Bridget in April, 2021

Bridget in April, 2021

Foto:

Evgeny Maloletka / DER SPIEGEL

The Perils of Wartime Adoption "We Promised Bridget We Would Come Get Her"

An American couple signed up for a surrogate child from a Ukrainian agency, but the girl was born with disabilities. The parents rejected her. Now, Bridget is six and a different American family is trying to adopt her. Their efforts have been hampered by the war.
By Timofey Neshitov

The Graves family of Brunswick, Maryland, don’t quite all fit on their small sofa. Kristie, the mother, is holding her eight-year-old daughter Elliana on her lap, with son Owen squeezed between his father Philip and sister Kara, while Ethan, the oldest brother, is left to balance precariously on the armrest. It is 5 a.m. on March 15, 2022.

Philip connects his mobile phone with the television, where the face of a girl appears, her bangs cut straight across her forehead.

"Privet Brizzy!," Elliana says in greeting.

The girl on the screen, Brizzy, is wearing a shirt printed with "I love you." She waves stiffly and puts her face close to the camera. She is six years old and her vision is rather poor. She is sitting on a rubber mat in a children’s home in Ukraine, six time zones away from Brunswick. A woman with red hair is kneeling behind her and trying to position her mobile phone so that it’s possible to see more of the child.

DER SPIEGEL 14/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 14/2022 (April 2nd, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

"We love you," says Philip.

Brizzy holds a toothbrush up to the camera. She wants the family gathered on the couch to brush their teeth along with her. She peels a mandarin orange and wants to share it with everybody. The woman with the red hair says: "She tells everyone here in the home that she has a father named Phil and a mother named Kristie." After 10 minutes, the woman grabs her phone and you can hear her say: "Air raid. We have to head down into the cellar." And the Graves family in Maryland suddenly find themselves sitting in front of a black screen.

"It’s almost even worse that she calls us dad and mom," Kristie says to her husband. "We promised that we would come get her."

"We’ll get her," says Philip Graves. "The Ukrainians will win."

The Graves family in Brunswick, Maryland, during a video chat with Bridget.

The Graves family in Brunswick, Maryland, during a video chat with Bridget.

Foto: Lexey Swall / DER SPIEGEL

The girl with the long bangs was born on Feb. 19, 2016, in Zaporizhzhia, a city located 450 kilometers southeast of Kyiv. Even back then, the Ukrainians were fighting against Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the violence was restricted to the Donbas, with the so-called "line of contact" running 200 kilometers east of Zaporizhzhia.

Bridget’s parents are Americans – a Hollywood producer from Beverly Hills, who was 58 years old when Brizzy was conceived, and a wind turbine technician from Iowa, who was more than 20 years younger.

One year after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, the American couple traveled to Ukraine, a country well known for surrogacy, with surrogate mothers in the country usually under contract to a larger company. The American couple chose market leader BioTexCom.

Company employees picked them up from the airport in Kyiv and drove them to company headquarters on a hill in the center of the city, located in a colorfully painted building with pointed towers – a children’s castle complete with white lions in front of the entrance.

He submitted a sperm sample while she made a down payment.

They chose the "All Inclusive Standard" package, which includes an egg donor service from a "dynamic" database, an unlimited number of attempts to inseminate the surrogate mother ("we will try until you get a baby," reads the website) and a "higher class" hotel room. The package costs 29,900 euros. They didn’t meet the surrogate mother that BioTexCom chose for them.

She was 22 years old, 1.54 meters (just over five feet) tall, a woman from Zaporizhzhia with long brown hair and gray-blue eyes. She had two of her own sons, with the youngest having been born just a year earlier. After the second attempt at insemination, three embryos developed in her womb, one of which was removed. In the 22nd week of pregnancy, the surrogate mother experienced bleeding. According to the contract, she was supposed to give birth in Kyiv, but a doctor in Zaporizhzhia performed a Cesarean section in the 25th week.

The lungs of the twins had become infected in the womb and several blood vessels had burst in their brains. The boy made no noise at all, but the girl cried briefly. She was placed in an incubator.

