Alex D’Jamoos, the UT Student and Paraplegic Who Climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro Twice
And That’s Just the Beginning
By Devin R. Garza
Alex D’Jamoos, born Alex Schulchev, grew up in an orphanage for disabled children in Nizhny Lomov, Russia. He was born with legs that didn’t allow him to walk, so in order to move around, he pushed himself on a scooter against the floor with his hands. Alex still has the scooter today, but for a different reason: to remind him of where he came from and the challenges he’s overcome. Alex recently walked across the stage at the University of Texas at Austin, using his prosthetic legs, to receive his diploma to the applause of his family, who adopted him eight years ago.
I met Alex in the Student Union Building of the University of Texas at Austin. My first impression of Alex was that he was effortlessly polite, as if he really meant his manners, and was at the same time laid-back. I was thankful for his easy conversation; going into the interview, I was nervous because I didn’t know much about Alex, except that he had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, an impressive feat for any mortal. But he did it twice, and with prosthetic legs. Not only that, but also he had recently been accepted into Boston Law.
In my estimation, and by any reasonable person’s, this guy seemed to be going places. As I clumsily tried in my golden retriever way to start the interview, Alex’s quiet self-assurance and calm confidence grounded me. That’s what I remember most as I write this: Alex’s diplomacy. And that’s a good sign, as that’s the business he plans on getting into.
Alex studied Government with an emphasis on Foreign Affairs and Russian Studies, which sounds like the type of background common to our nation’s under-employed intelligentsia working as baristas or bartenders.
Thankfully, Alex does not belong to that class. In his case, it sounds like the perfect training to become a future leader in American-Russian relations. This upcoming school year, he’ll be teaching at a private school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Next year, he’ll start at Boston University, where he hopes to study international law. I asked Alex about how he wants to use his degree.
What are your goals for the future?
“I hope to take part in bilateral relations between Russia and the United States. Not just political relations—but business, corporate and trade as well—because now the situation with Russia is so difficult that American diplomats and State Department representatives are not as effective in working with Russians. The people that are effective are businessmen, American companies and law firms that work in Russia—the private sector.”
Can you give an example how people in government aren’t effective where someone in the private sector could be?
“The adoption ban is a really good example…Whenever American ambassadors or general counsels in US embassies used to negotiate about adoption, it was almost like words in the wind: it didn’t matter that much to the Russian public, and it didn’t really improve the reputation of adoption, because a lot of Russians think that…it’s unfair that Americans are taking Russian kids.”
Alex is referring to a Russian ban on American adoptions signed by President Putin in late 2012. The law was passed in response to a measure by the US to bar Russian citizens accused of violating human rights from traveling to, or owning real estate and other assets in, the United States. The ban caused outrage in both countries, especially among those families who at the time of the ban’s passage were in the final stages of adopting a Russian child.
Is that why the ban was imposed?
“Well, it was for multiple reasons. There were a few accidents in which I think there were about nineteen or twenty deaths of Russian adopted kids in America. The Russian media used these tragedies to create this idea that the ‘Americans are taking our kids and aren’t taking care of them,’ and they would show that all the time. Even when I was at the orphanage…there was always this myth that Americans were taking our kids for organ purposes. Stuff like that, crazy myths. But it was there.”
One such instance was the death of Chase Harrison, born Dmitri Yakovlev, in July 2008. The child died of heatstroke when his father, Miles Harrison, left him in the car for over nine hours. Mr. Harrison was later acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.
Another instance of parental neglect by an American adoptive parent, which Alex referenced, was in 2010 when Tory Ann Hansen sent her seven-year-old adopted son, Artyom, whom she had named Justin, alone on a plane to Moscow with a note explaining that she could no longer take care of him.
The number of orphans in Russia is staggering. Alex said that the lowest estimate he had seen was over 100,000. “The problem is what do you do with them?” he said. “Domestic adoption is not that developed, and so there aren’t that many kids being adopted by Russian families.” Although the government offers some incentives for Russians to adopt, Alex pointed to the fact that since the suspension of American adoptions, there has not been an increase in domestic adoptions. “There’s no interest,” he said.
When I asked Alex how Americans could help Russian orphans if they can’t adopt them, he said to focus on supporting organizations that help Russian orphans in Russia, like Happy Families, the organization that helped him to get the surgery that enabled him to walk today.
