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The Adoption Story of Zawadi, the Parents Who Waited for Her, and the God of Miracles

Zawadi arrived at Forever Angels Baby Home in Mwanza, Northern Tanzania, when she was a year old. Forever Angels is only licensed to care for children until they are five years old; so in 2011, when Zawadi was five, she was one of the oldest children there, and she pretty much ruled the roost. Bilingual, affectionate, sassy, and charming, Zawadi won the hearts of everyone she met. Mwanza is a city of half a million people, and to this day, it’s astonishing how many of them know Zawadi.

Forever Angels works hard at family reunification for the kids in their care, and many do eventually go back with family. Many others get adopted, because the orphanage has an excellent reputation for being extremely high-quality and having impeccable integrity. This meant that the kids there were used to their playmates constantly disappearing. But it also meant that Zawadi, being smart and precocious, was old enough to understand that she was being left behind. In fact, quite often she would hound Amy Hathaway, the Forever Angels director, “When do I get a Mom and Dad? You need to find me some parents.”

And families had tried. But for one reason or another, it had never worked out.

In 2011, Gil and I were approved to adopt a little girl from Forever Angels. Based on profiles, we had already selected two-year-old Lily to be our third child. But the social worker wanted me to meet her first, so I flew up to Mwanza in April that year.

Lily (age 2) and Zawadi (age 5) at Forever Angels
I was only there for a day and a half. But it was enough time to know with confidence that Lily was the one for us. But I also met Zawadi. Just like everyone who met her, she made an impression on me. And my heart yearned for a family for her. I later found out that she had demanded from Amy Hathaway, “Why does Lily get adopted and not me? She is two and I am five.”

I got back home to Dar es Salaam on a Friday. And Friday evenings were when we hosted youth group at our house. And Ben and Lauren were some of the friends who helped us.

Ben and Lauren are as close to family as we’ve got in Tanzania. Part of the same mission, working at the same school, often attending the same church and Bible study, vacationing together every year. We’ve traveled together to Kenya, South Africa, and Slovenia. Gil and Lauren have coached soccer together. Ben is the director at Haven of Peace Academy, and thus is now my boss. Our lives have been inextricably linked in work, church, rest, and play for over a decade. My kids have always called them aunt and uncle.

Ben and Josiah
That Friday night, Lauren and I sat on the hard tile floor in a corner of my living room, talking above the din of thirty teenagers. She wanted to hear everything about Lily and Forever Angels and my trip. So I told her. And I included Zawadi.

Unbeknownst to me, Lauren went home that night and with Ben, looked up Zawadi’s profile on the Forever Angels website. That was all it took. They couldn’t get her out of their minds. On Sunday, they sent us a text. “Can we come over and talk to you about adoption?”

That was the beginning.

Ben and Lauren began the process to be approved to adopt in Tanzania. But a couple of months into it, they were told that another family was also trying to adopt Zawadi, and that this other family was farther along in the process. Crestfallen, Ben and Lauren decided to keep going anyway, just in case the other family fell through.

Their adoption homestudy process beat the record for taking the longest of anyone I knew. Despite their best efforts, their passive-aggressive social worker managed to drag it out for an entire year. And right around the time they were finally approved to adopt, the other family had to pull out. The path was cleared for Ben and Lauren.

Shortly after, they flew to Mwanza to meet Zawadi. Zawadi, now six and living with a foster family, figured out pretty quickly that these people could be her potential parents. Being a rather precocious child, and knowing how the adoption process works, Zawadi took it upon herself to sit down at the computer and write her own letter to her social worker, print it, sign it, and seal it in an envelope. It read, “Ples can loren and ben be my mom and dad.”

It was love all around. Everything seemed perfect. Until it wasn’t.

As Ben and Lauren started navigating the process to bring Zawadi home, the hurdles got bigger with every ensuing step. There was a reason the other family gave up trying to adopt her: Zawadi’s history was complicated. Unprecedented among adoption cases in Tanzania. And there came a point a year later--Zawadi was then 7 years old--that the social welfare department said that she was unadoptable. That she would never be adopted.

However, Zawadi’s prospects were grim. Her foster family would be leaving Tanzania shortly, and she would have to permanently go back to an orphanage. There were no other good options for her. Ben and Lauren were undaunted. They offered to bring Zawadi home anyway. Whether she could be adopted or not, they were prepared to be her parents for her whole life. Even if that meant they could never leave Tanzania.

