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Family adopts boys from Liberia

by Linda Hiller

Two young boys from Liberia in West Africa have found their way to the Carson Valley to a family that felt called to adopt them.

How could their small voices have reached across so many thousands of miles?

“We had always thought about adopting internationally,” said Carol Broersma.

The mother of three girls – Nicole, 13, Rhiannon, 10 and Jordan, 2 – Carol is now the mother of three girls and two boys Joshua, 6, and Samuel, almost 3.

“About seven months prior to getting the boys, we started to look at what country had the greatest need, settling on Sierra Leone and Liberia,” she said.

The Broersmas found an agency that helped a little bit, but not enough that Carol will recommend it.

“They didn’t really do much except take our money,” she said. “But we did get a catalog of pictures to look at and choose from.”

The children were from an orphanage in Liberia, refugees of a civil war that has ravaged that country. The Broersmas agonizingly pored over the pictures and finally decided on two boys, Samuel, then 1, and Joshua, 5.

Wading through paperwork, Carol, 34, and Mike, 38, finally set out for Liberia in November 1998, going from Reno to Dallas to New York, then to Ghana, and finally, Ivory Coast in Africa. Landing there, they learned that the embassy in Liberia was closed, along with the phone lines, so a short trip turned into three weeks of finagling to get the boys out of Liberia.

The Broersmas stayed in a mission in Ivory Coast. They both lost around 13 pounds for a very simple reason.

“There just wasn’t much food,” Carol said. “And there was no refrigeration, so if you were going to eat, it took all day just to do that. You had to get up, go to the market and get some eggs or some bread and take it back to cook, and then by the time that was done, it was time for the next meal. We just ended up skipping meals because it was too much of a hassle. Sometimes, we’d just grab a piece of fruit.”

Broersma said that the first time they saw the boys, they weren’t sure one of them was the right one.

“When they finally got on a plane and made it out of Liberia, Joshua knew who we were and ran to us, but when they handed Sam to me, he was so small that I told them I thought they had the wrong child,” she said. “He was so small, he was like a baby.”

The Broersmas later learned that Samuel, just under 2 years old, weighing 18 pounds and suffering from anemia and pneumonia, was close to starving to death. In the first year with the family, he grew more than 10 inches and gained 21 pounds, and now looks every bit an almost 3-year-old.

“You don’t realize what you have until you don’t have it,” Carol said. “To this day, Sam is obsessed with food and gives me a dirty look if I eat in front of him or give someone food before him. I don’t know if he’ll ever get over it.”

Joshua, now 6, still holds much of his African heritage and will sing at the slightest request. He sings the “Joshua Song,” which has African beats and words and English words intermingled in a lively rhythmic tune, and he also sings “I Believe I Can Fly,” which he said he learned in Africa. Hearing him sing, “I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky. Dream about it every night and day …” in his Ruhenstroth living room is quite an experience.

– About the country. Liberia is a unique country. It grew out of the American Colonization Society in an effort to re-colonize the African country with freed American slaves. The first group of Liberians was sent over in 1822, settling at the mouth of the what is now the St. Paul River, naming their town Monrovia after then-U.S. President James Monroe.

It is a relatively small country, covering 43,000 square miles – about the size of Tennessee – on the west coast of Africa. The climate is humid and severe, sandy winds blow through from December to May. There are just under 3 million people and the average number of children born to a Liberian woman is 6.02. The life expectancy of Liberians is 59.88 years and the literacy rate is 38.3 percent. There is one television station, which explains Joshua’s huge repertoire of songs. There are 13 tribes in Liberia and the boys come from the Krahn tribe. They are not brothers, but both of their mothers are deceased and the whereabouts and identities of the fathers are unknown.

Broersma said bringing the boys to their new Ruhenstroth home and their three new sisters was an adventure for everyone. One of the things about Liberian culture that is different than United States culture is the way women are treated.

“They are property over there, and a man can have many wives,” Broersma said. “You can buy a wife for, I think, two goats.”

“Or some chickens,” Nicole piped in. “It’s sad.”

Working with the boys to take instruction from Carol, let alone the other three females in the family, has taken some time, especially with Joshua.

“When he first got here, he would expect me to wait on him. He’d hold up a dish and want me to get food for him,” she said. “I told him, ‘That’s not gonna fly here.’ Now he’s over it, but it did take some time.”

The three oldest Broersma children are in school at Mount Sierra Christian School, where Carol is the volunteer librarian. Nicole said that in the 14 months her brothers have been in the family, she’s had to defend them a few times from other children, but mostly because of the way the boys talk, tending to drop the last part of a word and making them difficult to understand.

Nicole and Rhiannon said the most fun about meeting their new brothers was introducing them to the toys and modern conveniences in their new home.

“Joshua was so excited with every toy we showed him,” Nicole said.

“He found this one big fire truck that made noise and he played with it so much that he ran out the battery,” Rhiannon said.

“We haven’t replaced the batteries,” Nicole joked.

One of the most puzzling and shocking things the boys can do is a loud, guttural, from-the-soul cry when they don’t get their way. It happened one day in Mervyn’s.

“It was really embarrassing,” Nicole said. “Joshua wanted this one shirt and mom said, ‘No,’ and he went into the yell. It was really loud and I couldn’t get him outside to the car to wait for mom to pay for the things, so he just sat on the floor and yelled and I just stood there.”

“It’s really loud, like a deep moan, and unlike you’ve ever heard anyone do,” Carol said.

– Warm embrace. Carol said she and her husband Mike, who owns Cornerstone Grating and Excavating in Reno, have been pleased with the way the Carson Valley community has embraced her new sons.

“We really felt led to do this and have been amazed that the community has been so supportive,” she said. “We haven’t had a single bad experience. In fact, it’s funny because sometimes I think the boys get better treatment than my girls.”

Currently, the Broersmas are involved in the legal struggle of getting birth certificates for the boys and will introduce, with the help of Assemblyman Lynn Hettrick, legislation in the 2001 session to make it easier for children from Africa to get birth certificates.

“It’s been very frustrating because of some strange loopholes, but we are determined to make it happen,” Carol said.

The Broersmas, members of the Calvary Chapel in Gardnerville, take each day with their blended family as a blessing. The thousands of dollars it took to adopt the boys are well worth it, Carol said, and she wonders the fate of their two wonderful Liberian family members.

“Sometime, if Liberia settles down and becomes safe to travel to, we’d like to take the family there if we could afford it,” she said. “And, when the boys grow up, if they want to go back and see where they came from, that would be wonderful. What if they could go back there and make a difference?”