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Finding an identity after growing up in a Russian orphanage

One day in a small town in Idaho, one man prayed and said he was told by God that his sons were in Russia. He always wanted to have sons in his family but was confused why he needed to go across the world, to a country he had never visited, to find his children.

He spent weeks researching and sorting through documents and photos, and finding information. Finally, the day came when he got on a plane to Moscow, Russia.

Forsaken and abandoned, thousands of children end up in Russian orphanages.

Children ran down yellow halls. Cribs and bunk beds lined the walls of the many bedrooms. A child cried in the corner. No one was around to care for them.

They were whisked away from one activity to the next, whether finished or not. With so many children, these institutions often became places of neglect, abuse and, for many children, a source of hopelessness stemming from their sense of abandonment.

Abandonment is a real and valid emotion often overlooked by adults whose sole priority is to ensure their children’s survival. According to The Russian Children’s Welfare Society, “UNICEF estimates that 95% of these children are social orphans, meaning that they have at least one living parent who has given them up to the state.”

Whether they have living parents or not, these children can spend years in orphanages waiting for a home. During that time, they are given limited resources and lack a sense of identity. They are orphans and nothing more — or so they are led to believe.

In the orphanage, everything was predetermined. There was no autonomy. They were told what to do, when to do it, when to eat and when to play.

There was no individuality, no one to give them the one-on-one attention they needed. At bath time, the caregivers would place up to twelve children in a large trough. They would take a bucket of soap, scrub them down, and pour a bucket of cold water over them. Then they would move down the line washing each child that way. A bucket of soap, a bucket of water, next child. A bucket of soap, a bucket of water, next child — without feeling or thought.

How can someone create their own identity if they don’t know who they are or their place in the world? People can look over their shoulders throughout life and know they have family, friends, leaders or mentors supporting them, cheering them on.

However, there was someone who lived halfway around the world who cared, someone who was looking to complete his family.

As he arrived at the orphanage one morning, a caregiver took him to a small room and said, “Let us show you what Nick can do.” In walked a small three-year-old boy. As the caregiver worked with Nick an amazing thing happened. He looked him in the eyes and knew Nick was his son.

After spending the first few years of his life in the orphanage in Moscow, Nick Eckman came to the United States with his new family, not knowing a “lick of English.” His new mother knew American Sign Language, one of the easiest languages for toddlers to learn. With the help of some signs and an aide, he picked up English quite quickly.

He had a new support system and knew some people cared so deeply for him that they would travel across the world on a whisper from God to find him.

“Imagine as an orphan in Russia, you look over your shoulder, and there is no one,” Eckman said. “There is no grandma or grandpa; there are no friends or close relatives. You are completely alone. People will ask, ‘who do you trust; who do you turn to in your dark moments?’ and it’s hard because you really don’t have the Savior there, and you really don’t have mom and dad there, and you are completely on your own. That definitely creates a feeling of abandonment, and you definitely have no self-worth. Who am I? Am I nothing because I have nothing?”

Eckman believes everyone needs to have a sense of support and worth. Through difficulties everyone faces in life, knowing your purpose and that someone cares for you are essential, just as his father took him in and showed him that he had worth and that he belonged.

His new life in America led him to many new opportunities he wouldn’t have had in Russia. These children in the Russian orphanage had no family and no prospects, only being given the basic level of education. They were not set up to succeed, only to survive.

The Russian Children’s Welfare Society shared statistics on orphans graduating from orphanages and institutions compiled by the Russian Ministry of Education. “Approximately 15,000 children leave Russian orphanages each year, usually at 16 or 17 years of age; 50% of orphans after graduation fall into a high-risk category; 40% become involved in crime; 10% commit suicide; 33% stay unemployed; 20% become homeless; only 4% are admitted to universities.”

In American schools, students learn the same subjects each year at higher levels, then proceed to universities. In the Russian education system, students are only taught the basic math, writing and other subjects needed to function. Once they get to the top tier of this basic level, they go to secondary education to learn about careers, gain vocational training, and learn higher-level subjects like algebra and calculus.

“Well, in Russia, they just have the basic level, and that’s it for the orphans,” Eckman said. “There is no secondary option. These kids are just learning the basics of how to be a basic human, and that’s it.”

Unlike all those children, Eckman was part of the 4% admitted to universities. He came to BYU-Idaho and found a support system and belonging. Though he faced many other trials throughout his life, Eckman knew that God loved him and that he had a purpose, though he did not know what it was.

He studied business administration at BYU-Idaho for two years while trying to figure out his place in the world.

“I’m sitting in my first class wondering ‘Well, when do I need to decide who I am?’” Eckman said.

While serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Eckman had to question what his work was, what his value was. He learned that he had a duty and place on this earth. He was not alone or abandoned.

Then he came home early due to COVID-19. This was just another trial that helped him realize that he could either sulk and be depressed or turn outward as the Savior did and help others.

“That’s when I realized I was not going to be identified by my trials or obstacles,” he said. “I was not going to be Nick the orphan from Russia; I was going to be Nick, the guy who was going to identify who I was with God’s help.”

Now Eckman faces people who identify him by his past. They think that because he was adopted from Russia he must speak Russian and want to adopt children too. Some believe because his dad did computer programming that he too must be an computer programmer.

“You shouldn’t be predetermined who you are. You’re not allowing yourself to grow up and create yourself an identity,” Eckman said.

He doesn’t want people to decide who others are based on their past. He has found that he can create the person he wants to be now and in the future no matter the trials he has had. Those feelings of being abandoned, forsaken and the lack of self-worth and purpose can affect everyone.

“When that support comes from your family or when you know that support is there, you feel a sense of worth, value, and belonging, and that is critical for a child or even a college student to have,” Eckman said.

He has been blessed with amazing roommates, wards and Home Evening groups. However, he is saddened that many students are surrounded by people and still don’t feel that support, unity or purpose. They may feel like a small child in a faraway orphanage of life, unsure of who they are.

“Being a student here has allowed me to reach out to people that have felt what I have had to go through,” Eckman said. “I think everybody feels alone and abandoned. I don’t think it’s really situational; I just think it’s how you feel.”

Eckman is grateful for the resources and places of support he has had and wants others to know that they’re not alone. Others have felt the same way. He is grateful for his family and others who have shown him love and helped him find his own identity.

“Just reminding people their value, their worth, and how much they belong here on this earth can do amazing things,” Eckman said. “I don’t need an orphanage experience or to grow up in Russia to tell me that. Being here at BYU-Idaho, you can treat people the same way.”


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