more about their biological family, and maybe even make contact with the siblings they had never met.

So in November, 2003, almost 5 years after they adopted Joe and Sophia a Russian contact went to Moreno, a rural village in the northwest part of Russia, where the birth parents lived. 

And there the contact made a disturbing discovery.  The parents were still there all right.  But the four older children, Joe and Sophia’s siblings... were gone.

Lisa: And that’s when I found out that the kids had been in orphanages.

Orphanages? Plural? In fact, the Salems discovered, the parents had fallen deeper into poverty, the children taken away from them for neglect. 

They had become just four more added to almost 300,000 children in Russia without parents to care for them, lives headed nowhere good, consigned to institutions, anonymous faces somewhere here in the crowd..

And more disturbing still was when they finally found out where those children were, they discovered that the brothers and sisters had been separated; the boys sent here, the girls to an orphanage far away.

Lisa: When I saw the first pictures of them, I saw my own children’s eyes.

And before long, the Salems began to learn what the children had endured.

Lisa: The neglect they suffered was horrific. It’s painful to think about.

Sergei and Nicolai, now 10 and Vera and Nadia, 11 had been living in a derelict apartment after their home burned down.

Their parents, unemployed, alcoholic, often abandoned them for weeks at a time and left them here without heat, or food in abject squalor.

Lisa:  They lived through really really horrific cirmcunstances. No food in the house.Hythem: They were like half dressed.  They hardly went to school.

At first, when authorities took them, they were placed in a single orphanage.

And then these four children, who’d survived by sticking together, found themselves torn apart.

And now they lived separate lives, 100 miles apart.

The boys were sent to a boarding school, a grim, decrepit place, barely standing, lacking even running water.

The news hit like a bombshell at the Salem family home.

Hythem:  She looked me in the eye, I looked at her—I said, “You thinking what I’m thinking?”  and said, “yes.”Lisa: And we immediately made that decision to adopt them.Keith: But these are four more kids.Hythem: But they are their siblings that’s their brother and sister.

By April, 2004 the Salems had a plan. They would take Sophia and Joe to meet their siblings in Russia, hoping to begin another adoption process. 

And as they set off on their long journey, they were excited, but had fears, as well.

Lisa:  Fear about the future, fear about the state of the children. Fear if they wanted to be adopted.Morrison: Afraid they might not want to come with you?Lisa: Uh-huh.

So circumstances were precarious, to say the least, as the Salems arrived stomachs churning at the girls’ orphanage.

Russian authorities would not permit our cameras to accompany the family.

We gave the Salems a video camera, and asked them to tape as much as they could.

Lisa: They were already a part of my heart when i met them.

The girls were friendly, affectionate, but missed their brothers desperately.

And then, something they’d been afraid to hope for… Joe and Sophia, of course, had never seen these sisters before—couldn’t speak their language, perfect strangers but who, in a matter of minutes, were behaving as if they’d lived together all their lives. 

Lisa: For me as a parent, to be able to watch that.  How much better does it get? 

The day was extraordinary, dizzy. 

Lisa: We don’t want to leave you but we’ll come as soon as we can.

But the Salems had been warned it would be different with the boys—Sergei and Nicolai were still traumatized by all they’d been through.

At the age of 6, Joe and Sophia were about to meet their brothers for the first time in their lives.

And it was frankly strange. Awkward.

Sergei and Nicolai didn’t quite know what to do, around these strangers.

And then, out of the blue, little Joe began to cry as he approached his brother Nicolai and hugged him.  Sophia followed, hugging Sergei.

And just like that, the ice was broken.

Lisa: That was an amazing sight to see the emotional that existed from just the fact that you know that that’s your brother.

As the hours passed, little by little, the boys allowed themselves to smile and laugh, and open up a little bit.

When it was time to leave the Salems promised the boys they’d be back to adopt them. But would they be allowed to...and, if so, when?

Lisa:  It’s excruciating.  Not knowing when and not knowing many things.

The Russian courts are strict about international adoptions, experts say, and certainly not all are in favor of them. 

