YAKIMA, Wash. — The two women embraced tightly, not even bothering to wipe away tears. They stood rooted to the ground inside the airport arrival gate, oblivious to the other passengers, allowing that first hug to erase the memory of 22 years apart.

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Not a sound escaped the two, except for occasional happy sobs. Marcelica kept pulling back to look at Esther’s face, or to smooth the younger woman’s hair, as if trying to convince herself that this really was the little girl she’d given up so long ago.

“I can’t even think right now, I’m so happy,” Esther said when the pair finally broke apart.

Marcelica Strimbei traveled 14 hours by plane last Sunday from Italy to meet Esther Schilperoort and her parents, Anne and Monte, for the first time since she had given her baby up for adoption in Romania in 1991.

Back then, after “20/20” aired a program detailing the horrendous conditions of Romanian orphanages, Anne and Monte felt called to that country to provide a home for a child in need.

That child turned out to be Esther.

“I can say that life has been very generous with me,” Marcelica, 42, said through a translator last Tuesday. “Anne was the answer to my desperate cry 22 years ago as a prayer to God.”

At that time, Romania’s system of orphanages was overrun with some 100,000 children, as government bans on contraception and abortion often left impoverished families with more children than they could care for. Government incentives decades prior also encouraged women to have large families. Hundreds of women died each year from botched abortion attempts, which were thought to result in widespread birth defects in surviving babies. In 1990, according to archived reports from The New York Times, an estimated 3,000 orphans were also HIV-positive.

The “20/20” program premiered after the country’s dictator fell from power, when outside observers were able to expose the alarming situation for the first time.

In 1991, when Anne Schilperoort was preparing to travel to Romania with a group of other hopeful adoptive parents, the U.S. began significantly limiting the number of Romanian children that Americans could adopt. The policy was that only proven orphans or abandoned children — those without a father on their birth certificate, or whose families produced a death certificate for the father — could be adopted into American families.

The Romanian government also started restricting adoptions by foreigners, claiming that Westerners were coming in to steal children. By then, about 1,500 Romanian orphans had been adopted and brought to the U.S.

Anne arrived in Romania in May 1991 determined to accept any child that was offered to her, but the circumstances in-country had already changed so drastically that after three weeks of waiting, she was almost ready to fly home empty-handed.

The glut of Americans trying to adopt orphans had spawned a black market in which scammers tried to sell children, or were hired to help find adoptable orphans, only to disappear with the money. And doors were slamming shut as government adoption policies tightened. Anne was losing hope.

Then, on June 6, Esther was born.

Since Marcelica had the baby out of wedlock, her traditional Orthodox Christian family was adamant that she not keep the child. They would have forced her to put the baby into an orphanage, where Esther, born prematurely, likely would not have survived.

“Someone got word out that it was a desperate situation. ... She was going to need to adopt, that was the only choice,” Anne remembers. “I said yes — I adopted the child before I ever saw her.”

Further legal complications delayed them, but the Schilperoorts ultimately brought Esther to their home in Harrah on Aug. 18 that year. The Yakima Herald-Republic covered the adoption at the time.

It was an emotional time for Marcelica, who has maintained regular contact with the family since the adoption. She hadn’t wanted to give up her daughter, and Anne has letters from those early years in which Marcelica describes the overwhelming despair and loss that she felt. After she gave Esther up, she wrote, her depression was so deep that she remembers nothing of that first month without her.

That’s what makes this reunion so special, the family says.

The trip to Yakima had been in the works for about a year. At first, Marcelica’s fiance was to come with her, and act as translator (Marcelica speaks Romanian and Italian, but little English), but that fell through. Several trips planned in earlier years had also failed to work out. Marcelica has lived in Italy for most of the 22 years since Esther was born, and currently works as a nurse in San Clemente on Italy’s northeastern coast.

“I never thought this would happen, as much as I wanted it to; I was very afraid that it wouldn’t,” Esther said Tuesday. “But here she is.”

When Esther was young, Anne regularly sent pictures and letters so Marcelica could see her growing up alongside the Schilperoorts’ two sons, Peter and Benjamin.

Since Esther’s teen years, when she had the most questions about the circumstances of her birth, she and Marcelica have been in close contact via email and Facebook, though there would sometimes be periods of no communication.

The family now lives in Yakima, and filled the first day of Marcelica’s visit with a picnic, a trip to Rimrock Lake, and visits to places that hold fond memories for Esther. She wants Marcelica to see where she was raised.

“It’s just been an amazing adventure so far,” Esther said. “All I wanted was to meet her, and now I feel very grateful and blessed that she’s finally here and I get to hug her and kiss her and talk with her.”

Marcelica even painted Esther’s nails Monday night.

Monte Schilperoort says he has to take a step back to watch his daughter interact with her birth mother.

“It’s amazing — at any spontaneous moment, (Marcelica) will reach over and hold Esther, as if she’s reliving all the past years she didn’t have to hold her as a baby,” he said.

“They seemed to kind of connect right away. ... For me, it’s just, it’s really a wonderful thing to see how they’re connecting and just enjoying each other’s presence, each other’s company.”

Though the language barrier makes communication difficult, both Esther’s parents say she seems to intuitively understand what Marcelica is thinking. When Marcelica is trying to say something to Anne or Monte, she looks to Esther, who can interpret based on expressions and shared emotion.

“I feel like she’s always been here; there wasn’t very much separation, now that she’s here,” Esther said. “I think there’s always been a connection between us; I would sometimes feel sad, and I would feel that she knew what I was feeling.”

Both Esther and Marcelica are in touch with their emotions, Anne says, and very expressive in their own languages.

Marcelica said in Italian that it’s a little strange to meet her grown daughter now, after last seeing her as a baby. Esther even has a child of her own, 11-month-old Emery Silva, who lives with her and her boyfriend in Clarkston, where Esther is a stay-at-home mom.

At the same time, Marcelica said, “I’m happy to see that the choice to let her go was the best one for her. She definitely grew up in a better world and a wonderful family. I love this family!”

For her part, Anne says that Marcelica’s presence may have been threatening to her in earlier years, particularly when her relationship with Esther was rocky. But now, she says, she understands that Marcelica needs this time.

It doesn’t even bother her when Esther calls Marcelica “Mama.”

“I’ve been Mom for 22 years, and it’s OK,” she said. “This woman is trying to get back some of what she lost.”

• Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or mrosbach@yakimaherald.com.