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Across the world in search of home

A couple find the daughter they dreamt of, as a woman goes in search of her past

Fiona Anastasi embraces motherhood – and baby Nina. Photography Matthew Mirabelli

Fiona Anastasi embraces motherhood – and baby Nina. Photography Matthew Mirabelli

Antoinette Sinnas brings out the beauty of giving an orphan a ray of hope, an abundance of love and a sense of belonging. Fiona and Dave Anastasi have just adopted Nina from India and given new life to a child who would have otherwise probably spent her days cooped up in a cot in squalid conditions. In so doing, they have also given new meaning to their own life…

Fiona and Dave Anastasi’s road to becoming parents began seven-and-a-half years ago, just after they got married. Having tried to conceive for years, their hopes began to plummet. The next step was to explore the option of IVF.

Nina’s first steps into a new life and nursery – a far cry from the bare minimum in her orphanage. Photography Matthew MirabelliNina’s first steps into a new life and nursery – a far cry from the bare minimum in her orphanage. Photography Matthew Mirabelli

Having always wanted to adopt a child after having kids of their own, Fiona and Dave decided to pursue the adoption process simultaneously. They hoped both would have a positive outcome one day and were optimistic.

But with every passing treatment and every passing year, the couple’s optimism turned into heartbreak, especially for Fiona. A shadow of bitterness began creeping over her after she underwent four IVF sessions and had multiple miscarriages.

Both physically and mentally strained, Fiona disengaged with the dream of bearing a child that she had held onto for years, and eventually, gave up hope. For any woman yearning to become a mother, failing to harbour her own child can be a devastating blow… but the adoption door remained open.

“We have always loved the idea of a multicultural family and know Malta embraces multiculturalism,” Fiona says. Cambodia was the first option for adoption as many children and infants have been orphaned in the war-stricken country due to political violence and genocide. But as the couple began the adoption process, their glimmering hope was shattered once again. Cambodia closed all avenues for adoption in Malta. And Fiona and Dave’s dreams and desires were dropped time and time again.


Then, after almost five years of trying to adopt a child, a ray of light suddenly penetrated their darkness – the channels to adopt a baby from India opened up. Fiona and her husband lept at the opportunity in a heartbeat, and from then on, life seemed a lot brighter.

One afternoon, at around 3.30pm, Fiona received “the call” from Agenzija Tama. They had been matched with a young girl in Odisha, and her details, together with her photos and videos, were on their way.

“I think I felt my heart skip a beat,” Fiona recalls. “I messaged Dave straight away to meet up as we wanted to be together when we received the information. For the next two hours, we were on pins and needles, anxiously waiting and constantly refreshing our inbox. It seemed like the longest two hours ever! At last, we finally received the e-mail and saw Nina’s face for the first time. We instantly fell in love with her.

“It was on March 9 that we embarked on our journey of hope. We flew to Mumbai via Dubai. Upon reaching Mumbai, we had to break the journey and spend the night there. I could not sleep a wink, I was overjoyed! As the clock kept ticking, I knew the moment we would meet our daughter was imminent. There was also a sense of fear that we might hit another hurdle and everything could spiral out of control again.

Dave Anastasi and Fiona meet their daughter in the Indian orphanage.Dave Anastasi and Fiona meet their daughter in the Indian orphanage.

“In all honesty, in most of the photos we received of Nina, she was never smiling. My constant worry was that she was not happy. In fact, the caregiver at the orphanage told us that this child does not smile,” Fiona admits.

The couple continued their trek and flew out to Odisha, East India, the next day. It was not their final destination, and they had to buckle up and brace themselves for a five-hour drive to a remote village on rugged terrain with no roads.

“The schedule was for us to meet Nina the following day. However, during our journey, the orphanage called, informing us that we would be lucky enough to meet Nina if we got there before the children were put to bed. Dave and I were thrilled!”

They finally reached the orphanage. This was it – the moment they had long been waiting for. Fiona was filled with a strange mix of emotions as she walked up to the door of Nina’s dormitory. She was anxious; she had this strong sense of love and happiness, but at the back of her mind, the hint of disbelief still hung on, not knowing what was going to happen.

“We finally saw Nina! It was love at first sight. I felt a deep connection when I saw her; the moment was surreal – like I had known her forever! I took her into my arms and she gave me a queer look, with her big brown eyes. I don’t think she was too pleased to be in my arms, but I was over the moon. That evening, we spent an hour with her and I cherished every single second of it,” says Fiona.

“Nina’s caregivers were such lovely people. They barely knew English, but made us feel extremely welcome and so at home. Running an orphanage is no mean feat and what Dave and I witnessed was the genuine care they had for each child, trying to feed and educate them with a great amount of dedication and love.

