09 March, 2008

The Translator of Joy

By Sushma Joshi
ECS Magazine, March 2008

Adoption brings joy. “Some people get families, others get love,” says Mukta Shrestha. “I’ve always wished the best for each family.” Mukta, who started to translate for Spanish families 15 years ago, should know. She’s helped to facilitate more than 100 adoptions in the last 15 years. During this time, she’s seen hundreds of children pass through to comfortable homes with loving parents. She’s dealt with malnourished children, medical emergencies, and psychological counseling. She’s gotten calls from families in the middle of the night, asking why their newly adopted child is behaving in a certain way, or what they want. For Mukta is more than a translator—she has been a facilitator, mentor, counselor, and a good friend to many Spanish families who have chosen to adopt Nepali children.

Unlike the horror stories I hear from friends in Canada and the USA, who wait tensely for their adopted children to be released, and who pay up to $10,000 to lawyers and adoption homes, Spanish families report a different experience. “No, we did not have to pay money,” says Victoria Veiga Vila of Madrid earnestly, who is back to adopt a second child, a girl. “There were no problems with the Ministry. They were very honest and correct.”

“We are very happy that everybody in Nepal helped us,” adds Javier Ruis, her husband.
“No, I did not pay money,” says Nuria Mora, in Nepal to adopt her first child, a son. “Mukta helped with the process. She is a very good link for adoption.”

Spanish families have one of the highest rates of adoptions from Nepal. All three families I met said they chose to adopt from Nepal because they knew a friend who had done the same. Partly, its the positive experiences Spanish parents have with Nepali children, who are quick to adapt, learn, and socialize. Unlike children from Eastern Europe, Nepali children adapt quickly to the tightknit social world of Spain, are better behaved than Spanish children, and show easy acceptance of religious life. Partly, the high rates can be explained by less rigid laws—single women, for instance, cannot adopt from China, but they can from Nepal. And partly, it’s the way the close-knit Spanish community has been able to tap into the experience of an ethical facilitator like Mukta.

Mukta’s connection to Spain stems from a class she took in the Spanish language from the Campus of International Languages 15 years ago, which led to her work as a translator for Spanish tourists. Inevitably, the work led to families seeking to adopt. Before long, she found herself visiting the Ministry of Women and Children, visiting orphanages, and coordinating with Lluis Belvis, the Spanish honorary counsel in Barcelona, to facilitate adoption paperwork for different families.

Mukta has a personal connection to Spain—her son Abhi, who went to Madrid to study computer science, is married to a Spanish woman. Her linkage to Spain is more than work related—it is familial. In her photo albums, I see photographs of large groups of people waiting at airports in different Spanish cities. They carry banners that say: “Welcome Mukta!”

This enthusiasm is not hard to understand. Mukta is forthright—she talks about the racism and the discrimination that children face in Spanish community and schools without hedging. She addresses difficulties parents face with new adoptees with candid openness. She points out inadvertent mistakes parents make with ease and humor. And she is always open about how bureaucracy runs in Nepal. It is easy to see why friendships that arose out of professional relationships were forged.

“On their first day, children go to the hotel and change completely. They laugh, they run, they feel so free. They eat a lot of food because they don’t know if it is only temporary. They put the food in their pockets. Then they realize that its going to be like this every day—then they stop eating,” she says.

Initially, children feel frustrated with their new parents for not being able to understand their language. Sharmila, a five year old Gandharva child who Javier Ruis and Victoria Vila are adopting, gives me a big smile and runs a small helicopter on my arm. “Sharmila’s shoes were too small and hurt her feet. I asked her why she wore them. She told me: they don’t understand me when I tell them, so what’s the point!” Mukta laughs.But Spanish culture, Mukta says, is very similar to Nepali cultures. And children adapt fast.

