When Anne Zakkour and her husband Sam learned they wouldn't be allowed to adopt the two toddlers they had held and bonded with and flown across the world for, she said "it felt like a vacuum sucked everything out of us."
The Zakkours, who live outside Dayton, Ohio, had spent a year preparing to adopt two children from the small Eastern European nation of Belarus. Anne even left her job as a nurse so she could spend more time with the youngsters.
Zakkour, her husband and their 9-year-old son had flown to Belarus to see about adopting a little boy and girl from an orphanage in Minsk, the nation's capital. The government had even invited them to come in order to explore the adoption process.
But then they became the apparent victims of a crackdown by the country's president Aleksandr Lukashenko on adoption of Belarusian children by foreigners, which he called a national disgrace.
"Our children should be brought up and educated in Belarus," Lukashenko said. "Adoption by foreigners should be maximally reduced."
The Zakkours, along with three other families that went to Minsk at the same time to adopt children, believe they fell victim to the president's crackdown.
"The four of us were over there, we all touched and held our kids and bonded with them," she said. "The day we went to court we were told we weren't being denied, we were just told that the adoptions were suspended."
Reacting to Adoption Horror Stories
The fate of children adopted by Americans and other foreigners from Belarus, Russia and other Eastern European countries has recently become a hot topic. Many there have been angered by media reports of adopted youngsters being abused or slain by their new parents, as well as by concerns about human trafficking and declining populations in some of those countries.
A woman in Illinois was recently convicted in the death of a 6-year-old boy she had just adopted from Russia weeks earlier, and earlier this month a North Carolina woman, Peggy Sue Hilt, 33, was charged with murder in the death of the 2-year-old Russian girl she had adopted.
"These cases of Russian children in America impressed the Belarusian people," said Andrei Kozhan, first secretary at the Belarus embassy in Washington. "That was not helpful as far as adoption of children abroad."
There have also been cases of children from Ukraine and Russia who were adopted by foreigners who turned out to be human traffickers, Kozhan said.
The larger issue, however, is the sheer number of Belarusian children who have been adopted by foreigners. Since Belarus gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, some 1,000 children have been adopted by Americans and another 1,500 by Italians.
"It's not a small figure, for a small country like Belarus," Kozhan said.
So the Belarusian government adopted new regulations that Kozhan said would give preference to native families seeking adoptions over foreigners, and would require adoptive parents to report to Belarusian authorities on the children's welfare for five years, instead of three.
But the new policies have been a nightmare for families like the Zakkours. Anne Zakkour said all she and her husband want to do is give a good home to two children who need one. They also said they are ready to meet any requirement that Belarus sets, because of the love they feel for the two youngsters they met at the orphanage in Minsk.
Preparing at Home
In the year before they went to Minsk the Zakkours took international adoption courses, submitted to criminal background checks, provided full health reports, opened their financial records, and were interviewed by social workers.
"We filleted our lives open and spent thousands and thousands of dollars to adopt these children," Anne Zakkour said.
She left her job as a nurse after 14 years in the career so she could spend more time with her new children. They prepared a room for the two toddlers, bought car seats to take them home from the airport, and even bought clothes and shoes for the two children they expected to be new members of their family.
"I bought so many shoes," Zakkour said tearfully. "I was trying to guess what size their feet would be."
The Zakkours still do not understand what went wrong, in part because in the beginning things went better than they could have hoped.
Though both Anne and her husband have traveled extensively throughout Western Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and both of them studied in Europe, they had never been to any of the countries of the former Soviet Union. They were not sure what to expect.
Swept Off Their Feet
Any apprehensions were dispelled almost as soon as they saw Minsk, a city of broad tree-lined boulevards, classical architecture and dozens of parks.
"Belarus was our first experience with Eastern Europe, but we loved it there," she said. "The Belarusian people are lovely, we loved Minsk. The orphanage is a modest place, but it's clean, the children get healthy food, lots of fresh vegetables, they probably eat better than a lot of kids in the United States."
When they met the two children at the orphanage, the little girl seemed to take to them right away, she said. The little boy, who was just 2 years old, was a little more shy, but as they returned day after day -- on the urging of the orphanage staff -- he slowly opened up to them.
All that only made the shock of what happened next more devastating.
At the court hearing last October, the Zakkours expected the adoption to be approved quickly, since they had been invited by the Belarusian government to come to Minsk to finalize it. Instead, they were told it had been suspended and were given a new court date.
"The people at the adoption center said, 'Keep coming back because we want this to work,'" she said. "I never believed that it wouldn't work out. So we just kept going back and spending hours with them and we just loved them more."
But when they returned to court, the answer was the same. The adoptions were in limbo.
The Zakkours sought help from the U.S. Ambassador to Belarus, George Krol, but ended up leaving the country with nothing more than a vague statement from the government.
"They got our hopes up, they gave us a statement saying that the adoptions could be processed in 2005, and nothing happened, so we don't know. We just don't know," Anne Zakkour said.
Kozhan said that all foreign adoptions of Belarusian children are in limbo because foreign governments have not yet agreed to implement protections required by the new regulations.
"The procedure has been suspended since the end of last year," Kozhan said. "The procedure could be renewed, but it is really difficult to give an exact date when this could be done."
Another major obstacle, he said, is that the United States does not have an agency designated to deal with international adoptions, as called for in the Hague Convention.
"Because the United States doesn't participate in the Hague Convention for adoption, there is no agency that could be responsible for international adoptions," Kozhan said.
The State Department assists Americans seeking to adopt children from other countries, and a representative has been negotiating with Belarus on behalf of the Zakkours, but it seems no progress has been made, Anne Zakkour said.
"I'm told there may be a slight chance of a dialogue," she said.
The couple has also turned to local politicians for help, including their governor and senators. They even wrote to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, after hearing that the former movie star had helped another couple fighting for a Belarus adoption.
Despite their frustration, the Zakkours said they have not soured on Belarus or the people there, and they said they understand the government's concerns. If the adoptions are finally approved, they said they will teach the children about their home country, and bring them back to visit when they are older.
"We want the children to learn all about Belarus, we want to take them back when they grow up," Zakkour said. "Belarus was our first experience with the Eastern European countries, but we loved it there."