Monday, November 28, 2011

Happy Birthday Happy Homecoming 2011 - Am I Your Heart, Mommy?

“Am I your heart, Mommy?” Leyla inquired, her brown liquid eyes burrowing into mine. “Yes, you are my heart,” I responded. She threw her arms tightly around my neck and said, “I love you Mommy!!” Then she planted a big kiss on my lips and ran off to play. The question resonated as I am working on my first big fundraising event called “Open Hearts Big Dreams.”

Three years ago today, on my birthday, Leyla joined our family. I find myself reflecting on the passage of another year in a different way now. This amazing little person, born half way around the world into circumstances that are still difficult for me to fully comprehend, changed our lives in so many ways. She secured her place in the family with our first glimpse of her referral picture below. How much she has grown compared to a recent photo where her personality shines out of her brilliant smile.

Leyla is truly my heart (as are her brothers). She also opened my heart to her birthplace and the children who remain there. The statistics are staggering and heartbreaking. But I found Mother Teresa’s words so empowering, “If you can feed just one, then feed one.”

After Leyla had been home a year, I felt the weight of the question I could imagine my daughter asking me one day, “What did you do for the children who remained there?” Looking at her gave the desperation in her home country a face and the potential to make a difference a sense of urgency. When well meaning people ask me the “what if” question, I can’t even go there without tearing up. To think of this world without the light that emanates from her is unimaginable.

I started this blog and drew inspiration from my amazing daughter. I gained many Ethiopian connections in the last two years who gave me additional insight. Michael and I chose to support literacy so our Open Hearts (and the ones of those who support this effort) can fuel BIG DREAMS.

Before Leyla came into our lives, I had no idea of the enormity of the need:
• Less than 50% of Ethiopia’s children can go to school.
• Nearly 25% of first graders drop out of school.
• Only 36% of the population can read.
• The average adult makes less than $0.50 (US) per day.

Leyla the chubby baby is gone, replaced by a confident, sassy little girl. A friend of mine commented recently, “She is a firecracker just like her mother.” When I look into her face, I see a bright future full of promise. Her doctor has joked, “She will be a CEO one day,” because she likes giving direction. Although she lost much in the process of international adoption and we don’t take that lightly, she gained the ability to dream big dreams because for her education is a given.

I want that same ability for the girls and boys who remain in her East African country. Dreams shouldn’t depend on where you were born. My birthday wish is that everyone who reads this post gives something to help our efforts – could be as little as $2 - the equivalent to 4 days pay in Ethiopia. Just give what you can. (If you prefer to send a check, contact me.)

Open Hearts enable Big Dreams which every child deserves. Leyla is pictured with the children of the Mercado community we are supporting in this fundraiser. We are trying to make a difference one reader at a time . .. . for Leyla and for them.

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." Frederick B. Douglass

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Open Hearts Big Dreams . . .lots of chills . . .and miles to go -- the anatomy of an accidental auction

How on earth did I get myself here? I find myself asking myself multiple times during the week. I have a demanding full time job, three very active engaged kids, a husband with his own demanding job and we both support a variety of local not for profits. “Here” is the middle of planning a dinner auction to complete funding for our second Ethiopia Reads library and a general literacy program through Tesfa Foundation in Mercado – the poorest section of Addis Ababa. My main experience with auctions is attending them – and that has only been a handful. I learned a bit more about the inner workings from being on a not for profit board. I thought how hard can it be .. I probably should have investigated further. But a little voice in my head said best not to think about it too much or you’ll chicken out. And so I leaped!

As the planning is progressing, I discovered a pattern. Each time I think I am at a stage where I can breathe, I learn some new wrinkle or requirement. And I sense the tentacles of panic waiting to take hold. First, I thought, "Get a venue lined up and a date and things will be well on their way." I find a wonderful spot at the Northwest African American Museum on December 17 and they give me a break on the usual fee. Success!?! But then, I ask myself, "How we brand our event?" The name and visual design needs express all the hope we want to sustain. Luckily I had able collaborators with Yadesa Bojia, an Ethiopian born Seattle artist, and Jane Kurtz, an acclaimed children’s author who grew up in Ethiopia.

I wanted to convey how travel, books and art all have the capacity to open your mind and heart to the diverse world. I also wished to express how I found if you open your heart, and release your fears; big dreams become possible. As Yadesa and I brainstormed, I learned he grew up in the same neighborhood this library and literacy program would serve – I felt chills. After a few passes, we settled on Open Hearts – Big Dreams. I loved it. It expressed so much of what our journey has been and continues to be. As we open our hearts, we enable our own big dreams as well as those of children half way around the world who need our help to enable theirs.