The boy died and the girl was brought to intensive care. She weighed just 810 grams (1 pound 12 ounces). It is possible to retrace the girl’s story with the help of hospital files, interviews with doctors and nurses at the hospital and interviews with the surrogate mother and the head of BioTexCom.

The parents of the girl, Matthew Etnyre and Irmgard Pagan, came to Zaporizhzhia one month after the girl was born. They brought along baby clothes, but they were too large for the premie, who they named Bridget. They took a photo with the surrogate mother and then they spoke with the head of the intensive care unit.

They wanted to know if Bridget would be disabled. The doctor said "yes."

It wasn’t even certain that she would survive, he added, but there was hope.

The parents never returned.

When Bridget Irmgard Etnyre-Pagan was three-and-a-half years old, her name and image traveled the world. A television team from the Australian broadcaster ABC found her in an orphanage in Zaporizhzhia and filmed her playing with a nurse. The Guardian reported on the abandoned girl, as did the German tabloid Bild and the Chinese infotainment portal sina.com.

The story, though, didn’t make it to Brunswick, Maryland, at the time.

Brunswick is a town of around 8,000 residents, with many of them working at the rail yard, which was the largest in the world at one time. The locals refer to Brunswick as "a town of hills, whores and liquor stores."

The Graves family lives in a rambler on a hill. Philip Graves, a 49-year-old with a gray biker beard, is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Brunswick. His church is small, so Phil also runs a web design company. He says he loves America. The best thing about America, he says, are "Uncrustables," the pre-packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the bread crusts already removed. "You walk into the store and someone has already cut off the bread crusts for you. This is America."

His wife Kristie, who is six years younger and almost two inches taller, met him 21 years ago at church. She works as a respiratory therapist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, an hour and a half by car from Brunswick. Kristie Graves doesn’t say much, but smiles at her husband whenever he tells a joke.

"Why can’t Tyrannosaurus Rexes do pushups? Because they’re dead!"

They have four children: Kara, 17, Ethan, 15, Owen, 12, and Elliana, 8. The oldest daughter wants to become an occupational therapist and keeps ducks out in the yard. Elliana is an adopted child who they brought over from Armenia when she was three. She was born with spina bifida, a birth defect involving a malformation of the spinal cord. She has undergone six operations and will have to spend her life in a wheelchair.

They used to live in a larger house, but when Elliana arrived, they moved to their current home since it has better wheelchair access, with the only stairs leading into the basement. That's where the parents sleep, and it's also where Philip has his "cloffice," so called because it also serves as their clothes closet.

They call themselves Family Von Pickle Train. They like to go train watching and they love pickles. Mother Kristie is called Natalia von Pickle Train. Father Philip: Vladimir von Pickle Train. Elliana: Aloysius T. von Pickle Train. Grandma also lives together with them and posts photos of her grandchildren on Facebook. She is Babushka von Pickle Train.

The Graves decided they wanted a fifth child, so in January 2021, Kristie called up the website of Reece’s Rainbow, an American foundation that promotes adoption of special needs children. That's how they had found Elliana. Kristie began clicking through the different profiles and one of them immediately caught her eye.

The photo showed a small girl wearing a sweater with a laughing owl on it. The girl was sitting with her legs extended out in front of her on a tiger-striped blanket. Bridget’s diagnosis was listed beneath her profile photo: spastic paraplegia. An unspecified mental affliction. Club foot. A congenital malformation of the papilla. Undernourishment. Constipation.

The Graves weren’t necessarily looking for a child with disabilities from the beginning. Before the arrival of Elliana, they had been interested in adopting a healthy child. But the waiting lists were too long – and Elliana changed their view. "God put Brizzy into our hearts," says Philip Graves. The Facebook page that they set up for Bridget last year is called "Adoption is Redemption." On it, they issued a call for donations. Adopting a child from Ukraine costs $37,000 in the United States.

