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Oakes Family Returns to Ethiopia

Our Family’s Return to Ethiopia

By Amanda Oakes, America World Adoptive Mom

Jason and I started talking about adoption during the first year of our marriage, and we started talking about it more seriously around our 10-year wedding anniversary. Our two daughters were three and five at the time. Because I am Native American, we started a process with my tribe, but we had to move out of state. That door closed. We never considered international adoption because of the cost.

Our Adoption Story

After we moved, the church we joined had a few other families going through international adoption processes. This church greatly expanded our theological understanding of adoption, and we stepped out in faith to adopt internationally. We did our paperwork with America World for a baby boy in Ethiopia.

After a few months of waiting, we decided to increase our age range from 0-5 to keep our birth order. In the meantime, we started noticing that many of our friends were starting their second adoptions.

We thought, “That is crazy. The process is long and expensive.”

And then, about two days later, we both looked at each other and realized that the Lord had laid on both our hearts to be open to a sibling set. Why do a whole second adoption when we can just do two at once?  We prayed about it for a day and then changed our request to two biological brothers, ages seven and under.  A few days later, we were matched with Elias and Yuni! There were many lessons learned along the way, including never doubting God’s provision. He provided every dollar we needed at the exact right time.

After We Came Home

The boys with Yonas, our guide

We stayed in touch with Yonas Tiku, who was our guide for our two trips to Ethiopia for the adoption. When the boys were 13 and 14, we sent Yonas information from our adoption paperwork, and he did a birth family search for us. Once Yonas found the birth family, he did a couple of wellness checks for us for a few years leading up to our trip. Those were very meaningful as we were able to send pictures, videos, and questions with Yonas. And he would send pictures, videos, and answers to questions back to us from the birth family.

We learned that Elias and Yuni’s father, Tsegaye, died from malaria. Hanna, their mother, tried to keep the family together but struggled to be able to provide enough food for the four sons who were currently at home. She heard about Compassion and traveled to Aleta Wendo to inquire about sponsorship. Unfortunately, no more sponsorships were available. She had to make an incredibly difficult decision. The older son went to live with an uncle. She kept her two-year-old son because she could breastfeed him. She took Elias and Yuni (6 and 5 years old) to an orphanage in Hawassa. The boys have always understood that Hanna loved them and that she sacrificed so they could live.

Elias remembers watching his father die. The boys remember sleeping in the hut at night and listening to the hyenas outside. They remember walking with their older brother, Alazar, to get water every day. They remember playing with Alazar and thinking their big brother was the best.  They remember stealing corn and potatoes from farms when they were hungry, and they also remember eating dirt when they were desperate. They remember Hanna being a very loving mother.

Returning to Ethiopia

The boys with Hannah, their biological mother

Going back to Ethiopia was a dream come true. We had dreamed of this moment for the boys, and as a mother, I longed for Hanna to know that her boys were well and happy. Originally, our trip was planned for November 2020, but COVID canceled those plans. We (all 6 of us) finally got to go in June of 2022! The boys loved being back in Ethiopia, eating injera, the coffee (!), the smells… it felt familiar. They loved reconnecting with their Sidama culture.

As we arrived in their village, word had spread that we were coming and we were greeted as we walked the 20 minutes from the road by many children. Once we got to the village, there were over 100 people there to see the boys – family from both their mother’s and father’s sides. The boys got so much attention – they were “rock stars,” and it was a bit overwhelming, but they were somewhat prepared from the counseling that they did before the trip.

The highlight was the reunion with Hanna and their siblings. As can be seen in the video, Hanna praised the Lord before she hugged her sons. Hanna looked very different from the videos Yonas had sent to us from the wellness checks. In the wellness check videos, she looked unwell. But now, in person, she looked vibrant and younger. She later told us through our interpreters (Sidama to Amharic to English) that knowing that her boys were well and knowing she was going to see them lifted years of worry from her.

Visiting their father’s grave

The boys remembered their younger brother, Malaka, who was two when they left, and they remembered their older brother, Alazar, who was around eight years old when they left. They did not remember they had other siblings because those siblings were old and already living outside the home. They got to meet their older brother, along with two older sisters as well. They played Jinga with their siblings! To watch Alazar with the boys was extra special as the hugs were long and tight because Alazar remembered his brothers leaving.

