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Strangers no more: Ukrainian orphans jump straight into family's hearts

MURRAY — The family motto, engraved on a painted plank of wood and hanging in Barry and Carla Olsen's living room, used to say it all: "Enter as strangers, leave as friends." But two strangers, here just two weeks and from farther away than any visitor ever, might leave as family.

The welcome the Olsens have given the two young girls from Ukraine was being etched in pumpkin by Oleena, 13, and coming through loud and clear last Sunday in 6-year-old Yulia's giggle as the two carved and danced their way toward their first Halloween and a party with all 45 members of the Olsens' extended family.

Both the occasion and the feeling of family togetherness are unknown in the state orphanages that have so far been home to the half-sisters.

"They are smiling all the time here," says Tatiana Otinova of Oleena, Yulia and the 29 other children who have come to Utah through the Save a Child Foundation. "The children are happy here. They are not in Ukraine such happy."

Twenty Utah families are hosting the children during their 2 1/2-week stay, giving the children a taste of American traditions and way of life and introducing them to the family dynamic.

It's a valuable lesson for the children to learn, says Otinova, one of four chaperones traveling with the group and helping serve as translators for the children.

"They don't know about what means 'family,' " she says. "So I think it's very good for them."

It is, in fact, what Oleena cites as her favorite thing about Utah and the United States. When pressed about what she likes best, the reticent teenager quietly answers "family."

Yulia's tap is wide open: toys, bicycles, the Olsens' piano, and one more thing — "This house and the people who live here," says Otinova, translating what she's saying but is plain as day in the girl's dark eyes and infectious smile.

'Part of our family'

Oleena and Yulia may have come more than 6,000 miles to Utah, but it was just a hop, skip and a jump into the Olsens' hearts.

As Yulia plays with pebbles in the parking lot outside the children's elementary school, Carla Olsen sums up the past couple of weeks: "These girls are part of our family. Once you get them in your home, you can't see life without them."

There have been many breakthroughs, as Carla puts it, since the girls' arrival. Big ones, like on the fifth night when Oleena responded to Carla's good night with her own "I love you." And small ones, like the hugs that come more freely each day.

It was Carla's idea to host the girls, says husband Barry, who describes himself as being "slow but supportive" of his wife's plan. But as he watches Oleena and Yulia interact with his own children in the family's kitchen, there's no sign of hesitation.

"These are very sweet girls," he says. "It's been a lot of fun and very fulfilling."

The girls mesh well with the Olsens' six children, who range in age from 6 to 24 years old. Oleena is just a year younger than 14-year-old Spencer, playfully horsing around with him while carving star-shaped eyes into her jack-o'-lantern.

And even 6-year-old Nicholas, despite having minor issues at first vying for attention with Yulia, is now playing Barbies with the little Ukrainian girl.

Says 18-year-old Camilla Olsen, with a smiling Yulia sitting on her lap contentedly poking holes in a pumpkin: "They just fit."

There have been difficulties, of course. Language is a factor, with Oleena and Yulia speaking very little English, and that has been only a few popular phrases taught shortly before they came to the United States.

"At first it was hard because I think they were timid to even talk to us," says 21-year-old Jillian, the oldest of the Olsen children living at home. But the girls soon warmed up, she says, and the family learned that Oleena perhaps understood more than she let on.

Family members frequently try their hand at difficult Ukrainian pronunciations, earning a skeptical look and a laugh. Communication, therefore, is achieved largely through a series of gestures and body language — a kind of continuing game of charades.

Yulia also had an upset stomach during her first few days in Utah. She's adjusted to American food, however, and now has no problem digesting such delicacies as Doritos and black olives picked from 24-year-old Timothy Olsen's fingers.

Permanent additions?

Both Carla and Barry Olsen say they would like nothing more than to adopt Oleena and Yulia. They had thought about international adoption — China — before Vern and Nanette Garrett approached them to serve as a host family.

