The little girl, her black curls tumbling over her eyes and her slight frame uncomfortably splayed out on the airplane seat, hid crayons in her armpits the entire flight. She was puzzled how they, like the new people called Mom and Dad sitting next to her, now belonged to her.
Her new parents, Seth and Meg Mosier, looked to each other. Were they doing things right? It was not their first emergency evacuation — they had escaped war and violence before — but it was their first on a one-way flight from India sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And certainly their first with a little girl they had just adopted as a deadly pandemic swirled around the world.
In 2008, Seth, an American diplomat, was ordered to evacuate from the embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, when the Russian military invaded. Meg drove a car filled with diplomats across the border and into the safety of Armenia. In 2011, the Arab Spring protests forced them to leave Egypt.
Yet here they were, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with dozens of young missionaries in suits next to a child who kept stuffing crayons under her arms and who clung to Meg like her life depended on it.
This was not the way the Mosiers had envisioned starting a family.
Seth, 41, with a dirty blond crew cut and a perpetually earnest look on his face, and Meg, 42, with freckles, a short brunette bob and a determination to always stay positive, decided to settle down after they left Cairo. They tried to get pregnant for five years and then, after two rounds of in vitro fertilization that cost $27,000, they started the adoption process in the summer of 2018.
Instead of the excitement of doctor checkups and ultrasounds, they got reams of adoption red tape. They looked into adopting an American child, but the agency told them they may be seen as too old. They considered Georgia, but were nervous about the prevalence of developmental disorders in orphanages there. Eventually, they settled on India, which has an easier process than most countries.
After weeks of filling out monotonous paperwork, they were directed to an orphanage in Madurai, a city in southern India. The orphanage gave them a name: a little girl named Selvi.
Last December, when they had their first video chat with her, they struggled to hold her attention. Selvi was more interested in her caregiver than the strangers cooing at her through a screen 8,000 miles away.
Less than three months later, the first coronavirus case in Delhi was announced on March 2, a day before the adoption was approved. Countries around the world started closing their borders to stem the virus’ spread; and the Mosiers thought their opportunity to build a family was disappearing.
They booked tickets to Madurai for March 12, four days before their meeting with Selvi. Madurai is an ancient city crammed with rickshaws, street hawkers and low-slung buildings, punctuated by its famous giant Hindu temples. They did some sightseeing, to get a sense of Selvi’s home, but couldn’t shake their anxiety.
“We were all nerves,” Seth said. “All we wanted was for her to like us, but we worried she would take one look at Meg and I and be terrified.”
Just 20 hours after the Mosiers arrived, India sealed its borders, canceling all unused visas and barring entry to foreigners. Indian news outlets reported that the government planned to suspend all international flights.
Now all they needed to do was meet their daughter and get out in time. They worried about being stranded for months in a country they barely knew during a global crisis. The bonding process was never going to be easy, but now they had to speed it up. The first day with Selvi, she clung to her caregiver, an orphanage employee assigned to raise her since she was an infant.
Meg sat on the floor with Selvi, second-guessing her every move. Was she captivating enough? Could she bond with the little girl the way the caregiver did? She had spent every moment leading up to the adoption thinking about the caregiver, waves of jealousy washing over her.
“But when I met her, all I felt was gratitude,” Meg said. “We missed out on those first two years of Selvi’s life. We wished it had been us who were her parents from the start, but we weren’t. Selvi had been in good hands.”
Every time the caregiver left the room, the little girl cried. When Selvi bumped her head on a stair and started wailing, Meg and Seth froze. The caregiver, who did not speak English, mimed a child being cradled to Seth and then darted out of the room while Seth tried to soothe the wriggling child.
“It was so scary. There was so much weight behind this, so many moments dedicated to thinking about this moment,” Meg said. “You want her to like you so badly, you want to just know what to do and how to do it, to do right by her.”
After 45 minutes of rocking, Selvi fell asleep on Seth’s shoulder.
