Claire Upshall always knew she wanted a large family. When she was at school in Dorset, her vision of her future included children – armfuls of them.
But there was no white wedding and handsome groom in her schoolgirl dream. ‘All the other girls talked about wedding dresses and what their husband would be like, but I was planning my kids’ names and how to decorate a nursery,’ Claire says.
‘And I think I always knew I’d adopt – I always felt there were already so many children in the world who needed a family.’
Claire was just 19, barely more than a child herself, when she headed to Tanzania to work – unpaid, save for bed and board – in an orphanage, where she started making the family of her dreams, effectively scooping up the neediest little souls.
First there was Alfie, then 13 months old, a little boy she coaxed to smile, and went on to foster and adopt. He was followed by another child, then another, then another.
Now, at the age of 28 – that point at which most Western women are just thinking about whether it might be time to have their first – Claire is still resolutely single but officially a mother of four.
Alfie is now ten. His siblings, Layla and Isabella, are eight, and little Jack is five. Although they have no blood ties, the emotional bonds are as strong as they get. ‘They are typical siblings,’ Claire laughs at their spacious, if slightly chaotic, family home just outside Arusha, in north-eastern Tanzania, from where you can get a spectacular view of Mount Meru, the fourth highest mountain in Africa.
‘They are incredibly close – best friends one minute, but bickering the next.’
Hats off to this extraordinary young woman, single-handedly raising four young children in an environment so very different from the one in which she grew up. She now speaks fluent Swahili, because she was determined to converse with her children in their native tongue.
Claire’s own mother couldn’t be more proud of how her daughter has chosen to do things – although she has baulked at some of the challenges she has faced.
Take the first time Helen, now 63, flew over to visit in 2012 – just a day or so after grandchild number three, Bella, arrived.
When Claire was sent from the orphanage to pick up Bella at a neighbouring village, the word was that this abandoned little bundle of skin and bones, weighing just 10lb, was a few months old. In fact, she turned out to be two years old.
Helen remembers Claire patiently tending to the little girl’s tiny fingernails and toenails, but not in the usual way.
‘I remember sitting watching Claire picking maggots virtually out of every pore. It brought home the conditions these children had been brought up in.’
There are other colourful memories, such as that time she put bread in the toaster and ‘all the creepy-crawlies came out’. And Nanny – as Helen is known by the children – hasn’t quite recovered from the fact Claire was perfectly happy sharing the kitchen with a lizard.
‘It was on the wall,’ she complains. ‘I had a problem with that. But nothing fazes Claire.’
Those exotic anecdotes may be numbered, though. Although it was never Claire’s plan to return to the UK with her children, changing circumstances have forced a rethink, and she is trying to get home – new family in tow.
Her own mother could not be happier, and the Skype conversations are all about the move. Alfie is desperate to see snow. And they all want to visit Buckingham Palace, and see a red London bus in real life instead of in the books Nanny sends.
There is a problem, though. While love is clearly in abundance in this family, money is not. The political climate in Tanzania (meaning Westerners aren’t finding it as easy to get work) means Claire isn’t working – and is finding it difficult to support her family.
While her parents have always helped her out, they aren’t in a position to do so now. Helen works in the catering industry and lives modestly in a one-bedroom home. Claire’s dad, Derek, from whom Helen was amicably divorced, died earlier this year.
So how can Claire fund the expensive return to the UK? Well, she has turned to that very modern charitable source – crowdfunding, appealing to friends, family and strangers to donate. She needs to raise £34,000 to get herself and the four children back to the UK, the bulk of the money needed for flights and lawyers to assist with the visa applications.
Yet as much as her own family supports her, not everyone does. News reports about her appeal this week were met with a decidedly mixed reaction.
While some applauded Claire’s ‘mission’, others have questioned the idea that she should be financially bailed out when the decision to take on the four children was hers alone.
One particularly brutal online commentator called her a potential ‘Madonna on benefits’. And what will happen, some asked, if the family still struggle after they arrive in the UK? Will the taxpayer have to foot the bill?
‘The whole point is to get them over here so Claire can work,’ Helen says. ‘She has no intention of being on benefits.
‘And if I can say one thing about her is that she is a hard worker. She has never been work-shy – quite the opposite, in fact. She came home when her dad was ill, to be with him when he died, and even in those few weeks she got a job here.’
Claire herself is appalled at the suggestion she is trying to milk the system. ‘There is no way I want to be on benefits. It’s not who I am. My parents instilled the idea of hard work in me, and I want to do the same with my children. It’s exactly why I want to come home so they can see me work.’
It’s a dilemma Madonna and Angelina Jolie and those high-profile advocates of foreign adoption simply do not face. Deep pockets can smooth all manner of problems.
Claire will have to rely on family to help with childcare while she works and her plight does raise genuine questions about whether the heart should rule the head even in these emotive matters.