But the euphoria of creative success was short lived as another thought presses in, “What will we eat??” My mind immediately went to our traditional birthday dinner with Leyla at a favorite Ethiopian Restaurant called Kokeb. I call the proprietor and explained what I was planning. She was anxious to help and expresses her view we should all do our part in the world. I could have hugged her through the phone. She then laid out what she could do as a small business owner. She even suggested if we want to spend no money, I could contact a number of restaurants for donations to put together a potluck. I briefly consider this. But then I remember the laundry list of things I have ahead of me and decide the paid option was better.

For entertainment, I felt fortunate to have Yadesa and Jane willing to speak. I also reached out to a young poet I had written about previously. He shared his poem with me at that time but we had not connected since. I did not hear back which did not surprise me much. Then a few days ago, I got an email. He was taking the night off work to read the poem I requested. He also wanted to read a new poem that he was writing just for the event. Many more chills. ...

I have audacious goals for this auction – because I believe if you don’t have those, why bother! To make those a reality, I needed a live auction. But where to find an auctioneer? I asked a friend who recently raised funds for Children’s Hospital and she provided hers. I met him at a local Starbucks. He told me to be on the look out for Santa Claus. Sure enough he bore a striking resemblance to that children’s favorite. I learned as we chatted he is a foster dad, focuses his efforts on children’s charities and his boss was born in Ethiopia . . .chills - chills .. . .

We are now in the throes of inviting what seems everyone we know in Seattle and asking friends and every business we have frequented with help procuring items. My amazing husband is getting us get student volunteers from his school’s national honor society. We are shooting for 150 guests, 100 silent auction items, 10-15 live auction items to raise a grand total of $25,000. . . currently seems like a very Big Dream!

I still have miles and miles to go it seems. . . drinks, a sound system, desserts, centerpieces, an on-line store and much more .. .but the chills along the way give me confidence. The leaping was just the start – I just landed on a ledge just a bit farther down the mountain, at which point I needed to leap again to make progress. I see many more leaps and ledges. What keeps me leaping is all the Open Hearts I encounter -- items arrive, invitations are accepted, volunteers step forward, donations come -- and the Big Dreams the children of Mercado deserve to dream!!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Providing Tesfa – Hope – in Ethiopia and Beyond

When I started this blog and named it “ethiopian ties”, I was thinking of the ties we had to that East African country through adopting our daughter. As I have blogged since, those ties multiplied in many wonderful and unexpected ways. Our library planting in particular opened up our lives to people who amaze and inspire me . . .each with their own tie to Ethiopia.

Since we completed funding for our Bahir Dar Library, we are now working on funding for one in Addis Ababa. Jane Kurtz of Ethiopia Reads introduced us to Dana Roskey of the Tesfa (Amharic for hope) Foundation who is working to provide elementary education to parts of Ethiopia in desperate need of this hope. One of his schools is in the poorest part of Addis – Mercado.

When we were in Ethiopia this summer, we were fortunate to attend the Mercado kindergarten class graduation. Dana explained a bit about the area and the school as our driver struggled to navigate the dirt roads filled with pot holes and people on our way to the school . Dana joked he had chosen a challenging vocation for someone who easily gets motion sickness. The evidence of extreme poverty was palpable and everywhere I looked. But so was the optimism of the children – laughing and playing in the streets. Their faces were open and curious as we passed. And they warmed with a welcome smile and a twinkle in their eyes if we looked directly their way.

The graduation ceremony was the epitome of the joy that comes with hope. The parents were sitting expectantly – dressed in their best and crowded into the small rooms. The kids and I can be seen in the back of the room soaking it all in as Michael was our photo journalist.

The children came in cap and gown. At five years of age, I found this a particularly poignant sight. I could see in my mind their older versions in similar graduations as this education will likely change the course of their lives.

Dana stands out in this room. A tall lanky " ferenge" (a white foreigner in Amharic) as he refers to himself. He gives off an amazing positive energy while also coming across as completely laid back. He shakes hands with each student looking them directly in the eye. I could feel the pride and genuine fulfillment these children’s milestone provide to Dana.

But lurking there is also lingering sadness. Dana’s fiancé, Leeza, (Fregenet Woubshet), a 29-year-old American citizen of Ethiopian origin, was tragically killed in a car accident seven years earlier. His response to this unbearable loss was to take on the cause of fulfilling her dream to serve the children in her native land. His Tesfa Foundation has done just that -- opening seven schools in those seven years.

But I was also interested in the person. And what drove him in his mission of hope. Meeting Dana and spending time with him gave me a sense but I wanted to know more. I learned that he also blogged. Feeling a bit like an intruder in his personal thoughts and experiences, I read through a number of his entries one evening, into the wee hours when the house is quiet. I was humbled in so many ways. Our family is giving back because of the tremendous gift that came into our lives through our daughter. Our efforts multiple our joy as we have the opportunity to aid children like her in her native land.