When somebody on Facebook wrote that Bridget is the Bridget, the Graves went looking for the television footage from 2019. They watched as a Ukrainian nurse with red hair picked up Bridget, who she called Brizzy, and how she cried when she said: "For me, she is the best, the happiest, the smartest child I can imagine."

The woman’s name is Marina Boyko. Philip Graves sent her a friend request.

Excerpts from the Facebook Chat between Graves and Boyko, Feb. 13, 2021:

Marina Boyko is the head nurse at the hospital where Bridget spent the first three years of her life. Since Bridget has been living in the children’s home, Boyko has been visiting her regularly. She buys her clothes, fruit, silver earrings, and before the Russian invasion, she took her to the best physical rehabilitation clinic in Ukraine on several occasions for dolphin therapy. The clinic is located in Truskavets, a town on the border with Poland. Boyko collected donations to help with the expenses.

Boyko earns the equivalent of 90 euros per month. She has a grown son and lives with her mother in a prefab concrete apartment building in Zaporizhzhia, a city that is full of war memorials and home to more than 700,000 people. There is plenty of heavy industry in the city – coal, steel, aluminum, titanium – and they also build cars and ships here, in addition to the brewery and sweets factory. Those coming to Zaporizhzhia, say residents, should bring along their own air to breathe.

Southwest of the city is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The one that the Russian army recently fired on.

Marino Boyko together with Bridget in front of the Solnyshko orphanage.

Marino Boyko together with Bridget in front of the Solnyshko orphanage.

Foto:

Evgeny Maloletka / DER SPIEGEL

The children’s hospital is a yellow building on the main road through town. Marina Boyko’s office is in a roughly 6-square-meter (65-square-foot) room on the second floor with ivy growing on one wall. Boyko has affixed pictures of Bridget to the leaves: Bridget as an infant, Bridget holding a spoon, Bridget with a balloon.

Bridget used to sleep across the hall, in Room 10, a space with purple walls, brown linoleum and a transparent curtain. A metal bed is pushed up against one wall. A tram rattles by outside the window.

It is March 2021, a year before Putin’s army will invade Ukraine. Marina Boyko serves tea and sets out biscuits. She has been chatting with Philip Graves for the last month, sending him baby pictures of Bridget. She retrieves Bridget’s hospital records from the archive in the hospital’s cellar, five folders full of tightly written pages. She piles them onto her desk and then heads outside for a couple of minutes to smoke a cigarette.

Placenta praevia. Neonatal pneumonia. Neonatal stroke. Acute respiratory distress. Bronchopulmonary dysplasia.

When Boyko held the girl in her arms for the first time, Bridget was four months old. She had a tube in her nose and her eyes stared into the middle distance. She didn’t react to noises at all. Boyko changed her, fed her through the tube and gave her injections of vitamins. After a few days, she realized she was spending more and more time with the girl, more than with the other 30 children on her station.

Bridget began gaining weight, and on May 5, when she was released from the intensive care unit, she weighed 2,310 grams, just over five pounds. Her files note how much milk she was ingesting every three hours.

On May 6, it was 50 milliliters. On May 11, 60 milliliters. May 26: 70 milliliters.

When she was five months old, Bridget reacted to sound for the very first time. A colleague let a door slam shut on its own an Boyko saw that Bridget startled. Just a few days later, a letter reached the hospital from the United States.

"On May 25th, 2016, we learned," wrote Bridget’s parents, "that Etneire Pagan Irmgard Bridget is mentally and physically ill, she is in a vegetative state and has no chances of becoming a normal person. (...) Doctors advise and recommend that we stop any treatments so that she could find peace."

The girl’s name wasn’t even written correctly.

When she was a year and a half old, Marina Boyko found Bridget’s father on Facebook and sent him photos of Bridget smiling. Matthew Etnyre didn’t answer. Boyko wrote to his brother, and then the brother’s wife. She then wrote to Etnyre’s mother, Bridget’s grandmother, who showed a lot of empathy on Facebook for the autistic son of a friend of hers. Marina Boyko also wrote to the friend.

That friend was the only one who responded to Boyko, writing that she would report her to the police if she didn’t stop harassing the family.