“Being situated in a very poor rural village, away from the clamour and frenzy of the city, was quite a culture shock for us and also a humbling experience.

“The institute had the bare minimum, consisting of small, poor-quality buildings, divided according to the age and gender of the orphans. Amenities were extremely sparse, and the caregivers had to walk great distances on unlevelled footpaths to buy food and clean water.

“There was no air conditioning to get through the sweltering Indian summers; only a few fans in every room, which barely made a difference in that heat. Mosquitoes were rampant, and the poor children had no insect repellents to protect themselves, except for a net that was strung over their beds every night,” Fiona describes.

“Nina and her roommates were all under the age of five and spent all day in cramped cots with filthy linen and grubby rugs placed on the floor. Each child had one small toy to play with and they also kept themselves entertained with empty medicine boxes.

“As for the older kids, their living conditions were equally squalid. There was no proper sanitation. The orphanage had no running water and the adults and children had to collect water for their use with pots and pails. They had what they called a ‘toilet’, detached from their dormitories. However, I used to see them walk into it and urinate on the floor,” she recalls.

On the way home… where Nina is greeted by a welcome party and meets Charlie, another important family member.On the way home… where Nina is greeted by a welcome party and meets Charlie, another important family member.

“Despite living in these conditions, however, the children always had mile-long smiles on their faces. They have no tablets and PlayStations and were born to thrive without technology. They were always playing in the compound, on a patch of bare earth, shaded by a few trees, making up their own games, jumping on ropes and worn-out tyres, running around, playing tag, or a game of hide-and-seek. This is the simple life these abandoned children lead.

“We spent about eight hours a day for three days at the orphanage and it was truly an eye-opening experience. We were really struck quite deeply, and it has made us appreciate the things we take for granted in our everyday lives, like running water, electricity and roads,” Fiona admits.

“We were now officially a family, the Anastasi family, which had grown over the past few days by two little feet. Our adventure began! Our life had a new meaning to it.

“At a year and five months, Nina experienced many firsts, starting with her first car drive out of the orphanage, and maybe it was even the first time she left the compound. She had spent her life so far in her cot and never experienced anything above and beyond that.

“After travelling back to Mumbai, we spent around two weeks there. The experience was quite emotional and life-changing. Being in a foreign country, as new parents of a child we had just met three days ago, without our family around, was extremely challenging. There was one day Nina did not want to let go of me all day. She did not nap, or settle down, but was extremely cranky.

Later, we learnt she was teething. That night, I frantically rang my mum in Malta and broke down in tears over the phone because I gave Nina some Calpol for her teething pain and was worried I was doing something very wrong,” the first-time mother admits.

Fiona loves being a new mum. “Nina fills me with great joy, and seeing her transform from a quiet, ‘unsmiling’ little girl into a happy, playful child is the most rewarding gift I could have ever asked for.

“I was apprehensive of how she would settle in, but the transition was ever so quick and she loves her new life. She leaves us in splits on so many occasions and we call her our little clown when she makes us laugh,” Fiona giggles.
“Adoption has given me a unique perspective on motherhood, teaching me some new truths about parenting.

It has been a huge learning curve for me. I always wondered what sleepless nights were like and, believe me, I have been getting my fair share of those lately. Remember the episode in Friends, where Rachel Green says, ‘I need to sleep, eat and take a shower’? I can say that every day now! I am trying to accept it as my new way of life and then I guess it would get easier to handle.

Nina’s first steps into a new life and nursery – a far cry from the bare minimum in her orphanage. Photography Matthew MirabelliNina’s first steps into a new life and nursery – a far cry from the bare minimum in her orphanage. Photography Matthew Mirabelli

“I need to get into the grind and set a routine. After lulling Nina to sleep, I wish I could take a nap myself, but I can safely disable my snooze button, that’s for sure. Popeye hand over the can of spinach!

I put on my Cinderella clothes and get cooking, cleaning, washing the floor and tidying up. I, however, always leave some mummy-time for our little pooch, Charlie,” Fiona laughs.

“My husband has been my rock throughout this journey. The first few days after we got Nina were the hardest for him as she only wanted me most of the time.
I felt I was constantly asking him to do things for us and he was always at our beck and call. What I really would have loved to see was her resting peacefully in his arms and playing with him as she was doing with me,” says Fiona.

The couple have given new life to this unfortunate child, who would have been cooped up in a home, never venturing outside its four walls. Nina now has a family and lives in a safe haven created for her by her parents. They have converted a bedroom into a beautiful, whimsical nursery, with a comfortable crib for her to sleep in, books for her to read and toys to play with. They also threw a welcome-home party, fit for a princess. Fiona and Dave invited their relatives and friends, who showered the little cherub with tons of love and presents.

