From Addis Ababa to Alaska

Three Ethiopian siblings adjust to life with their new parents in Juneau

Posted: Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Although Mahlet, Eyerusalem and Ashenafi enjoy sledding and building snowmen, they sometimes balk at all the clothing they're required to don before playing in their Tee Harbor yard.

Ashenafi, who turns 4 this week, his sister, Eyerusalem, 5, and big sister Mahlet, 9, grew up in tropical Ethiopia where the traditional garment is the shamma, a toga-like tunic. Now they're adjusting to "mittens" and "jacket," and all those words entail.

The siblings were adopted by Barbara Learmonth and her husband, Albert Tingley, and have been in Juneau just under two months. Mahlet doesn't want to talk about the trip from her home in Africa.

"I am sick on airplanes," she said. Then, joking, she announces there are 132,000 kids in her class, and that "Mrs. Gleason" is the name of her school.

Tingley, 44, who works for the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, said the couple's instant parenthood grew out of a meeting with Adoption Advocates International he attended in December 1999.

"Barbara and I talked about it, and then off we went," he said, giving the condensed version of the story. "Our life has been turned upside down - but not as much as theirs."

Learmonth, 52, who works for the state Health and Social Services Department, said she and Tingley wanted to adopt siblings.

"Lots of orphanages have only kids given up at birth. You can only get two children out of China, and I thought multiple trips was ridiculous," Learmonth added, fishing Ashenafi from under a side table where he attempts to ambush a light switch.

"The neat thing about these kids is that they were raised by kind, loving parents. They know how to be a family. Their mother died in 1997, and their father in 1999, and there was no other family member who could take care of them," she said. "They have accepted us really easily as parents. It's an adjustment for them being here, but I don't see any attachment problems."

By coincidence, the siblings entered the Addis Ababa orphanage the same month that Tingley attended the adoption group meeting. Learmonth and Tingley applied last February to adopt them, and the adoption was granted in late October.

The couple met the children Dec. 3. They stayed with them in Addis Ababa for two weeks, getting to know them in familiar surroundings.

"Mahlet says her father spoke English; many adults speak English there," Learmonth said. "She went to school for two or three years, and is picking up English the fastest."

The children were born in a port city. Because of border disputes with the nearby African nation of Eritrea, they moved to Addis Ababa in 1997. When their father died, the landlady brought them to the orphanage, Learmonth said.

"Ash didn't smile very much at first, and now he is just happy," she said.

Eyerusalem holds a musical toy to her ear, stamping her feet in time to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

"The first three days in Juneau were completely insane, but it has gotten much better much faster than I thought it would," Learmonth said.

The couple brought back videos, clothes, baskets, recordings and books because they want their children to retain their African heritage. They also learned about 40 Amharic words, and Mahlet is teaching Barbara the Amharic alphabet used in Ethiopia. Local resident Elsa Demeksa, Ethiopian by birth, is also available as a resource.

"I was afraid I was too old, and I was afraid because of horror stories I heard of adoptions that didn't work out. But it's been great," Learmonth said.

Ethiopia's population of 63 million has a life expectancy of only 47. More than 10 percent of the children die as infants. Drinkable water and sanitation are often not available, especially in rural areas. Less than 50 percent of children receive the childhood immunizations Americans take for granted, such as DPT, measles and polio.

Tingley is sure the couple made the right decision. "I'd like to know where the other 20 people are now who were at that meeting," he said, while helping Ashenafi into his ski pants.

Learmonth encourages local residents to consider sibling groups - some as large as six.

"The kids need to stay together. I think these three adjusted better because they had one another," she said.

Adoption Advocates International can be reached in Port Angeles, Wash., at (360) 452-4777. Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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