Simon Collins is the Herald’s education reporter.

Sisters meet after 19 years

An Aucklander adopted from a Russian orphanage 19 years ago has been reunited with her birth sister - live on Russian television.

Aleisha Snell, now 23, can't remember the orphanage, even though she was almost 5 when her adoptive parents Carolyn and Greg Snell travelled to Russia's Arctic port of Arkhangelsk to collect her.

"My mind is just blank," she says. "I was very sick as a child. My parents got told I had six months to live."

Despite that grim prognosis, the Snells took her into their home, which was then in Melbourne, with their own children now aged 24 and 25. They moved to Auckland when Aleisha was 11.

She always knew she was adopted and that she had a birth sister, Anna, who was about a year older.

When she reached university and worked part-time in a restaurant, she began to seek out other Russians.

"When I was at the restaurant and a Russian would come in, I would think, 'Could she be my sister'?"

About a year ago she helped another Russian adoptee, Alex Gilbert, with a website to help adopted people find their birth families, imadopted.org. About the same time, Elena and Endijs Heinrihsone walked into the restaurant, Dos Amigos in Mission Bay.

"I did the usual, 'Oh, where are you from?' That's how it started."

The next day she emailed Elena her Russian name and the fragments of information she had about her birth family.

"Two weeks later, I woke up to endless messages on my phone and a picture that looked exactly like me. It was like, you're kidding me!"

Elena had used Russian social media to track down Aleisha's aunt, Nadezhda Samoilova, and found that she had adopted Aleisha's sister, Anna.

"My Russian mother's sister decided to take Anna but let me go overseas for a better lifestyle due to my health conditions," Aleisha says.

With Elena interpreting, she spoke to Anna and her aunt. "I didn't cry or anything. I was more in shock."

She learned that her birth mother died when Aleisha was 8 or 9. Her birth father had been in jail and lost touch with the family. Samoilova and her husband Vasiliy, a driver, still lived near Arkhangelsk. And Anna and her husband Denis Povarenkin, also a truck driver, had a son, Ilya, now 9 months old.

Aleisha wrote about it on imadopted.org. A Russian TV show saw her story and offered her a trip to meet the family. "They called me on the Friday and said I was leaving on the Saturday," she says. The next day she was in Moscow.

On April 20 she walked on to the TV show. Then her aunt was brought on and then Anna.

"That was an emotional moment. She broke down in tears and bawled, I cried as well.

"My whole life, I was believing she's out there, and suddenly she's here," Aleisha says.

"I couldn't believe it. We are both the same height, we both have the same physique, the nose in the whole family is just the same, and I think the sincerity as well - in the heart you could tell you were connected."

Aleisha will visit Arkhangelsk again. "I will always be a Kiwi, but I now know there is this Russian side to me."

Changes due to rules

The Government expects to announce soon whether adoptions of Russian children will resume.

Adoptions from Russia have been on hold since 2013, after New Zealand legalised same-sex marriage.

Wendy Hawke of Inter-Country Adoption NZ said her agency helped Kiwi couples adopt about 700 Russian children from 1992 until 2013.

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said she expected to announce a decision on rule changes soon.

- Herald on Sunday

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