The other incredibly meaningful experience was the boys getting to meet their father’s family and getting to ask questions. Their uncle (father’s brother) came to meet them.

When the boys asked what their father looked like, their uncle told them, “Just like me.”

He then took them to where Tsegaye was buried, which meant the world to the boys. Overall, the boys saw with their own eyes how loved they were by their Ethiopian family. That realization is priceless.

A Taste of Heaven

We have an amazing church in Southern California, and our lives are deeply entrenched with our church family and rooted in God’s Word. When we arrived in the boys’ village, a tent had been set up for their arrival. In that tent, after the initial reunion, we experienced a time of worship with a pastor preaching in the boys’ native tongue of Sidama on Psalm 33.

The Sidama people are evangelical Christians because of SIM missionaries in the 1930s. It was not lost on us or the boys that they were prayed over by our church in California before our trip, and then when we arrived, we stepped into a worship service with their Ethiopian family. Two families, now one, connected by these precious boys, thousands of miles apart, worshiping the same God—Yahweh. It was a taste of heaven.

Advice for Other Families

People from their village

People from their village

My first piece of advice for other families hoping to plan the same experience for their children is counseling/therapy. Our boys did three counseling sessions before we went to prepare and talk through any feelings they had about the trip. It was really hard to anticipate what the experience was going to be like, but the counselor did a great job of walking the boys through that first meeting and helping them to be okay with the myriad of emotions they might feel and all of the attention.

And looking back, I think a key thing that helped our boys (especially at the ages of 16 and 17) was that the counselor explained to them that they could not legally stay in Ethiopia. Seeing your family in so much need can bring on major feelings of guilt and confusion. The counselor wanted them not to carry the guilt when it was time to say goodbye.  That would have been a lot of guilt for a 16- and 17-year-old boy to carry if they felt like they were having to “choose” between families. The counselor lifted that burden before it became one.  The boys also did a counseling session upon their return to debrief and we have offered more sessions, but they have felt at peace.

Both boys are now over 18 and have found their own ways they want to be involved with their Ethiopian family. As parents, we have made it clear that we support whatever their desires are for their relationship with their Ethiopian family, and we would support them if they decided they wanted to go visit again. As we left the village, Hanna made it clear to them that they needed to continue their education and so they both feel at peace with where they are today.

Hugging older brother, Alazar, goodbye

Hugging older brother, Alazar

My second piece of advice is to give space and communicate. After the trip, there was A LOT of emotion to take in. It took months for us as parents to process the experience, and I think we are still processing it! After the trip, we would do “check-ins” with the boys to see what they were thinking or feeling. We did not hound them but rather just short check-ins letting them know that it would be normal to have different emotions. We would share memories together and thank the Lord for the gift of “reunion.” The trip changed us all and was probably one of the greatest gifts we could have given to our boys and to their Ethiopian family.

My third piece of advice is that if you are not sure if your child is ready to visit the birth family, have someone like Yonas do a wellness check for you where you can exchange pictures, videos, or questions. This is a safer start to the process and less intimidating. Once you are ready to plan a trip, you need Yonas or someone like him that you can fully trust. We could not have done the trip without Yonas. He helped us set expectations, prepared us for potential challenges based on his experience, and guided us through the process. It is one thing to have someone plan the logistics of your trip; it is a whole other thing to have someone you trust to walk you through a birth family reunification. He was amazing!

Finally, Yuni also has his own advice. He says, “Mentally be present and take it all in. Get videos, but don’t be the one recording. Be in the moment.”

Speaking of videos, below is a video I made of the experience!


Help Us Keep Families Intact in Ethiopia

We are so grateful to the Oakes family for sharing their adoption and reunification stories, as well as their amazing video! Ethiopia closed its doors to adoption in 2018, but America World has stayed active in the country through Bete Hosanna, our transition home for teenage girls, and our Family Empowerment Program.

If you would like to prevent children from being separated from their families due to poverty, we would love to invite you to join us as a supporter of our Family Empowerment Program. For just $45/month, you can provide food, shelter, and medical support for one family. For more information and to learn more about this crucial program, read our recent blog post, “Helping Families Thrive in Ethiopia.”




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