“I would love for Nina to eventually connect with her roots. India is a country rich in cultural heritage and I want her to be proud of her origin. We will definitely go back to India when Nina is older and can understand more about her ethnicity. In the meantime, I plan to put on my chef’s hat and whip up a good Indian meal.

Nina isn’t far behind in becoming my junior chef and our mother-daughter cooking sessions could create wonderful memories that we can cherish forever,” Fiona continues.

Being a ballet teacher, she is also already keeping Nina on her toes and the mum-daughter duo can dance the night away.

Every child needs a family and family does not mean whose blood you carry, but to be surrounded by people who love you and give you a safe upbringing. There are millions of other children like Nina out there who continue hoping for love and affection. Unless adopted, they face a future ever so bleak.

 

The little tiger

And now for the adoptee’s point of view. Lara Sierra talks to blogger Line Peteri, a Korean girl, adopted into a loving home, who only saw herself as an “old troll of a child”, taken as a last resort. She had thought about meeting her biological parents her entire life and it was the only thing she was ever afraid of. But now that she has been reunited with her mother, she can finally come to terms with why she was rejected.

“I have a crazy story,” laughs Line Peteri. Her crazy story has become something of a phenomenon around Malta, with her successful blog, international TV documentaries and an upcoming book. Clearly, people can’t get enough of the ‘wannabe Maltese’. Yet, beyond the painful tales of cancer and adoption is a woman who has risen out of the stories that made her and become a source of inspiration in her own right.

“Yes, I have all the answers now,” she admits frankly, “but it was not always this way. And if my life seems like a fairy tale now, I want people to know what I had to go through to get here.”

Mother and abandoned daughter united. Photography Brian GrechMother and abandoned daughter united. Photography Brian Grech

So, what was the hardship she had to endure to earn this fairy-tale ending? “I was born in South Korea. I lived with my Korean mum for three years. Then one day, in December 1980, she took me down to the orphanage and said: ‘I’ll come back later.’ That was the last time I saw her.

“The orphanage wasn’t a hugely hostile place; although we were locked in a wardrobe if we were naughty. I remember we used to stand in a queue and put our clothes in a pile, and the next morning, we would get clean ones. There was a jumper with an orange elephant on it, which everybody loved. I always made sure I got to the front of that queue so that I could wear it.

“Even before the orphanage, I remember clothes; I have a memory of going into a room and picking out a pair of shoes. I have managed to keep those shoes my whole life. It’s probably why I love fashion so much. Now, I’m a shareholder in a shoe company,” she laughs.

It is a sweet story, but one also enriched with resilience. That resilience would stand her in good stead, as only three months later, her world turned upside down once more.

“I was adopted by a Danish couple, who already had a son, and taken back to their home country. They were unable to conceive a second child. Glen was a tall, blonde, blue-eyed boy, who was good at everything… and then I came along like this troll child into the family.

“For many years, I hated that they were sent just two photos of me, and that’s how I was chosen. What if they didn’t like those pictures? What if they’d wanted a different one? It was also a little unusual because I was so old, and you know, everyone wants the puppies.”

Two families become one… Photography Brian GrechTwo families become one… Photography Brian Grech

The insecurity in those words is hard to ignore. A beautiful Korean girl adopted into a loving home should be how the postcard was painted, yet this little girl saw herself only as an old troll of a child, taken as a last resort.

“Now, I finally I understand that, for my parents, receiving those two photos was like when I had the first ultrasound of my children. They really wanted me. The problem is that there was a lot of ignorance at that time and I never felt like I fitted in. I always felt like the black sheep of the family.

“I suffered from anorexia between the ages of 14 to 20,” she says, and reveals later, via e-mail, that she attempted suicide aged 13. “As I grew up, the racism became more personal, including comments about my face. Unfortunately, when you already dislike who you are, you feel it more.

If people walk past you, laughing, then you think they’re laughing at you. I had absolutely no one to guide me; no one who knew what it was like to be an ethnic minority.” Pointing to her coffee table, she adds: “I was given two books about Korea and that’s it.”

Completely open, proud and raw for the world to see, at the same time, there is a side to Line that seems to be hiding in plain sight. “Us extroverts are all shouting: ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ But really, we are just hiding our insecurities.”

Line admits she had a very good upbringing. “My parents, if not emotional, were practical and very protective.” Yet outside, things weren’t so safe.

“Often, people would assume that I was a Thai prostitute. I cannot tell you the amount of times I’ve had old men touching my leg. At school, I’d walk outside and there would be a bunch of boys wearing pro-racism badges, just screaming at me. Eventually, I came to a point where I would just hit them. I know it’s terrible. But even now, if someone is racist, I will just confront them every single time.”