The next day, the Mosiers could finally take Selvi home. The orphanage staff planned an elaborate handover ceremony, stuffing Selvi into a giant, frilly blue dress with a fat pink bow. An overzealous photographer choreographed the moment, but only captured strained smiles and awkward formality. For his final shot, he had Meg hold Selvi, who started screaming and clawing for her caregiver.
“I felt so much empathy for her in that moment,” Meg said of the caregiver. “She had raised her for the first two years of her life.”
Through tears, Meg thanked the caregiver and promised to make her an important part of Selvi’s life. Today Meg and Seth show Selvi three photos to explain her transition: one of Selvi and the caregiver, one of the four of them together and one of their new, three-person family.
They flew several hours to Delhi on March 18. The next day, India announced all flights in and out of the country would be canceled in three days. They had two days to finalize an international adoption.
The final paperwork — Selvi’s U.S. immigration visa and Indian medical forms — usually take a week. But bureaucrats from both countries rushed to finish it in two days before their window disappeared. Just hours before the airport closed, the Mosiers checked in and went through customs. But they had forgotten one crucial piece of paper: an exit stamp allowing Selvi to leave the country.
The Mosiers checked themselves into a fancy hotel now empty of guests after massive evacuation efforts by various governments. The hotel felt deserted and sad, with only 10 of its nearly 500 rooms occupied. The handful of toys they had brought began to look painfully thin as the days passed. The crayons would disappear into Selvi’s armpits. It’s not clear why she did this, but some orphans hide toys because they don’t have their own.
They spent the next nine days playing hide and go seek with bored bellhops and the hotel manager. Meg tried to teach Selvi a little bit of English: spoon, flower, bed.
“So many people told us we were the bright spot in their day. The staff were all sleeping at the hotel, scared — and hated being separated from their families. Selvi drew so much light to them,” Meg said.
The U.S. Embassy was flooded with requests from thousands of Americans wanting to leave India, but there was a holdup with the flights that dragged on for days. Finally, they got an email saying the Latter-day Saints had chartered a flight to evacuate their missionaries. They offered the unoccupied seats to the embassy, which offered them to the Mosiers.
At the embassy, the Mosiers and a few dozen missionaries — barely out of high school — waiting for their flight. One of them, Sam McGuire, 18, told them he had been adopted as an infant from an orphanage in the eastern city of Kolkata and adopted by Latter-day Saints living near Salt Lake City.
Sam had spent eight months in southern India and had started inquiring about his birth mother when the coronavirus outbreak cut short his mission.
“I was really happy when I saw them,” Sam said later, about the Mosiers, “to talk and share my experience with them.”
Sam said he often lies awake at night, thinking about how different his life would be if he had never been adopted. Would he be an auto-rickshaw driver? A farmhand?
“I know what my circumstances could have turned out to be, what happens in orphanages when children grow older. People don’t want them,” he said. He was struck by the Mosier’s deep love for Selvi. “They will give her a life no others can,” he said.
Meeting the young missionary eased the Mosiers’ biggest worry: that Selvi might feel she never truly belonged with Seth and Meg, because they were a different race.
“Here was this kid, born in India, adopted by Mormon parents, who grew up in the U.S. and came back to see what happened to him, where his story began, 16 years before,” Seth said. “It made us feel like everything would be all right.”
Eventually everyone piled into buses to head to the airport. Sam grabbed his bag and looked up at the Mosiers. “Goodbye kid,” he said to Selvi. “You’re going to have a great life.”
The Mosiers are now back in Bethesda, Md., where the governor has ordered an extended lockdown. They haven’t introduced Selvi to friends or family yet because of the lockdown, which they said was a blessing that allowed them to bond with their new daughter. Meals have been difficult. Selvi does not like American food and so Seth has been researching Indian curry recipes online.
“I’ve spent a lot of time perfecting a potato masala,” Seth said.
And the crayons? Selvi now leaves them lying around the house. “She knows,” Meg said, “what’s ours is hers.”
Maria Abi-Habib is a South Asia correspondent for The New York Times.