Brothers and Sister Reunited!

updated 01/22/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/22/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the snow-shrouded Siberian city of Ulan Ude, 12-year-old Chingese Batoshireev rises from a wooden bench in a courtroom and stands before an unsmiling judge. "Do you understand you will be going to America?" the judge asks. "Are you scared?" Chingese shakes his head. "I'm not scared," he says, speaking in his native Russian, "because Tania is there."

More than 5,000 miles away in the American Midwest, Tania, Chingese's 9-year-old sister, waited impatiently. Cooped up in her family's comfortable home, she thought of her old life, the one she left behind when Jen and Mark Adler, high school sweethearts from Tomah, Wisc., adopted her from Russia in 2003. The Adlers knew little about Tania's siblings—but the moment their new daughter could speak English, says Jen, 40, a teacher, her longing for them came pouring forth. Tania "started telling us about her brothers," says Jen. "We'd go to church or play soccer, and she'd find something to say about Chingese and their older brother Zurik—how athletic they were, how she wished they were here. Everything was 'Chingese this, Zurik that.' We kind of thought she'd get over it."

But Tania never got over it—until her parents undertook a two-year quest to find the boys separated from her years earlier at a Siberian children's shelter. Finally, days before Christmas, as Tania waited in Wisconsin and readied a Welcome Home sign in English, the only language she now speaks, the phone rang. "Your brothers have been adopted," explained a translator. "They say to tell you, 'Wait for us. We are coming soon.'" Then, on Dec. 28, the actual reunion at Minneapolis International Airport: hugs, awkward pauses and, from the crowded backseat of their Chevy Ventura as the Adlers drove Chingese and Zurik, 15, to their new home, the sounds of giggles and excited whispers. "Tania kissed her brothers good night that first night and turned to me and said, 'This is just impossible,'" says Jen. "She needed her brothers, and it turned out they desperately needed her too."

The Adlers, who met in junior high social studies class, had always planned a big family. Their first two children, Ethan, now 15, and Ellie, 12, arrived within six years of their marriage in 1988, but during a trip to the doctor in 1996, Jen was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Her medication, the doctor explained, might interfere with a pregnancy. Friends referred the couple to the Lutheran Social Services adoption agency, which arranged a trip in 2003 to an orphanage in Ulan Ude, capital of an impoverished region of Siberia. There the Adlers met Peter, now 7, and decided to adopt him. And on day two of their eight-day trip, Jen spotted 6-year-old Tania, dancing and singing with a group of little girls. "She was full of spark and very animated," Jen says. "I thought she'd be a perfect sister for Ellie."

Orphanage officials said the girl had siblings but offered little else about her family. "They dodged our questions," says Mark, 39, a plumber. Once back in the States—with both Peter and Tania—Jen Adler searched the Internet and e-mailed to couples who had visited that region of Siberia, known as Buryatia. With only the information Tania could tell them—her brothers' names—Jen's search hit a dead end.

The turning point came at Christmas 2005. "Tania was melancholy, thinking about them," Jen says. "She worried that they were cold, that they didn't have toys. We decided we absolutely had to find them." Jen was surfing the Internet when she learned about Mary Fitzpatrick, 51, founder of Russian Family Search, a nonprofit group that helps American parents research the biological families of adoptees (see box). Within weeks Fitzpatrick had located Tania's brothers in an orphanage 100 miles from Ulan Ude; she arranged for a translator to put through a three-way phone call.

Jen vividly recalls the moment. "I was shaking," she says. "To hear Zurik and Chingese's voices, it was an incredible feeling. We asked, 'What can we do for you? What can we send?' All they wanted was pictures and letters." The Adlers called the brothers again the next week, and the next. They began to discuss adopting them. "It took a while to think about six kids, financially," says Mark, "and if we were ready for four teenagers." Adds Jen: "What it boiled down to, these are Tania's brothers. We knew we would never be able to separate Ethan and Ellie at those ages."

In July 2006, thinking Tania was too young, the Adlers took Ethan and traveled to the town of Kamensk to meet Chingese and Zurik, bringing red University of Wisconsin T-shirts. The boys wore the T-shirts every day they were there. "It was really cool," says Ethan, first to bond with the boys. "We communicated somehow. I could figure out what they were saying."