At age two, Bridget uttered her first word: "Papa."

May 10, 2021

Parents who leave surrogate children behind in Ukraine have no legal consequences to fear. The Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv legalized surrogacy 20 years ago, but has yet to follow it up with any regulations. Over the years, the country has become a global leader in surrogacy, perhaps even the biggest in the world. It is difficult to find precise numbers because companies are not required to report births.

It is estimated that the surrogacy industry generates some $6 billion per year in the world, with around a quarter of that total coming from Ukraine – at least until the war began. After India, Thailand and Nepal banned commercial surrogacy for foreigners, more and more would-be parents began turning to Ukraine for help. A baby here costs around a third of what it does in the U.S., there are far more surrogate mothers to choose from than in Georgia, and most clinics are better equipped than in Kenya. Before the war, it was estimated that surrogate mothers in Ukraine gave birth to around 2,000 babies each year. And most of them were born under the auspices of BioTexCom.

The founder and owner of the company is a clean-shaven man with soft hands and a face that exudes all the calm of an ice breaker. His name is Albert Totchilovski.

Totchilovski was born in 1976 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk and went to school in Moldova. His father was conductor of a circus band. As a young man, Totchilovski operated two nightclubs in Chişinău and lived for a time as a Jewish émigré in Cologne. He then studied engineering and sold pharmaceuticals. He is a dual citizen of Moldova and Germany, with both of his children having been born in Germany.

It is a March day in 2021 and he is sitting in a black easy chair in his children’s castle on the hill holding up a 10-liter sperm-sample container. As an example. He works with sperm from China, from Italy and, increasingly, from Germany. Such a container is filled with nitrogen and cooled to minus 196 degrees Celsius. It contains two sperm samples.

Albert Totchilovski, head of BioTexCom, in the lobby of Hotel Venice in Kyiv, which is owned by his company.

Albert Totchilovski, head of BioTexCom, in the lobby of Hotel Venice in Kyiv, which is owned by his company.

Foto:

Alexey Furman/ DER SPIEGEL

It's a lot of work, he says, hard work, but he is concerned about the global population. Europe, he insists, is dying out, as is South Korea – all the women who go to university and pursue their careers instead of having children, freezing their eggs so they can have children later. "You’ll get pregnant from a ping pong ball more quickly than with these egg cells," he says.

His surrogate mothers in Ukraine, his egg donors, that is the future, he says.

Totchilovski’s best years for business were 2016 and 2017, when thousands of young women fled the Donbas and needed money. That was the period when Bridget was born.

A short time later, Ukrainian prosecutors opened an investigation into him on suspicions of trafficking children, evading taxes and falsifying documents. Totchilovski was placed under house arrest for two months and forced to wear an electronic ankle bracelet.

The case never went to trial. In 2019, the Australian camera team visited him after discovering the abandoned girl Bridget in the Zaporizhzhia children’s home. The reporter asked Totchilovski about the sperm donor Etnyre. Totchilovski said: "He’s not our customer. That is a lie. A 100 percent lie."

It was Totchilovski, though, who was lying, as he has since admitted. On this day in March 2021, he says that Bridget is his "sin."

Totchilovski: The two were here. I wasted too much time with them, I should have immediately gone to the American Embassy. Maybe the embassy could have forced them to take Bridget.

DER SPIEGEL: What did you feel when you spoke with the parents?

Totchilovski: Anger. Maybe I was a bit rude. They didn’t want Brizzy, but they asked me to make another child for them. Incredible.

DER SPIEGEL: You refused?

Totchilovski: Of course. We brought Brizzy to Kyiv, to Okhmatdyt, the best children’s hospital here. We even lied to the two, telling them that she was going to be healthy.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you in touch with Marina Boyko?

Totchilovski: I sent her some money. I actually wanted to pay for a vacation for her and Brizzy, but my mobile phone died and I lost their contact information.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you pay the surrogate mother who carried Brizzy?

Totchilovski: The surrogate received full payment, 100 percent. I am done with Brizzy.

According to her files, Bridget never received treatment in Kyiv.

