Steps Issue No. 123,
08:00 AM

A Place to Call Home

By Eric Breier

Malika Berens doesn’t know exactly how long she cared for her younger sisters after the three siblings were abandoned by their birth mother while growing up in Kazakhstan.

She thinks it was three months. Her middle sister, Madina, estimates that it was closer to two. Whether it was two or three, one thing is certain – for a 9-year-old looking after a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old, it felt like an eternity.

Malika and her sisters got through those months on their own. They got through nearly two years in an orphanage. And they got through a seemingly interminable adoption process to create a new family with a loving couple from Fallbrook.

“We were meant to be,” Malika said.

Graduation day is a time of celebration and joy, but it will also be a bittersweet occasion for Malika. Crossing the commencement stage at Cal State San Marcos in May ends a six-year journey to earn her bachelor’s in biochemistry. It also means an end to driving from her parents’ Fallbrook home to campus each day with sisters Madina and Zarina, who also attend CSUSM. There will be no more daily lunches together on campus or study sessions in Kellogg Library, which they affectionately call their second home.

“We’ll have to start doing things on our own,” said Madina, also a biochemistry major who will graduate in 2021. “It’s going to be different.”

Malika won’t be going far as she enters the working world with an eye toward beginning nursing school in 2020. But considering where they’ve been, it will be, as Madina notes, different.


The road to the orphanage

Malika and her sisters grew up in Priozersk, a small city of less than 14,000 people known for a military base that is used by Russia for testing anti-ballistic and anti-aircraft defense systems.

The girls’ birth father, who was in his 60s, died of unknown causes, and their birth mother’s abuse of drugs and alcohol increased after his death. Their birth mother was prone to disappearing for days at a time before finally resurfacing to bring the girls more food. Then the temporary disappearances became permanent. The girls had no idea where their birth mother went. Malika stopped attending school so she could care for Madina and Zarina.

The girls managed to get food from a local market that allowed customers to purchase on credit, but the store owner soon had to cut them off because nobody was paying the bill. Malika was forced to beg for food.

“It was humiliating because we would ask people we knew,” she said.

A neighbor took the girls in after they had already been living on their own for months, but it didn’t last long. The strain of trying to care for three young girls in addition to her own children and grandchildren was too much to bear, and the neighbor called the police after two months. Malika and her sisters were placed in a temporary group home of about 80 children before being transported to a large orphanage in Karaganda, about 300 miles north of Priozersk.

While Malika and her sisters were fortunate to be placed in the same orphanage – some siblings were split up – they rarely saw each other. The more than 400 children in the orphanage were divided into age groups. Though Madina and Zarina started off in the same group, Madina soon aged into the next group. If they were lucky, the girls might see each other in the cafeteria. More commonly, they had to wait until a big celebration like Christmas or a summer activity.

“The hardest part was not knowing what was happening with my sisters,” Malika said. “If one kid was in trouble, everyone in the age group was in trouble and got punished. Knowing that happened in my age group, I couldn’t imagine what was going on with my sisters.”

While Malika and her sisters were becoming accustomed to life in the orphanage, some 7,000 miles away in Fallbrook, Peter and Sylvia Berens had been discussing adoption.


‘Love at first sight’

Peter and Sylvia’s first attempt at adoption was stymied by a paperwork mix-up, and they never even met the children whom the adoption group had targeted. The mistake helped Peter and Sylvia move to the top of the list the following year. They received a stack of photos of children waiting to be adopted. Peter didn’t even make it through half of the photos.

“When I saw the picture, I knew,” he said.

It was a photo of Malika, Madina and Zarina.

“We didn’t plan for three kids,” Sylvia said. “But we saw them and – something in their eyes, their sparkle – we knew they were going to be our kids.”

As part of the adoption program, the girls flew to the U.S. for a six-week trial period. The girls didn’t speak any English, and Peter and Sylvia spoke no Russian.

Despite the language barrier – “It was a lot of hand signals back and forth,” Peter said – they instantly connected.

“When people say love at first sight,” Malika said, “that’s how it was with our parents. We knew we were going to be together.”

But it was an arduous process. If everything went according to plan, Peter and Sylvia knew it would be nearly a year before they would get to bring the girls to the U.S. permanently. Six weeks together made it even more excruciating to see the girls board a plane to return to the orphanage in Kazakhstan.

Malika made one request of Peter and Sylvia before departing for Kazakhstan: She asked if they would visit the orphanage at Christmas. Peter and Sylvia couldn’t make any promises, but that December, as kids in the orphanage were preparing for the holiday, Malika noticed a buzz of excitement. Children were running to the windows and Malika could hear them saying, “The Americans are here.” She went to the window to see what the commotion was about.

It was Peter and Sylvia.

“I got really emotional,” Malika said. “That made it more real because I knew they wanted us and they loved us.”

Peter and Sylvia made two more trips to Kazakhstan – once for a bonding period with the girls and a final visit to bring their daughters home. The girls officially became U.S. citizens on May 5, 2005, at the moment their plane landed on U.S. soil.


A second chance

There were still adjustments and challenges. On their first night as an official family, Zarina woke up at 2 a.m. screaming yabloka, yabloka, yabloka while running wildly around the kitchen. Peter and Sylvia had no idea what she was saying nor the severity of the problem. They called one of their employees, a native of Uzbekistan who spoke Russian. Peter apologized for waking him and explained the situation. The employee asked what Zarina was saying.

Yabloka,” Peter said.

“She wants an apple,” he replied.

The girls’ English steadily improved, and they thrived at St. Joseph Academy in San Marcos. The only thing they enjoyed more than school was frequent trips abroad with their parents.

“I think that’s how our love of education started,” Zarina said. “On every trip, our parents would make sure we went to a museum and learned something. Then we’d go back to class and could say, ‘Oh, I saw that.’ We could make a connection.”

When it came time to choose a college, CSUSM was an easy choice. Though Peter and Sylvia each earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from UC San Diego – and Sylvia also completed her undergraduate work there – they encouraged their daughters to attend CSUSM, where they thought a smaller-college experience would be beneficial.

It was a prescient decision. Malika and Madina credit chemistry professor Jackie Trischman for providing critical mentorship throughout their time at CSUSM.

Laurie Schmelzer, the director of student services for the College of Science and Mathematics, also proved instrumental in Malika’s success at CSUSM, virtually from day one. Malika met Schmelzer through her freshman GEL Chemistry & Biochemistry Learning Community course, and Schmelzer helped Malika develop the confidence to take on leadership roles in events like Super STEM Saturday.

“She was so shy but always had questions about what needed to be done before the next class, who she should talk to about advising,” Schmelzer said. “It was obvious that she was going to make the most of her college experience, and she jumped right in.

“She has been an amazing mentor to her two sisters, and that compassion carries over into every aspect of her life. I’m going to greatly miss her visits to my office and spending time with her at outreach events, but I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

Malika is hoping to work as a certified nursing assistant before starting preparations for nursing school. She hopes to enroll in CSUSM’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in spring 2020.

Malika learned about compassion and caring at a young age, and it remains at the forefront of everything she does.

“I believe that God has a plan for everyone,” Malika said. “It might not be the plan we are envisioning, but we should always be grateful for what we have because we never know when it’s going to be taken from us. God has been a huge part of my life. I feel like being adopted was part of his plan.

“My parents have provided us with unconditional love and support. They’ve been there through the hard times. It sounds clichéd, but they’re my heroes. They’ve given me a second chance in life, one I’ll never take for granted.”