It was all the smiles and laughter that surprised me the most.
All of these beautiful children had lost their parents to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Ethiopia, yet they all smile. Within the last year they have been shuffled around to family, friends and neighbors who were unable to raise them and end up relinquishing them, yet they all smile. Then somehow, through the grace of God, these children found their way to Horizon House in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Horizon House is the orphanage run by Wide Horizons. As you drive around Addis it become clear that by American standards, there is little to be happy about. Yet, every child and adult wears a big, genuine smile. We had always imagined our family to include an adopted child, we had each even planned it before we met and were married. We had our biological daughter about eighteen months after we were married and within a few years were ready to start planning for our next child. Many of our daughter’s friends are adopted so we talked to their parents while doing our homework online; exploring agencies, countries, rules, etc. We wanted a boy and that was about the only thing that really mattered.
We chose Wide Horizons after attending an open seminar with Lori Johnson and learning about the new Ethiopian program. I have had many ties to Ethiopia growing up and that helped us decide on the country. Within a little more than a year, we had everything done and our paperwork was off to Ethiopia.
The time between sending our paperwork off and getting a match crawled by. Thoughts of our new child filled our home, our conversations and most passing moments. Our match came within about a week of final approval from the Ethiopia government. Even though Biruk was about 16 months older than we had requested, we decided to welcome this cute four-year-old into our lives and our family.
It seemed that our travel date would never arrive. Our travel delegation was to include, Lisa, Marley, me and my mom, Cathie. We helped pass the time by gathering donations of toys, clothes, and medicine to bring with us for Horizon House. Our trip from home to Addis was as uneventful as can be expected. After a nearly sleepless night at the hotel, we were off to meet our son, Biruk.
Our driver pulled up to the metal gate in the cement fence and beeped the horn several times. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw as the gate rose into the thin Ethiopian air. Twenty kids all standing on the porch of the orphanage’s only common room and there he was standing in the middle. As we walked toward the group, the kids parted from him slightly in each direction almost as if presenting him to us. His smile was huge and genuine, masked on slightly with a tinge of shyness. He greeted us with the warmth and love present everywhere in Ethiopian society. While it was certainly a cultural show of respect, he was genuine, sweet and loving from the moment we met.
We spent a few hours at the orphanage making balloon animals and flying airplanes with Biruk and the other kids living at Horizon House. Each child had lost both parents to AIDS, TB or malaria, yet each child was happy and loving. While our time in Addis included so many great experiences; visiting friends we have who live there, visiting cultural and historical sites, and enjoying some amazing restaurants, we were all ready to return home when the time came. Biruk’s good-bye ceremony at Horizon House left all of us in tears as he said good-bye to his friends and loving caregivers.
Because Biruk was only four, he had not yet had much, if any, exposure to English, so the first few months of his life with us were marked by lots of charades. We found many ways to communicate without words and we had an emergency list of words and phrases we had made in Ethiopia so we could communicate the most important of things; “Are you hurt?”, “Are you sick?”, “Where does it hurt?”, “Careful that’s very hot!”, “That’s not allowed!”, “Do you need the potty?” etc.
Within a couple of weeks Biruk had made amazing progress. He was working hard on his English, and he had finished testing us realizing that our boundaries are firm and clear. We understood the sadness and relief he must have been going through. We felt it was important to help him to express himself in acceptable ways so having some time to experience an emotional release was fully acceptable and could be done with mom and dad hugging you. He chose the hugs. He was (and is) a very fast learner.
Biruk is fully bonded with us as his family and the process, while rocky for a few weeks, was so much easier than I had expected. Wide Horizons always provided us with excellent and caring support especially in the first couple months when we were dealing with language barriers and trying emotional experiences.
Now it seems as though he has been with us for years. Biruk is a fully integrated member of our family and our community. He is smart, funny, loving, caring and most importantly... ours!