If someone had told me in 2017 that this is what my life would look like today, I would have laughed and called the idea crazy. Looking back at how vulnerable children in Ethiopia caused my life to change can only be attributed to God who touched my heart in ways beyond my understanding.
I was born and raised in Addis Abba, Ethiopia. I am the fifth of eleven children from my parents Semunguise Haile and Aselefech TekleMariam. I completed high school in Ethiopia at an all-girls Christian school called American Mission School (YBS). I attended Addis Ababa University my freshman year and then moved to the United States in 1995 to pursue a higher education. I earned a BA in business administration and MA in information technology from the University of Maryland. For the next decade, I built my career working as a telecom engineer, IT program manager, and as a business development director.
I met my wonderful husband Zelalem Ashiny (Zee), who is also Ethiopian, and we married in 2007, had our first daughter, Adona in July 2009. God blessed us with another biological daughter, Amran, in 2011. Happy with our two girls we focused on our American Dream living life through fun activities, hobbies, multiple vacations, and the fellowship we shared through lavish dinner parties.
In 2001 I had returned to Ethiopia to bury my mother. Since that time, though we still had family there, I grieved my mother’s loss too much to make any more visits to my family home. But in November 2015 I changed my mind and wanted to go. Zee did not contest the idea as he had been hoping to return to Ethiopia for a long time. We traveled with our daughters, my mother-in law Beketech and my brother Solomon. After 15 hours in flight we arrived weary, to a country of origin very changed in the 21 years I had not lived there. I did not even recognize my childhood neighborhood.
We spent quality time and fun with family but the morning that changed my life, a relative, Asayech Yirga, insisted we visit her orphanage. We knew what she did but had never cared enough to ask more. The minute we walked in the door and saw those orphans, something happened in my heart which I cannot explain to this day. Her orphanage was a private facility, and it was clean and organized. Presented with the fact that the children belonged to no one, had no parent to call their own, broke my heart. She had 75 children of which 26 were special needs. I have two special needs brothers and I understand the toll it takes on a family. I had to admire and wonder at the sacrificial job Asayech was doing to care for these kids’ night and day.
As we walk around visiting the facility, a three-year-old boy named Biniyam became so attached to me that I held him for our entire tour. Biniyam loved being held so much that he refused to get out of my arms even for his evening meal. Then he called me mommy and I instantly wanted to take him home but learned he was already in the adoption process. He was only one of the many lost orphans that needed parents, someone to belong to, someone to make them feel as if they mattered and counted for something in this world.
I wanted to help by adopting a child, and was hoping Zee was walking the same emotion journey as I. When I shared my thoughts with Zee, he was more cautious and wanted to think about the whole idea. Giving a child the gift having a mom and dad, someone they could call their own, would also include the greater family of big sisters, uncles, aunties, grandparents, cousins and friends.
So, in January 2016 we came home from our trip totally perplexed. My heart was stirred by our Ethiopian experience in a such a profound way that I felt distraught and drowned in the emotion of my tears, thinking of those orphans. Sometimes in February 2016, our mentors, Allyn and Phil Jones from our church McLean Bible Church (MBC) invited us over for dinner to catch up on our trip. We told them how we were impacted by the orphans and how my heart was continually stirred with everything we had seen. They told us to pray and trust that God would reveal his plan to us in his time. A few months later, my mentor called and asked if I had heard the pastor’s announcement about a volunteer staff opportunity at MBC and that that might be where God was calling me to serve. She suggested I pray about it and then reach out to the church. The thought of those orphans still left me in tears so when I interviewed at MBC for that position all I did was cry. Who knows what Pastor Alirio thought but he offered me the position! So, in June 2016, I found myself leading a new ministry (that we would soon call Orphan Care Ethiopia Movement (OECM).) I coordinated a local outreach where we launched a new Ethiopia fellowship and an Amharic class. I planned to use these platforms to serve global initiatives as well. God is using this ministry to bring awareness to the orphan crisis in Ethiopia, such that my prayers are being answered in a way I could never have imagined.
While serving in this ministry, Zee and I diligently prayed about the idea of adoption. My desire to adopt was as fresh as it had been the first day, we visited the orphanage. One day I shared with Zee that it would be wonderful to adopt twin boys and he responded that indeed, it would be a privilege to do so! In God’s plan, a month or so after this conversation, twins born prematurely in Ethiopia were abandoned at the hospital. When the news reached us that the boys were up for adoption, Zee believed the boys were God’s gift to us. We discussed all the ramifications of adoption and what it could mean for our family, even the difficult questions such as the possibility the children could have physical and or mental disabilities. In obedience to God, we agreed we were called to adopt the boys and that He who began this process in our hearts would give us the grace and courage to deal with whatever changes it brought. We received our first picture of the boys when they were three months old. I still remember their beautiful eyes. I made a collage of them with Adona and Amran and it felt so right. Though we were told the process would take six months, it dragged on for the most challenging 18 months of our lives. We prayed, cried and even wondered if we had heard God right. Our family felt divided and we missed the boys not even knowing them. We sent formula, clothes, diapers, snacks and more to provide for them in ways the orphanage could not and even skyped to form recognition patterns with them.