The court would evaluate every part of the Salems’s lives—their backgrounds, finances, their home, jobs, medical reports.

Then the children themselves would have to tell  the judge that they wanted to be adopted.

And Lisa and Hythem were terrified that the birth parents or someone in the children’s family might come forward and stop the adoption.

Hythem: You’re already hurting about the kids sitting there. You’re worried about their  well being. And if you don’t get granted that decision, it’ll be devastating.

Back home in Pennsylvania, all Joe and Sophia could think about was their brothers and sisters in Russia.

They now began to learn a little of their native language. All their parents, Lisa and Hythem could do, was worry and wait.

Wait for the decision on the adoption, and worry about the the children in Russia.  Especially the boys.  The memory of where they lived, so different from the girls, haunted them.

Lisa Salem: The conditions of the buildings were ready to fall over.  The lack of what they  had. They are in such need.

And for all four children, the Salems felt the clock rapidly ticking away. 

Lisa: You’re fighting against time with them getting older.  They’re not babies.  They’re pre-adolescents and then being able to affect a change in their life.

And this might very well be the children’s last chance for a stable home.  Already their odds were poor.  In Russia, as in most countries, 95 percent of children in orphanages, over the age of 5, are never adopted.

Instead, children’s rights advocates say, unadopted Russian children confront grim statistics: one third of the orphans become homeless, one in five commits a crime, and 10 per cent of these children commit suicide.

But if Lisa and Hythem were permitted to bring these children home, and change their futures, they would have to figure out how they could possibly pay for it all.

Lisa: I think that’s the hardest part. After you’re done with the emotional and the waiting.

Hythem is an engineer, earning $64,000 a year. Lisa works part time at home. Supporting a family of four, is one thing, but traveling to Russia... and if the adoption went through, doubling the size of their family.

Lisa: I don’t know how we’ll get through it.  We seem to be living every day by the seat of our pants, but you can’t put a price on this.

And then, the most remarkable thing:

The Salems story had spread... around town in the newspaper, they were seen on TV.

And after that, it seemed the whole community was adopting the Salems, sending contributions.

All the while, the Salems were waiting for a Russian court date to plead their case.

Lisa: I think you physically hurt sometimes from that whole process, waiting for the date—waiting, waiting, waiting for the phone call.

And then, finally, the phone rang.

It was June 2004, when Lisa and Hythem went back to Russia, alone this time, on a 12 hour train ride back to the children.

Key phrases were important to learn. One Russian phrase in particular they were determined to remember:

Hythem Salem: “You are safe,” yes.Keith Morrison: Why that?Hythem: Their trust been violated so many times.  And we just wanna give ‘em that word to say, “You are safe. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

As they arrived it was clear— whether or not the court was ready to agree, the girls now had expectations.  And Lisa and Hythem were in no mood for caution themselves.

Lisa: Soon you’re going to go to America and you’re going to grow up with your brothers and sisters and we love you already.

Since the Salem’s visit two months ago, they were told, something in the girls had changed. You could see it in their eyes.

They’d been hounding everyone... “When would it happen?  How soon?”

And so, as the girls remained behind to wait and wonder, the Salems traveled the 100 miles to see the boys.

And along the way, worried.

Had they been through too much trauma, were they too old, to make new family relationships?

Sergei especially, he barely spoke when the Salems last visited, hardly showed any affection.

Morrison: What were your expectations that second time?Lisa: From when we left the first time I kind of felt like we might shake hands.

But it didn’t quite happen that way.

Lisa: I mean, they hugged me so tight, I could hardly breathe. I didn’t expect anything like that.Hythem: I think it was almost reality for them.  “This is a dream come true.  They told us they’re coming back.  And here they are.”Lisa:     I likened it to a flower in the forest that had shriveled up. But the sun came out, and they bloomed. 

The next day, after almost two years apart, sisters and brothers would be reunited so that a Russian court could decide if their meeting would last one day or the rest of their lives.

It looks for all the world like a smaller, older sibling of the famous Moscow Kremlin,  standing tall between two rivers in the ancient city of Pskov.

Here, hundreds of miles from Moscow, more than a thousand years of history have rolled down among the old spires and domes.

