Operation: Adoption in Ethiopia

My Journey to My Forever Family

Written By: Susan Reeder Orelli

ATT00002[3] copyIt was President’s Day 2006, and I was in a parking lot calling my husband to tell him I passed my first exam to become a licensed clinical social worker. He answered his phone, “I have better news. We have a referral for a sibling group.” He told me that our agency had called and we had a referral for sibling group. Ironically we had joked earlier in the day that the agency would call while I was unavailable.

I wrote down their names on a receipt in my car. My heart was pounding as I wrote “Meron and Esitfanos” and their ages of three and four. It had been a roller coaster of emotions years in the making.

In the early 2000’s, we had made a choice that adoption was a good option for us. Neither my husband nor I cared if our children looked like us, and due to some health issues, the road to conceiving might be longer than for others, and could end up taking up money and emotional energy (not that adoption doesn’t come with those challenges as well, but the chances of ending the process with a family is arguably higher.)

We originally settled on international adoption because, as a social worker, I felt it was further away from the population I served. We heard Panama was a country that was just starting international adoptions. We hired a private lawyer in another state. For the next two years, we went through every screening and test under the sun. We had medical evaluations, psychological evaluations, home visits, took parenting classes, financial reviews, and personal recommendations. It was exhausting, and the process slow at times. In December 2005, we hit the end of the road with Panama when a referral fell through.

At first we said we were going to wait a few months to restart, but then I said, “What about Ethiopia, one of the countries we had considered originally?” Angelina Jolie had just adopted Zahara, and we believed she and her assistants would have researched it well. We settled on Wide Horizon for Children in Boston, the same agency that Jolie used, but that was mostly a coincidence since it was one of the agencies we had originally considered. We could not have asked for a better placement agency.

A Medical Surprise

As we prepared to travel to Ethiopia to bring my kids home in April 2006, I was such a new parent. We bought all the things we needed and attempted to prepare for how our world was about to change. The week we were traveling to Ethiopia, we were on a preparatory conference call with the other parents in our travel group, and our agency social worker ended the call with, “Susan and Brian, we need to talk. Can we call you back privately after this call end?”

On Estifanos’ medical records we were given before accepting the referral, he was diagnosed with an enlarged spleen. Our pediatrician reviewed Meron’s and his file (for the record, yes, it’s a weird feeling sitting in a pediatrician’s office without actually having a child yet), but the pediatrician concluded based on the information she had that the enlarged spleen was likely just due to an infection and wasn’t anything to worry about.

It turns out it wasn’t his spleen at all but his liver. A medical evaluation, required by the U.S. embassy to get Estifanos’ visa, revealed he has situs inversus our agency told us when they called back. All his organs were reversed, making it easy to mistake his liver for his spleen.

I had never heard of this condition. (Brian claims there was an “ER” episode about it, but knowledge from Dr. Benton isn’t particularly useful in times like these.) Panic struck in about the potential seriousness of the condition.

A quick Google search revealed situs inversus occurs in 1 in 10,000 people. Estifanos is one of those people. It develops early in gestation for multiple reasons, some more serious than others but the fact that he had gotten to the age of three without being diagnosed was a good sign it didn’t fall in the “most serious” class. The agency revealed Estifanos had a heart murmur — many people with situs inversus have heart conditions — but more test were needed to determined the seriousness of the conditions.

They told us we had options — implying we could terminate the adoption process based on the new information — but we had no options. Estifanos’ adoption was complete, both legally and emotionally; he was our child. I hadn’t even met him, but I could not have loved him anymore than if I had carried him for 9 months.

After many cardiologist appointments — in Ethiopia and the U.S. — we have now learned that his condition can be monitored, and he is an active and athletic 12-year old boy.

The strength I had that day was my first test as a parent.

Another Surprise

ATT00003[3] copyWe traveled to Ethiopia for the first time later that week. When we arrived in Ethiopia, we were told that Meron and Estifanos’ baby sister, Yordanos “Yordie” was now available for adoption and she arrived at the orphanage while we were still in the country.

I remember the first time Meron led me to her crib to show me her baby sister. Meron spoke no English, but in her eyes, I could tell I had no choice but to fall in love for a third time.

Due to paperwork required by the United States and Ethiopian governments, we couldn’t just leave with all three children (as it should be). A week after arriving in Ethiopia, we had to board a plane with our two older kids and return three months later to reunite with Yordie.

That was one of the hardest days of my life. Estifanos would kiss a picture of Yordie every night before he went to bed for next three months. The separation was so hard on us all.

We entered the United States three days after Meron’s fifth birthday. The early days are a blur. I had a three and five year old that spoke no English. We worked on attachment, they learned English, we processed issues of grief and loss, they acculturated to America, and we learned to socialize. We enrolled Meron in kindergarten when she barely knew a few words in English.