Her surrogate mother Maria Telyupa is now 28 years old. In March 2021, when DER SPIEGEL first got in touch with her, she wrote back saying she had nothing to say. But in March 2022, she changed her mind. She called from Zaporizhzhia and said she was no longer afraid. "With the war, these people have other things to worry about," she said.

Surrogate mother Maria Telyupa with her two sons in their two-room home in Zaporizhzhia

Surrogate mother Maria Telyupa with her two sons in their two-room home in Zaporizhzhia

Foto: Emin Ozmen / Magnum Photos / DER SPIEGEL

Telyupa says that BioTexCom cheated her out of a large chunk of her surrogate fee. That she was paid 6,600 euros instead of 10,000. She claims that a company employee had threatened her, saying that it was in her own interest to refrain from talking about Bridget in public.

Telyupa grew up in an orphanage on the Sea of Asov, not far from Mariupol. Her best friends, three sisters, were adopted to America, she says. When she was 11, she ended up with a family in Zaporizhzhia.

She got married for the first time when she was 18 and met her second husband, a bus driver, when she was 21. She wanted a home of her own, with a cherry tree out front. In summer 2015, she signed a deal with BioTexCom.

She was released from the hospital five days after the Cesarian section. On the sixth day, at around 8 p.m., she received a phone call. "They told me that Bridget’s brother had died and that I should give him a name. He was, they said, now officially my child since the Americans weren’t picking up a dead child."

She named him Viacheslav, after a cousin of hers who had died. She had him buried not far from the Zaporizhzhia airport.

Fotostrecke

The Surrogate Mother

Foto: Emin Ozmen / DER SPIEGEL

The American parents arrived a month later. "They looked inside a number of incubators," the surrogate mother says, "not just in the one where Brizzy was lying. When the doctor told them that she would be handicapped for her entire life, I started crying. They asked me what was wrong."

She stayed with Bridget in the hospital for almost five months – in the period before the girl was transferred to Marina Boyko’s station. She slept in the same room with Bridget, fed her and, according to the hospital records, bought her cortexin, nebufluxon, cotton, injections and vitamin D. She called a priest and had Bridget baptized as Maria.

When the Americans made their final decision to abandon Bridget, Telyupa says she begged her husband to apply for guardianship, but her husband said "no." Her bed in the hospital room was removed and she was given a night to bid farewell to Bridget. She took Bridget’s baptism cloth home with her along with a lock of her hair and the icon of Mother Mary.

On Sunday, March 13, 2022, pastor Philip Graves holds a service for Bridget in his church in Brunswick. It is the day on which an American journalist is killed near Kyiv and when the Russian air force kills nine civilians in Mykolaiv.

"Pray for Ukraine," reads a screen in the First Baptist Church in Brunswick. The church has been waiting for Bridget for months, and Phil would like to baptize her in the Potomac River. He has set up a framed photo of her at the foot of his pulpit next to a Ukrainian flag.

On the wall, the one with the stained-glass windows, hangs a colorful diagram depicting the history of the world since Creation. It begins in the year 4004 before Christ with Adam and Eve. It ends in 2014: "Russia invades Ukraine."

Pastor Graves is wearing jeans, a button-down shirt and a clip-on microphone. Today, he is telling the story of Samson, "the knucklehead of all knuckleheads." But God even found a use for Samson, he intones.

"What does God want in Ukraine," he asks. "What lesson is he trying to teach me? Kristie? This church?"

Philip and Kristie Graves at their home in Maryland

Philip and Kristie Graves at their home in Maryland

Foto:

Lexey Swall / DER SPIEGEL

Kristie and Phil Graves were never particularly interested in geopolitics. Kristie is the daughter of a heating technician and a school bus aide. Phil’s father was a mailman and his mother worked shifts at a canning factory. Phil once took a trip to Moscow back in 1999. His church sent him there with a suitcase full of candy and Slinkies for orphans.

