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Ethiopian adoptees in Nine Mile Falls learn their birth mother who has cancer, HIV is improbably alive

Ethiopian adoptees Adesalem and Kella Jelinek are photographed Monday at their home in Colbert. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Ethiopian adoptees Adesalem and Kella Jelinek are photographed Monday at their home in Colbert. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

When Lakeside High School senior Adesalem Jelinek first looked into the eyes of the mother he believed long dead, his response was disbelief.

“The next day, it felt like it was a dream almost,” the 17-year-old said in an interview this week. “It just didn’t seem like it actually happened, just because we thought she had been dead for 13 years.”

But the woman wiping tears with a quilt in a video shared with Adesalem and his half-sister, Kella, earlier this spring was the same Ethiopian mother who’d put the two up for adoption in 2006. Askale Oke, their birth mother, had contracted HIV, one of the roughly 830,000 people living with the virus in the developing African nation that year. The epidemic prompted the government to develop a plan in concert with the United Nations to address the outbreak. The young mother also was diagnosed with uterine cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of 50% to 60% for black women in the United States, where medical treatments are far more advanced than in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a 2018 report from the American Cancer Society.

“The amazing miracle that you could survive cancer, in a Third World country, and have HIV at the same time and live, that’s amazing,” said Brandon Jelinek, Adesalem and Kella’s adoptive father. “That’s beyond my concept of what you can survive.”

The unlikelihood of their birth mother’s survival has created a sense of urgency in the Jelineks to travel to Ethiopia and meet Oke before her luck runs out. They’ve started an online fundraising campaign through GoFundMe to raise $9,500 for the trip, a sum that’s too steep for Adesalem, whom the family refers to by the nickname “De” but whose name means “New Hope,” to raise from his job tending the grounds of a local community center.

“Just to meet her, and before she passes away, she wants to meet us and know us a little bit before she goes,” said Kella Jelinek, 15, who’s finishing her freshman year at Lakeside High School.

The teens’ adoptive parents worked through an agency that no longer exists to bring Adesalem and Kella to the United States. They knew little about Oke and her health issues but had gathered what she wanted for her children.

“The only thing I really picked up about the birth mother was she wanted De to get an education,” said JJ Hotchkiss, the pair’s adoptive mother. “De was very private, he did not talk much, but every once in a while he did come up with this memory.”

But as he grew older, Adesalem Jelinek said, he pushed those memories further to the back of his mind. This week, he couldn’t offer any specific memories of his early years with Oke, or of his father, who died in a car crash. Kella Jelinek has a different father who’s still alive, and she learned she has multiple brothers and sisters as old as their 30s.

“For me, once high school hit, I just kind of slowly started drifting away from that connection,” Adesalem Jelinek said. “I was kind of angry at life, most of it. By the end of eighth grade, I was just like, forget it. I slowly started forgetting everything about her.”

That changed when he learned she was improbably still living near Sodo, a city of roughly 200,000 people in the south-central region of Ethiopia, a country roughly twice the size of Texas. Hotchkiss, his adopted mother, said Adesalem immediately began planning how to support his mother and make the trip to see her.

“I actually think, and it’s just a theory, that something kicked in, in his DNA,” Hotchkiss said, noting that her son would be the head of his household after the death of his birth father. “His first instinct was to help and protect her.”

If Oke’s survival is an unlikely story, so too is her connection back to her children. The mother, who has trouble with balance because of the drugs she is taking to combat HIV and lives in a 6-foot by 6-foot shack, found her way to social workers with the nonprofit Ethiopian Adoption Connection, who sent the adoptive parents messages over social media in March that Oke was alive and wanted to know about her children. The Kansas-based charity, founded in 2014, works to unite adoptees with biological parents in the African country that has a complicated history with international adoption.

“We have social workers in Ethiopia, telephones and the internet,” Andrea Kelley, an adoptive mother of an Ethiopian child who started the nonprofit, said in an email. “Many Ethiopian families have access to the internet, and even those who don’t will usually have relatives and friends who do. Our social workers travel the country and spread the word about us.”

The charity, which also goes by the Amharic name “Beteseb Felega,” which translates to “family search,” has reunited more than 125 families since its inception through the use of an online database, Kelley wrote. More than 700 other families are still looking. The number of potential reunifications has declined in recent years because of the Ethiopian government moving away from international adoption and pushing domestic arrangements.

After high-profile cases of child neglect, including the death of a 13-year-old girl living outside Seattle in 2011, and charges that some agencies weren’t being truthful about the adoption process with impoverished families in Ethiopia, the country’s lawmakers ended international adoptions early last year. Adoptions out of Ethiopia, one of the few African countries that successfully resisted European colonization in the 19th century, to America numbered more than 2,500 in 2010, according to reports by the U.S. State Department. In 2018, just 177 adoptions from the country were completed before the ban was put in place.

For Adesalem and Kella Jelinek, who say they’ve learned little about their birth country in school, ending international adoptions out of Ethiopia means children in situations similar to theirs won’t get the opportunities they’ve had. But it also means fewer birth parents will live in uncertainty about the fate of their children. Oke, who clutched photos of Adesalem and Kella to her body, wept upon seeing their teenage faces for the first time in the video shared with her birth children.

“I kind of felt like it sucked, because she was promised to be able to see us mature, but she didn’t get to see that,” Adesalem Jelinek said.

Both teens are looking forward to reuniting with the mother they have few memories of, in the country they left more than a decade ago.

“We love her, and we want to know her, because we’ve missed out on the last 13 years,” Adesalem Jelinek said.

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