Should we applaud Claire’s selflessness in putting these children above all else, or question her naivety in thinking she could do it alone?
The family’s answer, of course, is that she is not alone. They are clearly close, and have been through a good deal together. The Claire they waved off to Tanzania at 19 certainly hadn’t had a sheltered life.
Claire’s elder brother, Adam, was killed in an accident when he was 12, when a rope became tangled round his neck while he was playing. Understandably, Helen and Derek were highly protective of Claire. ‘But you can’t wrap them in cotton wool,’ she argues. ‘And we tried so hard to bring Claire up to be as independent as possible.
‘We were worried when she wanted to go to Tanzania, but we knew how she felt about wanting to work with children,’ Helen says. ‘We heard all about Alfie, who seemed special to her. But I had no idea she was talking about my future grandson!’.
Claire has cared for more than 200 children since she arrived in Tanzania in 2009, but Alfie touched her heart most. An orphan, Alfie, then 13 months old, was perhaps not in as pitiful a state physically as some of the other children (‘we couldn’t save some of the babies who were so malnourished when they came in’) but his behaviour upset her.
‘He was very withdrawn and bewildered. Toddlers in the orphanage were always more aware than the little babies, and Alfie just wouldn’t smile. I was drawn to him. You try not to favour one child, but because I was trying so hard to get through to him, it was hard. I got to the stage where I coaxed a smile out of him, and a bond developed. He’d look for me if I left the room.’
That first stint in Tanzania was a short one and Claire returned to the UK to work as a nanny.
She felt compelled to go back, however, but when she did she discovered Alfie had been moved to a different orphanage 15km away. She went to visit him. ‘I’m sure he recognised me even at the start,’ she says. ‘But by the end of that visit he was in tears. They had to prise him off me.’
Distraught, she wondered if she could somehow sponsor Alfie. But her inquiries led to her asking if she could foster the little boy, and in 2011 she became his sole carer. ‘I still wasn’t thinking adoption,’ she says. ‘At the start, that never occurred to me. And he wasn’t the only one I fostered. I’d often have the sickest babies overnight, or for longer periods. But Alfie stayed.’
Five months after Alfie moved in, baby Layla followed. Then came Bella, then Jack. ‘It was a natural progression,’ Claire says.
‘It felt right. I’ve always felt that however good an orphanage is, children thrive best in a home situation.’ It was 2016 before the legal process to adopt all four children was completed, but Claire says they felt like ‘hers’ practically from the moment they arrived.
Did she ever sit her parents down and tell them about her adoption plans? ‘No,’ she says. ‘But it wasn’t like it was one big decision. It was a series of little ones. And they were always right behind me. They came out and met the children. My dad doted on them. He couldn’t have helped more, and he was really proud of what I was doing.’
The plan was never to return to the UK, though. ‘I thought our lives would always be in Tanzania,’ Claire says.
Outwardly, they must seem well off compared to the locals. Like many in the expat community, they have a security guard patrolling their home (‘It’s essential,’ says Claire), and a woman who is employed as a cleaner, cook and babysitter. Whenever Claire was working at the orphanage or, latterly, when she has returned to the UK for visits, this lady has looked after the children.
But the lifestyle is no longer tenable. The children have been educated at an international school – so they would be fluent in English – and the fees were not affordable some time ago, ‘but luckily when I explained this the school agreed to let the children stay on anyway’.
Hence the idea of moving back. Losing her father has just reinforced the idea that Claire needs to be at home.
‘It was such a shock,’ she said. ‘Dad was the fittest person I know. He was never ill. But he collapsed one day, and he was dead seven weeks later. I made it home to see him before he died, but it has been devastating. It’s made me realise I want the children to grow up with their extended family. The expat community is a transient one. At home, we will have support.’
But the costs involved are eye-watering. And there are other problems, too. It’s by no means a given that the British authorities will extend the sort of warm welcome the family want, and the state of Claire’s bank account will be a major deciding factor.
‘To satisfy the immigration authorities, you have to have a certain amount in your bank account, around £5,000, and prove that you can support your children, so we are working towards that,’ says Claire.
Her online critics will say she clearly can’t support the children, if she is having to crowdfund. Her reply? ‘But longer term, I will be able to. And the big thing is that we have somewhere to live. We are not asking for State assistance.’
Claire’s aunt and uncle have offered her and her children a home in the UK. It will be a squeeze, admits Sally Clifford-Smith, 53, who shares her four-bedroom home with her husband and daughter, 22. ‘But we are so looking forward to getting them all home,’ she adds. ‘We aren’t in a position to hand over thousands of pounds, but we can do this.’
For Helen, though, the day that she can throw her arms around her grandchildren on British soil can’t come quickly enough.
‘I cannot wait,’ she says. ‘I love these children to bits, and we just want them all home.’
To help Claire, donate at youcaring.com/theupshall children-836976
Source: Daily Mail
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