Graves says he hadn’t even been to Washington, D.C., at that point, but suddenly there he was, standing on Red Square in the heart of the Russian capital. "I visited churches and museums in the Kremlin. There was no toilet paper inside the Kremlin walls. My church had warned me, I had brought some from Brunswick."

Since the beginning of the war, he has been speaking about Putin with people in Brunswick. His colleague Justin, the youth pastor, used to be a member of a Mexican gang in Colorado. Justin says he knows people like Putin. "They don’t accept defeat. These are the type of guys who pull a knife on you in a fist fight."

Sitting at the Silver Diner in Frederick, the next town over from Brunswick, Philip Graves orders an iced tea and pickled fried chicken. He is waiting for Kristie, whose grandmother is on her deathbed.

Graves has thought a lot about Matthew Etnyre and Irmgard Pagan, and he has done a bit of research. Irmgard Pagan is now 64 years old. The film database IMDb.com says that she speaks Spanish and French, has made a bit of money in real estate and worked on three films: "Last Will," "Dark Power" and "Attraction to Paris."

Etnyre, the sperm donor, is now in his early 40s and used to post frequently on the internet. Graves has seen his bull’s head tattoo, his cars, his two children from two failed marriages. He has read his Facebook posts in which Etnyre complains about his illness, which appears to be of a psychological nature. Graves has read comments from Etnyre’s mother, in which she has complained about his egotistical and erratic behavior, and about a death threat he apparently issued against her.

Graves wants to know more about the medical history of the Etnyre family. When Kristie arrives, he says: "I would like to contact Brizzy’s biological parents. I won’t condemn them, but I also want to know how we should react if Brizzy asks about them one day."

Kristie says: "I don’t want to contact them. I don’t want Brizzy to contact them. They will only hurt her again. I’ll be able to tell this to Brizzy."

He says: "I believe in the good in people."

She says: "I don’t."

Oct. 12, 2021

The closer the time came to say goodbye, says Marina Boyko, the clearer became the dilemma into which she had maneuvered herself. She wants Bridget to have a family, one as far away from Zaporizhzhia as possible. But she also knows that she will miss the girl terribly.

She has done everything she can to prepare the Graves for Brizzy’s arrival, telling them what her favorite foods are: sausage, cheese, chocolate, tarts, no soups and no milk puddings. She wrote them that she needs special eyeglasses that no optometrist in Zaporizhzhia is able to make. That she likes Ukrainian pop and sings along at church. That her favorite color is yellow. That she likes men with beards and is afraid of dogs. And that she loves water.

In mid-December 2021, Philip and Kristie Graves were finally allowed to travel to Zaporizhzhia, the city whose name they still can’t pronounce correctly. They say something along the lines of "Zapserishishya," or just "Zap." They brought Bridget a plastic Christmas tree, a doll and plenty of Hershey’s chocolate. Mobile phone videos taken by Philip Graves at the orphanage show his wife with the girl in her lap smelling her hair and saying: "You are a beautiful girl, you are a big girl."

In the third week of the war, the town of Komyshuvakha, located 30 kilometers east of Zaporizhzhia, comes under fire from Russian Grad missiles. A warehouse burns up in Preobrazhenka, 50 kilometers to the southeast. In Kamianske, 30 kilometers to the south, a highway bridge is blown up. In Marina Boyko’s hospital, a 15-year-old girl is brought in. The doctors amputate her right leg.

When Philip Graves speaks to Boyko during this period, her face can hardly be seen on his iPad. The residents of Zaporizhzhia are under curfew and are not allowed to turn on their lights.

Graves follows the war via TikTok, while his wife can hardly stand to watch the news any longer. He tells her which children’s homes in Ukraine have been evacuated: Odessa, Dnipro, Kyiv – with the children being sent to Lithuania, Poland, Germany or Israel. Ukraine is home to more orphans than any other country in Europe and Solnyshko, "Little Sun," the children’s home in Zaporizhzhia where Bridget lives, is the largest of all, with more than 200 children living there.

But Solnyshko is not evacuated.

