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The birth of a family, and the rebirth of three sets of twins

August 24, 2006, 0:00 4446 Author: Esther Zucker, Dateline producer MSNBC

Lisa Salem’s message on my voice mail said “It's too much, we’re too nervous, we can’t try to adopt these kids with Dateline following us.” It was April, 2004, a week before Lisa, her husband Hythem, and their 6-year-old twins Joe and Sophia were leaving for Russia. They had an exhausting trip ahead of them to the Pskov region, in the northwest part of the country hundreds of miles from Moscow. There they would meet, and possibly adopt four very special children living in orphanages. Dateline wanted to chronicle their story.

Lisa didn’t want her family to be the subject of a TV story, and was reluctant to meet me. But she agreed, and I was going to give it another try. I drove to the Salem home on Good Friday—not the best day, but the only time she could give me. Lisa introduced me to Joe and Sophia, and after 10 minutes these twins had me in the palm of their hands. Breathtakingly beautiful children, there is also a sweetness that radiates from both of them. The love in this family is palpable.

Lisa was trying not to suffer a meltdown. There was too much to do before the family’s trip, and way too much at stake. The last thing she needed was to meet me, and make yet another decision with her husband — whether to allow our cameras in on their family’s story. But it was a story that had to be told.

When the Salems decided it was time to start a family, they also decided they would adopt, even though they were able to have their own biological children. They had seen a TV show on adoption and couldn’t get it out of their minds. “We decided that there were more children in the world than parents, and that we could do something to help.” Knowing Lisa and Hythem for 2 years now, I have come to see it is this attitude that dominates their lives.

They had traveled to Russia before, in 1999, when they adopted Joe and Sophia there. The twins were given up at birth, by parents too poor to care for them. Lisa and Hythem brought them home to America when they were 11 months old. Even today, tears still come to Lisa and Hythem’s eyes when they recall how sick and malnourished their babies were. “They just needed love, a home and a family,” Lisa said. She’s too modest to mention the months of sleepless nights nursing her children to health. You have to press her to talk about that. The story could end here, but it doesn’t.

At the end of 2003, Lisa and Hythem learned that Joe and Sophia had older siblings in Russia living in orphanages as well. Remarkably, the siblings were 2 more sets of twins — twin brothers and twin sisters. Without a second’s hesitation, the Salem’s were determined to adopt them as well. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have enough money, that their house wasn’t big enough — they would figure all that out. These children had to grow up together.

Lisa wasn’t shy about telling me Dateline would be an added stress to an already tenuous situation. They were going to try to adopt four older children, raised in a different culture, who didn’t speak English. 10 year old Sergei and Nicholai, 11 year old Nadia and Vera had already suffered so much in their young lives. They had been taken away from their parents, alcoholics, who were neglecting their children. And now they were living in separate orphanages, over one hundred miles apart. Lisa and Hythem had no idea how physically and emotionally damaged they would find these children. How would they react to Joe and Sophia? Would the Russian court even approve the adoption? And if they were to adopt them, how would they act out when they got home? Would they be able to heal these kids? There were too many unknowns. What our cameras could capture might not be pretty, and the ending to the story was unknown.

Nerves ready to shred, the Salems apprehensively agreed to let us follow their journey to Russia. Indelible memories of that trip remain, some heartbreaking, others joyful. There were the eyes of the children in the orphanage, pleading to take them away from there, the tearful reunions of the siblings, and their coming home to America. We witnessed the birth of a family, and the rebirth of 4 children.

Lisa remained apprehensive about our story, even after we finished taping. It took a promo for our show, three days before our broadcast, to finally ease her nerves. Her e-mail to me said “I think I’m feeling a little bit better that you talked me into it now.”

I knew the Salems didn’t want cameras following them, but they did it for a reason. Remember, Lisa and Hythem became adoptive parents after watching a TV show. “We decided there were more children in the world than parents, and that we can do something to help.” If just one couple adopts a child after watching their story, they would have helped yet again.

In an emotional report, Keith Morrison tells the story of two ordinary people that risked everything to reunite three sets of Russian orphan twins that were brothers and sisters. "From Russia with Love" airs Dateline Sunday, 7 p.m. For information on adoption, click here.

• June 27, 2006

Viewer responses to this hour

Please tell Lisa and Hythem that they are a truly remarkable couple. Their unselfishness and love is not to be believed. I am the mother of male twins and have the greatest of respect for this couple who have opened their hearts and their homes to these children with special needs. Thank you so much for telling this story. It is an inspiration to us all. --Ellie Vaughan, Psy.D.

