Mari Leanna Emily remembers the struggle of making it to America from Russia.
At age 13, she left the Russian orphanage where she spent her formative years, adopted by a family that brought her to the United States. Her journey to America was a mix of excitement and apprehension as she left everything behind, including friends, caretakers and teachers.
“I was determined the entire time,” Emily said. “I did my best to stay positive.”
After a two-year adoption process, she arrived in Florida in 2002 to live with her adoptive parents — Michael Lawrence and Nancy Winterbourne Archuleta.
Over the past two decades, she has overcome a language barrier and adjusted to a new culture and customs to build a life of love, resilience and literary pursuits. The Maricopa resident published her first children’s book in March to encourage and support other young people dreaming of adoption.
As the nation celebrates another birthday this month, Emily reflected on what life in America has meant to her.
Adjusting to new surroundings
From the start, she was instantly immersed in her new life — from language to cuisine.
“The first shock was the food,” Emily recalled. “I was eating all the food in sight.”
Growing up in Russia, about 125 miles south of Moscow, Emily said the orphanage did not have access to fresh fruits, and the dinner menu typically consisted of potatoes, stew and meat. So instead of indulging in Americanized fried food or fatty desserts, Emily went straight for the bowl of fruit.
“I would eat bananas nonstop,” she said. “Sometimes my mom would buy a bunch and they would be gone the same day.”
She used to put salt on her green apples, disliked peanut butter and would only eat the occasional piece of chocolate.
Although she enjoyed these new treats, her favorite Russian meal is pelmeni, savory meat dumplings that remind her of childhood and bring a sense of nostalgia back to her palette.
“Those are homey to me,” Emily said. “They bring back a lot of memories.”
She was most excited to sleep in her own bedroom and have her own bathroom.
The adjustment process was not without its challenges, but with the support of her parents Emily was able to get on her feet.
A love of reading blossoms
Learning a new language was the biggest obstacle, she said. But Emily’s mother tutored her, and her father helped teach her English through books.
“I fell in love with reading,” Emily said. “I forgot the television because reading was always so much better. It was an escape.”
When she enrolled in school about a year after her adoption, Emily was placed a few grades behind — but that didn’t stop her. She attended summer school, prioritized her studies and eventually caught up with her classmates.
“If you are determined, you can do it,” Emily said. “And then, when I was going into my senior year, I was actually able to skip a grade.”
Emily graduated from Woodland Park High School in Colorado and later married her high school sweetheart, Kasey, who has been her husband for 12 years. The newlyweds joined his family in Maricopa in 2010, and are now raising two children.
Emily has happily taken on the role of stay-at-home mom, keeping herself busy in the process.
When she’s not spending time with her family, Emily can be found reading, writing or creating spray-paint art. And sometimes, all three at once.
In March, Emily published a book titled “Dream Cloud,” inspired by her own childhood experiences.
Most of Emily’s early childhood was spent watching the clouds and wishing for the day that she would be adopted.
The story follows a young Russian girl named Alana as she embarks on her journey to the United States upon adoption.
From the text on the page to the 32 paintings in the book, the work is all Emily’s. Her artistic style seamlessly blends spray paint and digital art, infusing her work with a colorful flair.
Alana is intentionally faceless and always drawn from behind to allow children to envision themselves in the story and find their own happy ending.
In the coming months, Emily plans to release a sequel to the book called “Dream Cloud: Adoption Day,” the second book in her Adoption Journey Series.
She hopes to encourage other young children to keep their chins up as they go through the adoption process, while showing the challenges and triumphs of the process. “To every orphan who wishes on a dream cloud,” the dedication reads. “This book is for you. Keep dreaming and never stop believing.”
Memories from ‘another life’
Looking back on her life in the orphanage, Emily said it feels today like a distant memory.
“It feels like that was another life. Like a memory of someone else completely.”
In Russia, she remembers anxiously waiting to be adopted, aware that she was only getting older without finding a new home.
At 13, Emily was aware of the stereotype surrounding older children living in orphanages — often they are misconstrued as “bad kids” or more complex.
“I always tried to be a good girl,” Emily said. “I would never curse, and I would be on my best behavior.”
It was difficult to make connections, she added. She never knew when one of her friends would be adopted, or when she would get to leave.
But one of her teachers, Angelica Yuryevna, would bring Emily to her home for the occasional sleepover, offering a break from the living quarters in the orphanage.
“She really made me feel special,” Emily said. “She made me feel loved.”
One year, Yuryevna gifted Emily a white dress that she cherishes to this day. It was the prettiest dress she had ever seen.
“Sometimes I thought about my teacher adopting me,” Emily said. “But she wanted a better life for me.”
That moment came in 2000, when Michael Lawrence and Nancy Winterbourne Archuleta saw Emily’s picture on a posterboard.
“There was a sign showing all the children that were up for adoption,” Emily said. “And I was one of the children in that photo.”
Lawrence and Archuleta had previously fostered Misha — a 6-year-old boy from Russia who was born with a disability — and brought him to America for medical attention.
“They fell in love with him,” Emily said. “So, they ended up adopting Misha, and in turn, finding me.”
However, the adoption process proved to be quite challenging, with a lack of official documentation and required paperwork for her biological parents causing significant delays.
Emily’s father was hard to track down, but eventually, he signed away his rights, she said.
Her mother had died in a train accident several years earlier. It took many court dates and nearly two years to obtain a death certificate.
Emily remained confident, hopeful her family was on their way. And after months of waiting, Emily finally boarded a plane to the United States, marking the first steps toward her new life.
“I’m way better off. I can say that now. And I’m happy. Really happy.”
This story was first published in the July edition of InMaricopa Magazine.