His efforts were born out of tragedy. And he faces constant painful reminders. Even as he brings positive change to her world, he can’t share it in the same way he could if she were still physically here. My eyes filled with tears and rolled down my cheeks as I read his words, especially those written around the difficult anniversaries. (I learned there we had been with Dana in Ethiopia during the last anniversary week.) And I pondered – what could have been versus what is - so bittersweet. The tesfa phoenix rises for so many children out of the ashes of heartbreak. I find my eyes filling again with those tears as I write.

From my vantage point, the youngsters who attend his schools are now his children. And his relentless focus and drive, he does for them, for her, for Ethiopia, and for himself. We are honored to be able to bring a library to one of his schools and do our part to honor her, to support him and to spread hope in a country that gave us such an amazing gift. One more ethiopian tie is formed.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia . . .Leyla’s Birthplace and Home to School Yejatit (February) 23 and the first "Leyla Library" through Ethiopia Reads

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia is just a short plane ride from the capital city of Addis Ababa. But it is a world away in many other respects. We were excited to visit Leyla’s birthplace and the site of our first "Leyla Library" through Ethiopia Reads housed in a school named “Yejatit (February) 23” which is V-day,"Victory of Adwa," for Africa (the actual celebration day March 2). Bahir Dar is a small city nestled at the foot of Lake Tana – the third largest lake in Africa. There is abundant and varied bird species flourishing by the water. The foliage is tropical and beautifully green wherever you look unlike the arid, mountainous climate of Addis.

We arrived early in the morning. And as seemed the norm, there was some confusion over the plan. We thought we were visiting our library at 9 a.m. but our guide said noon. Michael called our Tesfa (which fittingly means "hope" in Amharic) representative and confirmed the original time was correct. We stopped briefly at our hotel to freshen up and then headed to the school. I felt butterflies of anticipation dancing in my middle.

As we entered the gate into an open courtyard, we were greeted with clapping and cheering by a welcoming procession of kids and adults holding bouquets of freshly picked flowers. We were treated as visiting dignitaries. Michael was the most comfortable with this attention, shaking hands with each person looking them straight in the eye as he greeted them. Dimitri remarked that he wished he could be more like that too. We were brought into a small room with a long narrow table. Only the adults joined us. There was a solemnity to the occasion even as Leyla, obvious to it, flitted and skipped around the table, presenting an incongruous contrast.

We presented the plaque dedicating the library to our daughter and exchanged pleasantries for a bit. Then the head mistress pointed to one gentleman and said he was to give a speech. His voice was soft but resonated as he spoke from his notes but obviously also from his heart. He spoke of the children and the opportunity the library within this school represented. After he finished, each of the adults seated around the table added their own words of gratitude and stressed the importance of the access to books and an education to provide hope to the children this school served which include 2000 youngsters, a number of whom had the additional challenge of being hearing impaired.

I felt tears well up in my eyes as I listened. I felt unworthy of such high accolades. We raised money but they were doing the difficult hands on, day to day work of molding young lives under the most challenging of circumstances with limited resources. I also was filled with a sense of how much one library, funded by many in a different part of the world, had the potential to bring about true change in this community and beyond. To my core, I was humbled. I felt the weight of responsibility to do more to be worthy of a fraction of the high praise freely bestowed on us this day.

After the speeches concluded, a silence hung comfortably in the air as we were left to our thoughts while we waited for the librarian to arrive. After a few moments, there was word she was coming and we headed outside. The head mistress explained to me as we walked slowly across the dirt field navigating the rocks and high weeds to the library building that the librarian was a former student of hers. She beamed with pride as she spoke of her pupil turned colleague. You can see her beautiful smile in this picture as she laughs with Leyla and me.

The library building was an small, unassuming rectangular brick building. But for this school, it was a huge and valued new asset. It represents hope for raising the level of education and ambition to succeed among their youth. Our funding would provide the books, the shelves, and reading areas to transform it from an open space with a couple tables and a few piles of books into a working library. The librarian and school officials would ensure it was incorporated into the school curriculum.

As my boys, ten and fourteen, walked around the small room, I could see on their faces they were comparing this modest room to the libraries they are accustomed to in their schools back home. Even fully furnished with a complete set of books, it would be a far cry from what they took for granted. We did get a sense of how small the world has become when my ten year old delightedly discovered a dusty copy of his favorite Harry Potter book from the series among the small piles that sat on sparse shelves. Our family, with a number of the school officials in front of the library building, are pictured below.

By the time school resumes in the fall for the students fortunate enough to attend, this first "Leyla Library" will be ready to welcome them. For all those who contributed financially, by joining our cause, or with words of encouragement, rest assured you made a different in the lives of these 2000 kids. They in turn will touch many others as the amazing effect of adding hope and possibility in the lives of the young ripples out from Bahir Dar, Ethiopia back into the world.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Going Back to Ethiopia - Closing A Circle - Dream big! Dream peace! And work hard to achieve it!!

