Alexander D'Jamoos, a 21-year-old college student in the U.S. state of Texas, thinks others deserve the chance to walk in his shoes. They are shoes that last spring helped him climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak. But six years ago in a Russian orphanage, D'Jamoos had no shoes. Without working legs, they would have done little good.
D'Jamoos is one of several disabled U.S. adoptees from Russia who have taken on activist roles in recent weeks, protesting their birth country's ban on American adoptions. While the ban is now in effect, D'Jamoos says he's not done fighting a law he calls a "violation of human rights."
"The law assumes that a child will have a better life not living in an American family," D'Jamoos says. "It's a very nationalist policy, and I think that's the biggest crime, really, and a logical fallacy, because it's a fundamental right for every child to have a family, regardless of nationality. [The child] doesn't go to the United States to become American. They go to the United States to have a family. If there's an opportunity for a family, I think it's immoral to take it away from a child."
Signed by President Vladimir Putin
on December 28, the Russian ban on U.S. adoptions has thrown thousands of lives into limbo. Doors closed for U.S. parents in the process of adopting, as they have for many of Russia's more than 700,000 orphans. U.S. families have adopted 60,000 Russian children since 1992, including many with disabilities. More Russian children were adopted by U.S. parents in recent years than by families from any other country.
Seen As Tit For Tat
While the ban is nominally an attempt to protect Russian children from abuse they may face by U.S. parents, the measure is seen mainly as a response to U.S. legislation signed into law in December. That legislation imposes sanctions on Russian officials implicated in the 2009 prison death of anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other officials who have acted with impunity in committing alleged gross rights violations.
As the U.S. adoption ban sped through Russia's parliament, D'Jamoos decided to take action. On December 20, he initiated an online petition
that gained more than 11,000 signatures in a week.
On December 26, Paralympics gold-medalist and Russian-born adoptee Tatyana McFadden delivered the petition to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
D'Jamoos says his own story was the best evidence he could offer in appealing to Putin. He wrote:
Throughout my childhood, I had never expected to be loved by a family. My biological parents had left me in the hospital because of my disabilities. My orphanage housed about 100 children, all of whom were physically disabled and had been neglected by their parents. Some of the horrible conditions at the orphanage included no heating during harsh winters, lack of water during summertime, rudimentary education, lack of sanitary facilities, inadequate accessibility equipment, and the worst of all, lack of love and care. I expected a gloomy future in a state-run nursing home.
But D'Jamoos had luck on his side. Just barely.
Fitted With Prosthetics
Natasha Shaginian-Needham, the co-founder of Happy Families International Center
, a U.S.-Russian NGO that aids orphans with special needs, was filming a documentary in 2006 in an orphanage in the town of Nizhniy Lomov, outside of Penza, southeast of Moscow. It was there that she met D'Jamoos, then Alexander Shulchev, whom she remembers rolling across the floor on a board with wheels.
With Shaginian-Needham's help, he was connected with Michael and Helene D'Jamoos of Dallas, Texas. They agreed to house Alexander during a trip to the United States for surgery. A local hospital agreed to operate without charge, amputating his deformed legs and fitting him with prosthetics.
The D'Jamoos family, meanwhile, grew attached to the boy and decided to adopt him. It took bribing, Alexander admits, to speed up the process. At 15 years of age, he was just one year away from being too old to be eligible for adoption.
From then, D'Jamoos says, his life has been "dramatically transformed." He has learned to ski, earned scholarships to attend the University of Texas at Austin, and volunteers with Happy Families. In June, he hiked to just beneath the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for the organization's work.
Now, D'Jamoos says he doesn't want his disabled orphanage friends, with whom he still keeps in touch, to be the victims of "political demagoguery."
"It's difficult to battle the media control that exists in Russia, but I will continue," he says. "I will do whatever it takes -- whatever I can, really -- to speak out against this ban. I have not done a lot of writing in Russian for the Russian audience, so I'm thinking maybe to get together different essays and collect essays from different adopted children here in the United States [and] maybe spread their letters somehow in Russia to Russia media, maybe small newspapers."
Studying Foreign Affairs
D'Jamoos, in fact, is not a stranger to Russian media. Shaginian-Needham filmed a documentary
chronicling his story, which she says was broadcast in 2012 on the state-controlled channel TV Tsentr.
"That was a big surprise," she says, and one she "doubts" would be repeated after D'Jamoos's petition against the Russian law.
D'Jamoos, who is studying foreign affairs, says he would like to work on U.S.-Russian relations after college. Intercountry adoption, he notes, has long been a sensitive issue.
While he welcomes recent pledges by Putin to boost state funding for the country's disabled orphans, D'Jamoos says deeper change is needed before Russia can even consider rejecting outside help.
"It's really not a financial issue. It's not an economic issue. It's a social issue," he says. "You have a social catastrophe, essentially, with such a large number of orphans [in Russia] -- some sources estimate 800,000 -- and there's no money in the world you can fix this with. It starts with the cultural realization that you have disabled people who you should accommodate, who you have to accommodate, into your society."