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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Adopting Couple Eases Life for City's Orphans

MTPolezhayeva, Aishakh and their 15 children have the status of a "family orphanage."
With six children of their own, Irina Polezhayeva and her husband, Omar Aishakh, already had a big family. Then they welcomed nine more children into their home.

In a country where adoption is relatively uncommon, Polezhayeva and Aishakh's decision to take in and raise nine orphans approaches the miraculous. They are one of 368 families across the nation participating in a decaying state program that was designed to give some of Russia's hundreds of thousands of orphans an alternative to life in state asylums.

"There is a Russian saying: 'Where you're born, there you'll stay,'" Polezhayeva said. "We're trying to prove that wrong by giving these kids who were abandoned by their parents a real family."

It's no easy task. One of Polezhayeva's charges, Alyosha, 15, has cerebral palsy and is paralyzed on his right side. Alyona, also 15, is deaf.

Besides dealing with the health and learning problems of the various adopted children, many of whom attend schools for children with special needs, Polezhayeva and Aishakh say "fighting the bureaucratic bosses" is the biggest challenge of being adoptive parents. They say it's a constant struggle to get their children access to quality education and health care and to maintain a decent living standard in an expensive city.

Polezhayeva was so exasperated by the system that she took a proactive step that would give her a leg up.

"I decided to study law so I can fully defend the rights of the children," she said. "Not just when they are living with us, but also when they turn 18 and need to find a place to live, a job, to continue on in life."

Aishakh, 56, grew up on the steppe of Kazakhstan. He came to Moscow in the 1970s and graduated from Moscow's Gorky Institute of Literature. Aishakh came from a sizable family -- he was one of five sons -- while Polezhayeva was an only child.

Polezhayeva laughs at the thought that next year, when she turns 50, she will simultaneously be a pensioner, a fifth-year law student, a grandmother and the mother of a small child. Polezhayeva and Aishakh's oldest adopted daughter, Marina, is married and has a young child; their youngest biological child, Temirkhan, is four.

According to federal law, Aishakh, Polezhayeva and their 15 children are a "family orphanage." The status was created in a 1988 law approved by the U.S.S.R. Soviet of Ministers that covered nearly 600 such families with adopted children. The families received a stipend for each child and the state provided them with larger apartments.

The program was promoted by author Albert Likhanov's Lenin Soviet Children's Foundation, which became the private Russian Children's Foundation after the Soviet Union collapsed. Today, there are only seven "family orphanages" left in Moscow, and adoptions by Russians continue to decline. Meanwhile, adoption of Russian children by foreigners has become increasingly popular.

The annual number of Russian children adopted by foreign parents surpassed the figure for domestic adoptions for the first time in 2000. According to Education Ministrystatistics, foreigners adopted 7,000 children, while 6,200 were adopted by Russians.

This trend hardly eases the overall burden. In 2000, Likhanov, who still heads the Russian Children's Foundation, met President Vladimir Putin and persuaded him to make a one-time gift of 10,000 rubles for each adopted child living in a family orphanage.

Polezhayeva and Aishakh used the money on apartment renovations and a replacement engine for their car.

They receive a government stipend of roughly 2,900 rubles per child each month, plus a monthly salary of $300 each. With 15 children to raise, neither of them work outside the home.

Polezhayeva said they will likely adopt more children as the current brood begins to grow up and move out on its own. Marina and her husband and baby already have their own apartment. Their biological son, Arman, 22, is pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy at the Russian State Humanities University. Aina, 20, is in her fourth year of law school, like her mother.

"There are still so many children who need a family," Polezhayeva said.