November 2008, we traveled to Ethiopia to meet our daughter and bring her back to our home in the Pacific Northwest. We are returning to her homeland with her as a three year old and her two brothers, now ten and fourteen. We have a completely different purpose. We want to connect our daughter with her birthright and introduce our boys to the land of their adored little sister. I see evidence of the connection they already have in images like this ID card of my eldest son (from the year his sister came home). Where unbeknownst to me, he added an Ethiopian stamp. We are also fulfilling
a promise we made to ourselves to help the children of this amazing land.

Our connections to Ethiopia have grown. We connected with Jane Kurtz, a renowned children’s author who grew up in Ethiopia and is a tireless volunteer for Ethiopia Reads. We met Melissa Faye Greene, a award winning journalist who wrote about the challenges in Ethiopia related to AIDS and HIV and is an adoptive mother of 5 including 4 from Ethiopia. We found Yadesa Bojia (or rather he found us on facebook) the artist who designed the African Union flag and himself a shiny example of the possibilities if you fight to overcome the circumstance many Ethiopian children face. The bonus is Yadesa lives in our town.

We are also working with Dana Roskey who lost his Ethiopian fiance in a tragic car accident as part of our efforts to put another Ethiopia Reads library in Addis. He is now fulfilling his fiance's dream of providing education and hope to the children of her ancient country. We are going back thanks to the help of Habtu Tekeba, an Ethiopian travel agent, with some assistance from Jane Kurtz and her brother, is making a better life and future for his family and helping those like us honor our connections. We are also grateful for the chance to honor the man who was instrumental in bringing our daughter safely to us. He is a protector of children and is fighting each day to save one more . . Ato Teklu. We can’t wait to show him how much little Leyla Marie Fasika has grown and flourished since he last saw her.

We were asked to draft the language to put on the plaque for the first Ethiopia Reads library in Bahir Dar -- funded through generous contributions of friends, colleagues, family and perfect strangers. Michael and I wanted it to reflect our hope for Ethiopia and her children as well as our love for our daughter.

This library is for the children of Bahir Dar, birthplace of Leyla Marie Fasika, beloved daughter of Ellenore and Michael Angelidis and cherished sister of Dimitri and Damian Angelidis.

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." Frederick B. Douglass.

But the more I thought, it didn’t seem enough. I wanted to inspire these children (some shown in the photo above) to see hope for their future and the role reading and education could play in making it more than just a dream. I reached out to Yadesa and asked if he would be willing to help me. Yadesa responded beyond my expectations. He provided a signed African Union flag he designed to adorn the wall of the new library. He gave me posters and copies of a cookbook with his art that was a tribute to the Lucy exhibit he designed in Seattle (which ironically occurred when we were last in Ethiopia). And he committed to visit the children when he is in Ethiopia.

When talking about the flag, he told me, “I ordered another flag and it just arrived. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, honestly. Then you reached out and I knew that was where the flag was meant to be.” I asked if he would also be willing to provide some words to the kids. He wrote a beautiful letter in Amharic for the children of Bahir Dar (translated below for us English speakers).

Dear Students;

The great African leader Nelson Mandela once said "Education is a power weapon to change the world."

In today’s world, where science and technology is at its highest peak, you might feel like the lack of school, materials and all the basic necessities around you might keep you from playing a vital role in your country as well as community. But with all the hardship around you, education will help you to win the battle just like Mandela said.

Dear students, with education there is no mountain you can't climb and there is no dream you can't achieve. You are defined not by the poverty and struggle around you but by the effort you put to better yourself.

When I was a little kid, I used to worry about my future until I understood education is my ticket out of poverty. The poverty around me helped me to be dedicated to my goals. The poverty around me did not hinder me from dreaming, instead it pushed me to go after my dream.

So I beg you and urge you to seek education to change your future and your country’s future. You are tomorrow’s leaders and your dedication will better it for generations to come. Dream big! Dream peace! And work hard to achieve it!!

From Ethiopia to Seattle, back to Ethiopia, and then back to Seattle and so it goes on - - much has come full circle in 2.5 short years. Yadesa’s words are for all of us: Dream big! Dream peace! And work hard to achieve it!!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Happy 3rd Birthday, Happy Memorial Day, Happy National Day in Ethiopia . . .