Thank you for a wonderful positive story and a brave family. We wish them much joy throughout their lives! Keep us updated and continue to bring the “positive” into the news! -Anonymous, Canton, Michigan

The Salems did something very few people would do. They are remarkable; and the children are adorable. --Jackie, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Kudos to NBC and the fine staff for bringing us this positive story about Russian adoptions. My husband and I are adopting a 12 year old boy from St Petersburg, Russia and truly appreciated the heart touching story. We teared up at moments we experienced like the Salem family. Bless them for their strength and drive to bring the siblings together. They are truly angels!! We are having our challenge with adoption. We will prevail but the rules make it a challenge to adopt even an older child. We can feel for what the Salems went through in their journey to adopt all 6 siblings. Thank you again for such a touching and positive story. --Monica and Warren Cox, Spotsylvania, Va.

I never write into TV stations to comment or protest on programs but this story really moved me very much. Lisa Salem said one thing in the early part of the show that really resonated with me. She said something like “To discover your purpose in life is a remarkable thing.” I so envy her and her husband...to have the faith and courage to plow ahead and do what their hearts dictated regardless of the outcome. What a reward at the end of this tunnel! Those children are so blessed to have the Salems in their lives...and vice versa! --George Knuepfel, San Francisco, Calif.

NBC Dateline, the Salems and everyone involved in this story THANK YOU! The Salems are inspiring, and have re-lit my desire to return to Russia one day to adopt an older child. Thank you NBC for such a positive story on international adoption. Kudos to you for handling this story with sensitivity and not sensationlism. What a beautiful family inside and out. Best Wishes --Angela Lipscomb

Outstanding, and thanks for sharing! Major kudos to Lisa & Hythem ... lucky them, and luckier kids. Their good karma will come full circle. Also appreciate the donation info, because we are going to participate on a regular basis ... just as soon as my tears dry. Thanks for making my day! --zgirl harper, Castle rock, Colo.

A HUGE THANK YOU!!!! To Dateline and the Salem family for airing this beautiful and postive story about international adoption. My husband and I are in the long and complicated process of adopting a child from Russia. This positive story was so needed and gave me new hope that my adoption will one day come true. Currently we like many are at a complete stand still b/c the Russian government changed their laws regarding Non-Profit organizations and many adoptions cannot proceed until the adoption agencies receive their new accreditation. Until then we can only just wait and hope that our dreams of bringing a child into our hearts and family comes true. --Raina Leibowitz, New York

God Bless the Salem family! This is one of the most inspiring and feel good stories I have EVER seen! Getting the family all together is a testimony that family love is second only to the love of Our Lord.I pray for Abundance for this wonderful family. They truly deserve it! --John J Johnson, Philadelphia

This story had me in tears. In the summer of 2003 we were given the referral of two little girls in Russia. After I got to their orphanage on my first trip to Russia, I learned that they had two older sisters and two older brothers living in the same orphanage with them. We have been trying unsuccessfully since then to get a court date in a very slow and difficult region. At this point the two oldest children have aged out of the system but we are currently putting together our third complete dossier to send to Russia in hopes of adopting the youngest three children who are still living in the orphanage. This story has made me even more determined to keep fighting for our children to come home. --Anonymous

God bless you both for the sacrifice you are making to help these children become one happy family. I cried thru the whole TV report but happy, wonderful tears to learn there are still some good people in this world. Happiness, health, and Prosperity always. --Gloria M. Cutillo, Hoboken, N.J.

Mr. and Mrs. Salem are admirable people. They are what makes this world a better place and they certainly restore your faith in humanity. --Adriana Simmons, Woodland, Calif.

Your report on the Salem Family was so profoundly moving and inspiring to me. I am going to send a small donation to the Salem Twins New Hope Fund. (Whish I could send more) Not having children myself, I really want to look into Russian adoption if I qualify. If there is any other way I can help them, please have them let me know. It is great to hear a positive story with so much trouble in the world today. --George Cohen, New Windsor, N.Y.

I was so moved by your report on the Salem twins and FINALLY enjoyed a story about what is good and right about America. You forget that while appreciate being “informed” by your news coverage, we also need to be encouraged and uplifted every now and then and taken back to our American values.Phew! I was beginning to lose hope! Bravo!! --Sally Richards, Evergreen, Colorado

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