07/06/08 — Once a Russian orphan, airman now thankful for America's blessings

View Archive

Once a Russian orphan, airman now thankful for America's blessings

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 6, 2008 2:02 AM

Svetlana Kuhns will not be the little girl in a Russian orphanage waiting for a new mother and father.

She will never be forced to endure a winter of sub-zero temperatures in a poor farming community near Savkovo.

She will be able to go to college, to have a family, to have a career or to serve her country in the United States Air Force, just like her mom.

She will have choices, her mother, Julia, says -- "all the opportunities" that come with being born an American citizen.

Julia knows what it means to grow up without them.

She has been an American for only eight years -- since a day in September 2000 when she and her sister were given a chance at a new life.


Julia and Oxana had been living in an orphanage near Sobinka, Russia.

At ages 14 and 12, they had already endured "a hard life," growing up in poverty with an alcoholic father they never saw, and losing their mother, Galina, to brain

"It was hard," Julia said. "It was very hard."

She was only 11 when her mother died, but Julia hardly had time to grieve.

She still had to support Oxana -- to be her rock for the three years they would spend without parents.

So when she found out that she and her sister had been adopted by Americans Don and Janet Townsend and would be moving to the United States -- Julia was overwhelmed.

"I was excited -- just the feeling of having a mother again, a new life," she said. "But Oxana, she was scared. So I kept comforting her. I would tell her, 'In America, it's going to be better.'"

Adapting to American life was challenging for the sisters at first.

Don and Janet did not speak Russian, so they hired a translator to help them communicate until the girls mastered English.

"It was hard," Julia said. "If you didn't know a word, you went to the dictionary
or hand motions."

And then came high school, a much different place from the "small school" in Russia that took children all the way from infancy to adolescence.

But Julia met the adversity with a sense of hope.

After all, she had some

She had seen true struggle.


It has been almost eight years since the day two scared little girls were left awestruck by the sight of their new country.

"I grew up in a village, a small town with maybe 20 to 25 families there," Julia said. "So when I first came to America, it was a shock."

Then, another surprise, just a few minutes after their plane touched down on that Texas airport tarmac.

"We got in the car, and my mother, she started to drive," Julia said. "I was like, 'Oh, wow.'"

Back in Savkovo, she had never seen women driving.

And those in Russia who did were wealthy -- "the super-models and whatever," she said.

So when Janet took the wheel, her new daughter started to believe in the opportunity everyone from her native country associated with her new one.

She vows never to forget those moments.


Today, from her office at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Julia often thinks about the sacrifices of others that have made her life possible.

She sees her choices now as a chance to say thank you -- and to live up to the legacy of a mother who wanted more for her daughters, to honor a couple who had extra love to give and to pay back a country that welcomed her home.

They are why she serves, she said.

"I always wanted to do something like this. But in Russia, we don't have the opportunity. In Russia, they only draft guys," Julia said. "So for the people who sacrificed for me, for my parents for bringing us over here, I wanted to show them what I can do. I thought about it and there are so many people who sacrificed for me, I just can't thank them enough."

She thanks those back in Russia by leading the life they dreamed of.

She thanks her American parents by wearing their country's uniform.

And she thanks her natural mother, Galina, for "sacrificing herself" for her little girls.

"Even though it's still sad that my mom died, I guess I will always thank her," Julia said. "Because of her, we're here now. I'm pretty sure wherever she is, she's real happy."

Julia admits her past life will always be a part of her -- and that to truly honor those who helped her escape it, she must ensure her own daughter never experiences the same.

Her family struggled so that Svetlana won't have to, she said.


Julia rests a hand on her stomach.

She glances down and smiles.

She knows what is resting only a few inches beneath her fingertips.

"It's a baby girl," Julia says.

She is not due until sometime in August.

But she already has a name.

It's Svetlana.

"It's going to be different for her," Julia said. "I said, 'If I get married, have my own kid, I don't want her to see all that I saw.'"

And she will never have to -- because Svetlana will be an American citizen.

Just like her mother.