When Chad and Katie Coleman legally adopted Safi and Sifa from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2013, they thought the girls would arrive in the U.S. at the ages of four and two-and-a-half years old. With four biological children already at home, this adoption would complete their family and give the girls years to adjust to their new life before heading off to elementary school.
Since then, there has been an exit permit suspension in the DRC for all children being adopted by foreign families. At first, the suspension was to last a year—which is a considerable amount of time in any child’s life. But then it continued well beyond that date, leaving families like the Colemans torn apart with little control over the situation.
Of course, that did not stop them from taking whatever action they could. They cut ties with their adoption agency and began working with a lawyer and corresponding with the Department of State. Katie traveled to Washington D.C. three times between 2014-2016, meeting with both North Carolina senators and North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows. On one of those trips, Chad was able to join her, and they met with the U.S. ambassador from the DRC as well as other congressmen alongside other families stuck in the same situation.
Chad and Katie researched how to best parent adopted children, read about the culture, and started learning French. They paid a monthly stipend to provide foster care for their daughters, and sent care packages to the girls as often as they could. In October of 2014, Katie traveled to the DRC for a week to visit the girls. Although there were language and cultural barriers at times, she quickly connected with them—they were her kids.
Chad, a senior vice president at Bank of America, compared his role during this time as similar to one of an expectant father—supportive of his wife leading up to the child’s arrival, but waiting to form an emotional bond with the child once in his arms. He predicted that the moment the girls arrived at the airport would be a similar experience and time of bonding with his children.
In the summer of 2015, they built a new home to fit their entire family. Five-year-old daughter Carina slept in a room with three beds, the other two ready and waiting for her sisters. This adoption process started when she was just a 2-year-old, so it has been part of her entire childhood memory. When asked if she had siblings, Carina would tell people about her three older brothers as well as her two sisters—who just happened to live on the other side of the world.
“It’s been really hard. It’s almost a nightmare that you don’t know when you’re going to wake up from. Especially before we saw movement in February—the not knowing when our daughters are going to be home,” said Katie this past March. “You know they are growing up without you. You’re missing all of these milestones. My youngest was a little toddler, and now she’s a big girl now. I know her and know what it’s like to kiss her on the cheek at night, and I can’t do that.”
In February of this year, news came that a number of children from the DRC would be granted their exit permits and finally allowed to go home to their adopted families. During a game of hide-and-seek on March 9, the Coleman kids remember their mom screaming in excitement. Safi and Sifa were on the list. If all went well, they might be home before Mother’s Day this May, coincidentally, also Sifa’s 5th birthday.
Throughout her time as a mother and then as an adoptive mother, Katie looked up to her own mother. “She shaped my entire life because of who she was as a mother has given me the strength I have needed to fight for my daughters,” said Katie. “I know the fight is worth it. They need a mom.”
A few years ago, Katie’s mom, Linda, was diagnosed with a rare disease called Primary Progressive Aphasia causing her to lose her ability to speak and later understand speech. When Katie and Chad first pursued adoption, Katie was able to get the message across—her mother knew she was expecting two granddaughters from the DRC. In the summer of 2015, Linda had an onset of dementia due to the disease. While Katie continued to fight for her daughters, she also began mourning the loss of a relationship they would never get to have with her mother.
Two weeks before Mother’s Day, Katie’s mother Linda suffered from a massive stroke and passed away on April 24, 2016. With the adoption process stalled once more by paperwork, her daughters would never even get to meet their grandma. Amidst preparing the eulogy for her mom and applying for passports for her daughters, she and Chad continued parenting their four children at home, all busy with the usual end of the school year activities.
After years of waiting, the Colemans could finally be certain Safi and Sifa were coming home. The US visas were stamped in their passports, exit letters were acquired, and plane tickets were purchased in early June. Foster mom Laure Nakweti would accompany the five and six-year-old sisters on the journey to Charlotte where the Colemans and several friends and family members would meet them at the airport on June 8.
Safi, Sifa, and Laure descended the escalator in matching outfits as a crowd awaited with posters, balloons, and gifts. Chad and Katie crouched down to see them, crying and waving as the girls made their way down the stairs. Both girls immediately hugged Katie and then Chad as a hush came over everyone around them watching in awe.
Chad hugged his daughters. Katie exclaimed, “Isn’t she beautiful?” as friends and family came in to congratulate them. Colin, 13, wiped away tears while Gabe, 10, beamed, and Oliver, 7, bashfully said hello. Carina handed the girls stuffed animals and then bounced around with her friends explaining, “They’re going to be our daughters—our sisters!”
Albeit a long time coming, their story doesn’t end at the airport. In fact, it’s barely the beginning as they embrace living together as a new family of eight.
When asked what it was like to finally have all her kids under one roof Katie said, “It’s real. It’s a relief, but wow, there will be some big adjustments, and it’s heartbreaking for them.”
Safi and Sifa are in an entirely new country, new culture, and new environment. They are surrounded by a loving family, who they are just getting to know with hardly any understanding of the language. The girls grew up speaking French, had formed relationships, and settled into certain routines in the DRC while waiting to come to the U.S. At the same time, their biological children will be making a major transition, too.
The Colemans were comfortable with their family dynamic and wanted to make sure to maintain that in their home. Before the girls arrived, they discussed what this change might look like and tried to best prepare their children. Safi and Sifa would be given certain considerations and at times parented differently as the girls adapt to their new surroundings, which might not seem “fair” to their other children. In the fall, all three daughters will be enrolled in the same kindergarten class in the French immersion program. The Colemans also plan to incorporate elements of both American and Congolese culture into their lives and hope to eventually take trips back to the DRC to visit.
Chad and Katie know that everyone will be feeling the impact of this adoption in different ways and said there would be a lot of grace and understanding for all of their children in the days and weeks to come. This summer, they hope to spend time really focusing on their time together as a family—be it while attending free movies in the park, using their family membership at the botanical garden, or simply blowing bubbles on the porch. There may be cultural barriers and transitional difficulties ahead, but as parents they have already seen their kids interacting together in ways that surpass all that. As Chad put it, “Kids speak the same language.”
This is part two in a two part series, click here to read part one: Adopting an attitude of hope.