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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

American Reunites Orphan Brothers

Oleg Chinyenko got two presents for his birthday, a small one and a big one. The small one was a wrist watch. The big gift was called Gena.

Once introduced, the teenagers shook hands and turned away from each other, pretending that they were too cool to be interested.

Then the American man they call Grandpa Arthur said emotionally, "Come on, Oleg, this is your older brother."

There was a long pause and an intense, inquiring stare. Then Oleg's confused expression beamed with joy and he said, a large smile across his face, "Nice to meet you, brother."

Oleg, 14, and Gena Chinyenko, 15, haven't seen each other for almost their entire lives and have never been told about each other's existence. When their mother was put into prison, the brothers, who were 1 and 2 years old at the time, were placed in different orphanages.

They were reunited Oct. 26 thanks to Arthur Stracinski, 67, an American who has been caring for the two boys separately for 4 1/2 years.

Stracinski met both boys after trying to adopt them. Russian law, which is very restrictive when it comes to adoption by a bachelor of Stracinski's age, prohibited him from adopting them.

Initially, he met Gena and through his records found Oleg, who lives in an orphanage for children with learning disabilities on the opposite side of Moscow.

Stracinski kept the boys' relationship a secret until last May, when Gena learned about his younger brother after accidentally finding a picture of Stracinski and Oleg.

While many countries no longer separate orphaned siblings, Russia's adoption system still cannot prevent their separation. Legal regulations state that siblings should be kept together as much as possible, but there are many factors -- age, gender and the mental and physical health of the siblings, as well as lack of space in orphanages -- that may influence inspectors' decisions in each specific case, said Lyudmila Sidorova of the Education Ministry.

For example, in the Chinyenko boys' case, Sidorova said it is likely that they were put in separate orphanages because of Oleg's learning disability. Also, when one sibling is a baby, he or she would be put in a home for infants, while the older siblings would be sent to the regular orphanage, she said.

There is no ill will involved in separating siblings in Russia's orphanages, Sidorova said. "Besides," she added, "It has always been like that."

Dmitry Beloselsky, the national coordinator of SOS Children's Villages, which has a complex of group homes for orphans in Tomilino near Moscow, thinks the main reason for separating siblings is lack of space.

"Overcrowded orphanages -- that's what causes the separation of a children's family and other incredible things," he said.

While state inspectors could strive to place siblings together, they routinely deal with hundreds of cases of orphans and often become insensitive to the drama and broken lives behind them, Beloselsky said.

At SOS Children's Villages, siblings always are housed together. "We're using the concepts of [European and American systems] in order to show that it works and these things can be taken care of in a humane way," he said.

In 1996, there were more than 500,000 children registered to be placed in Russia's 700 orphanages. Of these, 40,000 orphans live on the streets, according to Education Ministry statistics.

In Moscow, orphanages accommodate about 20,000 children. Only a few of those kids manage to cope with the harsh reality of the adult world and reach some success in their lives. The majority joins criminal gangs and other underworld structures. Up to 50 percent end up in prison, according to the ministry.

Concerned with these horrifying numbers, Stracinski, who was an accounting teacher for 30 years and travels between Moscow and New York, founded Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund, or ROOF, which hopes to enhance Russian orphans' chance for a better future.

Together with Language Link school, ROOF is launching English lessons for an orphanage ward for gifted children, starting at the end of this month. With some English-language skills, orphans' job prospects will significantly improve and perhaps they would be able to work in "some sort of service business, like dry-cleaning," he said.

"I like this word, 'opportunity,'" said Stracinski, whose mother was an orphan from Odessa who remained virtually illiterate her entire life because she grew up in a bad orphanage. "I want a creative future for them here."

Stracinski said he hopes to transfer Gena to an orphanage for gifted children, located on the same grounds as Oleg's home near the Yugo-Zapadnaya metro station on the southwestern side of Moscow, so that they could be together.

According to Russian law, once children are 16 years old, they can decide whether they want to be adopted or choose to live by themselves in an apartment given to them by the state.

The hyperactive, buoyant Oleg and his quiet, shy brother soon got over their confusion and enjoyed themselves, chatting about their favorite school matters at a restaurant.

"I want to be with my brother," Oleg said. "The watch is a good gift, but at some point it breaks or the batteries run out. A brother will always be here for me."