As the year ends and we find ourselves between Western and Eastern Christmas, it is only normal to look back at the past twelve months and take stock. In the past year, I had the honor to work with an incredible staff of Americans and Ukrainians as the Immigrant Visa Unit Chief in the Embassy’s Consular Section. In the job, probably the most important single thing I did was to help Ukrainian orphan children to realize their dream of having a family and to help American families in their dream of having children. It was like Christmas all year round.
While people may disagree about many things, it’s clear that the best thing for kids without parents is to become part of a family. It’s best if this is through domestic adoption or foster care — Ukraine has done a great job of this — but that is not always possible. Then international adoption, especially for special needs children who would otherwise remain in orphanages, can play an important role. We Americans highlight this by celebrating adoption as a positive way to build families each November, which is marked every year as Adoption Month in the U.S.
During this year’s Adoption Month, Liliya Khlebnikova (our Ukrainian adoption expert) and I had the rare opportunity to represent the Embassy at the international conference “Ukraine Without Orphans” in Kyiv. This conference brought together over 500 participants from Ukraine, the United States, Russia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Belarus. The theme of the very useful conference was “Touch a Child – Change the Future.” Especially significant for me, besides having the opportunity to explain the Embassy’s role in supporting adoptions in a presentation for the participants, was to learn more about partnerships and networks serving children at risk both on the national and international levels. I was deeply moved by the stories of older children and the children with special needs (Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, etc.), who had successfully found families through adoption.
The Cornish Family
I was particularly impressed by Reece’s Rainbow. This organization specializes in finding families for children with special needs. Meredith and Michael Cornish, who are associated with Reece’s Rainbow, are some of the most remarkable people that I have met since arriving in Ukraine. Meredith and Michael have six children, three – biological and three – adopted, with Down syndrome. They are now adopting two more Ukrainian kids with Down syndrome. In a meeting with Consular Section staff, they explained to us why families adopt children with HIV, blindness, arthrogryposis, spina bifida, fetal alcohol syndrome, or Down Syndrome. Meredith and Michael also told us how these disabilities influence the adopted children and their new families.
In addition to her duties at home and her work with the Reece’s Rainbow, Meredith Cornish has her own blog at http://www.mcornish.org, where she gives online advice to families who have adopted kids or have their own kids with Down syndrome. If you want a first-hand view of special needs adoption, look no further.
Thanks to Meredith and Michael, and many other wonderful Ukrainians and Americans who work to find families for special needs orphans through international adoption, and the opportunity to facilitate their work, I felt a little bit like Santa Claus all year long.
Posted by: Heather Fabrikant, Deputy Cultural Attaché
“We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions – bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality.” – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
“For the past four decades, new immigrants have brought to the U.S. not only their dreams of freedom or economic prosperity, but their Bhagavad Gitas and Qur’ans, their images of the Bodhisattva Guan Yin and the Virgin of Guadalupe. We the people wear yarmulkes, headscarves, and turbans now. We build temples, mosques, and gurdwaras.” Diana Eck, Harvard professor, Director of The Pluralism Project
Hanukkah at White House
Growing up a child of parents of two religious backgrounds, I celebrated not one but two holidays. Being raised worshipping and learning about two separate but linked traditions may seem strange to most, but it is an increasingly frequent phenomenon in America. A recent survey indicates that among America’s married adults, 37 percent are married to someone from a different religious affiliation. A recent example is Chelsea Clinton’s marriage to Mark Mezvisnsky in July 2010, which was officiated by both a Rabbi and Reverend. While common, there are still mixed feelings in America about interfaith marriages, like that of my parents.
As a child, my Jewish father and I would go buy a fresh pine tree at the local church bazaar. Usually before Christmas, since Jewish holidays follow the lunar Hebrew calendar, my family lit a menorah for the first of the eight nights of Hanukkah. In my predominately African American junior high school, several classmates taught me about the Kwanzaa holiday, a week-long celebration founded in 1966 to honor African-American heritage.
According to an extensive study on the religious landscape of the US, America is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. The First Amendment of our Constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion and protects each individual’s freedom to worship as he or she chooses. Every day, Americans of a wide spectrum of religions, ethnicities and creeds interact and worship in myriad ways.
For more information about the religious freedom in the US check out the Freedom of Faith ejournal in English and Russian. I’d love to hear what you think!
Americans like to watch their favorite Christmas movies year after year. My own memories of Christmas include television shows and movies that really put me in the holiday mood. Some are classics, others are more recent arrivals, but all of them create that special Christmas feeling.
As a child, I remember watching classic Christmas tv shows. One of the best was A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). This beloved program still runs every year on American tv, and tells the story of a young boy’s attempt to rediscover the true spirit of Christmas, despite being laughed at by his friends and classmates, who only care about the gifts they’ll be getting. The show’s music, composed by jazz musician Vince Guaraldi, is also an enduring classic. I was listening to the soundtrack with my own family just this weekend as we hosted a holiday party.
My favorite Christmas movie is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), about a talented small-town boy who dreams of seeing the world, but is forced to stay in his hometown because of his sense of duty to his family and community. In the end, after jealously watching his friend make a fortune in New York City, and after facing a severe personal crisis, he realizes he’s “the richest man in town” when everyone comes together to help him when he needs it the most. The final scene where his family and friends sing the traditional New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne” is one of the great moments in American film.
