By Meredith Colias-Pete Post-Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meredith Colias-Pete shares the story of an unbreakable bond of sisterhood between two women who lived their lives many miles apart.
Growing up thousands of miles apart, a Michigan City, Ind., woman had an unlikely and emotional reunion with a sister she didn't know she had last month at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
The two sisters were both born in Ukraine. One, Leanna Hall, 26, now of Michigan City, grew up there and was adopted as a teenager in Porter County. The other, Nadjezda Lof, 23, was adopted at 4 and grew up in Sweden.
It took determination from Nadjezda, who is known as Nadia, and years of searching, dead ends, faulty paperwork and help from extended family in Ukraine to find her sister.
It was "the biggest Christmas gift," Leanna said of their reunion.
In 1992, Leanna was born in Odessa.
Her parents, Maria and Sergei, were heroin addicts, she said. Her maternal grandmother tried her best to give some stability. She once mentioned she had a sister, who had died earlier, Leanna said.
Around age 7, she was sent to a Ukrainian shelter, and then an orphanage. At 14, an American woman living in Porter County adopted her.
She came to the U.S. with a picture that showed her grandmother and birth mother Maria as a teenager.
In 1995, Nadjezda was born three months premature. She was abandoned at the hospital. A few months later, she was sent to a different Ukrainian orphanage.
A couple from northern Sweden adopted her at age 4. They also adopted a boy from the same orphanage, she said.
Her Swedish parents were open about her adoption. With few memories of her birth parents, the need to know nagged her for years. She started looking as a teenager, but ran into several dead ends.
Her only clues in the search were her parents' names, mother's age and an address where they once lived from the adoption papers.
In October, Nadjezda went to Ukraine to appear on a TV show that specialized in lost-family reunions with her adopted brother. It found several relatives of his.
However, most of her immediate birth family, such as her parents and grandmother, had already died, it found.
It located an older cousin, Dmitry, and gave her his Facebook page. The show said she had a sister that had been adopted in the United States, but had no other information.
"Is she alive or not?" Nadjezda asked. "And they said we didn't know."
Her cousin had remembered Leanna. He and his family helped connect Nadjezda to find her sister's adoption papers and new name. That led to Leanna's Facebook page.
On Nov. 5, her cousin sent a cryptic message to Nadjezda: Be online in one hour. His later message: I've found your sister.
The sisters connected via Facebook.
"I clicked on her profile and my heart just dropped," Leanna said. "She looked exactly like our mother. Just a spitting image of her."
Online messages led to their first talk, which lasted four to five hours, they said. At first, it was overwhelming to have a stranger who knew so much about her, Leanna said. She was sending family pictures she got from their cousin.
They talked for hours each night. Then, Nadjezda's parents paid for her flight to Chicago.
At O'Hare, they reunited Dec. 17.
She was up until 3 a.m. that morning making a homemade poster. Then Nadjezda arrived. She abandoned everything and ran up to her sister.
"We couldn't stop hugging," Leanna said.
Their appearance was striking, with the same eyes. They had some of the same mannerisms.
Within a few hours, Nadjezda, a professional-level volleyball player, was on the court for a pickup game in Valparaiso.
Since she arrived, the sisters have kept a whirlwind calendar, visiting the Barker Mansion in Michigan City, friends, shopping, a concert, a New Year's Eve party at a hotel in Chicago.
She wanted her sister to see her authentically, "exactly how I live here," Leanna said. "She's seen the raw me, or whatever you want to call it."
They have pledged to remain in touch after Nadjezda returns to Sweden and visit each other as often as they can.
They believe their father died last year. Their mother died about a decade earlier, they said. Both are unsure whether they have half-siblings in Ukraine on their father's side.
"I think for Nadia, Leanna was a link to the family she never knew," said Leanna's adopted mother, Jennifer Hall. "Leanna knew who her parents were. She knew what happened."
A little over a decade ago, Hall, a lab supervisor, said she was looking to adopt internationally. She agreed to host an international orphan for two weeks in the summer.
The agency then called and asked if she would consider hosting a second girl, Leanna.
Speaking little English, she was shy, but with a "big smile," Jennifer said. Asked what drew her to Leanna: "You just kinda know."
"I just loved her from the start," Jennifer said. "I just felt something about her. She needed a chance."
Two years later, the adoption was completed. Leanna, then 14, moved from Ukraine to Chesterton and started high school that year.
"She wouldn't even express to me how hard it was," Jennifer said. "She didn't speak the language, you have no friends. You are starting high school, which is a trauma in itself."
Her adopted daughter picked up English "wicked fast" and "has really come out of her shell" while establishing her new life, she said. Leanna now studies business in college at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.
Nadjezda's surfacing was surprising, but "pretty cool," she said. Her resemblance to their birth mother was striking, Jennifer said.
"When Leanna first told me (and showed her picture), I'm like, 'Oh my God, that is your mom," she said. Their reunion was even more amazing since Ukrainian siblings are generally adopted together. In this case, that was obviously muddled.
"You just don't think that's ever going to happen to you," Jennifer said.