Philip Graves reaches out to the head of the facility via WhatsApp: "Greetings, I hope you remember me. My wife and I visited in December to meet Bridget and start the adoption process. I read in the news that many orphanages and hospitals have been attacked by the Russians. I wonder if you have evacuation plans for the children? If yes, for when? Can I help? We are very worried and praying for Ukraine and for your safety."

She doesn’t answer.

When the Graves traveled to Zaporizhzhia in December, they were met at the airport by two Ukrainian facilitators. From these two agents they learned that there was apparently a problem with Bridget’s citizenship. Because the couple from the United States had renounced their parental rights, Bridget isn’t an American citizen, the Graves were told. But because the Ukrainian authorities refuse to recognize the American couple’s renouncement, the girl isn’t a Ukrainian citizen either.

The agents, though, assured Philip and Kristie that lawyers were working on it and that there was no cause for concern. The rest of the documents were all prepared, they said, and they were only waiting for a judge in Zaporizhzhia to approve the adoption, a mere formality. The hearing was set to take place on Feb. 10.

The Graves familiy in March 2022

The Graves familiy in March 2022

Foto: Lexey Swall / DER SPIEGEL

In early February, they learned that the judge for the hearing had fallen ill with COVID-19. A new appointment was set for Feb. 25.

The war began on Feb 24.

One of the facilitators is now fighting at the front, but he found the time to write to Philip Graves: "Two days before the war, officials started processing our application. Now, there is no one there for us to talk to."

Graves calls his wife, who is at the hospital for the early shift. "What if they evacuate Brizzy and she ends up somewhere as a stateless refugee?" he says. "Then, someone else might adopt her."

"Is it better for her to stay in Zap?" asks Kristie.

He doesn’t know. He calls Marina Boyko, who is working the late shift at her hospital.

Boyko tells him that if the Russians occupy Ukraine, then Russian laws will apply. And in Russia, Americans are not allowed to adopt children. On the other hand, says Boyko, she asked around at the youth welfare office and was told that bringing a child with unclear parentage out of the country was akin to kidnapping.

"What do they recommend?" Graves asks.

"They want you to wait. At the moment, only criminal cases are being processed."

America, the land of Uncrustables, does quite a lot for Ukraine during this month of March. It releases an additional $800 million in military aid, suspends the import of Russian oil and gas and imposes sanctions more severe than those for North Korea. But America does nothing to bring Bridget to Brunswick.

The State Department in Washington informs the family that Ukraine remains a sovereign country.

Would it not be possible to make an exception and provide Bridget with an American passport? The answer is "no."

On March 15, 100 children are evacuated from Solnyshko in Zaporizhzhia. Bridget isn't one of them.

The head of the orphanage writes to the Graves family: "Don’t be worried! Bridget is with us! She is doing great! We have left all the children here who could have problems traveling. But we have everything under control."

Kristie Graves grows more and more taciturn as the war progresses. She has already registered Bridget for physical therapy and made an appointment for her at the eye doctor. Her bed is ready, complete with a yellow teddy bear. They even have a Von Pickle Train name for her: Sissy von Pickle Train.

"If she is to learn how to walk, she urgently needs good splints, maybe surgery," says Kristie Graves. "If she is to learn English, now is the time."

Phil Graves heads down to his Cloffice, tripping over the dog’s rubber bone on the way. He visits a customer in Frederick to optimize his website, picks up Ethan from school, drives Owen to Chick-fil-A, fields a call from his tax advisor, who wants to talk to him about Excel charts, his daughter asks him to pick up some food for her ducks.

The report compiled about them for the adoption agreement reads: "They both exhibit a balance of youthfulness and maturity."

Philip Graves has stopped calling the children’s home management to find out if there are plans to evacuate. He has begun posting psalms on Facebook: "Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me." During one of his sermons, he jams his hands into his pants pockets: "We are imperfect people," he says, "serving a perfect God."

On the evening of March 22, the man who was assisting with the adoption before the war writes to him from the front. "Your daughter is being prepared for evacuation. I hope it takes place tomorrow."

