Duranceau, who was adopted from Russia and brought to the United States when she was 13 months old, was on a mission to find her birth family. But, despite finding her adoption and birth records on her own, she hit a wall when it came to finding her actual parents. Because she couldn’t read or speak Russian, she didn’t know where to go next. So, she posted a status on Facebook asking for help.
After she made the announcement, someone recommended that she message a Durango woman, Irina Hermesman, who helped Russian adoptees find their birth families.
According to official statistics from the Russian government, as of 2011, there were more than 82,000 orphans in Russia and 654,000 children without parental care, including children who have been abandoned or are in foster care. In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning any future American adoptions of Russian children. The law was named after Dmitri Yakovlev, a toddler and Russian adoptee, who died in Virginia after being left in a car by his adoptive father for nine hours in 2008. The father was charged with manslaughter but was acquitted after Dmitri’s death was ruled an accident.
Hermesman came to the United States from southwest Siberia 20 years ago to marry her husband, Ted. After their children grew up, the pair became empty nesters, and Hermesman began to run into Russian adoptees who grew up American. The adoptees were interested in learning more about their past but had no idea where to start.
“They were very curious to know who they are and where they come from,” Hermesman said. “But because they’d been brought from different countries like Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan – all former Soviet Union countries – they don’t have any tools to search for their birth families on their own. There’s a language barrier. They can’t even read their own paperwork or pronounce their birth mother’s name properly.”
Hermesman said the adoptees who seek her help want to know the truth about their birth parents. She has helped about 100 adoptees attempt to find their families in Russia. People who are looking for their birth parents may not feel like themselves or may feel like there is a missing piece in their lives by not knowing who their birth parents are or if they have siblings, she said.
Some want to know everything about their birth family, including seeing pictures of their birth mother or learning whether they have siblings and, if so, what are their lives like, she said.
“Siblings are always the exciting part for them,” Hermesman said. “They always want to know how they look, what their life was like (and) if they have the same interests.”
Duranceau, who lives in North Carolina, reached out to Hermesman, and together they began going back and forth about Duranceau’s adoption.
Hermesman was eventually able to connect Duranceau with her sisters in Russia by going through Duranceau’s paperwork, using connections in that region and social media.
After some digging around for a few months, Hermesman found Duranceau’s mother and two sisters and the two decided to visit Moscow together to meet with Duranceau’s family. For Duranceau, it was a major step toward finding answers.
But Duranceau was nervous about meeting her family, which Hermesman said is the most difficult part of the whole process.
“Approach is the hardest part – what to say, what to do – and they always have a billion questions,” Hermesman said.
But Duranceau’s birth family was eager to meet with her, and they all got together in Russia’s capital.
“Watching Allyson walking with her sisters through the Red Square in Moscow – they were touching each other, they were comparing each other, they were smelling her, they were touching her skin and talking about how beautiful she was,” Hermesman said. “They were so cute. They were arguing who was the most beautiful.”
While in Russia, Hermesman and Duranceau went on the Russian television station Russia-1 for an emotional, on-camera family reunion with Duranceau’s mother and two sisters.
It was the second time Hermesman has appeared on Russian television to share her efforts in connecting Americans with their Russian parents.
Duranceau said she had a good childhood with a “blessed family” and never thought much about her biological family until she grew older. Likewise, Duranceau’s parents in Russia probably didn’t obsess about the daughter they put up for adoption.
Much of that has to do with Russia’s cultural attitude toward adoption and the struggles of the foster care system, which has since been revamped, according to the Eurasia Foundation, a public-private organization by the United States Agency for International Development which operates across eastern Europe.
“In the United States, there’s not as much judgment to women who give birth and pass them on to other families to raise them,” Hermesman said. “... In Russia, they think aborting children is much more merciful than to give birth and leave them in an orphanage, because kids suffer a lot, and a lot of kids don’t get adopted, especially children who have disabilities or birth defects or health challenges. They stay institutionalized most of the time.”
Duranceau learned that her biological family didn’t have a lot compared with the average American family. They didn’t have the quality of housing or cars that many Americans take for granted, and they didn’t have the amount of food, clothes or disposable income that many Americans enjoy.
“When I went there and I saw that and I saw what they had to go through as kids, I realized that I am very blessed,” Duranceau said. “I have everything I could possibly want. I wish I could give everything I have to them. When it was time to go, I gave them all the clothes I had in my suitcase.”
She credits Hermesman for making the connection possible.
“She (Hermesman) helped the whole way. It was so great to visit Russia and see my whole family.”
Hermesman said: “I was so proud of her when she started pulling out all the clothes and giving it to her sisters. It’s so meaningful to them because they are from her and it would cost a fortune for them to buy clothes like that.”
Duranceau said she keeps in contact with her Russian family. She talks to them every day using WhatsApp, an app that allows users to connect with each other from all over the world.
“I thought it was great. I was nervous. I thought it was going to be a lot different, but I’m still happy either way,” she said. “When my mom came out, she was crying and trying to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ But I don’t have any regrets. I’m not holding anything against you. I’m here with all love and all open arms. There’s nothing wrong. No matter what you did in the past, I’m here.”