The Mounsithirajes and the Millers adopted four siblings from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, giving them a life they could never expect to have as orphans.

By J. C. Lee |

In one of the last conversations Kaleb had with his mother, Desta, she asked her 6-year-old son to always take care of his three younger siblings.

The Ethiopian mother made a living by selling fruit, doing laundry and looking after other families’ children, but she eventually could not afford to feed her own. She sent Kaleb, then 6; her twins Wudye and Temesgen, then 4; and Muluken, then 2; to an orphanage in the capital of Addis Ababa with the hope they’d find a better life.

She had only one request when she signed away her parental rights: She wanted her kids to stay together wherever they went.

Thavisith and Jean Mounsithiraj and Shawn and Kathleen Miller, two families who flew from Goshen to Ethiopia, came along to fulfill what Desta hoped.

For Thavisith, or “T,” walking into the little room where Kaleb and Muluken slept brought back memories — painful ones — of his own childhood.

(From left) Kaleb Mounsithiraj, Jean Mounsithiraj, Muluken "Lukie" Mounsithiraj and Molly Mounsithiraj sit together on the couch Feb. 5, 2015, at their home in Goshen. Kate Mounsithiraj stands behind the couch. The Mounsithirajes and the Millers of Goshen adopted four Ethiopian siblings three years ago. Kaleb and Lukie are the oldest and youngest of the siblings. (J.C. Lee/The Elkhart Truth)

Jean Mounsithiraj and her children (PHOTO: J.C. Lee/The Elkhart Truth)

He was born in Laos and lived there through the early years of the Communist rule, which began in 1975. His father was a politician and the family came to fear for their lives. They fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they stayed for 13 months before a church helped get them to the United States in 1980.

“I cried when I first saw them,” he said. “It reminded me so much of camp. … There’s a certain smell that you don’t forget. It’s the smell of poverty … the smell of human waste, the smell of food that’s cooked differently.”

The couples took the kids home to Goshen — Kaleb and Muluken, called “Lukie,” went to live with the Mounsithirajes and twins Wudye and Temesgen went to live with the Millers. The two families live less than five miles apart and visit one another often.

BECOMING FAMILY

A lot has changed in the three years since the kids were adopted.

The Millers gave the twins new first names that are still Ethiopian but easier to pronounce. Wudye became Meron Selam Wudye Miller, and Temesgen is now Kayin Temesgen Miller. They’ve all had their first hamburgers and hot dogs. They saw snow for the first time. Kaleb rode his first bicycle.

The children first only spoke an Ethiopian tongue called Amharic, but on a reporter’s recent visit to the Miller home, Meron burst into a rendition of “Let It Go.” They don’t understand Amharic anymore.

The influence of life in Ethiopia varies for each child.

Lukie, the youngest, was only 2 when he left Ethiopia. Based on how he talks, it’s hard to tell where his memory ends and his imagination begins.

Kaleb, T said, is not too different from other 9-year-olds, but he hasn’t forgotten his life in Ethiopia or his promise to his mother.

“Once in a while, they open up their private world to us,” T said. “They buried his father, (Kaleb) shared that. He shared taking care of his brother and sister in the morning when his mother had to go to work.”

As a result he’s a bit more serious, a bit more mature. He wipes the food off Lukie’s face after meals and comes to his siblings’ defense whenever they’re being reprimanded — whether at home or in public.

“When we discipline Lukie, for example, and put him in time-out, Kaleb would come and say, ‘Why? How come? I’ll take care of it,’” T said.

From T’s own experience of leaving his homeland, he can see some of Kaleb’s struggles as his Ethiopian identity fades.

“There’s grief, and I know as a refugee, having to leave everything behind,” T said. “This whole thing of loss and grief, that’s something he would never be completely over it. It’s part of who we are. … It’s his identity as an Ethiopian that he’s giving up.”

Under the Millers’ roof, Kathleen Miller said the twins were part of their family a few months when she saw it dawn on Meron that she wouldn’t be going back to her old life.

“That week she had been doing a lot of playing on a toy phone, and she would pretend that she was talking to her birth mom,” Kathleen said. “At some point she realized that it was never going to go back to that.”

Kayin, on the other hand, spent his formative years malnourished and was often sick. When they picked him up from the orphanage, Kathleen said he would sleep for 16 hours a day. It’s possible his little body was too busy surviving to commit much to memory.

“He doesn’t have a lot of memories to draw from and grieve,” Shawn said. “He’s just happy to be here. He just loves life, that’s just how Kayin is.”

But even still, his curiosity about where he comes from is evident. Kathleen said Kayin used to climb into her lap, put a blanket over himself and, from underneath it, say, “I’m coming out of your tummy.” Kathleen told Kayin that he came from his biological mother, but for a while he insisted that he came from her.

“He just wants so badly to feel like that’s what it was,” Kathleen said.

All the members involved in melding the three families are still finding ways to make sense of their new world, they’re still coming to terms with their differences, Kathleen said.

Meron and Kayin, for example, call themselves “chocolates” and their adoptive family “white.”

And for the Mounsithirajes and the Millers, their deep faith and their own biological children’s love and acceptance of Kaleb, Meron, Kayin and Lukie have made the experience a sweet one so far.

“It’s such an amazing expression of learning to love somebody that’s not like you,” Kathleen said. “These kids don’t look like us. They didn’t sound like us. Nothing about them was like us. But they could not have been anymore ours had I pushed them out myself.”

Source: The Elkhart Truth

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