So at seven years old, just one day before she would start second grade at Haven of Peace Academy, Zawadi finally came home to her forever family. Ben and Lauren became Dad and Mom, even though they knew it might never be official.

But Ben and Lauren knew that they loved Zawadi, that God had brought her to them, and that adoption would be best for her. So even though they had been told adoption would be impossible, they knew they would always work towards that end.

If they had thought it was hard just to bring Zawadi home, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into by trying to get her adopted. They began an epic adventure that brought them to the farthest reaches of Tanzania, to tiny villages on long, bumpy bus rides. It had them in contact with more doctors, social workers, and friends of friends of friends than they could count. They got documents signed and re-signed. They managed to track down obscure officials to get more documents signed. It was as if the authorities kept trying to put them off by making them do one more impossible task, but they would figure out a way to do it anyway.

More than once, they were given hope that Zawadi’s adoption would really happen, and we rejoiced with them for a few blissful days, only to be then told that it unequivocally never would. More than once, they were told it was impossible. There was even one person, who, for some unknown reason other than pure spite, did everything in her power to prevent the adoption from moving forward. And it worked.

Lauren and Jesca
While on one of their many adventures to adopt Zawadi, Ben and Lauren found another little girl named Jesca. And when I say, “found her,” I mean it quite literally. They didn’t just pick her out among many faces in an orphanage, because she wasn’t in an orphanage. She was an orphan who had slid through the cracks and was forgotten by the world. And since Ben and Lauren seemed to be making a habit of working on difficult adoptions, they decided to pursue her too.

After two years of more traveling and phone calls and collecting documents, they brought home Jesca. And after another year, they successfully adopted her. But Zawadi’s case was still impossible.

Ben and Lauren kept at it relentlessly. They kept jumping through hoops and exploring new avenues, and they didn’t give up. But it was never easy and sometimes just plain awful. For years and years, they never traveled to the States as a family. Occasionally one of them would go home for a few weeks, but for five years, they never got a real furlough and they never visited home together. Friends would volunteer to host Zawadi, but they were insistent--she was their daughter, and they would not leave her alone in Tanzania.

The stress of demanding jobs, the uncertainty of Zawadi’s adoption (and therefore their future), and never getting a furlough took its toll. As a close friend and co-worker, I had the privilege of walking alongside them. Many, many times, we agonized in prayer. When there was particularly disappointing news, we wept together. There were many very low, dark times.

But I also had the privilege of watching the awe-inspiring, miraculous transformation of their hearts during those years. As they wrestled with God in the darkness and through the unknown, and as they waited, and waited, and waited, God transformed them into different people. In this last year or two, though their situation had not changed, the peace and joy they radiated could only be supernatural.

Our families together
Andree Seu Peterson writes, “Waiting is the laboratory of the godly character. We have it all backward when we think our best times are our happy and successful times. It’s just the opposite. I have nothing against happiness and success, but nobody ever learned much by them.”

Just a few months ago, out of the blue, the boulder in their path started to move. After seven years of disappointments, they didn’t believe it at first, and were afraid to let themselves celebrate. But since July, things started moving astonishingly fast. I’ve personally completed four adoptions in Tanzania, and I’ve never seen a family move through the court process as quickly as they did. There was no particular reason for this other than that the right people were in the right positions at the right time. And on October 12, 2018, seven years after they started pursuing her, a judge declared Zawadi to be the permanent daughter of Ben and Lauren.

When the news hit the Haven of Peace Academy campus on Friday, an eruption of joy filled the air we breathed--all 500 of us. Teachers hugged each other. Nobody could concentrate on work. Zawadi was barraged with hugs and tears and shouts--not exactly what a self-conscious seventh grade girl desires--but she danced the rest of the day.

Zawadi and Grace
Peterson writes, “Twenty-five years [Abraham] waited. Unglamorous years of eating sand and believing for a son. Just think of the daily talking to yourself you’d have to do under these conditions to keep waiting for something humanly implausible based only on a word you heard way back when. Abraham is one of the greatest men in history for simply believing God for a long, long time.”

As I think about Zawadi’s story, I keep thinking about those passages in Scripture which talk about the fullness of time. There is so much waiting in the Bible. Abraham and Isaac. Moses in the desert. Joseph in prison. The Israelites in captivity. The coming of the Messiah. And yet, in each instance, God delivered in the fullness of time. Because he knows. He sees. He is sovereign. And he is waiting….for exactly the right time.

No eye has seen, no one has heard, no ear has perceived any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)

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