On May 27, 2008, a little baby girl was born in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. We would see her face for the first time 4 months later in our referral picture. Our lives were forever altered when we met her at six months old in person in Addis Ababa. Much change occured in three short years. She is no longer a tiny infant with huge eyes silently taking in the world. Now she is a feisty, chatty, take the world by the tail, adorable pre-schooler. She owns the heart of each member of the family with her fierce, joyful nature. We celebrated her full third year of life with a delicious Ethiopian dinner at a great eatery named Kokeb . Kokeb means star in Amharic, a literal translations would be "Star Restaurant". Leyla is definitely the "star" in our family, pictured below. Leyla apparently was not in the mood to flash her trademark smile. Having a long Memorial Day weekend to spend with the family is heavenly in the hustle and bustle of life with two working parents and three active kids.

If Leyla were still living in Ethiopia, she would likely be celebrating a different national holiday. They commemorate May 28, 1991 when the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, a united coalition of insurgent factions, took over Addis Ababa signaling the downfall of the Derg regime. I realized that year was significant to us too. In 1991, Michael and I married. And later that year I entered law school.

In Ethiopia, the Marxist Derg seized control throwing out Haile Selassie I, the previous Emperor from 1930 to 1974, beginning a civil war that lasted from 1974 to 1991. It is reported many thousands were killed during campaigns against ethnic groups in rural areas. The Derg regime is considered by many as responsible for among the worst human rights abuses during its seventeen years in power. Today, many participate in parades and popular demonstrations in larger Ethiopian towns and cities to celebrate their downfall. The celebrations are designed to be a reminder of the humanity and equality of all peoples.

As we get ready to travel back to Ethiopia, we look forward to seeing and learning more about this amazing country. We are excited to see the new Ethiopia Reads Library in Bahir Dar giving children from Leyla’s hometown the chance to read, thanks to generous donations from family, friends and even strangers. We were asked what we would like on the commorative plate. I gave it some deep thought because we wanted it to reflect so much: our gratitude to Ethiopia, our hope for its children, our desire for our daughter to be at home in her birth country as well as our deep and abiding love for her. We settled on:

This library is for the children of Bahir Dar, birthplace of Leyla Marie Fasika, beloved daughter of Ellenore and Michael Angelidis and cherished sister of Dimitri and Damian Angelidis.

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." Frederick B. Douglass.

Pictures of the school that will house the library and the children who will read the books are below. We can’t wait to meet them this summer.

But there is always more to do . . so much need. We are now working on funding for a second library in Addis, Ababa. We are approximately a third of the way there. Damian and I are planning a bake sale here in Seattle. If you are in the neighborhood, enjoy some delicious goodies and help out a good cause. We are calling it . . “Baking for books.” I you are in a position to help, you can also donate on-line or contact me for information if you want to send a check.

All children should have the opportunity to learn to read and to be forever free. This weekend, we joyously celebrate with Ethiopia the equality of all people.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mother's Day(s) -- Antrosht-- Comes after the Rains Stop . . at least in Ethiopia

Celebrating Mother’s Day is a special time for me. My husband and my kids each have their own way of making me feel cherished. The method changes as they grow but the sentiment is true. This year, my 10 year old was proud to have prepared my morning coffee and brought it to me in bed. He then produced a homemade card which introduced his power point presentation. It showed his quirky nature including "a mom graph" and favorite things he likes to do with me. He had been tucked away in secret for days working on it. My 14 year old designed a card. The cover showed his artistic talent which included a number of clever hidden messages I would likely have missed without his explanation. Inside, he opened his heart providing me a peak into his inner self and his view of our connection. My 3 year old got into the act with a wonderful painting of a butterfly where the wings were her hands. She’s couldn’t quite get the celebratory wording of the day right. She kept telling me “Happy Mother’s Time,” which seemed almost better.

Since she is adopted from Ethiopia, I wondered how mother’s day is celebrated in her home country. I found familiar dates in the US have different significance elsewhere as I blogged about previously. Having been raised by Dutch parents and marrying a Greek native, I learned not to assume a significant day for America is necessarily significant elsewhere. What I learned was quite interesting.

Ethiopia celebrates Mother’s day(s), “Antrosht,” in the fall, after the rainy season. It doesn't have a fixed date but can occur in October or November depending on when the rain lets up. The family celebrates with a meal and continues the festivities over two to three days. I like this version already. The children bring ingredients to make a traditional hash. Girls are charged with bringing butter, cheese, vegetables and spices; the boys with bringing a bull or lamb. I was fascinated that it broke down gender lines even at this young age. I imagined Leyla bringing her ingredients. I think she would embrace her part as she enjoys the culinary arts. As soon as she spots me begin activities at the kitchen counter, she pushes a bar stools, significantly taller than she, over next to me. She then excited climbs up, anxious not to miss a thing. Once she is safely perched, she scans the landscape and asks, “Can I help, Mama? PLEASE!”

