‘Baby girl with severe leg deformation.’ My heart pounded in my chest. This was the baby we’d searched for.’: Couple adopts daughter with special needs, ‘She’s our perfect match’

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“I have told our story hundreds of times and still, I can never explain what led us here or why a couple without infertility struggles decided this was the way we wanted to grow our family… I don’t know why, but it has always been in me. It was always in my blueprint. Since the age of 3 or 4, I began adopting ‘Cabbage Patch’ dolls and deep within my tiny bones, I knew one day I would adopt a child. It was never a question of if, only when.

It’s been a year since we walked through the streets of Yerevan, and felt the warm winds blow through our hair as we trampled the dry autumn leaves under our feet. A year since we gazed in awe at Mount Ararat over the horizon, and a year since we crossed through the threshold of the blue rusted gates of the orphanage. I remember hearing those gates crash behind us for the final time with our daughter in our arms, leaving the only world she ever knew on the other side of the gates.

Courtesy of Kate Szostak

For 5 months, we lived in her homeland, and there are these moments when my heart and mind had not caught up with my body. The whole situation was surreal and I asked myself, ‘Has this really happened, or is it just a dream? Is my baby girl asleep in her cozy pink room next door, or in a room full of abandoned babies desperate for someone to love them?’

I often find myself jolting awake in bed thinking, ‘Where am I? Am I home in my bed in the UK, or in our hotel room in Yerevan? If I go to the window will I see the lush evergreen Welsh hills or the flashing radio tower that marked the spot of our daughter’s orphanage from our hotel room balcony?’

Courtesy of Kate Szostak

Our adoption odyssey took 3 years from start to finish, and we were brought to our knees many times. We had many dark moments, moments where I questioned it all. I asked, ‘Is this the right path for us?’ Was it right for our then 4-year-old biological son? I regularly prayed for a sign and was astonished when one appeared right before our very eyes.

I will never forget the day we received an email via our social worker. It read, ‘A baby girl with a severe hip and leg deformation is available for adoption, do you want more information?’ ‘Absolutely!’ we replied and when the information was expanded, we knew. This was our gift, this baby who we searched for – this was her.

‘Baby girl, 11 months old with an extremely short left leg due to missing hip and partially missing femur (thigh) bone, which likely needs to be amputated or have extensive limb reconstruction surgeries and a heart condition.’ Her name was Ani.

Courtesy of Kate Szostak

Ani. With a short left leg and a heart condition. My heart pounded in my chest like a drum, and every emotion stirred within me. This was our baby, and our sign couldn’t have been more obvious. A few months before we began the adoption process, my sweet grandmother passed away. We were unbelievably close and my heart was shattered.

My grandmother came from a large Italian family, yet through her best friends who were of Armenian descent, she was initiated as an honorary member of a tight-knit Armenian diaspora community in the city where I grew up in Canada. Her love, respect, and admiration for the Armenian people and community was deep and was something she had passed down to me and the rest of my family. This affection my grandmother carried towards her adopted tribe was one of the main reasons that led us to Armenia as our country of adoption.

We couldn’t help but feel as though in some way our adoption was orchestrated by the angels, especially when the details we were given about this baby were so similar to my grandmother, and these details many might consider coincidental, created a knowing in every cell in our bodies. This was our perfect match. We had been lead to Armenia for this girl.

My grandmother was called Annie Gambacorta. Gambacorta translated from Italian to English means ‘short leg.’ My grandmother had an accident where she broke her left femur (her thigh bone) that meant reconstructive surgery, which resulted in her left leg becoming shorter than her right. She also had a heart condition, just like the little girl waiting in an orphanage in Armenia. The very conditions that made her birth family unable to care for her were the reasons we knew she was meant to be our daughter. To us, she was pure perfection. We couldn’t believe the similarities and knew this was the sign I had been praying for. Practically instantly, we said, ‘Yes,’ and flew with our son in tow to Yerevan, Armenia.

We hopped on a flight and traveled 3,200 miles, finally arriving in a foreign land we knew very little about to be united with an orphan girl we also knew very little about. We had an idea of what we thought our adoption experience would look like but much like a birth plan, things can change in an instant. Little did we know, the trip we thought would be a few weeks would turn into nearly half a year of living in a one-bedroom hotel room.