We decided to enroll her in soccer, so she could learn English and socialize. We are now a completely sports family with our kids playing club soccer, baseball, softball, and volleyball.

In those first three months, the kids would talk to each other in their native language. People always told us they will speak English at three months out, and almost to the day, I was in the kitchen and heard them fighting in the bedroom. They were arguing in English. I let it go for awhile, reveling in their development.

Around that time we also started to have to address adoption issues since they had more questions they could ask in English. We have always been very open with our kids about adoption. We have pictures of their “first family” in our home and we talk about adoption. My husband and I are active in the adoption community. Sometimes different kids go through different periods where they want to know things about their culture and sometimes they just want to be like any other kid and not have anything to do with adoption. We always just leave the door open.

In the summer of 2006, I returned to Ethiopia with my mom to bring Yordie home. She recognized me when I first saw her and my heart melted. I had never had a baby. This was a new experience; she needed me in a way my older kids hadn’t. She was just starting to eat solid foods and didn’t walk yet.

Life with Yordie was a new experience. As I arrived back in the states with Yordie, life set in as I had a baby, 3 year old, and a 5 year old. Nearly overnight, we went from 0 to 3 kids while I worked full time. The early years were exhausting and amazing. By the end of kindergarten, Meron was caught up in school, and Estifanos and Yordie were thriving. I still felt a missing piece to my puzzle.

Yearning for More

Everyone told me, you have three kids, why would you adopt again? But when you travel somewhere like Ethiopia and see the need, it changes your worldview. We started our paperwork for a fourth child in 2008. We had planned on adopting a baby; by the time the adoption was complete; Yordie would be in school.

But life had a different plan. One day, our agency sent us photographs of ten little “waiting” boys from a small village in the south of Ethiopia. They were “waiting” because they believed they were four years old, well beyond the desired age of most adoptive parents.

There was Kayeso looking straight at me. I knew he was mine, and I felt complete. He was the size of two year old, but they estimated he was a malnourished four-year old. Coming from the rural part of the country, they did not have an exact birthday, so his birthday is the date the doctor who examined him in Ethiopia assigned to him. There are nine other boys throughout the United States that share a similar birthday in May 2004, but are different sizes and possibly different ages.

As luck — or fate — would have it, the birthdate Kayeso was assigned put him 12 months older than Yordie and 18 younger than Estifanos. Most adoption agencies avoid artificial twinning (adopting a child at the same age as one already in the family) because it can cause added stress on the parents and children, but Kayeso’s birthday fell in the small window that would avoid twinning. A little bit of justification for adopting out of birth order — also discouraged, but easier to justify as it kept the oldest the oldest and Yordie as the baby — and we were on our way to adopting Kayeso.

We traveled to Ethiopia Christmas week 2008. It was hard to leave our other kids over the holidays, but we had to wait for six months to travel to get Kayeso due to court closures during the rainy season in Ethiopia.

Kayeso was staying at the “baby house” for our agency. He was the oldest child there, but they were concerned about malnutrition, so they kept him there where the nurse was. He spent his days playing with the guards and helping the nannies with the babies.

Kayeso struggled somewhat with children his own age because he had never had anything of his own. He was from a tiny village. He had never seen electricity and had learned two different languages in the previous year since his village spoke a different language than is spoken in the capital city where the orphanage is located.

My husband and I traveled south to meet some of Kayeso’s first family. We drove five hours on gravel roads, and they walked six hours to meet us. There were so many people from their village that they had to limit the people that were in the private meeting with us. They got to see a picture of him and our kids for the first time, and they gave us clothes with their family emblem on them.

ATT00001[4] copyAs we traveled back to America, I rode on the escalator with Kayeso for countless times during our stopover at Washington airport, and I taught him how to drink out of a drinking fountain for the first time. When he arrived home, he loved watching cooking shows, we suspect due to the absence of food in his life previously.

Out of all my kids, Kayeso struggled the most academically due to his language skills. He has “caught up” over the years. He excels in math and science and works hard to keep up with his peers in English. He has come such a far way from that boy who couldn’t write his name on the first day of kindergarten.

It has been nine years this week, I became a mom for the first time. I now have a fourteen year old, a twelve year old, an eleven year old, and a ten year old. We have teens to raise, which is an entirely new challenge completely unrelated to adoption.

As we embark on new parenting challenges, we get to develop adult relationships with our kids. I have lived through a lot in the last decade, but being a mom is like no other role I have ever played. I often think of the movie Parenthood. It is so worth the journey. Ours was not the typical journey to parenthood, but I wouldn’t change our family or our journey for the world.