A year into our process, the Ethiopian parliament began a discussion on whether to close foreign adoptions. During that time, we thought we might lose our boys. Because of the moratorium and our adoption process in limbo we hired a private nanny to give them undivided attention, so this way they received the cuddling and touch children in an orphanage need. Even the girls showed concern when they asked why we had not gone to get their brothers in Ethiopia yet. We did not tell them about the problems suggesting only that they pray.
Looking back at this difficult time we were able to research why the Ethiopian government wanted to ban international adoption. We read and watched YouTube videos that documented orphan issues. One movie documented uneducated Ethiopian mothers as they were coerced into signing papers which they did not realize released their kids for adoption. One mom said though she was very poor she could afford to bring up her child, but that the business men offered her child the wonderful opportunity to go abroad and be educated. What she also thought was was that when the child grew up, he would return to help her and the village as well.
We also heard stories about foreign parents abusing their adopted children. Though the vetting process for adoption in the USA is incredibly intense including investigations by the state police and the FBI, it does not seem possible, as the research indicates, that someone can get through such scrutiny and still abuse a child. However, no vetting can accurately predict what future behavior or family conditions look like and sadly some biological children are abused as well. Ultimately our research revealed the extent of the orphan crisis in Ethiopia and how awareness of this crisis is very poor even among the local Ethiopian community.
The Ethiopian government finally allowed the families already on the path to adoption to complete the legal process. By the time our papers were signed, we suffered under the weight of the bigger problem of the Ethiopian orphan: that they were caught in a vicious cycle of generational brokenness, drugs and prostitution. Prayers for the kids were soon answered as we shared our story. Our church jumped in to address some of the orphan needs and assessed the situation more broadly on a visit to Addis Abba where they realized critical work had to be done to try and save little lives. As we look back, we see how God’s plan extended far beyond us and our story of adoption. God grabbed our hearts with our boys and then showed us a million other neglected children that could be helped if our story reached other hearts and hands willing to serve and give to the orphan.
On December 2017, Zee and I excitedly headed back to Ethiopia to bring our boys home. We took a small medical team from MBC to address the needs of children at an orphanage that was brought to the attention of our church leaders on their prior trip to Ethiopia. Zee and his medical team along with volunteer health professionals on the ground diagnosed every one of the 207 babies age 0 to 8 years old and established their first medical charts. My team and volunteers recruited from the local church helped the medical team by washing each baby, applying lice and scabies medication, as well as giving each child new bedding and a clean outfit to wear.
Exposed to more orphanages, our understanding of the crisis and the urgency of need rose to another level. Seeing the challenges of the caregivers and the complexity of the whole situation was overwhelming. On the same trip, we visited three other government orphanages; one to which the 9-year-old girls move, the other for the 9-year-old and older boys and the third a rehabilitation center for kids with minor violations of the law. My heart was breaking by what I saw and the teen’s stories I heard. We returned to the girls’ orphanage taking them some sweets to enjoy. However, what they craved was love and attention, wanting to belong and to matter to someone. We as strangers made a difference in their lives. We told them how much God loves them and how he created them in his image, that he had a purpose for their lives and that purpose will come to pass in his timing. We all wept as we said goodbye.
We picked up our sons Simon and Stephen Ashiny from the orphanage and flew home on December 9th, 2017. As we joyfully left with our two little boys, now a year and a half old, we could not ignore the pain we left behind.
We came home to a newly prepared nursery for our sons, a beautiful gift from their uncles, aunties and grandma. The boys fit seamlessly in to our household as they played with their sisters and cousins. They received so many visitors, to many gifts and so much love. Moving from a family of four to six went smoothly though our home changed so much with their new little personalities that I cannot imagine life without them. They are worth every tear and every bit of the challenge we faced through the adoption process.
