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A Kiss Delayed by War

At a Liberian orphanage, a lucky few are steps away from homes in America. As young lives worsen, new parents agonize.

August 08, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — Their playground is a sandy, fly-infested yard, their bed a dingy foam mattress on a concrete floor. Their bath is a tin pail or plastic bucket that they wash in outside. When hunger bites, there is typically little or nothing to eat.

It is a wretched existence for Nymah Sumo, 7, and Doretha Rubben, 6, who live at a squalid children's home in this battle-scarred capital. But it is an existence they hope to soon escape.

Thousands of miles across the Atlantic, in Arizona, a new life awaits them: an American mother, two Chinese-born sisters, matching sheets and down quilts, Brownie uniforms, even new names.

"You tell them their beds are ready for them, their teddy bears are ready, their sisters are ready," said Barbara Taylor, 57, a retired Air Force colonel from Long Beach who now lives in Phoenix and won adoptive custody of the Liberian girls this year. "We've got a whole community here waiting for them to come home."

But the vicious 14-year-old civil war in this West African nation, which was settled in the 19th century by freed American slaves, has delayed the departure of Taylor's girls and nine other children who live at the Hannah B. Williams orphanage and welfare center in Monrovia.

In all, about 40 Liberian youngsters have been adopted by American families and are awaiting visas, according to U.S. Embassy statistics. The turmoil here has prevented embassy officials from conducting investigations necessary to complete the visa application process.

The delays come amid a worsening plight for children in Liberia. War and other ills are swelling the ranks of orphans, who now number at least 10,000, although an exact figure is impossible to obtain, local aid officials say.

Liberia is one of the world's most dangerous conflict zones for women and children, along with such countries as Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Angola and Congo, according to a report by the Save the Children relief organization.

Children here become orphaned or separated from their parents as families caught in the war's cross-fire flee their homes. Many women and children face harassment, violence, rape or indiscriminate killing, aid officials say.

Some impoverished parents simply abandon their children. Relatives who normally might care for parentless children have also been separated by the war. And Liberian youths face such hazards as malnourishment, disease, psychological trauma and the possibility of being conscripted as child soldiers, officials say.

The recent arrival of the first wave of West African peacekeepers and American military advisors has buoyed hopes that a cease-fire will hold, a new interim government will soon step in, and life will return to some semblance of normality.

While the White House continues to deliberate any further action in Liberia, adoptive American parents ponder the fate of their children.

Most of the parents learned of the children on the Internet, many through a Santa Clarita-based agency called Angels' Haven Outreach that arranges adoptions around the world. Liberian welfare officials have given the procedure the green light, and adoption papers have been filed with the Liberian courts.

Liberian law does not require prospective parents to visit the country or meet the child before they adopt. But they must file a petition for adoption and get written consent from the biological parents if the latter are alive. Any adult is eligible to adopt, and there is no marriage or age requirement. Additional paperwork required by the U.S. includes an immigrant visa for each child.

But an upsurge in fighting in June, as rebel soldiers made a heavy push on Monrovia, has hampered the process and left many children in limbo.

"The war has stopped everything," said Hannah B. Williams, the cheerful woman who opened the children's home bearing her name in 1972. The facility, housed in a dilapidated former church, accommodates 155 children ages 1 to 18. Some are orphans, others wards of the state. Most know no other life and probably never will, as they are unlikely to be adopted.

Nymah's parents died during the 1998 escalation of the civil war. Doretha became a ward of the state some time ago after her parents said they could no longer care for her.

Taylor, a single mother who adopted two other girls, Samantha Su, 8, and Amanda Lin, 10, from China in the 1990s, said the Liberian youngsters would make her family complete.

"I have only seen a picture of them that was on the Web, but I fell in love with them right away," said Taylor, a medical programs coordinator in the Homeland Security Office for the state of Arizona, who also volunteers as a Girl Scout leader. "I said, 'These are my daughters.' "

She has selected new names for the girls, trying to mix their African names with a bit of America. Doretha will be called Dore-rae Dakota, and Nymah will be Natalie-Ny Amahlie, said Taylor, who attended public school in Compton and holds a PhD in psychology.

"I hope they like them," she said.

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