By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; B01
Shortly after midnight Monday, Christie Hubner scooped up the Haitian girl she had been waiting to adopt since 2006 and gazed into the toddler's eyes.
Three-year-old Yslande Dorsica -- soon to be renamed Ila Yslande Ann Hubner -- looked back at her new mother with an equally intense expression, then stretched her little mouth in a big yawn.
"Oh!" whispered Hubner. "Are you getting sleepy? I am, too. I don't think I've ever been awake this long."
Even before the Jan. 12 earthquake that reduced Ila's orphanage in Port-au-Prince to rubble, Hubner and her husband, David, had faced multiple bureaucratic delays. But for the Frederick couple and several dozen other adoptive parents who traveled to Florida from across the country over the weekend, perhaps no aspect of the ordeal seemed more excruciating than the wait to get custody of their children after a U.S. military airlift touched down at Orlando Sanford International Airport on Saturday afternoon.
As a handful of officials from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services struggled to sign off on more Haitian adoption cases in one night than they usually process in a year, the parents endured more than 36 hours of confusion, outrage and heartbreak. One parent was told her child might have pneumonia, then had to wait a day before seeing her. One child went missing, only to be found back in Haiti. Others who were not expected to be on the flight were discovered aboard.
Yet by the time it was over, the Hubners still considered themselves fortunate: Hundreds of orphans previously matched with parents in the United States or Europe remain in Haiti, where food is scarce and aftershocks continue. And officials estimate that the quake left tens of thousands more children without parents, in addition to an estimated 50,000 already living in orphanages before the disaster.
"I've gotten quite a few gray hairs out of this," said Christie Hubner, 34, who was facing a one- to two-year wait to complete Ila's adoption before the quake. "But it was all worth it."No time to waste
Three days earlier, the Hubners were already beginning to look pale from worry and lack of sleep as they strode into Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport Friday morning. David Hubner, 36, balanced a newly purchased pink car seat on his suitcase.
About 9 p.m. Thursday, they had received a phone call warning them that the U.S. Embassy might not process Ila's visa in time to get her on the flight scheduled to take children from her orphanage, Maison des Enfants de Dieu, to Miami Saturday morning.
"So we're basically flying to Miami on faith," Christie Hubner said.
But as the plane lifted off, the couple's spirits seemed to rise. On the second leg of the trip, from Charlotte to Miami, Christie pulled out a paperback titled "Creole Made Easy" and flipped through the vocabulary list.
"Manman," she murmured as she reached the entry for "mother."
Normally, she might have spent months memorizing the book. Instead, the couple had been cramming the language lessons into one frenzied week of preparations: scanning more than 200 pages of documents to e-mail U.S. officials; buying a new minivan to accommodate Ila; and trying to find a few quiet moments to prepare their two other children, 15-month-old Jonas and 4-year-old Mathis, for a new sibling.
"Mathis is such a ball of energy. I've been trying to tell him Ila won't necessarily know how to play soccer and other games," Christie said.
Moments after the plane hit the tarmac in Miami, David pulled out his BlackBerry. He frowned as he read a message from Susan Manning, executive director of their adoption agency, One World Adoptions in Georgia.
"The good news is that we think all the visas may be issued now," Manning wrote. "The bad news is that they may be landing in Orlando."
"Well at least it's in the same state," he said.Tensions and tears
College sweethearts, the Hubners have been married more than a decade. Christie, a redhead with delicate features who was a museum curator before becoming a stay-at-home mom, is easygoing and talkative. David, a blond, boyish-looking account manager, has a wry sense of humor and is at once more reserved and more emotional.
But the two also have much in common: a love of athletics, a ready warmth toward strangers and a strong Christian faith that is the guiding force in their life, they said. Indeed, for of all Christie's maternal qualities, as she puts it, "When the Lord called us to adopt, it was David he first spoke to about it."
They were on a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, and David Hubner was heartbroken at the sight of so many children begging for pennies. Years later, as it became clear that Ila's adoption would probably drag on, he felt the call again, prompting the couple to adopt Jonas days after he was born in Texas.
Hours after their arrival in Miami, the Hubners were still at the airport, waiting for Manning to get in touch with more information. David's face darkened as he took the call.
"She says 82 visas have been processed," he said. "We don't know if Ila's on the list."
"Well, if it's not today, it'll be tomorrow," Christie said.
"I don't want to wait another day," David said. "It's time for her to be out of there."
The next morning, they drove up the Florida coast with Manning in a rented minivan.
Christie swiveled her body so she could look at Manning in the seat behind her. The four-hour road trip was the perfect time to get Manning's advice: How early would Ila be used to waking up? Would she be potty-trained? Where was the best place for her to sleep? How do you style black hair? How much misbehavior should they tolerate, and how soon should they start taking a firmer line? How soon should they introduce her to other children?
They reached the airport about 3 p.m. and found a gathering crowd of parents. At 4:45, word spread that the children's plane was about to land. There was a race outside to the chain-link fence blocking off the tarmac from the parking lot. A gray C-17 rolled by, its engines still screaming as the backdoor flap slowly lowered open. One by one, tiny children started to emerge. David wiped the tears running down his face.
Back inside the terminal, the parents chatted excitedly, certain that they would be told any minute who was on the plane. An hour passed. Then another.
At 6:50 p.m., a TV cameraman who had been allowed a brief visit to the room where the children were staying set his camera on a tripod and pressed play. The parents gathered around, trying to get a glimpse of their children.
There was a shriek of surprise. Dawn Shelton, 39, of St. Paul, Minn., had been told that neither of her two children would be on the plane. But there, clear as day, was Patricia, 9. Patricia's younger brother had not made it. "I can't even imagine his face as he watched her leave him," Shelton said, sobbing.
At 10:45 p.m., Christie Hubner curled on the floor, pulling a fuzzy pink blanket she'd brought for Ila around her body. Fifteen minutes later, she sat up, unable to sleep.
At 4:45 a.m., Manning was able to get into the room where the children were sleeping. "I've seen your Ila!" she whispered to the Hubners.
Soon after, the first children trooped into the lobby. The parents cheered.
But it wasn't until 1:45 a.m. the next day that the Hubners finally walked out with Ila, all three equally bleary-eyed. "Bye-bye, airport," Christie Hubner murmured. "I hope we never have to see you again."