They don’t sleep at all that night. In the morning, Marina Boyko writes from Zaporizhzhia saying that it was all a rumor and that nobody is being evacuated. They drive to the funeral home; Kristie’s grandmother has died. They drive to physical therapy with Elliana, where she is to learn to put her pants on all by herself.

"How is Brizzy?" the therapist asks.

If they are ultimately successful in bringing Brizzy to Brunswick, she will no longer be named Bridget Irmgard Etnyre-Pagan. They plan to change her name to Briella Claire Graves, but they still want to call her Brizzy at home.

Maria Telyupa, the surrogate mother, headed for Kyiv one more time in 2019 to donate eggs to BioTexCom. She says she needed the 730 euros. Two years ago, she divorced her husband, the bus driver. She had a gravestone made for her third son, Bridget’s brother, but it is still sitting in her garage. She hopes to be able to emigrate to New York, where her best friend from the orphanage is living.

The Graves want to speak with the surrogate mother and DER SPIEGEL helps them get in touch. On a Saturday at the end of March, they sit down on their couch in Brunswick and call the surrogate mother via WhatsApp. Telyupa is sick at home with a fever.

Philip Graves: We are not going to tell Bridget: Your biological parents abandoned you. We are going to say: They didn’t think they would be able to take care of you properly. This is going to hurt her anyway. That’s why we want her to have contact to as many people as possible who love her. Would you be interested to keep in touch?

Maria Telyupa: Of course.

Graves: Would you be willing to give us her baptism cloth and the icon?

Telyupa: I would mail it to you from Poland as soon as I get out. You want to baptize her a second time?

Graves: She will decide herself.

Cindy Etnyre, Matthew’s mother, changed her Facebook profile picture on July 27, 2020. The new photo shows Matthew Etnyre holding a blond boy of about three years in his arms, with another blond boy of the same age and wearing the same outfit sitting on Cindy’s lap.

Three weeks later, a defamation suit was filed with the Federal Court of Australia. Etnyre and Pagan accused the Australian Broadcasting Corporation of having damaged their reputations with the story broadcast in 2019. "The applicants have been subjected to hatred, ridicule and contempt, and have suffered, and continue to suffer, distress and damage to their reputations," the statement of claim reads.

In their affidavit, Pagan and Etnyre claimed they were in financial dire straits. Her work as a film producer had evaporated since the arrival of COVID-19, it noted, and Etnyre is a stay-at-home father looking after their twins. The judge dismissed the case.

DER SPIEGEL attempted to contact Etnyre and Pagan through their lawyers on three occasions, but received no response. In late March, 2022, a red Mercedes is parked in the sun-drenched driveway of the Pagans’ white home in Beverly Hills. The family isn’t home, their mail is piled up in front of the door. Their neighbors say they haven’t seen the family for several weeks.

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Irmgard Pagan seems to spend quite a bit of time in Puerto Rico, where she chairs the local chapter of the National Federation of Democratic Women. In March, a video of hers appeared on YouTube from a group conference. A heavily made-up Pagan is sitting in front of a gold-framed painting and speaking of education for all and getting rid of "monopolies that are killing the middle class." She says: "You can count on me."

Albert Totchilovski’s company, BioTexCom, is currently protecting newborns in a basement shelter not far from his clinic. The press has been celebrating him in this war as the protector of Kyiv’s infants.

Ukrainian parliament, meanwhile, has suspended normal operations for the time being. One of the draft laws now waiting for action bears the number 6475. It aims to regulate the surrogacy market. The draft was included in the docket on Feb. 15, just nine days before the Russian invasion.

The Graves are sitting on their terrace on a rainy afternoon in late March waiting for the school bus that will bring Elliana home from school. Phil has just seen on the news that a U.S. veteran is traveling through Ukraine and evacuating children from orphanages. He is a member of the Green Berets, and he has apparently already evacuated 478 orphans.

In Kyiv on this day, a journalist is killed by a missile.

Philip Graves says to his wife: "You know what? I think the safest place for her to be right now is the orphanage."

"And what if the Russians come?" Kristie asks. "And she is stuck there forever?"

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.