But, he added, “The first thing to remember is that there’s nothing to do about this. It’s not possible to influence the Russian government. It’s very unlikely, given the current political issues between Russia and the United States. Later, he summed up the tragedy of this situation: “It’s quite crazy. The children became the victims of political tensions.”
In addition to a Facebook page that Alex created called Orphans Without Borders, which exists to connect people who have adopted internationally, Alex also pointed to the Kilimanjaro hikes that he and others have completed as a way to increase awareness and support for international adoption among a Russian audience. “You see a kid without legs climbing a mountain,” Alex said, “you’ll think, ‘they can do anything they want.’ And that’s just an example. I’m not saying everyone has to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s the most extreme way of demonstrating the normality of those kids. But you sometimes have to show the most extreme way for people to get it. It’s just a small step.”
As I understand, the Russian public also has more conservative values. Is that correct?
“Well, it’s definitely not liberal, classically liberal. Freedom of speech is not the first thing that comes to people’s minds when you ask them what they value about their country, for different reasons. That’s a long discussion. But there is near-unanimous support for the government. The government is very nationalistic, and is becoming increasingly nationalistic in the past year since the Ukraine thing started. Putin’s approval ratings are around 80 percent.”
Do you think the American portrayal of Russian people is biased?
“It is biased. I worked at a Russian newspaper last summer for my thesis. I wanted to work as a journalist for a major newspaper in Moscow for two months to experience what they feel like—are they censored, what the atmosphere feels like. It’s funny—when the plane was hit above Ukraine last July, I was watching a Russian TV channel and I was watching Fox News at the same time, and to see what each side was saying was very interesting. And surprisingly, when it came to the tragedy, who was blaming whom, both sides had a very uncritical way in presenting what happened. By uncritical I mean not many questions were asked. They had conclusions already of who was responsible.”
Can you talk about the conditions in Russian orphanages?
“I grew up in a small orphanage, but most of them are quite big. I grew up in an orphanage of about 80 kids, so my orphanage wasn’t that bad. We didn’t have hard drugs or anything like that. The food is not great. I would feel hungry fairly often. I would hide bread under my pillow sometimes at night so I could eat. Sometimes we wouldn’t have hot water for months during the summers, stuff like that. We all had to share. Imagine a bunch of kids with various disabilities: some of them have wheelchairs; some of them have urinary problems. So, not the most sanitary conditions. We all had to share a bathroom. Two bathtubs for eighty boys.”
What was medical care like?
“It was okay. All of us needed some kind of equipment, usually. I had no legs, so what I used was a scooter that had four wheels and I just pushed myself against the ground. Sometimes a wheel or two would break and I wouldn’t get a new one for a while. Stuff like that. Sometimes people’s wheelchairs broke. There were limited financial resources to get new medical equipment right away.
Obviously there was no personal care, no love. That definitely has a psychological impact that sometimes expresses itself in various forms of behavior that is inappropriate, sometimes violent. Psychological disorders come out of that. I was okay I guess.”
You seem pretty well-adjusted.
“We went to a summer camp every summer and we would see kids from different orphanages. And they weren’t kids with disabilities—they were healthy kids from Moscow orphanages. And we were shocked by how rowdy they were. They were all tatted up and doing drugs, and it reminded us that we don’t live in the worst place in the world. Another tough thing was being in public. Every time we left the orphanage we would be stared at. I remember our teacher would take us on a walk and everybody, adults and kids, would stop what they were doing and stare at us as if we were out of this world, as if we were aliens. It wasn’t a sort of compassion—it was just a form of bewilderment.”
“I remember the first time I arrived in the states. That was eight years ago. I was in the airport in Atlanta, and I was pushing myself against the floor and it was probably the first time in my life that people didn’t stop and stare at me. It’s pretty interesting.”
Did you feel that people weren’t staring at you because they were more accepting, or did you get the sense that people were uncomfortable?
“Obviously, there are people who are going to do that just out of politeness. But nevertheless, it was a drastic change from everybody looking at you.”
Do you think that’s an educational difference?
“I think it’s people being more tolerant. This idea…that everybody can do whatever they want. This idea is so inherent in the majority of Americans’ minds. Obviously, there are inequalities, but on the physical level at least, I feel people don’t form these sort of attitudes. You see a person in a wheelchair, you don’t think, ‘She must be really different from me and do things differently and have different mental capacities,’ something that definitely would be thought in Russia. That’s the difference.”
