Russian-born Kiwi's mission to reunite adoptees with their families in war-torn Russia and Ukraine

  • 12/05/2022
Russian-New Zealander Alex Gilbert wants peace for the people of Ukraine and Russia.
Russian-New Zealander Alex Gilbert wants peace for the people of Ukraine and Russia. Photo credit: Alex Gilbert / Supplied; Reuters

By Elizabeth Ormond, Te Rito cadet journalist

Despite Russia’s ban on Facebook and Instagram, other communication channels remain open to those trying to reach loved ones inside Russia and Ukraine.

This is especially important to Russian-born New Zealander Alex Gilbert, who has family members on both sides of the conflict.

Gilbert is the founder of the global online adoptee community I’m Adopted, which allows people to share their adoption experiences, network, and ask for advice on how to search for family members.

He is himself the adopted son of Whangarei couple Mark and Janice Gilbert, who took him and his brother on from an orphanage in Arkhangelsk in 1994, when he was just two years old.

They encouraged him to take up the search for his birth parents once he was ready and in 2013, Gilbert found and met his biological parents. Since then, he's dedicated himself to reuniting other adoptees with their birth families and in 2015 launched I’m Adopted.

Gilbert says many members of the community have Russian and Ukrainian heritage and are using apps like Telegram, Classmate, or Whatsapp to talk to their families impacted by the ongoing conflict.

Gilbert uses those apps to do the same.

“For a lot of us, there are family members on both sides. No one wants this, we all want there to be a peaceful resolution. We also want to hear what’s happening, directly from our families.”

Gilbert says I’m Adopted members are trying to support each other and chat privately, but “the reality of the situation is that we can only wait for things to change". 

“It’s hard,” says Gilbert, “but talking about it helps.”

Gilbert is worried for his birth mother's uncle and cousin, who are currently living in war-torn Kyiv.

“During the day they are fine, but at night they have to take shelter in underground bunkers from bombs.”

He said there is a sense of helplessness in only being able to watch updates from afar.

“I’ve offered to buy food, but stores are limited in what they have in Ukraine anyway.”

Gilbert has allegiances on both sides of the conflict, as his biological parents live in Russia. He said not much about their way of life has changed, but his father said the cost of food has risen.

“My friends living in Moscow are probably seeing the most changes; there are lots of stores that are closed. But they still have their jobs, they can still go to work.

“If anything really bad happened, they would let me know straight away.” 

The conflict continues to present other challenges to those searching for family in Russia and Ukraine.

“Some people have taken DNA tests and found out that they have family members in Ukraine. They are wondering if now is the best time to start looking for their families, or if they should postpone doing that," Gilbert said.

“A lot of adoptees haven’t gone back to Russia or Ukraine.”

Gilbert wishes for peace and “hopes that everything will be resolved soon".