In the Ethiopian celebration, the mom prepares the meat hash. A little different than my ideal Mother’s day where I don’t have to lift a finger. (I did say ideal, this has never actually occurred). Also the mother and daughter there put butter on their faces and chests as part of the ritual. This could be fun although maybe not so good for my combination complexion. Having caught Leyla experimenting with my creams and lotions on more than one occasion, I imagine she would have fun with this.

They dance and sing songs about family and heroes. This I like too. Leyla is moved by music. When she hears a favorite song on the radio, she enthusiastically orders, “Dance with me, Mama!!” I scope her up and happily swinging her around. We both laughing giddily. Her ten year old brother, my budding photographer, took some pictures of us cavorting about a year back, seen below. She never seems to tire of it. And my soul soars when I have her in my arms joyfully moving to the beat or watching her twirl with abandon alone. She also loves to make her own music. When we drive around on the weekends, I hear her little cartoon character voice blending with the pop vocals emanating from the car stereo. I find a spontaneous smile spread across my face as I peak at her sweet face in the rear view mirror. She sings purely for herself which is truly beautiful.

After the rainy season finishes in Ethiopia this fall, we may celebrate a version of “Antrosht” or Ethiopian “Mother’s Time” in Seattle (ironically when the rain starts here) to honor of my daughter’s heritage -- now part of our family fabric-- and to honor motherhood which shouldn’t be celebrated just one day a year.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to the US Pacific Northwest

Arriving in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia our first time was an amazing experience. An African Union Conference was meeting there that weekend. In the airport, we were treated to a visual assault of vibrant colors. Flowing garments and headdresses moved effortlessly about us. The clothing depicted the vast diversity of Africa converging. We had the unusual experience of being both the drabbest in khakis and the most conspicuous with the lightest pigments (okay, way more true for me than my Greek born husband) in the sea of browns and blacks. As I sat quietly on a bench waiting for Michael to get our Visas, I thought, “This will be our daughter’s frequent experience in reverse.” It was humbling. I felt the weight of that responsibility settle on my shoulders.

During our brief stay in Addis, our Ethiopian lawyer wanted to sure the adoptive families (three of us met in Addis to pick up our daughters) got a taste of our kids' homeland. I sensed the grave mission he owned to instill a sense of his rich culture into adoptive parents who may never return. For their children, these brief experiences explained one day perhaps with accompanying photos may be all they have of their mother culture.

I discussed him previously as he left an indelible impression. He had strength of resolve you felt from the first meeting. He was not a man to be trifled with and these children were his life’s purpose. I recall some impatience with what felt like somewhat of a distraction from our main focus -- bringing home our child. As an new adoptive parent, I had so much worry permeating and swirling in my head it was hard for much else to register.

Meeting our child in such a foreign place and in such a foreign manner to us compared to our two biological sons made an unreal haze hang over all we did. As a new mother again, I worried about what my child might experience as she left the land of her birth and the comfortable reality of the transition house where she was clearly cherished. How would she handle the long trip back? And when we arrived home . .what will be her challenges?

One of the places we visited was the Ethiopian National Museum. Lucy, the oldest human skeletal remains, found a new resting place here. She was also given a second (Amharic) name: dinqineš, or Dinkenesh, meaning "you are amazing" which struck me as the more appropriate one. As irony would have it, Lucy was on tour and at that time on exhibit in our home town of Seattle. As we walked through the exhibits, I was struck by how many were in need of upkeep as well as the tremendously long and rich history they represented. Being in the birthplace of humankind and of new our daughter, took my breath away. We drank in our beautiful Ethiopian baby girl in the morning and these sights in the afternoon. It was almost too much to fully absorb.

As we plan a repeat visit, I look forward to introducing my sons and my now toddler daughter to their shared ancient history. Below are a series of photos taken on Leyla's first birthday. She is proudly perched between her adoring brothers. Both dressed in traditional Ethiopian garb with their ebony carved treasures we brought from their sister's homeland. Leyla is draped in an lovely Ethiopian scarf. (Leyla had already outgrown her matching outfit.) The backdrop is the purple rhododendrons marking the advent of spring in the Pacific Northwest -- a beautiful melding of beauty from two diverse parts of the globe. Looking at them again brought tears to my eyes. What amazing joy and color filled our lives since bringing home our daughter home from Addis.

In another twist, as we raised money through Ethiopia Reads to put libraries in schools in honor of our daughter, I received an interesting contact. An man named Yadesa Bojia, who identified himself as an Ethiopian artist, volunteered his services to aid our fundraising. As we exchanged information, I learned his family lives in the same general area we do. I looked at his artwork on line and learned he won a contest for the design of the new flag for the African Union shown above. The stars and light streaming out from backdrop of Africa wonderfully reflect our experience too. I thought back to that first day in Addis. I am honored to add one more special connection to the continent that gave us our daughter and enriched our lives. And I definitely plan to take Yaddi up on his generous offer . . stay tuned.

