Adopted sharon teen finally gets to meet her Russian birth grandmother

SHARON — Hannah Cohen, 18, held the hand of her 83-year-old grandmother, Iryna Starkiw, and pointed with pride to the school garden she’d help create. Just the day before, the two met tearfully for the first time, 16 years after Hannah was adopted from a Russian orphanage.

“She was very emotional when we first met, but they were happy tears,” said Hannah, who was 28 months old when Eileen Cohen of Sharon adopted her. “It was amazing for me to see her. I was so happy, I could not stop smiling.”

As they walked the grounds of the Norfolk County Agricultural School in Walpole, where Hannah is a senior in the animal sciences division, the two shared their affection for animals and for each other. Iryna laughed with delight when she saw the selfie Hannah took of them, and then she took Hannah in her arms and danced around, afterward enfolding her in a full body hug.

This is an intimacy that goes far beyond the letters and photos they exchanged over the years. And it is deeply satisfying to Cohen to see her daughter connect with a blood relative.

“This is something that Hannah really wanted, and it’s hard to believe the meeting finally happened,” Cohen said. “Up until I saw Granny Iryna get out of the car, I wasn’t convinced it was real.”

The meeting culminated the efforts of three determined women. Cohen, whose court adoption papers surprisingly listed the name and address of Hannah’s birth parents, found and stayed in contact with Iryna and Hannah’s three older siblings. Hannah’s parents died in 1997 and 2001. Ann Starkiw Cirelli, Iryna’s American niece, acted as translator, arranged the trip to bring her aunt over from Germany, and drove her from Pennsylvania. And Iryna, despite surgery just last month, traveled alone for the first time to the United States, leaving her 89-year-old husband in the care of her son.
“I can’t even express in words how I felt when I saw her,” said Iryna, an ethnic German who grew up in Ukraine and moved to Germany from Russia in 2003. “It was such wonder.”

Hannah not only looks like her father, Vasyl, but learned from Iryna that she speaks with a similar inflection and sits cross-legged with elbows on knees as he did.
“I am so happy to know that, because I’ve wanted to know who I am like,” said Hannah, who will study dairy management at Morrisville State College in upstate New York this fall. “It’s another puzzle piece to put together.”

Her story is a complicated one that Cohen learned about over time. In numerous notebooks, Cohen has preserved all the documents, correspondence and photos that reveal Hannah’s history.

“I made a commitment when I became an adoptive parent that I would get as much information as I could about their birth families in case the day came when they wanted or needed to know,” said Cohen, who was 43 and single when she adopted Hannah in 1997. She adopted her daughter Haley from a different orphanage in 1999.
Born at 26 weeks, Hannah ended up in an orphanage after hospital personnel told her parents not to take her home because she would not live. Everyone in Hannah’s family assumed Hannah had died, until Iryna received a letter from the orphanage just before the adoption was finalized.

During the three days Iryna stayed with the Cohens, they filled her in on Hannah’s life by showing her the memory books and videos.
“I did not know what her life was like,” Iryna said. “Now that I have seen it with my own eyes, I am so grateful. I am extremely happy that she came to America and has been so well cared for and loved.”

When Hannah’s grandparents Harris Cohen, 88, and Alida Cohen, 83, arrived for lunch, Alida greeted Iryna by taking her hands in hers and warmly said, “You’re Granny and I’m Nana.” In the living room, Hannah showed her grandparents the scarf.And then Iryna spread out the blanket she had received from the Cohens – the faces of Hannah, her birth brother and her birth father appeared in eight black-and-white photos on a turquoise background. They resemble each other.

“This is the most treasured gift I ever received,” Iryna said.