By Shelly Esser
In 2005 two sisters began a journey – taking a huge leap of faith – by saying yes to God’s plan for them to pursue international adoption. Karla Bowerman had known for years that this was the path God was leading her on, and when the time came for her to pick up her two Ethiopian daughters, Fanose, 7, and Zenebech “Zena,” 6, from an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, her sister Wendy Ruhland tagged along to help bring the girls home. Little did Wendy know that this trip would be the catalyst for God’s adoption plan for her own life. So while Karla, a single mother, was busily settling in with her new family, Wendy was wrestling with what to do with what God had clearly shown her in Ethiopia – knowing that she and her husband, Brad, had decided to remain childless. But God had bigger plans and through circumstances only He could have orchestrated brought Wendy and Brad to the decision of adoption. Six months later, they made their own remarkable journey to Ethiopia to adopt two siblings, their son, Mesele “MJ,” 8, and daughter, Eyerusalem “Rucy,” 7.
Fast forward seven years. The sisters found themselves once again traveling to Ethiopia. But this time it was trips to visit their children’s families (or what is left of them). A year after Wendy and Brad brought their children home, a truth came out that changed all of their lives forever. Their children were not orphans – they had parents, five brothers, and a sister living in Ethiopia. All of a sudden the intense heart-wrenching grief Wendy’s children had suffered made sense. There had been huge struggles, trying behavioral problems, and difficult days that turned into years. But like many adoptions in these places, desperate families make unimaginable sacrifices to give family members a future. That had been at the heart of the sacrifice this family had made for their two youngest children. Due to poor health and living conditions, family members were dishonest with the orphanage. (Today, there are strict background checks and investigations to help prevent this.) As Wendy put it, “To give their kids a future, they viewed adoption as their only option. I can’t imagine being forced to make such choices out of total despair. I remember the night our kids shared with us that their family was alive. I kept thinking is this adoption legal? Are they ours?” In the middle of this, God gave Wendy an incredible peace. Even though they didn’t know all of these things, He did.
To help heal the kids’ grief and loss, and because they had a growing desire to “go home,” (their parents are ailing) Wendy and Brad felt enough time had passed for the family to make the 8,000 mile trip back to the kids’ homeland to be reunited with the family they had left behind. Wendy was apprehensive, but she believed that God was calling them to make this trip. While Karla’s girls areorphans – their parents and a baby brother were likely lost to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ethiopia along with 3 million others (Ethiopia has more AIDS orphans than any other country in the world, by the year 2014 it’s estimated that a staggering 2.1 million children will be AIDS orphans in that country alone) – they did have extended family that Karla and the girls were eager to see. Karla felt her girls (now 15 and 14) were ready to be immersed back into their culture, to see where they had come from, and to hopefully fill in some of the missing details of their early life.
So on two separate trips this past spring and summer the sisters and Wendy’s husband, Brad, took their children back for family reunions and one of the greatest faith adventures of their lives – trips that would hopefully bring some closure, healing, and identity to everyone.
Wendy and her family traveled nine hours north of Addis Ababa to meet MJ and Rucy’s (now 15 and 14) family who live in a very remote impoverished village – without electricity and running water. Breath-taking mountains, valleys, farmland, small towns, farm animals, families of monkeys, and some of the most beautiful people they had ever seen welcomed them along the way. The kids’ oldest brother reunited with them in Addis and traveled with them along with their driver and translator (who Karla also used) making sure they saw the countryside and understood the culture on their journey. At their first stop they were reunited with three more of the kids’ siblings who surprised them. Through hugs and tears, the six siblings experienced a sweet reunion.
The next morning it was off to Zobel, the kids’ village. Now with ten people piled into the Land Rover spilling over with supplies, they traveled through mountainous roads to their final destination. All that was left was a half-mile hike up a rugged path. Emotions were high with anticipation of what lay on the other side. As soon as the trek began, family and villagers began to appear to help carry the luggage and take the supplies into the village. Wendy remembers that Mesele and Rucy walked ahead of them arm-in-arm with a brother and sister instinctively returning to their home – a grass hut.
