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Baby, stranded in Ukraine, to join Belgian parents

Baby Samuel's room has been waiting for him for more than two years. The crib stands empty in the corner. Above it hangs a mobile in the shape of a friendly dragon. On the dresser a toy bus stands idle.

Samuel Ghilain, born 2 years and 3 months ago to a surrogate mother in Ukraine, has so far been unable to leave that country. Because of legal hurdles, he has not been able to join his parents — a married pair of Belgian men who now live in this town in the south of France, where they moved to give their baby a quiet childhood.

Instead, he's in a Ukrainian orphanage.

The long and painful separation now seems about to come to an end. After more than two years of denying Samuel a passport, the Belgian Foreign Ministry issued him one Monday. He should arrive in Brussels within days.

The ministry's decision came after a Belgian court finally issued a ruling in the couple's favor last week, saying bureaucrats had committed numerous errors.

Belgium is largely silent on surrogate motherhood and any rights a child born that way might have, leaving the way open to different interpretations. His parents' sexuality poses no direct legal bar to bringing Samuel to Belgium. But his parents — Laurent Ghilain, a 27-year-old fitness trainer, and Peter Meurrens, a 37-year-old cardiologist — say that some bureaucrats in both countries were anti-gay.

They say the Belgian official who worked hardest to prevent the baby from being allowed into the country implied in court that, because they were gay, they could not be good parents.

While victory appears to be at hand, Ghilain and Meurrens have been told so many times their problems were nearly solved that it frightens them to have hope.

"For the last two years, almost every month there was somebody telling us ... it will take only one week and then he will be with you," Meurrens said.

But he added, "finally, I am starting to believe I will see him in a few days."

Ghilain said it has been a difficult journey.

"We were constantly making giant steps forward, and each time, within a minute, there were three steps backward to make us come back to earth," Ghilain said. "So it really was an emotional yo-yo."

Ghilain and Meurrens met in the hospital in Brussels where they both worked, and fell in love.

Both wanted children and, failing to find a suitable surrogate mother in Belgium, they dealt with an agency in Ukraine they thought was reliable. They went there in November 2007 to choose the eggs, based on information about the donors. Meurrens joked that his main criterion was that he wanted a child that looked like him as well as Ghilain, who is the biological father.

The pair consulted Belgian authorities, who told them there would normally not be a problem. So on March 10, 2008, two embryos were implanted in the surrogate mother.

Then the couple prepared for a family. On Sept. 13, 2008, in Brussels City Hall, they got married.

Seeking a quieter life for their child-to-be, they moved to Lodeve. It is a quiet town surrounded by hills and vineyards, full of ancient stone houses where laundry flaps from the balconies — a town where old men sit on benches, talking about life, and the gentle whooshing of a small river is ever-present.

They say it was a good choice. "People accepted us immediately," Meurrens said.

But then the problems began — not there, but in Ukraine, first with the surrogate mother.

"You agree on how much you contribute to the surrogacy mother to improve a bit her life, like a bigger apartment, clothing when she is bigger," Meurrens said. But then, he said, she wanted money for the dentist, for a new cell phone, and other things.

"And it was always like, if you don't pay, we can always abort," he said. "Even up to six months pregnancy they were threatening us to abort the child. So actually they keep your child in hostage."

But Samuel was born Nov. 28, 2008. The following day, the two men held the newborn in their arms. And suddenly, it was real. "Up until we saw our son, we didn't believe it," Meurrens said.

But getting a passport proved all but impossible. At first, Meurrens lied to the embassy in Kiev, saying he'd had an affair with a local girl who wanted nothing to do with the baby. But they checked the records and discovered Meurrens was married to a man, and the story crumbled.

Other issues arose — none of them seemingly insurmountable, yet the goal was never reached. There were always more forms to fill out, or a stamp was missing on a document, or the translation was imperfect, and so on.

Meanwhile, the couple placed Samuel with a foster family, at a cost of euro1,000 ($1,365) a month. But eventually, they went broke. Desperate, in March 2010, they tried to smuggle the boy out of the country to Poland, crossing the border themselves, then waiting for a woman to drive their baby across. The attempt failed. And that was the last time Meurrens and Ghilain saw their son. It cost them euro10,000 euros to get the charges dropped against the woman who tried to help them. And they cannot return to Ukraine for fear of being jailed.

That failure, both men said, was their hardest moment.

Since then, Samuel has been in an orphanage. The orphanage needed the same documents they would need for an adoption — proof of financial means and psychological fitness. Ghilain did a DNA test to prove paternity and prevent the orphanage from letting someone else adopt Samuel.

Meanwhile, in Lodeve, the newborn clothes have been discarded, replaced by larger ones, and then larger ones still. Meurrens, who studied Russian, the language of the foster family, is now trying to learn Ukrainian, the language of the orphanage. Their son speaks not a word of French.

Ghilain said he and his husband tried to investigate everything before they began the process.

"We didn't get into this blindly at all," he said. "All the questions, the issues we faced during those two years, we'd asked about them from the very beginning."

The organization in Ukraine told them many couples had done the same thing without problems.

"This, we understood afterwards, was not at all true," Ghilain said.

Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere said in a statement last week that a "gap in the law" made it problematic for the country to recognize the use by Belgians of surrogate mothers in other countries. He asked for new regulations on surrogate mothers to explicitly prevent all forms of "commercial exploitation."

The 200-year-old stone house Ghilain and Meurrens have in Lodeve, its wooden shutters light blue against the brown of the walls, is ready. A fire warms the hearth, the crib still waits, and pictures of Samuel adorn the walls.

"We want to be normal parents and to give him a normal life," Ghilain said.

It is a house full of life, inhabited by two small parrots, five cats and an enthusiastic English Cocker Spaniel. In one outdoor aviary live 20 tiny exotic birds; 10 more birds live in a separate one. A lot of pets.

"That's what happens," Meurrens said, only half joking, "when you don't have children."