And on June 24th, 2004, a very personal piece of history was playing out in a local park.

Vera and Nadia, were about to be reunited with Sergei and Nicolai after almost two years.

The girls arrived first at nine in the morning.  

Hythem Salem: We took ‘em there and we told them to wait.  We didn’t even tell them their brothers are coming.  Just wait here.  We’re going to go to court and we might meet your brothers in court.

And then far in the distance, they saw two boys they hadn’t seen for a very long time.

Hythem: And here come the brothers.Lisa Salem: You could see that they were so happy but they had so much to catch up on.  They almost didn’t know what to say.

The boys now 10 noticed how much the girls, who had just turned 12 — had grown, the sisters looking at the familiar birthmark on their brother’s face.

Lisa:  It was, “We’re back to where we belong.  We’re back to where we’re supposed to be.  This is how it should be.”  And you could feel that moment.  You could feel that.

And Lisa felt something more.

Lisa:  There’s also a sadness about what they had lost in their past.

And with all these mixed emotions, the fact was, it could still come to nothing.

Because that very day, a court would have to rule on their adoption request.

Lisa:  As much as our excitement over anticipating their meeting we were also worried about the court, the court hearing.

Lisa and Hythem would have to persuade a judge that they could care for and support four  more children.  And the crucial question—the judge would ask the children directly, whether they wanted to be adopted.

Lisa: That whole process is just very intimidating for me as an adult.

They could only imagine what it would be like for the children.

Hythem:  What the kids’ gonna say?  Or what kind of questions you gonna ask him? It’s very nerve-wracking, because you don’t know what’s gonna happen.

Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom.   But behind these closed doors...

Lisa: The emotion is very raw, I stood there I wasn’t nervous but I wanted to shake the judge, and say, “You’ve got to feel this, that these children need to be together.” 

The judge looked down from her bench at four very nervous children and asked the question that would make all the difference. “Do they really want to be adopted?”

Lisa: And they’re all silent.  And I really started to get afraid.  And they’re not allowed to be adopted until they answer this question.Hythem: And the judge kept saying, “I need somebody to stand up and that was very scary.”

And that’s when, Sergei, the one everyone thought to be the most withdrawn, got up and faced the judge and  spoke for them all.

Lisa: He stood up with such pride. And no hestitation.  From a child who barely speaks, he said, “I wanna be with my brothers and sisters.  And he said that he wanted this mommy and daddy.”

After which it was no contest.  The entire hearing lasted just 20 minutes, and the judge made her decision.  Adoption approved.

Lisa: I saw tears streaming down her cheeks.  And I know she knew.  She already knew that they needed to be together.  And what a heartwarming life it will be for them.

At their first meal together in Russia, the family created a whole new way of talking to each other.  The children were given new American names.

Selene, Julianne, Sam, and Jake.  They’ll keep their Russian names as their middle names.

Keith Morrison: Why’d you change their names?Lisa: It was a washing off the old, starting new. Starting fresh. And we asked them.  We didn’t just change their names.

Though that was the easy part.

Suddenly they were parents of two more sets of twins.  And the four eldest are far older than most adoptees, spoke no English, have lived lives of hardship, and emotional pain.  This was not going to be easy.

Lisa: We do have healing that needs to take place.  And a wounded child is a wounded adult.

It was during those last days in Russia, bit by bit, the children began telling their new parents about their nightmare life.

Lisa: I remember being shocked many times when they talked about it.Morrison: So, those orphanages, difficult though  they were, were—Lisa: It’s the best place they ever knew.

So they rode on a train away from there, beginning their 5,000 mile journey to a new home, and new life.

...and yet here on this train they have no real idea what is about to happen to them.

Nor did Lisa and Hythem, for that matter.

How would they support four more children?

And they could only imagine what nightmares had been brewing in these preteen heads. 

Were they capable of forming new family bonds?  How would they get on with Joe and Sophia?

Lisa: You can’t have lived the life that they did and not have some issues.

And on that train, to their great surprise, the children found themselves passing through the village of Moreno.  The village where they had lived with their parents.  From the train, they could even see the apartment where they had suffered for so long. 

