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Eleven Ukrainian orphans looking for adoptive families visit Fresno's Chaffee Zoo on Wednesday. Ten boys and a girl ages 6 to 11 came to Fresno with the help of host families, the Church of Shaver Lake and God's Waiting Children Inc., a nonprofit Christian adoption service.
A trip to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo gave a group of Ukrainian orphans a rare chance Wednesday to see the world beyond their economically depressed former Soviet republic.
They dangled their hands in a pool to touch stingrays. They perched over rails to stare at monkeys.
"When we are finished, we can pack our bags and live here," 9-year-old Pasha, whose last name was not provided, said through an interpreter. Ten boys and a girl ages 6 to 11 from Ukraine came to Fresno with the help of host families, the Church of Shaver Lake and God's Waiting Children Inc., a nonprofit Christian adoption service based in Clovis.
Many of the youngsters rarely get the opportunity to leave their country -- or even the orphanage in the city of Ochakov that houses 286 children.
The host families agree to take care of the orphans for two weeks with the hope of finding parents for them. The program is meant to offer the children opportunities -- and to let them know families in the United States care about them.
"It's to show these kids there's life outside the orphanage," said Erin Jennings, president of the board of directors of God's Waiting Children. "We'd like them to be adopted, but not all of the kids will be."
The agency asked that the children's last names not be used.
Seven of the 11 host families are in the central San Joaquin Valley; the rest live in Southern California. They paid $2,000 for each orphan to come from Ukraine to California.
The North Fresno Exchange Club, a group that awards high school students for outstanding achievements, paid the zoo entrance fees for the orphans. The adults who accompanied them got a group discount.
Jennings, who adopted 7-year-old Igor Jennings from Russia last year, said many parents in Ukraine put their children in orphanages because of poor economic conditions in the country, which became independent in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union.
"They can't afford to feed their child," Jennings said.
Once the parents terminate their rights to the children, the adoption process can take one to two years, depending on the child's circumstances, Jennings said.
If the rights aren't terminated, the children can stay in the orphanage until they are 16, she said.
The orphans arrived on March 24 and will leave the United States on April 10.
Their next trip is Disneyland on Monday.
The children appeared to have forgotten the orphanage while they were at the zoo.
"I touched him," shouted a boy named Oleg after he stuck his hand into a pool of stingrays.
Then he went back for a second dip.
The reporter can be reached at vcolon[at]fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6313.
Misha, 7, an orphan from Ukraine, high-fives host family member Kaleb, 6, at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo on Wednesday.