Rufino Garcia and Nuria Fernandez
For Rufino Garcia and Nuria Fernandez, their joy at adopting Bina (which sounds like bin aqui or come here in Catalan, and therefore changed to Duna) is tinged with the sadness that all parents face when they learn that their child has a disability. Duna, who was two weeks old when left at the Helpless Children Protection Home in Ranibari orphanage, was malnourished and tiny. Like other adoptions, Duna was picked out of a list of names based on the request of the parents.

At six, Duna is a vibrant, joyful child. She says individual words but cannot speak in sentences. After all that could be done with allopathic medicine in Spain, Duna still couldn’t speak. With the hope that springs eternal in all parents’, the couple decided to bring her back to Nepal and take her to Suryabinayak temple, where parents take children with speech development issues. When the Gurbacharya priest threw some coconut water at her face, she was startled. Her parents now claim she is doing much better.

Rufino and Nuria deal with Duna’s sudden outbursts with infinite patience and kindness. Duna wants to go out, but she is told to stay in. She has a loud fit, accompanied by uncontrolled physical movement. Nuria envelops her in a hug and sings to her softly till she calms down. “Hi, hi, hi,” says Duna, calming down.“Muy bien, muy bien,” Nuria says, as Duna writes the names of her family members in perfect, neat letters: Aran, Duna, Tata, Yaya.

Aran is Duna’s brother, and Rufino and Nuria’s biological child. He’s fourteen. Rufino worries about what mischief his teenage son might be up to back in Spain. “My house has become a hotel,” he says wryly, talking about the friends his son brings over every day. In the camera, Duna catches sight of her brother and kisses the camera screen. “Tete, Tete,” she repeats her nickname for her adored brother. “Tete,” she says, as if he’s in the room.

“We passed through a phase where we thought about it a lot. We did not know why she was like that,” Nuria says. And yes, they do worry about what will happen to her in the future, but not as intensely as they used to do before. “She will always have parents, and a loving home. We would like her to live a life of autonomy. We are taking it day by day.” Duna has a special teacher in school who sits with her and teaches her individually.

Nuria and Rufino came to Nepal knowing that the culture would be different, and that they would have to work in a different manner. Having Mukta to facilitate the process helped a great deal. “We always went with our representative to the Ministry,” says Rufino. “Nobody asked us for money.” His wife adds: “We wanted to adopt from here because everything was transparent here—everything is done directly through the Spanish consulate.” Talking about Mukta, the parents says: “We couldn’t have done it alone. Mukta gave us emotional help. She has—muchas patiencas.”

“The first necessity of the child is to live with the family. The warmth of the family is necessary above culture, religion and tradition,” Rufino says.

So is this adoption a success? “We are lucky to have her—she needed us and we needed her,” answers Nuria, smiling. Watching these two loving parents with Duna, I know she is right.

Javier Ollala Rius and Victoria Veiga Vila
Javier and Victoria have an adopted cousin from India, which made them think South Asia was the continent from where they wanted a child. Javier suggested Eastern Europe—the racism in Spain, he felt, would have made it difficult for an Asian child. But then six years ago, they contacted Mr Belvis, the honorary counsel of Nepal in Barcelona, for a trek. After 10 days, they were in love with Nepal—it adopted them as they adopted it.

Since then, the couple have been back in Nepal each year. They adopted Homjung, their son, three years later. This year, they’re back to adopt Sharmila, their second child.

“It was marvelous,” says Javier, talking about his first encounter with Nepal.

“I think its important to know the country before adopting,” adds Victoria. “There’s a connection to the country then.

”On this trip, Javier and Victoria have visited their son’s orphanage every single day. The parents don’t know Homjung’s ethnicity—at one Tibetan village, they were told “Homjung” meant “we are warriors”. Homjung loves to play with children in his old orphanage. He never felt disconnected—a large collage of photographs in his bedroom reminds him of his old friends every morning when he wakes up.

Sharmila, their new daughter, is of Gandharva origins. She breaks into a radiant smile once in a while, transforming the worry that hangs over her. In the garden of Yak and Yeti, she plays with Homjung as if she’s always known him. “They’re like biological siblings,” Victoria comments. “As soon as they met, they were great friends. Homjung is very protective of her.”

