If you play or coach soccer in Spokane, you know Ermek Danielson. He’s the young referee who never loses his cool or his positive outlook, who skillfully adjusts his decisions to match the level of play, and who genuinely seems to enjoy being a ref.
If you are a member of the Bloomsday Road Runners Club, you know Ermek as the Whitworth cross country athlete with the perfect stride who loves to run and looks like he could keep up that pace all day.
You might have missed seeing Ermek on the soccer pitch or at training runs the past few weeks. He was busy. You see, Ermek spent the first seven years of his life in an orphanage in Kazakhstan, and he recently traveled there, meeting his birth mother, who had not seen him since infancy, his birth father, who did not know Ermek had ever been born, and a tribe of extended family.
After this week, you won’t be seeing much of Ermek around town at all. He reported to Fort Benning, Georgia on Tuesday to start a six-month training regimen to earn his Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special forces.
Detour from school
In August, Ermek received the financial aid information for his second year at Whitworth University, where he was a member of the cross country team. Whitworth coach Toby Schwarz described Ermek as “extremely mature and the type of guy who will always maximize his ability due to his work ethic and coachability.”
The financial aid news was not good, and Ermek scrambled to piece together living arrangements and jobs that would allow him to continue his education.
Ermek has made money refereeing soccer since he was 13. He was named Washington State Youth Referee of the Year in 2015, and started working Pac-12 matches while still a teenager. Saeed Askar, one of the top soccer referees in Washington, cited Ermek’s drive to get better as a referee, noting that Ermek often stayed after his games to study his mentors’ work in the next game. But it looked like his income from refereeing might not be enough to keep him in school.
As a child in the orphanage in Kazakhstan, Ermek and his playmates dreamed of being adopted by Americans. They would even draw pictures of what their new parents would look like. Ermek realizes how fortunate he was that Kristen and Brett Danielson brought him to Spokane.
“The US has given so much to me,” Ermek said. “I wanted to repay America.”
So when the financial numbers just did not add up to returning to school, he turned to something that he had always held as an option: the armed services.
“I always want to be challenged, to see how far I can be pushed,” said Ermek.
Thus, the Green Berets. He contacted an Army recruiter, filled out a million forms, passed the written and physical test, and signed a five-year contract with the Army.
A DNA test last spring had helped Kristen locate a cousin of Ermek’s who was living in Canada. Ermek’s birth mother had given Ermek her last name, so Kirsten was able to use social media to navigate through layers of the extended family. About the time Ermek got the bad financial aid news, Kristen located the immediate family in the Khazak town of Svyatodukhovka. With Ermek’s Army induction date approaching, Kristen set about arranging to visit Khazakstan and so that she and Ermek could meet his biological family.
After airline flights, a long train ride and a taxi drive, Ermek and Kristen met some relatives who took them to the workplace of his birth mother, Saule. She knew Ermek was coming, but they had not communicated at all. When they met, she cried, hugged him, and lamented that they couldn’t talk, because the translator wasn’t there.
Ermek spoke Russian in the orphanage, and when he came to Spokane he took school lessons at night in Russian at the Slavic school after a full day in his regular school. In six months, he was fluent enough in English that he didn’t need the Russian school, and as result he has lost most of his Russian language.
The next day, with the translator there, Saule got down on her knees in front of Ermek, asked him “Are you happy?” and apologized for giving him up for adoption, saying “there was no other way.”
Ermek felt “a strong biological bond” with Saule. The same was true when he met his younger half-brother, Talgat. When Ermek got off the train, he immediately picked Talgat out from the crowd. Ermek and Talgat spent hours and hours together, staying up until 2:00 a.m. every night, watching videos, playing games, and talking about girls.
Ermek’s biological father, Petro, did not know he had a child. Petro is Russian, while Saule is Khazak, which complicated matters. Petro had played in a band with two of Ermek’s uncles, so it was easy for the family to contact him. Petro took a long bus trip to Petropavl, and met Ermek and Kristen in a café parking lot.
There was a “huge hug,” lots of tears, and lunch in the café. The next day Petro accompanied Kristen and Ermek to the orphanage. Photos of the orphanage show a cheerful facility with a playground of bright plastic toys out back. Ermek recreated a photo from the day he was adopted, poking his head through the window of a log cabin at the playground.
Ermek remembered the orphanage well. The carpet on the main stairs was the same, and he found the exact spot where his bed had been. Kristen showed both of Ermek’s biological parents a video she shot at the orphanage the day Ermek was adopted. It shows a happy 7-year-old boy running and playing ball with the other orphans.
At first Kristen and Saule were at arm’s length. It is difficult to imagine the emotions they both were experiencing. Ermek took Saule aside and explained to her that without Kristen’s persistent efforts, the trip would never have happened. After that, Kristen was treated as part of the family. Among the many gifts she brought, Kristen presented Saule with an album of photographs of Ermek growing up.
Their visit was filled with meeting the extended family, most of whom, like Petro and Talgat, had not known Ermek existed. Every night there were huge spreads of food, local cognac, and sightseeing. The food, in particular, brought back vivid memories for Ermek. He could suddenly recall when and where he had last had certain dishes.
Ermek helped slaughter sheep and chickens for meals. He learned to cook borscht, the traditional beet soup. The villages where the families live have electricity, spotty cell service and internet, but no running water. There is an outhouse in each back yard. Baths are taken in a bath house with a wood fired water heater and a bucket. Water is purchased from the village well in 10 gallon containers.
Since his return, Ermek has talked to his birth mother and half-brother every day. He is relearning Russian. Gaining an entire new family and culture has been a monumental change for Ermek. But it has also made him appreciate his American parents more as well.
“I am so grateful to Mother for giving me the chance to meet my Kazakh family,” said Ermek.
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