From Russia with love: Journey to citizenship takes 20 years

Sarah's long and winding road to citizenship began 20 years ago, when she was adopted by an American journalist traveling in Kazakhstan.

WASHINGTON — I’ve heard, and recited, the Pledge of Allegiance ever since it was drilled into my brain in kindergarten. This past Wednesday, it held a deeper meaning when a room of 66 freshly-minted Americans, led by children, raised their right hands and recited the Pledge perfectly during a naturalization ceremony in Baltimore.

The group came together from 36 countries ranging from Argentina to Zambia. Many brought smiling family members, and all were waving small American flags to celebrate. Most of the men dressed impeccably for the occasion — in suits and ties that were much too warm for the oppressive heat. The women present wore heels and fancy dresses in red, white and blue.

Everyone sang the National Anthem, took an oath in unison and proudly posed for photos. So many Americans take their U.S. citizenship for granted, but for Wednesday’s group, becoming an American was a goal and the fulfillment of a life-long dream.

Having lived in New York in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, it occurred to me that the room truly was the modern version of Ellis Island, with so many paths intersecting in the quest to be free.

Among the 66 who took the oath that day was my daughter, Sarah, the sole representative of Kazakhstan. Her long and winding road to citizenship began two decades ago, when I was among the first group of American journalists to travel to central Asia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.


An impish boy with bright blue eyes peeked at me from behind a table in a room that was impossibly neat for 20 children. As I scanned the 4-year-old room in the Kazakh orphanage, known as Nezabudka (“forget me not”), those eyes continued to follow my every move.

Soon, the skinny body also followed me around the room, flashing a mischievous grin that brightened even more when I produced a ball and tossed it for a game of catch.

I noticed his awkward movements immediately; he was all bony legs and protruding ribs. But he had a spark that was missing with the other children. They watched silently with dull eyes — a sight I’d grown accustomed to in this bleak place on the opposite side of the world.


Laurie Cantillo visits Sarah, "an impish boy with bright blue eyes," in Nezabudka. (WTOP/Laurie Cantillo)

What I’d seen at Nezabudka made my heart sink. There was a medicine chest with no medicine or medical supplies; beds were lined up side-by-side; toddlers were strapped all day on potty seats in communal cribs and were given no affection or stimulation.

The children wore faded, communal clothing that was numbered, as if from a prison or concentration camp; buckets were used as toilets; and there were cement showers where children were hosed down with cold water once a week.

The outdoor area was devoid of any play equipment, and the meals consisted primarily of broth, pickled vegetables, potatoes and kefir.

Children with disfiguring conditions that are easily treated in America — such as cleft palate and Hydrocephalus — were discarded and forgotten. Shiny toys were for display only; I never saw them in the hands of a child.

Toddlers rocked and banged their heads against the wall out of boredom. Many children were sucking their thumbs in silence, and there were no books and no games of pat-a-cake. There were 20 kids in one room, but you could hear a pin drop. That was perhaps the most eerie thing about Nezabudka.

I wanted to scoop all of them up and get them out of that hell hole. Fortunately, Kazakhstan had just opened its borders to foreign adoption. The group that sponsored my trip, the Denver-based Project Open Hearts, had also begun to facilitate Kazakh adoptions, in addition to its primary mission of providing life-saving heart surgeries for needy children and adults.

I thought, “If I can’t save them all, at least I can save one.”

Bringing Sarah Home

The child I selected was the 4-year-old “boy” with the blue eyes. I hadn’t realized the little imp with the short hair and shy smile was a girl. Her name was Serafima Samsonova, and I was told she’d been placed at Nezabudka shortly after birth by a mother who was a young prostitute.

When people ask how on earth I was able to select my daughter from dozens of children, my response is simply, “I didn’t choose her. She chose me.”

I returned to Kazakhstan six months later and was shocked to find that Sarah lost even more weight during the interlude. She also had a swollen cheek and a black eye, which the orphanage attributed to “falling on a table.”


Laurie and Sarah ride the train from Karaganda to the capital city of Almaty, across the Kazakh steppe region. (WTOP/Laurie Cantillo)

The cheekbone appeared to be fractured, and it was clear she was seriously malnourished. I was determined to get her out of there as soon as possible, which meant going directly to America on a B-2 medical visa, instead of remaining in the former USSR until the adoption was finalized. Our adoption agency and other parents all concurred. But what seemed a good decision at the time was one that cost us dearly later.

The first night away from the orphanage was haunting. Sarah had never been outside the four walls of Nezabudka, and she was hysterical; she wailed like a feral animal. I held her tightly next to me with the lights on until she let out a final, exhausted sob and we fell asleep together on a flimsy metal cot. It was the first of many times I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

The next day, she brightened a bit, emulating me as I put on makeup. She also became enchanted by paper and a box of crayons; she happily scribbled away most of the afternoon.

