Their parents had abandoned them, but the three small children clung together, a family without grown-ups. Roman took care of his younger brother and sister, begging for food and stealing potatoes from a field in Rudnoye, their Russian village.
Sometimes, he scavenged for pieces of tin he could sell for rubles, so he and Sergey and Anastasia could eat. A neighbor who owned a store often gave them milk. There was never enough heat in their dilapidated apartment.
The children went to school sporadically when Anastasia, the baby, was old enough. Then Roman got sick. One day in 2005, strangers arrived and took him and his siblings to a hospital.
After a week, maybe two, other adults came and packed the children into a van. Roman, still woozy, fell asleep. He woke up to see Sergey and Anastasia leaving for an unfamiliar building. The driver took Roman to a place for people who were sick.
"That's how we got separated," he would say later, incredulous. "They just dropped us off in separate places."
He was 8 and all alone.
Roman lives in Watertown today, 6,000 miles from his hometown in the Russian far east. He was so small when he got to the United States five years ago that his height and weight — 4 feet, 4 inches and 57 pounds — placed him below zero percent on the international growth chart for children.
Roman — pronounced Ro-MAHN — has adjusted well to his new home. As a freshman at Watertown High School, he won a spot on the varsity soccer team, practicing beside boys from Haiti, Russia, Armenia, Brazil, and Guatemala. Some, like him, were orphans. He grew like bamboo, although he is still thin. At 17 and a junior, he is nearly 6 feet tall.
Roman has grown socially, too, collecting many friends. But he aches for the brother and sister who were his only family for so long. He believes they live with adoptive parents on Long Island in New York.
"I know they are in his heart," says Natalya Safro, a Russian friend in Norwood.
Now Roman is turning to the vast reach of the Internet, trying, like thousands of other adoptees searching for their birth family, to find his siblings. His adoptive father helped him create a website, Search for Sergey, and Roman posted a letter he recently wrote to his brother. He hopes someone who sees it recognizes Sergey, who would be about 15, or Anastasia, who would be about 13.
"If anybody in your family reads this letter, I hope they will know that I love you and our little sister and will help you in every way I can," Roman wrote. "I hope they help us to see each other again."
Research and experience show that children who grow up without their birth parents fare better when they stay in touch with their biological siblings, said Adam Pertman, president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency based in California and Massachusetts. Child specialists agree that, when possible, most siblings should be adopted together. No one tracks how many siblings are separated by international adoptions.
But at an increasing number of voluntary adoption registries, open to adoptees older than 18, more biological siblings are searching for each other than adoptees searching for their birth parents, Pertman said. Parents cannot stop their children from searching, so they should offer them guidance, he and other adoption specialists say.
"They want to know," he said. "This is changing the world of adoption in profound and historical ways."
After the day Roman was separated from Sergey and Anastasia, he was sent to a sanitarium, where he grew healthier and stronger. Doctors believed he had tuberculosis. Eventually, Boston doctors would determine he had rheumatic fever, which can develop from untreated strep.
He was taken to a
detsky dom, or "children's home," the Russian phrase for orphanage, on the outskirts of Birobidzhan. The town lies about 8,000 miles east of Moscow, near the border with China. Roman was excited to discover that Sergey and Anastasia were nearby in Home
Roman was not initially considered an adoption candidate because of his health and his age. Many other older children, and those with serious disabilities, filled the run-down orphanage called the Waldheim home. It had been built in the 1920s as the region's first kibbutz. Whenever Roman could, he took the bus to visit Sergey and Anastasia. On holidays, Home No. 1 organized family games that he played with his brother and sister.
One day in 2006, when Roman was 9, he called their orphanage. Sergey and Anastasia no longer lived there because they had been adopted, he was told. He never had a chance to say goodbye. Sergey was 7. Anastasia was 5.
Two years later, Roman was informed he was going to the United States for a month. He was excited for the chance. At the orphanage, trouble could come at any time.
Paul Davis, a divorced man from Cambridge who is the CEO of a successful software and data warehouse firm, sponsored Roman's trip. Davis, who is 59, had wanted children of his own. But he didn't know that a single man could adopt.
Then Russian children began appearing in his life.
A good friend died and had left Davis, unexpectedly, caretaker of his two older children, who were Russian. A few of Davis's female cousins and friends, single women, adopted children from Russia.
Davis discovered that there was an area of Russia — the Jewish Autonomous Region, created as a "homeland" for Soviet Jews — that allowed single men to adopt children.
Roman arrived in Cambridge for a visit in the summer of 2008, and he and Davis spent a wonderful month together, playing basketball and soccer. Davis spoke no Russian and Roman spoke no English but Davis's relatives and friends translated. Roman returned to the orphanage, a basketball star among his peers.
Convinced he wanted to be a father, Davis moved forward with the adoption. He didn't want to move Roman far away from his siblings. Cradle of Hope Adoption Center told him, he said, that Sergey and Anastasia had been adopted by a family on Long Island, an adoption the agency had also arranged. Russian law required that family members be given a chance to adopt Roman before the adoption by Davis could be approved. The family declined.
In January 2009, the paperwork became final. Roman, almost 12, told the judge that he wanted to go America so he could find Sergey and Anastasia.
When Roman returned to Cambridge with Davis, the new father covered their house in sticky notes translating the names for table, chair, floor in three words: Cyrillic Russian, phonetic Russian, and English.
"With adoption, they always have concerns about bonding," Davis says. "But I think it was instant with us."
"Yeah," Roman says.
"It was meant to be," Davis says. He speaks lightly but his eyes become wet.
He hired tutors for Roman, who had struggled in school. After a year in Cambridge, Roman and Davis moved to a house Davis owned in Watertown, where he had a network of translators. The other adopted Russian children became informal family.
Roman has green-blue eyes, matching those in Davis's biological family. He and his father bond over sports. Twice, Roman helped the high school soccer team win the sectionals, the first time in decades.
Roman still understands Russian well but he speaks English more easily. When he talks about his early days in Rudnoye, he slips into teen jargon. "I was mad young," he says.
Every few months he visits one of his orphanage friends, Vanya, adopted by a family in New York. Davis, who is also a lawyer, contacted Cradle of Hope repeatedly, trying to schedule a visit with Roman's brother and sister. Davis said he was told the family wasn't interested.
Last year, he hired a lawyer to send a legal request. Linda Perilstein, executive director of Cradle of Hope, wrote in a letter that the family has had Davis's contact information since 2009 but did not reply to the latest request. Perilstein declined to discuss the case.
Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School and faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program, says that adoptive parents hold the same legal rights as biological parents to make decisions for their children.
"There is not much in the law that honors the right of siblings to contact each other just because they are blood siblings," said Bartholet, who is not involved in the Davis case.
But Davis argues that if there is a disagreement, a judge should decide what is in the children's best interests.
Roman grows so wistful when he is around young children that, Safro says, "my eyes get swollen." Roman told Sergey in his letter that he taught soccer to children over the summer.
"People say I have done a good job because I like little kids," he wrote. "Little kids always remind me of you and our sister."