“I stumbled along the path with each hut coming into sight looking to spot my children’s parents. Then I saw the kids round a corner and throw themselves into the arms of familiar faces photographed in our home. It was all I could do to catch my breath. The beauty of that encounter between my children and their birth parents will be forever etched in my mind.” Within minutes, Wendy and Brad met the kids’ father and mother. Tears flowed in abundance! Five minutes into the reunion, Wakshum, the kids’ father, fell to his knees rejoicing, “Bless these children who have made their way back home and the lovely people who have cared for them and brought them to us. If I die tomorrow, I die a happy man. We prayed for the well-being of our children and a family to raise them and the Lord provided the right ones.”
The following three days were full of celebration! Villagers walked for miles to greet Wendy, Brad, and the kids. Hearing of their plans to visit eight months earlier, the family and villagers started building them their own hut for the stay. Additionally, they built them another small, private hut for a bathroom. Mattresses, bedding, bed frames, imported beer, and special foods (things these people are too poor to have for themselves) were all brought in for their comfort and pleasure. Wendy said, “Their generosity was absolutely overwhelming. These are people living in one of the poorest countries in the world, and yet they gave their all for us. Easily a year’s wages were sacrificed for us!”
Three hours into the arrival, a goat was slaughtered in their honor. “We watched as they skinned, cleaned, and cooked the goat for our family, making sure we ate first,” Wendy recalled. “Only the best for their guests. These are the most joyful people giving their all out of their extreme poverty.”
Wendy had prayed that there wouldn’t be any awkwardness between the parents and kids in terms of whose family they belonged to. God answered that prayer. Those types of feelings never surfaced. “We were all one family and the children fit with all of us. There was nothing but an outpouring of love and thankfulness in both directions. And we were able to talk privately with the kids’ parents about their hopes and dreams for the kids and how they would like us to raise them. It was a humbling moment,” Wendy said.
After days of sharing stories, the time came to say goodbye. The pain of that moment was excruciating for everyone. “With each step down to the car, our hearts were breaking. During that half-mile walk, I prayed for the hearts of my children and the hearts of each family member,” Wendy recalled. “I thanked God for the exceptional opportunity He gave us. I prayed that the images, sights, smells, tastes, and imprints left on our hearts would never be forgotten. As I watched my children’s parents say goodbye, giving them up yet one more time, I was struck by the incredible sacrifice this family was making to give them a better life. The love they have for Mesele and Rucy runs very deep. That they would understand that these two were only theirs for a short season so they could have better opportunities and a brighter future is beyond what this mother’s heart can fathom. I know, if they could, they would give each of their children this same opportunity. We tearfully drove away that day – no words spoken. The ache was much too big.”
Karla, her sister Laura Johnson, and the girls piled into the Land Rover to begin their trip south to visit the girl’s half-sister, living in Nazaret. Little did they know then that their journey was about to take a miraculous detour. Tamrat, their driver and translator, started inquiring about where the girls were from. Karla only knew that they were from a very rural area outside of a small town. Before long, Tamrat was urging them to let him find it stating the area wasn’t that far out of their way. Questions flooded Karla’s mind. “Could we find it? Would anyone still be living there? Should we even attempt it? But our driver was determined and the girls desperately wanted to see where they were born. So, we said yes!”