Courtesy of Kate Szostak

Yerevan was a sharp contrast from the rainy, cold place we called home, and we were exhilarated and excited to explore this sunny, hot new country and to finally meet the little girl we knew only from a document.

Nothing can prepare your heart for walking into a building full of orphans, forgotten children left to dwindle away into thin air, barely living – just existing, sitting in old cribs and dirty diapers, rocking back and forth to pass the time. This day is forever etched in my mind. I can still hear the flapping, tattered Armenian flag overhead as we entered the hot, suffocating old stone building and met our daughter for the first time in a sea of other orphans, most of whom will never know what it’s like to be part of a family.

We were quiet and still, overcome with all the smells, sounds, and sights as we stepped through the door frame, as quickly she caught our eye. A brown-eyed little cherub quickly gulping down her breakfast being fed to her by a nanny.

Courtesy of Kate Szostak

At first, she was petrified of the fair-featured, odd-sounding people eager to hold her. Everything about us was strange and unsettling. She was handed to me and wailed for the comfort of one of her favorite caregivers, totally unaware of the love and life we had to offer her.

The frantic little girl placed in my arms that day is a completely different child now, almost unrecognizable. Instead of a terrified foundling, she is confident, brave, and energetic, able, and willing to receive and give love, her vulnerability the true sign of her transformation.

Courtesy of Kate Szostak

As we naively watched the days turn into weeks, and the weeks turn into months, our anxiety grew, our finances running low, and a worrying feeling something was wrong nagged in the back of our minds. After months of waiting and weeks behind schedule, we were finally given a court date and in the middle of a dark November night, we said ‘goodbye’ to Armenia and began our long trek home.

Courtesy of Kate Szostak

After a few weeks of settling in at home in the UK, we decided to celebrate our first Christmas with our new baby girl at my parent’s home in Canada. Amidst all the excitement and joy, a message on my phone caught my eye, a link to a news article, ‘Orphanage director arrested for child trafficking in Yerevan.’ This was our orphanage, our daughter’s home. For 5 months, I was face-to-face with a woman now being charged with child trafficking.

Rage and disgust erupted inside of me like lava, and the already raw emotions I felt from visiting the orphanage day in and day out consumed me. Those emotions ate me alive and I felt broken that such cruelty could exist in this world and all those children we loved so deeply, including our daughter, were pawns in a deceitful, repulsive game.

Thankfully, our daughter’s case wasn’t one of the suspected trafficking cases, but other cases were halted as the government investigated. It’s unfathomable to think our daughter is possibly one of the last babies to be set free from that orphanage – all of those children so worthy of love and family, but they are stuck inside a concrete building behind the rusted gates possibly for the rest of their childhood.

It’s unclear what will happen with Armenian international adoptions, so much has transpired there – allegations of child trafficking and child abuse from the orphanage, a pandemic, and recently, a war. The gorgeous, loving, and peaceful Armenia we knew is hiding in the shadows. Now more than ever, our connection and deep-rooted love for Armenia are evermore present.

We yearn to one day return, to introduce our little girl to the people who tenderly cared for her, possibly connect with birth relatives and show her where she came from, the courage of her nation, and the love and strength of the Armenian people. Today, we hope for that day to come in the near future, and we pray for peace in the land that gave us the most precious gift: our invincible, clever, stunning girl.

Courtesy of Kate Szostak

Although we are not Armenian by blood, we are by heart and by adoption. We may have chosen an Armenian girl to be our daughter, but we feel chosen by Armenia, chosen by her culture, her people, our daughter’s homeland.”

Sarah Burton Photography
Sarah Burton Photography
Sarah Burton Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kate Szostak of the U.K. You can follow her journey on Instagram and YouTube and find her book here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more stories about international adoptions here:

‘That was my son. This precious boy was going to become OUR boy. We thought our hearts would burst.’: Woman shares international adoption journey, ‘We love that we get to be their parents’

‘We were pregnant, adopting 3 children who didn’t speak our language. We were DOUBLING our family.’: Mom shares ‘crazy, life-changing adventure’ of adoption

‘He cried by the door. He was hoping we’d take him back. Our anxiety levels were through the roof.’’: Mom shares international adoption journey, ‘We can’t imagine life without them’

‘The last time you saw me, you left me on the side of a bridge. Did you cry?’: Adoptee pens powerful letter to birth mom, ‘Thank you for giving me a better life’

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