Still bearing scars from time in the Rumanian orphanage
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Ullerick: My name is Melania Ullerick. I was born Melania Loredana Salceanue. I came to the United States from Rumania because I was adopted by a U.S. Air Force family.
My earliest memories as a child are of the orphanage that I was in. There were very poor living conditions, and I remember having to fight for my food. There was no toy that was mine, it was the group’s. If I got to it first then I could play with it, but as soon as I would lose focus or get distracted it would get taken away from me by some other kid. The same was true of food.
The toilets were actually just holes in the floor. The bathing was awful. They always bathed us with cold water, so when I was adopted and had my first warm bath I freaked out and screamed and cried. I thought I was being tortured. After the second or third bath, I finally started to get used to it and enjoy warm water.
There were cribs that lined all of the walls. No one paid attention to any of us, so I was really on my own, I had to be self-soothing. It was really hard for the 1-year-olds and the 2-year-olds because we literally stood in our cribs and rocked ourselves.
Rocking was the only way to soothe myself. It took me a long time to get over doing it for comfort. I was 12 before I finally broke the habit. I still have comfort issues. I’m still not ever totally comfortable, but I’m a lot better than I was as a child. If I hadn’t been adopted I would probably be lying in some Rumanian street or dead.
When I was 3 I was moved to the preschool, which was for kids from 3 to 7. The preschool was more of the same. There were about 70 kids in one room, and we all slept together. There was row after row of toddler beds.
Gallacher: How many caregivers were there?
Ullerick: There were about 30 total, five per shift. Some of them couldn’t be called caregivers because they were abusive. I remember a staff member shoving me down the stairs. I didn’t break anything, but there wasn’t anybody there to comfort me. I learned to just stay out of the way. Luckily, there were only about three or four bad ones who didn’t like children. Most of the other staff were actually pretty nice. It was an impossible job. Imagine five people trying to take care of 70 toddlers.
Gallacher: Describe the room for me.
Ullerick: It was always really loud. The older kids were the ones making most of the noise. The younger kids, like me, were kind of overwhelmed by it all and really quiet and distant. We tried to just stay out of the way of the bigger kids. There was no point in talking because you couldn’t be heard.
Gallacher: Sounds like how some people have described prison.
Ullerick: I’ve never been to prison, but I think the orphanage is actually worse, because you have no self-identity in there, especially if you’re really little. If you are one of the younger kids you have no say about anything. You are constantly having your food taken away from you by the older kids.
Gallacher: How did you stay positive?
Ullerick: I just kept telling myself, “I’m gonna get out of this place, I’m gonna be adopted … hopefully”.
Gallacher: So you had faith that someone would come along.
Ullerick: Yes, I did, because, like I said before, I’m lucky.
Gallacher: Did you have friends in the orphanage?
Ullerick: I had one or two, but not very close. I developed a shield around me and learned early that I had to protect myself. As soon as a friendship would come along, I was skeptical, rigid and nervous. I was afraid to let people in, and I’m still kinda that way. Most of the stuff we learn before we’re 5 are formative things we carry with us through adulthood.
So I’m trying to unlearn some of those things I learned as a little kid in the orphanage. Actually it’s my New Year’s resolution, to be more open and honest with others about my feelings, to let people in.
Gallacher: How old were you when you were adopted.
Ullerick: I was 41⁄2. We moved a lot after I was adopted – Germany, Holland, Texas, Italy. Italy was my favorite. We lived there during the war in Kosovo. I remember watching the planes take off and land at the base. They were constantly buzzing over my head. It was nerve-wracking, but it was also really cool for all of us kids to see that.
Gallacher: Do you remember being adopted?
Ullerick: Yes, it was a 12-day process. My parents got really lucky with my adoption. Normally it takes a lot longer, years and years. I guess I was just lucky, I kinda always have been. My sister was in the orphanage at the time and she was adopted by another Air Force family. She lives in Boise, Idaho.
Gallacher: How old were you when you went to the orphanage?
Ullerick: I was supposed to go when I was 1, but there was no room so they kept me in a hospital for an entire year. It wasn’t until I was 2 that the orphanage finally had room. At least at the hospital I was taken care of. That didn’t happen in the orphanage.
Gallacher: Do you understand why you were sent to an orphanage?
Ullerick: Yes, because my parents were both very, very poor. They lived in an 8-foot-by-8-foot shack with my two older brothers. They literally had no room for me or my sister, so they put us up for adoption. I was sent first, and my sister followed a few years later. I didn’t even know she was there. The orphanage didn’t figure out that we were related until we were adopted. I got adopted, and she was adopted two days later. My new family and her new family got together and figured out that we were related.
Gallacher: Do you have contact with your birth parents?
Ullerick: Not currently. The only time I met them was when I was 13. My adoptive father was getting out of the Air Force and we were leaving Italy for Colorado. When I realized we might not be coming back, I asked my parents if I could go see my biological parents one last time. They thought that was a great idea.
I was really excited to see them up until the time I saw their living conditions, and I thought to myself, “Oh, my gosh, I am so lucky to be adopted.” We had a translator with us so we were able to communicate with one another. My mom wasn’t looking well, malnutrition was taking a terrible toll on her. She had bug bites all over her face and arms. My father just looked really drunk.
It was a very difficult meeting, more awkward than any situation I have been in since. Here I was with my biological parents, and yet I didn’t feel like I was a part of them at all. I felt completely distant. I was realizing that the only thing I shared with them was my physical characteristics. I’m the tallest one in my family.
Gallacher: What did your parents say to you?
Ullerick: They said, “We’re glad for you.” They seemed really happy that my life had turned out well. They wished me the best. At least that’s what I got out of it. When we left, there were a lot of awkward hugs but it did help to ease the tension. By the time we left we were a little bit closer. My sister hasn’t seen our parents at all so I have told her the stories from our meeting.
Gallacher: What are your earliest memories with your adoptive parents?
Ullerick: I remember my first meal. I tucked one piece of bread under one arm and another piece under the other while I clutched the third piece in my hands, eating it like a chipmunk. I was so worried that my new family was going to steal my food. I was very defensive and in fight mode. That was how it was in the orphanage. You really had to fight for your food. A lot of kids had bruises and black eyes as a result of struggles for food.
I remember, during those first few weeks with my new family, I was always really thirsty. I was really malnourished so I had a distended stomach. I had stomach pain for weeks adjusting to new food and getting rid of infection. I was the size of a 2-year-old at the age of 41⁄2.
I remember my mom singing to me the first night I was adopted. She sang:
I love you, I love you
I love you in the morning and in the afternoon
I love you in the evening and underneath the moon
Oh scitamarinkadinkydink Oh scitamarinkydoo
I love you
I used to look in the mirror and sing “I love you” to myself. Those were some of the first English words I learned.
Note: Melania lives in Glenwood Springs with her husband and her 22-month-old son. She is working on her degree in psychology and pursuing a career in human services working with neglected children. She says she hopes to give back to her community the way her adoptive parents, Jill and Tom Ziemann, have.
Immigrant Stories runs on Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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