"I think our fondest dream would be to bring them into our home," Carla says. "I would love to say, 'Yes, we're going to adopt them.' "

But costs are high — approximately $20,000 for the first child and $4,000 for each additional one. And for such a large family already, they might prove prohibitive. Without a rich uncle hiding in the wings, Barry says, finances may prove too high a barrier.

The family will sit down together after the girls leave on Tuesday and discuss their options. "Our work begins when they leave," Carla Olsen says.

The Olsen children appear on board. It would certainly help balance out the male-heavy family dynamic, Jillian Olsen says. "I've always wanted more sisters."

Host families have been asked not to discuss adoption with their charges. The program is billed as more of a "cultural exchange" than an adoption program, an effort to help prevent bad feelings for the children who aren't ultimately adopted.

"There are a lot of logistics and challenges in getting these children adopted, and we just don't want to dash their hopes in the case that two of them or one of them cannot be adopted for whatever reason," Vern Garrett says.

Still, it's inevitable that the children, especially the older ones, know why they're here. Each time Yulia gets upset or unpleasant, as all children do, Oleena pulls her younger sister aside and talks to her insistently. Carla Olsen doesn't know what the older girl is saying, but she has her suspicions.

"It's hard to watch because you know what's going on," she says. "They're just so eager to please."

Vern Garrett knows the children likely understand what's happening and want badly to return to Utah and their host families eventually. "In every one of their hearts, they're hoping that these families will come to get them. As we've talked to children over the years, every one of these children wants a family."

Four of the 20 host families had already begun the adoption process prior to the children's arrival, and another three have made applications one week into the program.

And Garrett expects others to quickly follow suit.

"Having these children in your home, knowing who they are and what kind of life they have just creates a real feeling of humility and love for these children," he says. "It's just hard to put it into words."

Even if the Olsens are unable to bring Oleena and Yulia back to their Murray home, they expect to be part of the girls' lives for a long time to come.

"We are dedicated to these girls to find them a home and a place to go," Carla Olsen says.

And no matter what happens, she knows her children will have learned a valuable lesson about thinking globally and reaching out to others in need.

And she hopes that her Ukrainian children will have learned something, too. "I hope that they feel love. And I hope they see that the world is full of good people and understand that they can be happy through the tough times."

A different way of life

As much as she is enjoying her time in Utah, Yulia admits missing her friends back home. Oleena, on the other hand, is in no hurry to go back. Asked if she misses life in Ukraine, she emphatically shakes her head. She utters no words, and the expression on her face needs no translation.

At the Olsen home, the two girls share a room. Oleena has taken over the role of caretaker, making sure her little sister brushes her teeth and gets properly dressed each morning. The girls love to take baths and blow-dry their hair, now soft from conditioner Carla suspect the girls have never before used.

At home in Sumy, in the northeast region of Ukraine, the girls are in separate orphanages due to their differing ages. They share a room with at least a dozen others — more if the room is big enough.

"They'll fill the room with as many beds as they can get in there," says Garrett. Still, he adds, the conditions aren't as bad as some might imagine when they think of orphanages overseas. "They're definitely not up to American standards, but they're decent for comparative orphanages around the world. The living conditions definitely aren't deplorable, but they're not the best either."

Of the 31 children brought to Utah, the majority are from the government-run Suprun Boarding Schools for Orphans and Abandoned Children, a school that houses about 250 children.

The Garretts' two adopted children, also half-sisters, are from the school. Twelve-year-old Emily was first, adopted four years ago, followed by 17-year-old Elizabeth two years later. The family is now hosting 11-year-old Andrew.

"One of our main goals in this foundation is to help people understand that there's a horrendous amount of children between the ages of 6 and 15 out there who need a home," Vern Garrett says. "And they're very healthy, physically and emotionally."

The children here now were selected based on many factors, including the requests of host families and a psychological assessment of each child.

Carla Olsen knows little about the girls' background, unaware even how long they've been in government care or what happened to their biological parents. She's curious, of course, but doesn't want to open old wounds. "Sometimes it brings up bad thoughts or feelings."

Oleena has spoken only generally of her life in Ukraine. A picture of the teenager posing in front of her orphanage will stay on the Olsens' refrigerator.