Hi, my name is Zhanar Serikovna Tleush and I’m 23 years old. I was born in Kazakhstan where I was an orphan for six years. After being born I was given to my grandmother who was so poor and lived on the streets. Her and I were homeless for a little while until an officer separated us and I was put into an orphanage that I called home for the next six years. One day my dream of having a family came true as a man and woman approached me with open arms. Granted, I had no idea what they were saying because my native language is Russian and they spoke English, but I didn’t care because through any language barrier it didn’t take a lot to figure out that those were going to be my parents. They had to stay with me for about three months because before an international adoption you have to make sure that it’s a good fit and everything is set up and ready for you to go to America.
I remember the morning they said we could leave and I got on my first plane and flew all the way to Austin, TX. It was such a huge change for me and adapting was very difficult. With my new family I had a brother and a sister. My dad was an eye surgeon and my mother was his assistant and she also taught piano on the side. All I remember seeing when I got out of the car was a very, very big house because my family made a lot of money. I remember when I got adopted they took me to court and they changed my name, so my name got changed to Shelby and I got their last name attached to mine. My entire birth name was stripped from me.
I also remember learning English and adapting to American school systems and with doing that I lost how to speak my native language and just mostly everything about my culture. I worked really hard in school and I did extra workbooks at home and I progress through kindergarten and first grade within one year. I tried to catch up to my peers and in that time I just became very, very smart and advance in the school system. I will always always be very blessed and very grateful that God chose this family for me and got me out of the country that I was in, but at a point I did realize that what was once my greatest dream became one of my darkest nightmares.
Being an orphan I definitely felt as if I was an outcast and I did get treated differently than my siblings. With that being said, by treated differently, I mean I got beat every day. My parents were very, very strict and I was a little bit different because I did spend six years of my life in a big building with 300+ kids where I did not get attention or get the love and compassion of a mother. As a kid and even to this day I just crave love, affection, and attention because I didn’t get that for the most important years of my youth and childhood. I was a very clingy and close kid, but my parents had viewed that differently and I just felt like a science experiment. If any of you have ever read the book “Lost Boy” or “A Child Called It” my life with them kind of matches that. I got several different types of punishments and beatings almost every single day. I slept outside for the majority of my nights. I was very malnourished. I became very, very small. I always had marks on me, so I had to make sure I was covered when I got to school. I was a very good student and I got straight A’s. I always did my homework and passed every test. I did extra workbooks at home, but no matter what I did I just was never good enough for them and I would still be expecting some kind of beating at some point throughout my night.
This lifestyle lasted for about three years and when I turned nine they had decided to tell me that they no longer wanted me anymore. We had to go through an adoption disruption and that they picked out a new family for me that would take me in and this family lived in Iowa. Because I was only nine years old I didn’t realize what was actually going on and I was very lost. The day that I had to leave with my social worker on that plane and came to the realization that I was never going to see them again completely broke me. I finally arrived in Iowa where I met my new mom and my grandparents and it was around the time of Thanksgiving, so my entire new family was there. I had a very hard time adapting to this new family and becoming close and letting them in and just loving them because I was so traumatized for the past three years with what had just happened to me by my first family. Which was the only family I had ever known up until this time. I lived with this family in Iowa for about 10 years and I learned a lot from them. I grew up with them and they helped mold me into the person that I am today, but unfortunately when I turned 18 everything changed. With this new family I did have to endure a lot of counseling just because I was a very closed off kid. I didn’t speak about my feelings. I was not affectionate and I really struggled on the term of love and just what it meant. As a result, the foundation between me and my new family was always very rocky and it never actually got built. Therefore, when this fall out happened when I turned 18 there’s really nothing to fall back on because that foundation was never sturdy from the start.
Once again, I will always be very blessed that this new family took me in and gave me the love did. The experiences that I had and the way they loved me and just stood by my side when I was difficult was a blessing. When I was 18 and graduated high school I fulfilled my goal from early childhood years of getting a scholarship and playing softball in college. I played my first year at William Penn University, which is a small school in Oskaloosa, Iowa. I made the decision of finding romance and it just so happened to be with a man of color. When I brought the information to my parents they were very against it and it made me choose between him or them. After I went back to school to finish my second semester my mom made the ultimatum and decided for themselves that I was no longer going to be part of the family.
It’s been five years now that I have not spoken or seen my family. Within that five years I found my first love, which also turned into my first heartache. Because of this, I developed an eating disorder. I went from 190 pounds to 90 pounds in a matter of two months and I was hospitalized for about a year because of it. Also, during this time I was very suicidal. I had many attempts and did not want to find the will to live anymore. I kept this eating disorder up for a very long time until I almost just truly killed myself from doing so. After I got myself out of the hospital and into counseling, towards the right path, I decided to set up a meeting with my parents and see if I can maybe talk to them about everything that had happened. I wanted to see if we could find a common ground or silver lining for the situation. After talking to my mom for a few minutes she had already set up her mind that she just no longer wanted life with me. I still kept trying for months and months and months and even three years later, still nothing. No matter what happened between us I will always love her. I will always love my family. I am very grateful that they adopted me and got me out of the situation I was in and that they loved me the way they did.
After I got myself back on my feet and found a job I was living with my best friend back in my hometown. I’m very blessed that her family took me in during this hard time, but I knew that I needed to find myself and get my life back on track. I moved out to Illinois where I have been for the past two years now. Within these two years I have found a stronger relationship with God, a stronger relationship with the people in my circle, I found out who I truly am —and about a year ago finally came out of the closet and expressed my sexuality to the world. I know life may not be perfect right now, but I am sure proud of how far I have come with everything that I have endured and I am excited to see all the things I’m going to achieve and all the lives I’m going to change and help within my time on this earth.
There may be details here and there that I’m leaving out just because my story is very long. I do hope sometime down my timeline I will write a book. One of my dreams is actually to be a motivational speaker because I feel that the best way to help people is by sharing. Then they will know that they are not alone. That they can speak and if they are too scared to speak or too shy there will be some kind of voice for them. I’m the kind of advocate that can do it for them and that’s the kind of person that I want to be so that I can honestly just spread my light that God has given me with everyone. Each and every day that I wake up I’m just very blessed that God chose me to see another day and because of that the only thing I can do in return is make him proud and share my gifts with the world. It may not be a lot right now, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Progress is progress no matter the size and I hope one day to be a part of something big and just change this world.