COLLINGWOOD - It’s been a long and winding road, but the Saigar family is finally complete.
Zain Saigar, a Collingwood dentist and his wife Zahra just returned from India. The couple went on the journey with their oldest daughter Zareen, 5, to finally meet their adopted daughter Zaahira, 16 months, after a seven-year process through government red tape in both Canada and India, and a roller coaster of emotions.
Zain and Zahra met more than eight years ago, and the family they saw for their future was an early topic of conversation for the couple.
“We actually talked about it back when we were dating,” said Zahra. “It was one of our big conversations before we were even engaged. It was something that was on my mind, and also something that was on his. So that was a pretty big win in my eyes, to find a partner that was on the same page.”
Both Zain and Zahra said they’d travelled internationally before meeting each other, and in many of the countries they’d been, they would see children without homes.
“For me, it’s a bit of supply and demand. I know that sounds cold, but I come from a business background,” said Zahra, with a laugh. “We wanted to build a family, and there are kids who don’t have a family. It just didn’t make sense to go any other way.”
“I think there’s a need,” said Zain. “Whenever I went abroad to travel, your heart just breaks when you see these kids and they’re taught that you have to panhandle and beg for money because that’s how they survive.”
“I’d love to change the system there, but ‘there’ is everywhere. The reality is, it’s institutional. There was a part of me that thought, maybe we can change one life,” he added.
Zain and Zahra agreed the best course of action for them was to try for one biological child and one adopted child.
“We actually started the process for both children at the same time, and thought, whatever happens first is fine,” said Zahra.
Zahra said the 18-month gap required between having a biological child and adopting a child in Canada forced them to put the adoption process on hold when they found out they were having Zareen, but the couple picked it right back up again once the 18 months was over.
To start the process, Zain and Zahra went through a home study. In Canada, couples have to find a social worker that will work with them. In Zain and Zahra’s case, there were none in Collingwood. The closest one they could find came from south of Barrie.
“It’s was hard because we had to find one that would be willing to come to Collingwood,” said Zahra.
The social worker came to visit the couple for multiple interviews before putting her report together and submitting it to the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services.
“We were collecting documents the whole time this was happening: police checks, fingerprinting, a letter from the bank, psychological assessments, a letter from the doctor and medical letters,” said Zahra. “We also had to have six references.”
“The psychological assessment was really interesting, because that never used to be a requirement. But, there was an incident in the U.S. where an adopted father killed a child. It was a very sad story. After that happened, basically everyone had to do a psychological assessment from that point on,” said Zain. “At the end of the day, we were OK with doing whatever needed to be done to make this work.”
The couple also had to attend PRIDE training, which is a special training provided by the province for parents looking to adopt or foster.
“I thought it was really great,” said Zain. “They talk about the struggles you may face and how to deal with it. The woman who taught it had also adopted children, so you get a good view of the process from someone who’s been there.”
While the social worker was writing her report, Zain and Zahra started work on choosing their adoption agency.
“We decided to go internationally,” said Zahra. “When you’re going international, you have to pick a country first, then you have to find the agency that’s certified by that country.”
“At that time, there were a lot of countries that were not open to adoption, so it was limited,” said Zain.
“Choosing a country was not easy. You think it’s a whole world, but at one point we sat down with a map. First, the country you choose has to be part of the Hague Convention,” said Zahra.
The Hague Convention, put in place in 1993, protects children and their families against the risks of illegal, irregular, premature or ill-prepared adoptions abroad.
“It’s meant to prevent human trafficking,” said Zahra.
As Zain and Zahra are both originally from Kenya, they considered adopting a child from there, but Kenya requires a couple to live in the country for nine months with the child which wasn’t possible for them. Other countries had different stipulations for adoption such as parents having to be descended from the area, which omitted them from the running as well.
For Zain and Zahra, they had three criteria for choosing which child to adopt: they wanted a healthy child under a year old, and a girl.
“That was because, internationally, in many countries, girls don’t get the same educational opportunities that boys do,” said Zain. “When you start adding filters, your timeline increases.”
In the fall of 2016, the couple finally got the call that the province had approved their application to be allowed to adopt. The province then submitted their package to the adoption agency the couple had chosen in India.
Then began the waiting.
“At that point, we were in line,” said Zahra. “We had to wait because we were in the highest-demand category: the youngest and healthy.”
“During the wait, I still felt like I had two kids. My other child was just out there somewhere, I just didn’t know where,” she said.
There were some moments of frustration along the way, especially when it came to finding out the status of their application when the family hadn’t heard any news in months.
“I remember this one moment... Zahra was just at her limit so I called (the adoption agency). I didn’t think there was any reason we couldn’t just ask, and they could respond. We live in a technological world,” said Zain. “They told me, it doesn’t work that way. That was probably the most frustrated we got. But we just had to be patient.”
“I’m sure there are a lot of other people out there going through the same process,” he added.
As many of the documents Zain and Zahra submitted had two-year expiry dates, they found themselves in a situation where their documents were about the lapse at the same time their match was supposed to come through.