Our sons are a constant reminder of the five million vulnerable children in Ethiopia. Memories of the orphans on the streets, caught in child labor or trafficked for other’s profit, in understaffed orphanages, or even living with their parents but in poverty caused us great concern. Two months after leaving Ethiopia I received a face book message from one of the teens we met during our December 2017 visit. She tracked me down and simply said that they had felt hopeful after meeting us and believed me when I said God loves them, cares about them and has a purpose for their lives. But since then no one had come to see them, nor had they gotten to celebrate Ethiopian Christmas with the whole country because it was just a routine day at the orphanage. She finished her note by saying they were feeling alone and hopeless once again.
As I finished reading, I could not wipe my tears away quickly enough. I wondered if I had caused more pain to these girls by giving them hope as time was passing by without much change in their situation. I went to the leadership team at church asking if some sort of extracurricular activity, job training or anything could be done for these teens. That evening Zee and I went to our regular Discipleship class. I told our mentors everything we were experiencing and without blinking they offered to help the kids financially through the OCE ministry. They asked for a business plan and told us they would help us with a pilot program and the Orphan Care Ethiopia Movement (OCEM) was born. Zee and I were speechless, amazed and thankful how quickly God responded to our prayers giving us the opportunity to make plans for these kids. As we made plans for these teens, we realized that other orphans would also begin to age out from the orphanage. They too would need to be added to our pilot program if they were to have any kind of functional life when released back onto the streets.
We wondered how we could make our pilot sustainable. With foreign adoption being banned in early 2018, the problem was only getting worse. We prayed for direction and guidance and how to tackle the problem one child at a time. We thought we could use this funding to set up a system and process to support kids transitioning out of the orphanage. But then we realized the community not only had impoverished kids living with parents unable to afford even proper nutrition but also all the kids who were still alone on the streets. There were Government orphanages and privately funded orphan “homes” trying to prevent further homelessness.
We wanted to create a model for intervention and prevention. God gave us a vision to care for a community through HIS CHURCH! The one constant entity in a society is a church filled with people. So, we put our energy into mobilizing the local church, creating awareness of the orphan crisis, training and equipping the local church to take on the lost Ethiopian children as the word of God mandates. As we prayed and built our pilot, Mclean Bible Church decided to organize another mission trip to Ethiopia. In the summer of 2018 we took 207 Americans volunteering to serve in the area of medical needs, child and teen training, special needs, care teams, mentoring teams as well as women’s, men’s and student teams. During our days there we reached thousands of people in Addis and outside of Addis. Just the medical team alone with some local partners, saw 1,800 patients in one week. The teams held and cared for orphans, fed street children, washed infants, served in the women’s shelter, counseled, trained, and cried over this previously untouched group. It was a trip that impacted many in Ethiopia and was an amazing experience for all of us involved. But, in the reality of the situation we knew we could feed a child for a week but soon he returns to being hungry; we could wash and do medical intervention but soon they become dirty and sick; we could dress them in clean clothes but soon they will be dirty once again. Though the July mission trip was magical, it proved the critical need for an ongoing local solution.
We have work even harder since the trip to build on the momentum of those willing to serve. We want to create a sustainable solution by involving the church in Ethiopia. So far, we have had three different vision sharing and awareness workshops with 100 Ethiopian churches. We at Mclean Bible Church are coming alongside of these churches, leading them through the steps of launching an orphan care ministry in their own churches. We are educating and coming alongside of the local volunteers to help them empower and mobilize their congregations. This will begin the process of addressing the many needs of the orphans in their community such as domestic adoption, volunteering at the baby orphanages, and tutoring, counseling and mentoring the older orphans.
To support this Orphan Care MOVEMENT in Ethiopia, MBC launched an Orphan Care Ethiopia Movement (OCEM) ministry where 50 plus people volunteered to support our partners, our staff and our Ethiopian volunteers. The role of this ministry is to further design and implement a pilot program to meet the needs of the vulnerable children in Ethiopia. Running this type of movement is very challenging and expensive. To address the financial needs, our mentors along with eight other committed individuals registered a non-profit organization called Orphan Care Ethiopia. OCE will work closely with partners, churches and NGOs on the ground to address the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of vulnerable kids in Ethiopia. My days are completely full as I lead the OCEM ministry at MBC, serve as a board director and spokesperson for the OCE NGO and serve as the liaison between OCEM in the USA and OCEME in Ethiopia. I am thankful and am dedicated to helping make a change in those very orphans I met when we adopted our sons as well as those I have yet to meet. I can no longer focus on regular life as the Lord has touched my heart with a vision to serve these orphans. I am happier than ever, grateful for the opportunity and the privilege given to me though sometimes the weight feels more than I can bare. I believe the Lord has a lot more in store for all of us. Our family is committed to serve, advocate and campaign for these orphans for as many days and years that the Lord gives to us.
I very much hope you will join our movement.