EMBRACING BUNDLES FROM OVERSEAS

Date: 2000-07-02

Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)

A WATERFORD COUPLE ADOPTED TWO RUSSIAN ORPHANS. \ WITH A JULY 4 BIRTHDAY, THE BOY WAS "BORN TO BE AN AMERICAN."

Author: Will Van Sant, INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF

Dateline: WATERFORD

With a brisk waddle, an upright Mikhail Alexander Fisher navigated a six-foot swath of his toy-strewn living room floor, arms flailing to keep his balance, and fell into his mother's arms.

"Eddie! Did you see it? Oh my God! There goes the house! There goes the neighborhood!" cried Linda Fisher.

"That was the first time he went that far," her husband said.

Those first steps were landmarks in Mikhail's life and in the lives of his parents, who, in April, adopted the newly mobile boy as well as a baby girl, Ekaterina Anastasia Fisher, from a Russian orphanage.

But just around the corner for Mikhail is another event equally significant: the newly minted U.S. citizen will celebrate his first birthday on Tuesday, the Fourth of July.

When they learned from documents the orphanage provided that Mikhail's birthday fell on Independence Day, both parents recall saying, "This boy was born to be an American."

Linda Fisher looks forward to making a small sign saying "Born on the Fourth of July" for Mikhail and taking him to a parade; her husband is eager to having Mikhail's picture taken silhouetted by fireworks.

The proud parents are longtime local educators. Linda Fisher, who was brought up in Berlin Borough, has been a Spanish teacher for 21 years. Eddie Fisher, who hails from Camden, has been a math teacher for 34 years. They both work at Shawnee High School in Medford. The couple were married six years ago and live, along with their two new charges, in Waterford.

The number of Russian orphans entering the country has grown steadily since 1992. According to the Department of State, nearly 20,000 Russian orphans have come to the United States since the breakup of the Soviet Republic in the early '90s. In recent years, these Russian children have been joined by an increasing number of Chinese orphans.

The decision to adopt came after a difficult period during which Linda Fisher tried unsuccessfully to become pregnant. After four failed attempts at in vitro fertilization, the couple sat their doctors down and told them they were finished trying.

Around that time the couple heard of a support group for people giving up attempts at in-vitro fertilization. The group was having a conference in Philadelphia. There, in April 1998, the couple was introduced to the idea of international adoption. The decision to go ahead was made a year later.

"We never felt something was missing in our marriage," Linda Fisher said, "but we felt, wouldn't it be nice to raise children together?"

Their journey took them to Reaching Out Through International Adoption in Cherry Hill, one of 20 such agencies in the state.

According to Marlene Seamans-Conn, the agency's executive director, her agency has brought about 20 Russian children to New Jersey during the three years it has been in business. The agency also has programs that bring together orphans from Azerbaijan, Guatemala and China with American couples seeking to adopt.

The Fishers then had to get approval from state authorities and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Their job histories, medical, tax and financial records were examined. Letters of recommendation were provided by friends and colleagues and social workers visited their home.

"The process is long and arduous," Eddie said. "If you don't have your i's dotted and t's crossed, they would throw it right back at you."

The yearlong paperwork adventure was not without its highlights. The couple, after a visit to the INS office in Newark, made a trip to Ellis Island, where Linda's Italian grandparents first stepped foot on American soil.

Finally, in December, after all their paperwork was approved by the Department of State, the Fishers' adoption agency began a search.

A month later, Eddie and Linda learned that two boys were available for adoption at the Taganrog Orphanage, Rostov-on-Don, Russia. The two were excited about the prospect, but soon after Eddie received a fax while at work that said, in fact, a boy and a girl were waiting for them.

"Eddie came in and handed me the fax," Linda recalled. "I was teaching class, and he said, 'Read this.' I wasn't paying attention, and he said, 'Would you read this?' "

Eddie remembers wondering how the two boys they had been told about had become a boy and a girl. But, he said, "We were happy, it's what we wanted."

The faculty at Shawnee High School threw the Fishers a send-off shower and the couple left New York for Russia at the end of March. Their bags were stuffed with diapers, clothes and snowsuits - they say they had no idea what the weather would be like.

Rostov-on-Don near the Sea of Azov in southern Russia, once a thriving trade center, was the boyhood home of playwright Anton Chekhov.

Alexander Kondruckov was brought to the Taganrog Orphanage after his family, who already were caring for one child, decided they could not afford to care for another. Anastasia Markova was brought there by her mother three days after her birth.

"It's almost surreal," Linda Fisher remembers. "First of all, you're in an orphanage in Russia, but you know two people are about to walk into the room, who, barring any problems, you'll spend the rest of your life with. Your heart is pounding."

Video recordings the Fishers took of their first meetings show the couple beaming and cooing over the two children.

When it came to naming them, the Fishers came up with an artful blending of their Russian names and something more familiar.

Linda Fisher said she liked the name Alexander but was afraid everyone would call the boy Al. So he was given the Russian name Mikhail, which the Fishers are pronouncing like the English Michael, and Alexander became the boy's middle name, thus Mikhail Alexander Fisher.

Not wanting Anastasia stuck being called Stacy, she was given the first name Ekaterina and is called Katie around the house. Anastasia is her middle name, thus Ekaterina Anastasia Fisher.

About their names, Eddie said, "We wanted to keep that for them, to keep their Russian heritage."

"They have that right and should be proud of it," Linda said.

The Fishers, who while in Russia bought Katie a traditional doll and Mikhail a vodka holder (it will be used to hold candy, at least for the next few years, they say) intend to be absolutely honest with the children when they inevitably start asking questions about their history.

For now, the children appear to be adjusting well to American life. "They're normal children," Linda said. "They like to play with toys and get into things." Dark-haired Katie has developed a taste for pizza and the blond, stocky, square-shouldered Mikhail loves beef. It's a taste he'll likely get a chance to satisfy with hamburger and hot dogs when he celebrates his first birthday Tuesday.

The closets in the Fishers' home are filled with gifts from friends. They have toys and clothes to last for years. One person made comforters, already to go when Mikhail and Katie are old enough to have beds. A large swing set, a present from their neighbors, sits unassembled on the front porch. The fortunate children have ended up in a house of plenty.

The Fishers, too, feel fortune has done them a kind turn. Eddie Fisher said that if he came up with a wish list with all the qualities of his dream children on it, "I couldn't have come up with anything better than what I have."

Will Van Sant's e-mail address is wvansant@phillynews.com

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