Friday, March 18, 2011

I am an 'Opia (Ethiopia) Baby!

As we prepare to visit Ethiopia for the first time since bringing Leyla home two years ago, I see elements of this East African culture becoming woven into our life. Leyla is beginning to understand pieces of her story. She excitedly exclaimed to me the other day, “I am an ‘Opia baby!!” Ever since we went to a celebration at the local Ethiopian Culture Center, she speaks often about “’Opia.”

She has an amazingly close but different relationship with each of her two brothers. She recently told me, “My boys came from ‘Opia too.” I explained that her brothers came from mommy’s tummy. She looked straight into my eyes with her piercing black ones and replied “I came from ‘Opia. My boys came from mommy’s tummy.” I loved that her tone implied no judgment but was simply a statement of fact. Then she giggled her infectious laugh and hugged me tight. Her little arms wrapped around my neck with the tickle of her black ringlets on my cheek takes my breath away every time no matter how often she does it.

I see signs she feels a pull from her native land. I found her playing with a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot (pictured). I am not sure how she got it down but she is resourceful. As I watched her play, I thought such a pot was certainly a part of her earliest experiences. She seems drawn to things in our house that originated from Ethiopia. I love seeing it. It both feels natural and right. But it doesn’t feel sufficient. And I know it is my responsibility to make sure we honor her heritage.

A facebook page called something like "The Ethiopia no one tells you about” reminded me of the dual purpose I had for this blog. First, I wanted to raise awareness of the need that remains there. I also wanted to show the rich history and immense beauty. This page was filled with lovely images of the people, land, music and food very different than the stark photos more often associated with that region. This is the Ethiopia we saw and I want my children to see. Not to forget the need but not let it dwarf all else that is wonderful there. Here are some amazing sights from our first visit.

The family is abuzz with anticipation. My sons have never been. As my eldest enters high school, I see this trip as a reminder to him, and his brother, they are global citizens. They are now directly tied to three continents and four peoples. We are learning how big and small the globe really is.

For my daughter, I want Ethiopia in her memories; through pictures, stories, art, food and culture. My husband is Greek. We took the kids to his homeland since they were infants. My parents are Dutch and although less frequently, we visit Holland too. Those countries are home to us rather than foreign lands. We treasure the multi-cultural richness of our lives which now also includes Ethiopia.

People ask me, “Why don’t you wait until she is old enough to remember?” I understand the question. But I am greedy for my daughter. I want more than memories of a special trip for her. I want her country to remain a vital part of who she is. I want her to see herself in pictures there at different points in her early life. I want her to hear stories of trips that she might not remember. I want her to see her family in her land as we embrace it as ours too.

I believe those pre-memory experiences are powerful influences. I want those experiences to be the framework of her ties to her birth country supplemented through our everyday efforts. I desire the same for the whole family but more acutely for Leyla. I want Ethiopia to truly be home for my amazing‘Opia baby.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Connections to Ethiopia Grow Deeper

Adopting from Ethiopia connected us forever to East Africa. However, it was up to us what that connection would look like. When I first started blogging here as an effort to give back, I researched many things Ethiopian. I came across Ethiopia Reads, a charity focused on building libraries in the founder's home country, which I mentioned in an early blog. With a few months, I put together a couple boxes of books and sent them to their office. When I did so, I discovered an interesting connection. Their US office is not far from my parent's home in Denver where I grew up. I received a lovely thank you note. The Reading Angel picture above was on the cover along with this story inside.

“The Reading Angel depicted on this card is one of the hundreds painted on the ceiling of the Church of Debre Birhan Selassie in Gondar, Ethiopia. Built in the 17th Century, it is the only churches remaining after the city was invaded in 1888. It is said that a swarm of bees descended on the soldiers as they attached the church compound and that the Archangel Michael stood before the large wooden gates with his flaming sword drawn. It is considered one of the most significant churches in Ethiopia.”

The story provided another connection. My husband is named after this Archangel and my second son's middle name is Michael.

To add some Ethiopian themes to our children's book collection for our daughter, I searched on I found amazing books by Jane Kurtz. She was born in the Pacific Northwest where we now live. Two of our favorites are “Fire on the Mountain” and “Trouble.” She grew up in Ethiopia and her amazing books gave our family a richer view of a very different experience that is now part of our family. Late last year, I found her on facebook and sent her a note of thanks and asked if we could connect.

On that same day in December, I saw Ethiopia Reads again and browsed their website more deeply. I saw on their "how you can help" page opportunities to raise money for a library in a school. I was intrigued. My parents and my husband are teachers. We believe strongly in the transformative power of reading. This opportunity appealed to us. I sent an email to get more information about raising funds for a library. I received a wonderful response back from Jane Kurtz. Turns out she is leading the library planting effort. She commented on received both my requests through facebook and Ethiopia Reads on the same day. And she mentioned her fascination with all the ways we are interconnected. After our discussions, we decided to move forward with the library.