Children talking (in Russian): Here it is, over there ...without the roof. It is such an awful apartment.  Farewell Morino...

Next, America.

Amazing, the turns life can take.  One day in an orphanage, the next.. on their way to America.

Back in Philadelphia, Joe and Sophia were very important people, as they waited at the airport.

Newspaper and television cameras taking their pictures, even people from the airline, which had donated the tickets, had come to meet all those twins. 

Now, all six brothers and sisters, three sets of twins would be together for the first time in their lives.

Keith Morrison: Did it live up to your expectations?Lisa Salem: Oh more. More than I could imagine. There can’t be a better moment than that. 

Here’s what they were coming home to: A $55,000 addition to the home.  Every penny, every hour of labor donated by a local developer. New bedrooms, a bathroom, furniture… all of it a gift, from people who wanted to help.

There were signs from little ones to welcome them.

Lisa: They need to know that this is their house.  This is their family.  They’re my children.Hythem Salem: They could not believe it.  They kept asking, “This is my bed?” “Yes, this is your bed. This is your room.  This is your bathroom.” And they kept asking like “This is my clothes? Can I take this?” and just like “Yes.”

And Julianne, said her first words in English: “I love you.”

Lisa: She wrapped her arms around my neck and said "I love you." That was special.

So here they are: four brand new children, all about to enter some of life’s more difficult years, in a new world, where they can’t even speak the same language.

Morrison: Do you ever look at each other and say, “what have we done? Lisa: Yes. We did. Especially the first days we woke up and “What did we do?  Why did we do this?” But we knew we were gonna feel that way. 

In the summer of 2004, with the children just home, the family communicated using sign language, broken Russian, and broken English.  In emergencies, they had a Russian speaking friend they could call.

There was non stop, bilingual commotion from morning till night.

The children had boundaries to learn, new ways to think, to do things.

But to their parents’ surprise, behavior was better, the adjustment was easier than they expected.

Having Joe and Sophia around helped.

Hythem:  I think it’s a big factor just seeing how we interact, and discipline Joseph and Sofia. Lisa: There’s no difference between how we treat them, and how we treat Joe and Sofia.  And they’re really watching that.  

And here, after just seven months of being home in America, they’ve all blossomed in school, their teachers say. They love being there, have made new friends. All four are soaking up English like a sponge.

And if you ask them, they’ll tell you they understand everything you say.

Morrison:  This is amazing.  How come this happened so fast?  Was it hard?All kids:  No.Morrison: No?Jake: No, only a little bit.Morrison: How did the people at school, how did they treat you?Julianne: They want to be our friends everybody wants to be our friends.Morrison: What subjects do you like?Selene: Social Studies and English.

In early 2005, it was apparent they have wasted no time becoming American.

Morrison: Do you like to watch football?All:  Yes.Morrison: Did you watch the Superbowl?All: yesMorrison: What team do you like?All: EaglesMorrison: Can you do the Eagles cheer?All: e-a-g-l-e-sLisa: The strides that they’ve made and the people that they’ve become are—all four is amazing.  All four.

There’s an extraordinary, almost indescribable bond among all six children, their parents say.  Almost mystical.  It’s as if they’re making up for lost time.

Morrison: I want to know what it’s like for you guys to be all back together again.Sophia: It’s fun having them around.  Because they’re fun to play with.Joe: It feels like loving.Julianne: I’m happy be all together and play together.  It’s like a dream.

As for Lisa and Hythem? There’s never enough time.  And NO money.  Even with the all the donations, they borrowed $90,000 dollars  against their house, they say, money which restored a family, pays for it’s support, but also keeps them up at night.

Lisa: The financial burden really makes things hard and that’s what weighs heavily on me right now.

But no amount of worry about that, they insist, can diminish their constant amazement at what this family has become.

Lisa: I would never have anticipated this kind of miracle.  Never.Morrison: 'Miracle' you call it?Lisa: Yeah it’s a miracle from where we’ve been to where we are now there isn’t a bigger miracle than the story of our children.