Javier, who works as a glassworker, and Victoria, trained as a cytologist but not presently employed, were advised by their doctor not to have biological children for medical reasons. Adoption worked so well for them they’ve come back for a second child. “We were very clear we wanted more than one,” says Victoria. “The children need companions.”

“There were no problems with the Ministry,” Javier says. “They were very honest and correct.” As Sharmila runs after her new brother Homjung in the garden, it is clear that this is one family that benefited both ways from the smooth adoption process.

Nuria Mora
Nuria Mora, 45 years old, works as a secretary in a bank in Barcelona. Dipesh, her son, says “Ola!” with a big smile. Dipesh is five or six according to his papers, but looks almost ten. He wears a yellow T-shirt and a happy smile. As Nuria tells him: “No, Dipesh, no!” and wipes the water from his face, I mistake the two for a family that’s known each other a lifetime, not just a few weeks.

Nuria talks in Spanish, Dipesh answers in Nepali. “I’m a first time mother,” says Nuria. “Everyday is
difficult. I don’t have the maternal experience.” But she hastens to add: “But I’m very happy. This experience of the heart is very important for life.” As she hugs her son, and he cuddles up shyly, it’s clear that this relationship will override any initial mothering anxieties.

Nuria came to Nepal when she heard another single friend of hers had also been able to adopt without difficulty. Nuria comes from a large family with nephews and nieces who will provide instant companionship for her new child.

For Mukta Shrestha, being in the middle of children and parents is both exhilarating and wearying. Adoption is not always a happily-ever-after story. There are issues as children grow older, become teenagers and cause problems. Mukta knows that like any family, adopted ones have growing pains. “There are cases of teenagers causing problems, but Spanish families deal with it with a great deal of patience,” Mukta remarks.

At times, prospective parents come and expect to have the baby immediately, sometimes expecting money to grease the wheels. People do not understand and get upset by the slow pace of bureaucracy. At other times, Mukta has to be the bearer of bad news. “I have two families waiting for two weeks now. They’re on the edge of a nervous breakdown. All their papers have come, but they don’t have a final signature. They’ve waited for a year, and now the officials are telling me that they shouldn’t wait but return to Spain.” Her face darkens with worry. “How can I tell the parents this? I am on the
frontline of giving this news.”

There is a psychological cost, and sometimes Mukta wonders if she should change her line of work. “One day one of the parents told me: Mukta, you shouldn’t feel this so deeply. This is one adoption for me. You’ve done hundreds. You should remain detached, like a doctor.”

Because of her work at the frontlines of adoption, Mukta is deeply committed to reforming the process. “Nepali bureaucracy is very unpredictable. If today is “yes,” tomorrow might be “no.” You never know in Nepal.” Because of the political situation and lack of elected representatives, the adoption process came to a halt for a year, and both children and families lost a year waiting for an official signature. This cost is too high for children, says Mukta.

“The adoption law has to be very clear, and implemented at all levels consistently. Each deadline in paperwork has to be explicitly stated in the law. There should also be a separate Adoption Commission attached to the Ministry of Women and Children, staffed by professionals who know the emotional, psychological and social issues of adoption. It shouldn’t be left to officials who are unclear, and unconcerned, about how the process impacts children and parents,” she says firmly.

Mukta suggests embassies set up adoption representatives—trust-worthy local facilitators who can help new parents navigate the bureaucratic maze, as well as the emotional ups and downs of the initial adoption process. Also important is the longterm connection to the country—with the help of people like Mukta, parents have come to realize the importance of keeping in touch with the country of origin, and of maintaining emotional linkages. Increasingly, Spanish families talk about teaching Nepali (and if that’s not possible, then English) so children can communicate when they visit Nepal.

As our interview comes to an end, a Spanish woman walking by greets us with Buenas Dias, and then a surprised and joyful: Mukta! It is a happy mother catching sight of a long-lost friend. She’s back to adopt a second child. As the two kiss warmly, it occurs to me that indeed adoption brings a lot of joy.

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