I reached out via facebook causes as well as directly to many family and friends – you see it at the top of the blog. The response was amazing. One friend and his wife showed their support with a much larger than expected gift and a note "for Leyla's library." I was so touched. I felt tears fill my eyes at the simplicity and beauty of the note. "Leyla's Library" now seemed so much closer. A senior executive I worked with some years ago sent in a large contribution. In his enthusiatic response to our efforts, I also learned about his similar work in his homeland. Many others helped in smaller ways. Some surprised me: my yoga teacher, friends of my teenage son, people I had lost contact with but still had their email in my system. One of those friends shared her story. She was one of the founders the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School which serves “at risk” girls in urban Chicago. Oprah modeled her girl school in Africa after that one. I never knew any of this but I was inspired to hear it. I also heard from people I didn't know at all including an Italian family who had similarly adopted an Ethiopian daughter. The connections were building and stretching different directions.

In a few short months, we are close to having the funds for the first library which will bear our daughter’s name. Given the tremendous support and gaping need, we plan to begin work on fundraising for a second. We are starting fulfill the promise we made to ourselves and to our baby daughter to help in the land of her birth. Our connections are becoming stronger and more defined. And Leyla (our little sunshine angel seen below at 15 months) will have a place there she can truly call her own.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Gift of Possibility

As a mom, and even more so as an adoptive mom, I worry, many times needlessly. We knew development delays, and some issues we aren't familiar with in the U.S., are the norm for children adopted internationally. The doctors told us we were fortunate that Leyla came to us as an infant. When she was first home, we needed to get her tested her for TB. I remember learning about TB in school but my recollection was TB was a disease from the past except for a rare case. Not so for many parts of the world I learned now. Fortunately, the results were negative.

We also had her tested for an intestinal issue. Eighty percent of Ethiopian children have it so we were not surprised when the results were positive. To resolve the issue, we needed to administer a onetime dose of medicine. It sounded simpler than it turned out. Leyla had an amazing gag reflex. When the medicine hit the back of the throat, she projected it back out. After trying multiple times, we gave up and called in reinforcements. It is sad, but it was somewhat gratifying for me to see the nurses in her doctor’s office struggle too. They ultimately had success. I then got an unexpected call from the health department because this intestinal issue isn’t common here. It was a reminder of how far she had come.

During one of our early doctor's visits, we received some troubling news. Her head was growing disproportionally fast compared to the rest of her body. The doctor did not seem overly concerned since proportions of African children are different than those in the Americas. This was news to me. I expected proportions to the be the same everywhere. We had the option of having an ultra sound of her brain through her fontanelle. This brought back memories of shortly after the birth of my first son. His fontanelle was completely open rather just the ordinary small triangle in the front. At that time, we were also offered an ultrasound of his brain. For him, they had large access since there was little bone getting in the way. In each case, we chose to have the ultrasound and the ultimate news was good. But for the period between learning our child may have a significant medical challenge and when they told us everything was fine - time stood horribly still. In that stillness, we did some serious worrying and praying.

We recently needed to complete a family report as part of our adoption follow up. I got the chance to review doctor’s notes of her most recent check up which I normally wouldn't have seen because they are not shared. Our regular physician was sick and I met his partner for the first time, a preeminent adoption specialist. (I included a link on the right side of the blog.) Leyla was just two. When the doctor walked in to the exam room, Leyla began explaining to her that the baby was crying in the other room because he was sad. And he was sad, “because he wanted his daddy.” The doctor laughed and expressed some amazement at her communication skills.

She demonstrated them again to the nurse who was giving her the age appropriate vaccinations shots. The nurse administered the first shot into one of Leyla’s chubby thighs. Then Leyla emphatically pulled her pant leg down. She pointed her little finger in the nurse’s direction and said, “You all done!!” As we concluded the visit, the doctor expressed how pleased she was with Leyla’s development and joked that she could see her as a CEO one day. I remember driving home and feeling the amazing release of the early worry about her development. I could now let myself see her life stretching ahead of her full of promise.

We joke that our biggest concern may keeping up with her. She is a bundle of energy and will power. I often get tears of happiness in my eyes where I hear her singing all the words to the songs on the radio which she does with regularity. She lets her brother know when she is unhappy with them by ordering them to “go sit on the stairs” - our time out place. And follows that with "Come here and give me a kiss" and then lavishes them with hugs and says “I love you so-o much.” She is beautifully full of life and potential. Here is a recent picture of her proudly showing off the spongebob slippers her brother Damian bought her for Christmas.