“We scrambled and got everything done again,” said Zahra, with a laugh.
On Oct. 8, 2018, Zain and Zahra received word they had been matched with a baby.
The couple received a profile, a small picture, and a small amount of information on baby Zaahira.
“We got the call together which was really nice. I cried. I was bawling,” said Zahra.
“It was literally years in the making,” said Zain.
“There was already space in my heart for this child. In my heart, I had a child, I just didn’t know who it was,” said Zahra. “When I saw that picture, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s who you are.’”
After scanning and sending off their signed documents to India to get the final processes underway the couple hit a snag. It took 10 weeks for the couple to receive their adoption package back from the children’s home in India.
“You have to be really patient,” said Zain, with a laugh.
“To me, it was frustrating. It’s inefficient and unnecessary,” said Zahra. “It was during the Canada Post strike too, so that was part of it.”
On Jan. 15, 2019, the Ontario ministry blessed the match, with no objections.
At that point, the India court process began. Many times, adoptive parents have to attend court dates in the country from which they’re adopting, but not in Zain and Zahra’s case.
“We got lucky,” said Zahra. “But for the month of May, Mumbai courts take a summer holiday.”
“So, we had to wait,” laughs Zain.
On June 3, the couple heard they had passed the court hurdle, meaning Zaahira was legally theirs. At that point, the children’s care home had to apply for her birth certificate with Zain and Zahra’s names on it as her parents as well as her Indian passport. That part of the process took six more weeks.
“The lack of transparency in this process was real,” said Zahra.
“It’s harder once you’re matched,” said Zain. “We went on online blogs and saw people saying that once they’d been matched it only took a week or two weeks. But then weeks went by.”
“Every case is different, and you have to be OK with that,” he added.
Between October and July, Zain and Zahra only received one five-second video of Zaahira with her height and weight.
“We were totally in the dark,” said Zahra. “We really didn’t know what to expect when we got there.”
In the middle of July, the family of three – which was soon to become four – packed their bags and flew to India to finally meet their new addition to bring her home.
“On the first day, she was very scared of me because no men were allowed in the children’s home,” said Zain. “I had to shave my beard.”
“I’d been asking for it for years!” said Zahra, with a laugh.
“It made a difference! I did whatever it took,” laughs Zain.
As Zaahira had to be a Canadian citizen before she could come to Canada, the family had to stay in India for as long as that process took, which could be anywhere from two to nine months. Zain had planned to stay with the family in India for two and a half weeks, but then would have to leave to return to work while Zahra stayed to see the process through.
When Zain went to the High Commission of Canada in India, he pleaded his case.
“I said, ‘You have to help us out.’ I told them it wasn’t feasible to stay for months in India. They asked me to give them a bit of time,” said Zain.
Within one day, the Saigar family got their answer that their application had been rushed and Zaahira was a Canadian citizen.
“We were on a high!” said Zain. “Zahra had packed a whole bunch of Collingwood maple syrup. I tried to give it to them and said ‘Thank you so much!’”
“They told me they couldn’t accept the gift, but they had a charity where they had an auction so we gave it to the charity to auction off,” he added.
“Collingwood maple syrup is in an auction in New Delhi somewhere,” said Zahra with a laugh.
“I was just so grateful for what they did,” said Zain.
The family of four hit Collingwood soil on Aug. 2.
Overall, the Saigars said the process cost about $20,000, plus the cost of their flights and accommodation in India. Although there were times the couple said they felt overwhelmed or frustrated, they were always on the same page about one aspect.
“It was never about the adoption. Never was there a moment of, ‘Should we do this?’” said Zahra. “The lack of transparency and the efficiency of the process was what just grated my nerves.”
“This was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. But, I don’t think there’s ever been anything that I’ve wanted more,” she said.
The Saigars said Zaahira has transitioned well to her new life in Canada over the past two weeks since her arrival.
“It’s been like night and day,” said Zahra. “When we first got her, she was scared.”
“I was really nervous about that part,” said Zain. “We have friends who have kids who are a year and a half old, and sometimes when you say hi they run to their parents. I was thinking, is she going to be OK?”
The couple said having Zareen helped bridge the gap, they think, because kids trust each other.
“Now, she runs all over the house, she climbs stairs. She’s getting more courageous. We couldn’t get her to wear shoes before, because she didn’t have shoes. Now she wears shoes,” said Zahra, with a laugh.
Looking forward, the Saigars don’t plan to shy away from telling the story of how Zaahira became a part of their family. Although Zain and Zahra said they consider themselves relatively private people, they felt it was important to share their story in the event someone else considering the same path might be able to glean something from it.
“Zareen teaches me lessons all the time. As adults, we have biases. They haven’t developed theirs yet,” said Zahra. “Even now, to Zareen, adoption is a perfectly normal means of getting a child or a sibling. To her, it’s normal. This is Zaahira’s story, and we’re going to share all of it.”