Adoptive family finds its 'normal'

A surprise reunion follows two-year ordeal

Staff WriterNovember 7, 2009 

— Awa, a mischievous 10-year-old African girl, has finally found her way home to America.

It's been nearly five years since Awa first latched onto Lori and Michael Russell, a young North Carolina couple who were volunteering for the Peace Corps in Awa's native Togo, a developing country in west Africa. In the Russells' makeshift home there, Awa (pronounced AH-wah) found food to satisfy her growling tummy, running water to wash her dirty limbs and safety from an abusive family.

Eventually, she found a new family.

"She picked us," Lori said. "It was very much her decision, and we were lucky."

The Russells adopted Awa in 2007. The United States, however, was slow to recognize their patchwork family, and Awa was not allowed to come to this country until this week.

The Russells' struggle to bring Awa to America was featured in a News & Observer story in May 2008. The year and a half that followed has brought a blur of bureaucratic hurdles.

To be whole, the Russells first had to split their family.

Lori Russell dropped out of Duke Law School and moved to Africa to take care of Awa; Michael kept his job at Duke University's Global Health Institute to support them.

"I have no idea how we managed," said Lori Russell. "Financially, it nearly broke us. Emotionally, we were always on the edge."

But on Thursday, those setbacks seemed like ancient history. Awa romped around the family's North Durham apartment like she'd been there forever.

"All we wanted was normal. A day of the three of us driving around, seeing family, running errands," Michael Russell said. "This week, we finally got our normal."

Awa slid down the carpeted stairs and raced outside to blow bubbles. Her room was awash with pink and purple dainty doodads. Snug on the couch, Awa leaned her head on Lori's knee while Michael picked crumpled pieces of deadleaves off her tights. She rolled around with Moxie, the family dog, and talked about her first glass of sweet tea.

A difficult separation

The Russells had never meant to welcome a child into their lives when they were so young. Both had signed on to the Peace Corps as young college graduates.

But Awa's world was bleak. The youngest girl in a family with one father and several wives, Awa found herself having to fight for meals. She landed on the Russells' doorstep one morning with a knot on her head. Her parents never came for her and eventually asked Lori and Michael to take their daughter for good. A tribune of Togolese judges sanctioned the arrangement in 2007.

The Russells soon encountered a web of antiquated American adoption laws that never anticipated a family like theirs. To keep children from being bought and sold like commodities, American officials approve visas for a foreign-born child only when the child has been forfeited to a state-run orphanage or foster system. Or, the American parent must have lived abroad with the child as her legal guardian for two years.

Awa had been abandoned by her family, but Togo had no state-run foster system. The Russells' Peace Corps stint was completed a year after Awa was legally adopted - a year shy of the American requirement. To no avail, they applied for humanitarian parole for Awa.

Off to Togo

Lori Russell boarded a plane to Togo in May 2008 with no idea when she would return.

The separation was harrowing. Lori and Michael, childhood sweethearts from Elon University, had never spent more than 21/2 months apart before Lori left for Africa. Over 15 months, they were able to visit only twice. Lori was lonely and overwhelmed being a single mom in a foreign country; Michael felt guilty.

This spring, weeks after the Russells had satisfied the two-year foreign living requirement, they applied again.

"I was certain it would work this time. I mean, what else could they want from us?" Lori Russell recalled thinking.

But an official in Togo began to question the adoption, a requirement they'd easily satisfied in previous applications. The news was more than Lori Russell could bear. She returned home in August to regroup and figure out how they would manage another long wait.

She and Michael talked of giving up their life in America and laying roots abroad. But for native North Carolinians who have generations of family members settled in and around the Piedmont and Triangle, an indefinite trip abroad seemed unimaginable. They discussed whether they should try and find another home for Awa.

"I would walk around crying," Lori said. "I felt like the worst mother in the world for even entertaining the thought."

Another surprise

Lori Russell fell ill in October, battling an exhaustion and nausea she'd never before experienced. She canceled her return trip to Africa and wept as she called to tell Awa she wasn't well enough to travel. Awa would extend her stay with a Peace Corps friend of the Russells in Africa.

Then, a week later, the visa that would make them whole arrived.

Awa giggled when Michael called to tell her.

"I could not sleep at all," Awa says, in a sweet French accent.

Michael traveled to Africa at the end of October to get Awa. Still, they braved tough questions from immigration officials who didn't know what to make of the African girl humming Beyonce and Shakira songs.

On Tuesday night, Michael and Lori and his parents pulled into the parking lot of their Duke Street apartment complex. Awa poked her head out of the sunroof, squealing and waving at a crowd of friends and relatives she'd never met who had gathered outside the Russells' apartment.

Awa has arrived just in time to claim senior status in the family. Lori's fall illness was a sign that she was pregnant.

Awa is hoping for a little sister, as she's sure "boys are naughty."

All the Russells know is they will be taking the guesswork out of parenting this time. Lori wants to know the sex of the baby.

"No more surprises. No more challenges we don't know how to tackle," she said. "At least I won't have to beg America for a visa for this one." or 919-829-8927

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