It felt as if the walls of the small conference room were closing in on us. I tried to breathe through the panic that was causing my heart to race and the roaring rush of blood that pounded in my ears. His words hung in the air among us, and they felt horrifying.
If you take him out of this country and back to Ethiopia, he will never, ever get another visa to come back here, and he will never become a citizen.
These words were not at all what we expected to hear just two days prior to moving our family from America to Ethiopia. It hadn’t yet even been a month since our oldest son’s adoption was finalized. The miracle of that day was still fresh on all of us, as fresh our three tender tattoos that commemorated the truth that we really were irrevocably family – the very first request our son ever asked of us, and the one he begged us to make come true for years. “I just want a family. I want you to be my family”, he would say over and over again. It seems like such a basic need. It IS such a basic need. And yet it was the most grueling, complicated process to meet that first request, that one basic need. So the weight of what had finally happened was still heavy on us, and we were still in blissful shock. With his adoption came family that he had requested, but not citizenship to America. It was the one thing that still needed to be worked out. We had managed to complicate things even further, by making the life-changing decision to pursue missions in Ethiopia. We would be taking our newly adopted, non-citizen child back to his home country, voiding his current visa, and pursuing American citizenship from across the ocean. The normal procedure would have been for him to stay on his visa in the US and finish out high school, at the private school, then apply for a green card, live on the green card until he reached the time where he could apply for citizenship on his own in adulthood. But the only way to do this was from America, and we knew that was not where we were supposed to be anymore.
We knew this, but we also believed that there had to be another way that would allow us to live in Ethiopia. So I did what I love to do – I researched. I literally devoured legalese and every single immigration law article/document piece of information that I could. I spent hours researching through different ways – only to come up with dead ends and one reason or another that it could not work for Habi’s case. I became fluent in jargon that I had no prior knowledge of, and in the midst of the laborious researching process I finally found one complicated, risky way that could work. I learned everything there was to learn about the process. I knew it could work. I knew it would be risky, but I knew that with the help of our immigration lawyer, that this really could work. My husband spoke with our lawyer on the phone and explained our plans, explained the process, and we were invited to a meeting to set the course in motion, just two days before we moved.
So, there we were in the small conference room. Habi, my husband Jim, and myself, along with our immigration lawyer and three law students who were invited to sit in on the unique case. I was armed with a huge stack of paperwork backing my research, and explaining the process, and I was excited that we had found a way. And then the lawyer dropped the bomb that shattered everything. He had never heard of the process, and despite phone calls to him that my husband had made, had not researched it or had anyone on his team research it. It became clear that he had no intention of researching it. It wasn’t common, he had never done it, and therefore we were made to look like foolish, irresponsible parents for deciding to leave the country. We walked out of that room devastated.
Little was said during the hour plus drive back to where all of our luggage was packed for the move and our three little children waited for us. Scenarios bounced around my head, and my heart beat wildly with fear. Why would God orchestrate this this way? Why after so many hurdles would He give us this child and then not finish giving him the security he needed to know that we would and could always be together as a family? Because essentially that was exactly what citizenship meant – security, permanency.
I was angry and confused. I remember Jim praying with me when we got out of the van, and I was just so angry. We then decided that we had to have a really honest and open conversation with Habi, and lay everything on the table very plainly for him. This meant telling him that if we were to go through with these plans to move to Ethiopia then we would have to fire our lawyer, and he would have to trust me to try to complete citizenship on my own, without the expertise of a lawyer. It also meant that his current visa would be voided, and that we could not make a promise that he would ever return back with us to America – not for a visit and not to live. It was our hardest parenting conversation to date. We told him that if he was too scared to make this move, if it seemed too risky, that we would take some time to pray together about staying in America, because he was and is that important to our family.
It has been said that a child will lead them, and I will never forget what he said, “I trust you. God has asked us to go work with street kids. We cannot ignore that. We need to follow Jesus. I may never come back here, but I trust you and I trust God, and this is what He is asking us to do.If I never come back here, then it is God’s plan, but we have to move.” Up until he said this, I had been thinking that this was my Abraham and Isaac story, and that God was asking me for my son back. It felt like the worst kind of surrender. But after Habi spoke those words, I realized how much MORE of a risk this was for my child, and how much authentic, active faith he had in being able to risk everything for this move. It wasn’t about me at all. This story was about Habi.
Most people probably do not know the strength, courage and faith that it took for a fourteen year old boy to board a plane back to his home country. They may not have realized the risk he was taking to follow Jesus. When he hugged and kissed relatives in America ‘goodbye’ the possibility of that being his last time with them on American soil was all too real, and he knew that. And yet he braved it all, and in the process taught me so much about what faith really looks like. We landed in Ethiopia, and nothing was easy for him. Right away people questioned the legitimacy of him in our family. I don’t know if it was because he did not have American citizenship or because his adoption process was abnormal, or simply because satan is good at this kind of thing. Maybe all of the above. The one thing he had asked us for was constantly being picked at from so many angles – family. But he persevered and he continued to live bravely, and in the process the researching continued, paperwork was filled out, prayers were said, and the story finally culminated with his citizenship to the United States of America, nineteen months after that fateful meeting in the small conference room. None of it came easy. His lawyer was right, and Habi was dangerously close to being denied a visa. He should have been denied, but God placed a very special man in the embassy that day. The only man in the entire building that understood the process we were using for his citizenship. It took a legitimate miracle that day, and is a story all its own, as is the story of his actual oath day to become a citizen. Satan was hot on our heels every step of the way. But he didn’t and couldn’t win, because when God is for you, really, really, who can be against you?
I have hesitated to share more of this story because it’s not really mine, but Habi told me to share, and he has shared himself a few times while public speaking recently. So, this is my take on his story, please understand that. It is shared tenderly with permission. This is the story of how a child led our family.