All that Karla had to go on was an old letter from a relative that said the girls were born in an area called Waswa. After getting some sketchy information from a trucker, the five of them headed west on a dusty, rarely traveled, gravel road. About an hour later, a public transit van pulled alongside them, asking where they were headed. Miraculously, a young man then stepped out of the van, getting into their vehicle. He said that he was from Waswa! He knew of the girl’s uncle there, so he would show them the way. Out of nowhere, God dropped a stranger into their path who knew the way home! “Our new escort pointed to an area far in the distance, between two big hills, and said ‘there is your home.’ Two hours later, full of excitement and anticipation, having traveled on bumpy dirt paths, through dried up farm pastures, and then the final mile on foot, we saw it – a little mud hut with a metal roof nestled into the hillside. It was breathtaking!” Karla remembers. “We stood there mesmerized; all of us staring at the home that Fanose and Zena had once shared with their birth parents.”
The girls’ uncle lived in a hut with his family just up the path. As they approached, they were greeted with brown, teary eyes, full of disbelief that Fanose and Zena showed up after all these years. Over the next several hours, as different family members got word, they walked for miles, many made a three-hour trip without food to see the girls. Joy and relief were evident on their faces, seeing that the girls were alive and safe. “We found out that many of them had never known what had happened to the girls after their parent’s deaths. At one point, when a cousin of the girls walked into the hut and started weeping, we could hardly contain our emotion. He had thought the girls were dead, and it took him some time before he could even speak. When he did, he tearfully shared that their mothers had been close, that their two families had lived together for several years, and that he would often carry Fanose on his back when she was little. I will never forget his sweet face; he looked so much like Fanose,” Karla said.
After a couple of hours, as more relatives arrived, they outgrew the small hut and had to move to a larger one nearby. “I looked around and counted 35 relatives. We had no idea the girls had so many – aunts, uncles, cousins all sat in a circle smiling at Fanose and Zena, sharing little nuggets of information about their precious past. Outside, curious neighbors (including an old midwife who had helped deliver the girls) all mingled around trying to get a glimpse – to see with their own eyes that the girls had returned home.”
“Tears were flowing down everyone’s faces.” Fanose and Zena were tenderly embraced and kissed by each family member. The depth of love and concern for the girls was so obvious. “It was so awesome to see all of my mother’s sisters,” Fanose said. “We all have the same nose, and our smiles are alike. To be able to hear things about my mother was wonderful.” Zena added, “My most meaningful experience was when one of my teenage cousins hugged me tightly goodbye and told me he loved me.”
As the day was ending, saying goodbye was extremely difficult. “The image of that little hut is one I will never forget,” Karla said. “It was the home where the girls began their life, deeply loved and cherished by their birth parents and this big extended, beautiful family!”
When they arrived in Nazaret later that evening, the three sisters were finally reunited! “Their half-sister, Shewye, like my girls, had been around five when her mother died. Their father took her to live with his relatives to be raised, as is often the custom in Ethiopia after a death. The three girls were inseparable! Their sister, now 18, had the same shy, gentle spirit that my girls have. She took great care to see that we were comfortable, showing her sisters around, letting them help her with daily chores: milking the cow, grinding coffee, going to the market, and cooking traditional Ethiopian food. It was a remarkable five days! And it was a blessing that we were able to be there at that time. One of the girls’ relatives, who also helped care for them before they moved to the orphanage, is dying of a brain tumor, and her dying wish was to see Fanose and Zena one last time. We were able to make that dream come true,” Karla said.
“In reflecting on our trip, adoption is surely a blessing, but it definitely comes from a place of great loss – loss for the child and loss for the family that loves them and has to let them go! But in the midst of the pain, God redeems it all for His glory and purposes,” Karla said. “Our trips not only helped our children, the trips were able to give the families peace, which in turn was a blessing to us all!”
When Karla and Wendy set their feet back on Ethiopian soil taking a huge step of faith last year neither knew what was about to unfold. They packed up with them their hopes and dreams for the reunions that would hopefully give their kids a sense of identity by better understanding their pasts and the families who had made tremendous sacrifices to give them a future. Wendy and Karla could never have imagined how God would so miraculously orchestrate every step of their trips and the sweet reunions that not only forever changed their lives, but the lives of the families who have captured their hearts!