My other favorite Christmas movies include A Christmas Carol (1951), the best film version of the classic Charles Dickens story; Miracle on 34th Street (1947), about a young girl’s belief that she’s found the real Santa Claus; and more recent films, like the quirky and fun A Christmas Story (1983), about a young boy and his quest for a genuine Red Ryder BB gun; Home Alone (1990), a slapstick comedy about a young boy whose parents mistakenly leave him at home during Christmas, where he must do battle with two inept burglars; and last but certainly not least, Elf (2003), a sweet and funny story about a man who thinks he’s one of Santa’s little helpers.
I’d love to hear what you think about the movies on my list, and to know what your favorite Christmas or holiday movies are – please leave a comment!
Murderball. This is perhaps the most intriguing movie title I have run across in a long time, though you might be surprised at the content of this particular flick.
The documentary followed the trials and tribulations of the U.S. Men’s Wheelchair Rugby Team, who are in cutthroat competition with their archrivals, the Canadian National Team. These are not shy, retiring wallflowers, but aggressive and skilled athletes who do want to “murder” their opponents. I showed the film to a small group of students and university instructors on December 10th at the U.S. Embassy’s weekly movie night at the American Library at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. We chose to show the critically acclaimed Murderball as part of our activities in celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
The United Nations designated December 3rd as International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 1981 to promote respect for the rights of persons with disabilities, increase our understanding of disabilities and encourage inclusion of persons with disabilities, emphasizing the political, economic and social gains to be made through such inclusiveness. (more…)
Peter Yarrow and Maria Burmaka singing in a "Coffein" recording studio
Watching Peter Yarrow and Maria Burmaka working in a ”Coffein” Studio to record three songs for Peter’s anti-bullying campaign “Operation Respect,” you would think they had been singing together for years. But when they met on Dec 16 to record, they had only communicated through e-mail and through their music. The resulting collaboration seemed so natural, Peter said to Maria after an impromptu first singing of Blowing in the Wind, “This was meant to be!”
Folk singer Peter Yarrow, of the influential folk band “Peter, Paul and Mary” is in Ukraine this week as part of a campaign to teach tolerance and respect to school children through music. His song “Don’t Laugh at Me” was written for this program which has been introduced into more than 22,000 schools in the United States and will be taught in Ukraine through partnerships with the Peace Corp, YMCA and Alternative V and with support of the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy. Maria Burmaka’s Ukrainian version, as recorded on Thursday with Peter, is a surprisingly beautiful and touching song that works as well with adults as with children. Maria’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and “Let it Shine,” work remarkably well in translation. (more…)
The Kyiv Academic Puppet Theatre felt enchanted on a recent snowy night, with brightly lit clock towers, snow-covered gardens and whimsical statues of children. Instead of taking in a child’s play with puppets moved about by the hands of actors, however, I experienced stories of “puppets” and “actors” of a very different kind – human beings being trafficked for profit and their captors. The International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Fifth Annual Combating Human Trafficking Awards Ceremony, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, was a sobering experience. The trafficking awards were held on Dec. 2, the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, and were designed to draw attention to the problem of human trafficking, and to reward the courage and dedication of individuals and organizations who take action to combat it. (more…)
Posted by: U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John F. Tefft
On November 30, I traveled to Kalynivka in Vinnytsia Oblast to observe a very important project that is safely eliminating SCUD missiles and demilitarizing related equipment. The U.S. is funding a project to assist in this effort, which is a concrete example of the very positive benefits that come from close U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation. The same program is helping to eliminate toxic mélange fuel (a highly toxic fuel used for missiles) at a base near Lviv.
Amb. Tefft observes missile disposal methods
When we arrived at the base, I received a warm welcome from Deputy Minister of Defense Omelyanchuk and base commander LTC Andriy Ostrenko. The green SCUD missiles were large, imposing, and quite ugly when seen up close. As I watched the team demonstrate disposal methods, I reflected on the recent history of arms control efforts in this part of the world, on which I’ve spent a good part of my career. After working hard to reduce and eliminate weapons like these, it’s heartening to see them being cut apart and turned into useful scrap metal. I was reminded of the biblical injunction to beat swords into plowshares.
Significant progress has been made since work began on the project in September, with approximately three missiles and four warhead vans destroyed every day, in addition to a launch vehicle approximately every other day. As of last week, nearly two-thirds of the work had been completed on the missile airframes and missile launchers, in addition to about half of the demilitarization work on truck units and missile carriers.
Workers demonstrate disposal methods
We left Kyiv early on a cold, snowy morning for the three-hour drive to Kalynivka. Vinnytsia Oblast reminded me of my home state of Wisconsin – the flat landscape of rich soil, light snow, and many stands of trees along the highway brought to mind the American Midwest in winter. After our visit to the base, our traveling party enjoyed a fine luncheon – in the sunshine – with Governor Mykola Dzhyha, who shared his local pride and told us that the oblast is known for its bountiful agriculture, including dairy products (cheese!), excellent apples, and good fishing – more similarities to Wisconsin! They sure know how to make a visitor feel at home in Vinnytsia – even when we’re there for serious work.