Zurik and Chingese seemed excited to hear the Adlers wanted to reunite them with their sister. The Batoshireev children—Tania, Chingese, Zurik and two older brothers Bair and Yuri—had grown up in Erkhirik, a collection of one-room wooden cottages just north of the Mongolian border. They belong to an ethnic group known as the Buriat, of which some 400,000 people remain. At one time, recalls Yuri, now 17, a high school senior living with an aunt, "We were a regular family, all together, with two parents, under one roof. The bad things happened after our parents separated." Yuri explains through a translator that their mother, Natalya, began drinking heavily. One day in 1999 she disappeared.

Left on their own, the older boys took care of their younger siblings with only minor outside help. "We were five kids living alone without any parents," says Yuri, who soaked beans in the morning to cook for dinner. Teachers and social workers came by some evenings. Zurik and Chingese, with little Tania in tow, knocked on neighbors' doors, asking for food. After a year the children's mother returned for about six months, only to disappear once more. "We never saw her again," Yuri says. The children's father, Somon, reappeared after his former wife left for the second time, but months later was sent to prison. With relatives only able to care for the older siblings, the three youngest were sent to a shelter in 2000. At a hearing two years later, at which neither parent showed up, custodial rights were stripped. (Bair, 20, is now in the Russian Army.)

At the shelter Chingese, Zurik and Tania were inseparable, Zurik recalls. "We played with her in the sandbox; we pushed her on the swing set," he says. "She was always on my lap." Then one day Tania was taken away; only later did her brothers learn she was moved to a facility for younger kids. "We looked for her," Zurik says. "We went to the places we used to play. We thought she would be back." A few months later, in June 2003, Zurik and Chingese were taken to an orphanage for 7- to 16-year-olds in Kamensk. Even then they expected Tania would rejoin them when she was old enough. "We told everyone at the orphanage that our sister was coming soon."

The orphanage director in Kamensk, Svetlana Suvorova, recalls Nov. 12, 2003, Tania's seventh birthday. "Chingese came into my office and said, 'Svetlana, it's Tania's birthday; go and pick her up,'" recalls Suvorova. "I called the Ministry of Education and they said Tania had already been adopted to America. I didn't know what to tell them." Tania's brothers got the news from their brother Yuri. "I told them, 'Please don't worry; she is in a good family. It is better for her.'" Says Zurik: "I was very sad. But I was happy for Tania. It's good not to grow up in an orphanage."

It was Chingese who took the news the hardest, according to Suvorova. "I told him it was God's will and we should hope." And that hope panned out. After Jen and Mark made the decision to take in Chingese and Zurik—the first children ever to be adopted from their orphanage—it took five months to get a court date. At the orphanage, as the boys said goodbye to their friends, Valentina Leschenao, head of adoption for the Republic of Buryatia, told them, "You are starting a new life. Look outside; the snow is melting. God wants children to go home in good weather."

If there is a sad part to the story, it is that Yuri, the 17-year-old brother, too old to adopt, is staying behind with his aunt. He sat outside the courtroom as the adoption was finalized, and bid the family goodbye at the airport. "We feel terrible leaving him," says Mark. "If we could have adopted him too, I know we would have."

As for Tania, memories of her life in Russia have faded. She recalls fishing with her brothers, a river that ran through the village, an injured bird Chingese once helped at the shelter. "My brothers took care of me," she says. "I remember that." Since their arrival here she is getting the chance to return the favor. There have been trips to Wal-Mart, movies—A Night at the Museum—and English lessons.

Mealtimes are still a challenge. The Adlers made a big batch of borscht, which is about all the boys will eat. Chingese played Bratz dolls with Tania the other day and joined her jumping on the trampoline in the backyard. "Tania's in heaven," her mother says. "She used to say, 'I want to look like you. I want big eyes.' Since her brothers came, she's like, 'They look like me.' And every night she would say these long prayers for her brothers. Now she skips in there and gives them a hug."

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