As a result of the constant bullying, Line was sent to boarding school, where the anorexia really took hold.

“I went to a child psychologist. But if you’re already different, and you go to a child psychologist, what happens? You feel like a freak. I felt like this weird, ugly, fat freak. At one point, I weighed 35 kilos. I was taking a lot of drugs too, and everybody thought I was going to die. But when I really needed my parents, they were always there…

“One day, I’d just had enough of feeling bad… so I started learning everything I could about computers. I was one of the few women who knew anything about computers at that time, which is how I got my first job. My next job was to build a Danish search engine, which was sold for a large sum six months later. I was only 20 years old and, finally, I got some confidence from this.”

Despite this new-found confidence, however, her inner critic would not relent. “I spent a lot of time looking for love, often getting into relationships with the wrong people. Even when there were good people in my life, I would always push them away.

“I never felt comfortable as myself. My parents tried to raise me as a Danish girl. But how could I feel Danish when I was just that yellow person? I always tried to fit in. If you’re adopted, you always have to feel grateful. But you also live your whole life feeling rejected. Why wasn’t I wanted?

“I thought about meeting my biological parents throughout my entire life. When I was younger, Korea was my safe place. I’d imagine that I was kidnapped by pirates and one day my king would come and take me back.

I would imagine meeting my parents and spitting in anger, or else I would imagine running into their arms, crying. Yet every year, I put off trying to find them. What if my mum had given me up because I was terrible? Or what if she was dead? Finding my parents is the only thing I’ve ever been afraid of,” Line admits.

“When I met my husband, that changed. We had a rocky relationship from the beginning… We had our first child and that changed everything.

My son has narrow eyes and a different nose, but I just think he’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. What I see in myself is terrible, but I love his little nose and his eyes. So, if I can be a part of something so handsome and so beautiful, I cannot be that terrible, I suppose. Slowly, I became more accepting of myself.

“Unfortunately, I probably already had cancer when I had him, but it was diagnosed much later. I was in isolation for six weeks during each treatment. My teeth were falling out and I couldn’t speak. They discovered that I am resistant to the only effective treatment of thyroid cancer, so now, if they think they have found a tumour, they operate on me instead. It was during this failing treatment that my husband turned to me and said: ‘I think we should find your mother.’”

Line Peteri with her long-lost biological mother and her sister Hana Pugh after all these years. Photography Brian GrechLine Peteri with her long-lost biological mother and her sister Hana Pugh after all these years. Photography Brian Grech

So finally, after a lifetime of putting it off, they did. A Danish TV company wanted to make a documentary about her search, and as a result, a group of people got involved to help, including a journalist in Korea and her old orphanage. They were hopeful; her Korean name translates into ‘the little tiger’, which is a boy’s name. She is the only female to have that name. Through this evidence and a lot of research, they discovered that her biological mother had moved from Korea to the US in 1988, but so did 46,000 other Koreans that year.

This overwhelmingly large number was just too much in the middle of such vicious cancer treatment, so Line and her husband decided to stop their search. Feeling defeated, they went out to celebrate their wedding anniversary. During this meal, Line received a message: “I think I found your mother and your sister.”

Line’s sister had found her very unusual name in an online article and made contact with the writer. Line’s mother and younger sister [from her mother’s second marriage] came to Malta in March 2017 to celebrate her 40th birthday.

“Seeing my mother for the first time was awkward as there was a camera crew filming us and I was so conscious of her feeling uncomfortable. But I think we’ll go to the US this year to see them again,” she says.

“The moment I met her, though, I could forgive everything. I realised that if I could forgive her for the biggest thing in my life, then I would have no more resentment towards anything else. But,” she adds, “other adoptees might not be as lucky as I was”.

So, what had her mother and sister revealed to her that could account for her decades of self-destruction?

“I discovered my father was very violent. My mother has many scars on her body and I have some, too. Apparently, I used to come between them to try and defend her. I was also told that I watched her being stabbed.

I believe she wanted a whole new start to life, so when she left him, she didn’t take me with her. She burnt all memories of me, except for those my grandmother kept.

“I finally understand it,” she adds. “I was talking to another adoptee recently, and he said: ‘If you were falling off the edge of a cliff and the only person you could grab onto was your child, would you grab them?’ Of course not! I know I would choose to fall by myself. And that’s how it works. You fall by yourself, as there is nothing you can do for your child.

“I am in a good phase in my life now. I have the fairy-tale ending. I finally understand.”

This story first appeared in Pink magazine. Get your copy of Malta's favourite women's magazine with The Sunday Times of Malta. 

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