When you were younger, what did you expect your life was going to be like before you knew you were going to move here?
“I never thought I would move here, to be honest. Even when I was coming to the States, I didn’t think I would stay here. I thought I was just coming for a surgery. But in terms of how I view my surroundings in life, I think one major difference is that in Russia, people expect less malleability in terms of their experience in life. Less opportunity, less mobility. Things are like they are and they will always be that way. There’s more acceptance of the constraints that surround you. Here, I feel my self-esteem has gone up, and my hope for things. In Russia I didn’t care that people stared at me, there’s nothing you can do about that. So you feel hopeless, but everybody embraces their hopelessness.”
[We laugh] That sounds like a very Russian thing to say.
“Here I think there is definitely more restlessness, and it’s encouraged. By restlessness I mean belief that you can change. How people see you, what you can do, what you are capable of in general. I’ve changed, and I think in Russia there is a way to encourage acceptance.”
Can you talk about how it came about that you got to have the surgery?
“It’s a funny story. When I was eight I started writing poetry. Poetry is very popular in Russia, there’s a lot of poetry contests and stuff. I started writing poetry and competing in various competitions in different towns in Russia. I was one of those [air quotes] “talented” kids that the orphanage had, and any time they had guests of any sort with a camera crew, they would always do a talent show for them and they would ask whatever talented kids—whoever sang or read poetry—to sing in front of the camera.
So when I was 15—that’s when I met Natasha—she was making a documentary about Russian orphanages. She was with a film crew and was trying to do the same thing we just talked about: raise awareness to show how orphans lived. So I was one of the kids that they put in front of the camera after the said, ‘Can you read your poetry?’ That’s how I met Natasha. We talked about architecture and literature and Russian film…so we became friends and she decided to help me. She was running this adoption agency and knew a few people at the Scottish Rite hospital and said, ‘Hey, do you want to walk?’”
She just asked you that question one day?
“Yeah, that’s basically how it went. She said, ‘Do you want things to change?’”
So you come to America, and you’re expecting to get this surgery. Are you nervous? Did you speak English at all at this point?
“I didn’t speak English at all. I wasn’t very nervous, I think I was just… it’s the first time I’m in a new country; it’s so exciting and cool. And so I took it out of my mind that they’re going to cut off my legs.”
Can you talk a little about your disability?
“I had legs that were a little bit too short and basically couldn’t bend. So, they were going to cut off my legs. But I didn’t think about it until the day-of.”
And then the day-of…
“It happened. Afterwards it was a very painful experience. A lot of phantom pain, something you can’t really treat.”
How did you get through that?
“Just patience and the willingness to do it. I don’t know. It was about a month and a half. It’s very difficult to go through. I think now I would be less patient with it. But at the time it was the first time I was out of the country, so all these experiences kept my mind off what was going on. I was a bit distracted.”
How long after you arrived did you get the surgery?
“A month. They [Helene and Mike D’Jamoos] showed me around Dallas, and we did all these fun things, and then I had the surgery.”
What was your relationship like with them during that first month when you didn’t expect that they were going to become your parents?
“It changed. At first they were just my host family. But it was a bit strange to be in the house, living in a home. My home was an orphanage that I shared with a hundred other kids. They were extremely nice, very caring.
I came on Christmas Eve, actually, the evening of the twenty-fourth. And they bought me a bunch of gifts, and I came to a house with a giant Christmas tree that had a pile of gifts and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a dream.’
One of the gifts was an mp3 player. At that age I was already so into music, and I saw an mp3 player that had two gigabytes of music and was out of this world. So that was one of the best things I’ve ever gotten.
What did you call your parents then?
I called them Mike and Helene. They were very nice. They had their own baby just three months right before I arrived. And then they have this 16-year-old guy whose legs just got cut off, and they have to take care of their own kid. They’re extremely brave for being willing to do that. After about three to four months my legs healed and I started doing the orthopedic treatment. They started measuring my legs to fit me for prosthetics. At about that time they asked me if I wanted to stay in the states and asked me to be a part of their family. One thing we did with Happy Families is we made a documentary about that, about me. Just as an example that you can take a child out of the orphanage and change their life. It’s obviously difficult, and not always possible with everybody, but the idea that you can is very important.”
Devin Garza is a cook and a writer from Austin, Texas, and earned his B.A. in English from Texas State University.