Jacob Zinn :: journalist + photographer

JRNL 3130 – Mariama’s Book

JRNL 3130 – Writing for Magazines

October 2010

Mariama’s Book

They call it My Name is Mariama. It’s a book that tells the life story to date of Mariama Melissen, the adopted, Sierra Leonean daughter of Joe and Adrienne Melissen.

The book sits on the coffee table of their White Rock condo and begins with a photo of the mud, wood and straw hut in which Mariama was born on June 15, 2008. Four months later, Joe, 30, and Adrienne, 29, met the curly-haired girl on a missions trip to her tropical, West African home country, bordered by Guinea, Liberia and the Atlantic Ocean.

At the end of August 2008, the Melissens departed Vancouver International Airport, transferred at London Heathrow Airport and arrived at Lungi International Airport, across the Sierra Leone River from Freetown, a major port city and the nation’s capital. They took a ferry over the water and drove six hours on the one paved road to Kabala, a town of 25,000 nearly 300 kilometres east in the Koinadugu District of the mountainous Northern Province.

Joe, a teacher at Surrey Christian School’s secondary campus, taught Grade 4 at the Christian Reform Church Primary School, and Adrienne, a registered nurse, volunteered at a medical clinic. They stayed in the guest house of Christian Extension Services, a non-government organization, and fell asleep to their neighbours’ overnight disco that featured music by Akon, Rihanna and Chris Brown. They awoke to the smell of cooking rice, garbage and the water on the ground after it rained.

It was at their front door a month later where a woman brought a baby to the Melissens with a note that read, “This girl’s mother is dead.” The baby was Mariama and the woman was her auntie Nyally. Mariama’s birthmother had presumably died of infection and it seemed she was suffering the same fate, always severely ill with a cold, a chest cough or an eye infection. At first, it seemed Nyally wanted the Melissens to take Mariama, but they broke down the language barrier and realized she was only seeking medical attention.

Fatmata, Mariama’s female caretaker and a friend of her family, made repeat visits with her to the clinic, but no matter what Joe and Adrienne did, Mariama’s health didn’t improve—it deteriorated through January and February with frequent illnesses, malnourishment and weight loss. “If she was going to live, something needed to change,” Adrienne says, looking back on the time. They realized there was no future for her in Sierra Leone.

Last year, 2,122 children abroad were adopted into Canada. Most adoptive parents-to-be want a child in good health and look to countries such as China, Thailand and the Koreas that have less competition for infants and test for diseases. The Melissens just wanted Mariama to live. They could not foresee her surviving in that environment and they wanted to save her from it.

They found out that because they were in Sierra Leone, they could adopt Mariama domestically without going through an adoption agency. But in order for her to immigrate, the Melissens were required to return to Canada and finish a home study—or so they thought, until an immigration officer from the Embassy of Ghana told them it was not a requirement.

But first, they needed the full consent of Mariama’s relatives and were hesitant to ask, fearing it would put them in an awkward position. One of Adrienne’s colleagues presented the idea to the family, and when they realized that the Melissen’s would be her adoptive parents, they immediately said yes.

At this time, it was April 2009. Their plane tickets were booked for July, giving them three months to get everything they needed for verification by the Ministry of Social Welfare. They obtained Mariama’s birth certificate, her father’s birth certificate and her mother’s death certificate. They hiked for hours through brush and elephant grass as tall as 12 feet to get the consent of Mariama’s more distant, living relatives and bring them to Freetown for paperwork. The Melissen’s made the trek to the capital city once a month for food and bottled water, but went an extra seven or eight times during the adoption process.

They hired a lawyer and went to court, but their lawyer and the Minister of Social Welfare—people who were supposed to be helping the Melissens—were working against them to make them pay more for the adoption.

The stress of it all wore on the Melissens. Joe developed stomach problems, and even though he and Adrienne are athletically fit, he lost 30 pounds. The process of gathering documents and going to court took five weeks. “It was five of the worst weeks of our lives,” Joe says now.

Then, on Mariama’s first birthday, she legally became their daughter. The court case went through without the Melissens being forced to pay extra and they officially were her guardians.

Although the adoption process was draining, they know that adopting internationally would have taken much longer. On average, an international adoption through an agency can take two years or more. Because the Melissens did most of the grunt work themselves in Sierra Leone without an agency, the process wasn’t as long (but it felt like it).

As soon as the Melissens got the adoption papers, they sent them to the Embassy in Ghana to start the immigration process. They were scheduled to fly home in a month, but secondary sources reassured them that Mariama’s citizenship wasn’t far off.

Then, after the villagers threw them a goodbye party and they gave most of their stuff away, Joe and Adrienne got some devastating news: despite what they had been told months prior, they did need a home study, an evaluation of them as prospective parents, to finish the immigration process. They would have to return to Canada without Mariama. Near the start of the adoption process, they had been sent an email outlining this detail, but it got buried in their inbox under congratulatory messages from friends and relatives.

With no other options, the Melissens returned to Canada in August 2009 for three weeks and completed a home study with the Sunrise Adoption Centre. They received a Letter of No Objection from British Columbia, an essential document for their daughter’s immigration, and went back to Sierra Leone.

They had everything they needed—everything except for one vital, confirmatory piece that had the potential to undo the Melissen’s last six months of work. The Canadian embassy wasn’t convinced that the man who claimed to be Mariama’s biological father was actually related to her and required a DNA test. If he was not her father, Mariama wouldn’t be granted citizenship and the Melissens would have been forced to leave her in Sierra Leone.

After waiting anxiously for the results, the test came back positive. They had lived through the distressing adoption process, the home study on another continent and the nerve-racking DNA test. Now they could live one of best days of their lives. Mariama became a Canadian citizen on Oct. 15, 2009, four months after her first birthday.

The Melissens—all three of them—returned to Canada three weeks later on Nov. 5, 2009. The months of envisioning Mariama’s move had finally become reality. Her passport has one circular stamp from when they left Freetown and one rectangular stamp from when they landed in Vancouver. Now she has adapted to Canada through her energetic and social personality, stemming back to being surrounded by her family in Sierra Leone.

The circumstances that led up to Mariama’s adoption give Joe and Adrienne goose bumps. In hindsight, if they hadn’t been given the wrong information that a home study was unnecessary, they wouldn’t have started the adoption process. They went with no intention of adopting a child. They planned to start a family when they returned from their trip, but their family practically started when they touched down.

Now Mariama is almost two-and-a-half years old and anticipates being a big sister. She demonstrates “poh-pohing,” the way the locals in her motherland carry their young, by tying a blanket around her torso and supporting a baby doll named Susie on her back—the same way Adrienne carried Mariama in Kabala.

She reads the book with her parents on their black, leather couch. She identifies Fatmata, Nyally and her other relatives who are still in Sierra Leone.

They call it My Name is Mariama, but she calls it Mariama’s book. She’s living out the sequel in Canada.



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