I felt a pang when I later noticed a small, colorful stash of something behind the bed. Sarah had removed the tips of the crayons and squirreled them away, hoping to (finally) have something to call her own. It was the first of many things she hoarded over the years. It was as if there was a void that would never be filled.

The trip to America included a ride by train from Karaganda to the capital city of Almaty, across the Kazakh steppe region — an area that reminds one of a Genghis Khan movie, with an abundance of yurts and nomadic horsemen.

Six of us were crowded into a hot, tiny sleeping car for the long journey. Our food was stolen, so I volunteered to walk several cars forward to purchase a large plate of steamed rice for our hungry crew. I walked alone back to the car and noticed I was being followed. My follower’s gait began to match my quickening pace, and I broke out running, throwing the plate to make my escape.

All I remember from the flights back home is that Sarah was totally overwhelmed by it. She slept on the floor the entire way.

Acclimating to America

Sarah’s introduction to America was a whirlwind of girlie clothes, hair ribbons and teddy bears. But the reality was much different.


Upon arriving in America, Sarah was welcomed by two brothers and a father. (WTOP/Laurie Cantillo)

She was thrust into the middle of a family with two boys and a father; she screamed when she saw his hairy chest for the first time. She threw monumental tantrums, sometimes throwing her entire body against her bedroom wall.

She had no idea how to pedal a tricycle at age 5, and she didn’t know how to swim or swing in a swing set. Even walking was difficult, and I wondered whether she really had fallen on a table at the orphanage. She was borderline fearless/crazy. We used to joke that “there’s nothing common about her sense.” Sarah would think nothing of attempting to jump off a 30-foot-high deck.

She went through all the steps of child development at age 5, including baby talk and developing separation anxiety. Schools were perplexed because while Sarah had strengths in language, she was hopeless with simple math. As one educator described, “Her brain is like Swiss cheese.”

Even today, with a high school diploma, Sarah uses her fingers to count, and she has trouble counting change.

Challenges on the immigration front were equally daunting. The B-2 visa expired in 6 months, leaving Sarah and other Kazakh children with no legal status. Despite being legally adopted in the U.S., Sarah was not granted her permanent residence card.

Years went by and life marched on.

My marriage dissolved, and I found myself starting over in Arizona as the single mom of three school kids. I had even less time than before and fewer resources to sort through the citizenship paperwork quagmire. I contacted my congressman and received empty promises. The IRS denied my request to list Sarah as a dependent. I stood for hours outside the Phoenix immigration office in 110-degree temperatures, trying to get an appointment. Since it was post-9/11, everything was exponentially more difficult. I was always one document shy of what was needed.

A Path to Citizenship

It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago and hired a top-notch immigration lawyer that the logjam broke. I sifted through boxes of documents. Russian documents were translated to English, and I racked up thousands of dollars in legal fees.

When Sarah finally received a green card in 2007, the firm notified me that our case was voted one of the “five most difficult of the year.”


Sarah at her naturalization ceremony on Wednesday, June 18, 2014. (WTOP/Laurie Cantillo)

Obtaining the green card was the turning point, with the clock now ticking on a five-year waiting period for citizenship. Sarah attended several free classes at the United Methodist Church of Chevy Chase, where she immediately bonded with helpful instructors. More forms were filed, fingerprints and photos were taken and questions were answered about whether Sarah ever had ties to communism or was a polygamist.

Sarah received a study guide for citizenship, and quizzing her on 100 civics questions became a family affair. Her stepdad and younger brother played the role of interviewer. Sarah stayed up until dawn memorizing questions from CDs. We watched a video of what the interview would be like and what questions might be asked.

On the morning of her interview, I picked up Sarah, now 25 and working at Giant, from her apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland. I fussed with her hair and insisted she change her clothes. On the long drive to Baltimore, I quizzed her once again, shaking my head when she delivered “John Boehner” as the answer to “Who is the Vice President of the United States?”

When her name was finally called in the interview room, she stepped confidently into her future, disappearing for 20 minutes as I waited nervously.

When Sarah emerged from behind the heavy door, she was beaming. Rushing to me, she announced, “I passed!” Heads turned curiously in the waiting area. Her interviewer shot us a smile, confirmed that we’d return for the afternoon ceremony and returned to her next case — another person with dreams of becoming an American.

Later, as I snapped photos of the cherubs singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I cried tears of joy, but mostly of relief.

Editor’s Note: Off the 8’s is a WTOP Living feature, in which staff inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center share stories from their lives when they’re off the clock.

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