“I remember getting off the plane into Uganda in 2012— it was hot, humid, and far from the Pacific Northwest where I was born and raised. The sun scorched the tarmac as I walked across it into the airport. I stood in the visa line, wondering what I had gotten myself into, and in such a daze I could not understand the immigration officer with her lilting Ugandan accent. She graciously smiled at me and handed me back my passport.
I wanted to get back on the plane and go home. I was not made for this, but part of me still wondered if maybe I was.
I was born into a military family. My dad traveled to countries I had never heard of and brought home treasures but the best were the stories of the people. My dad fueled my wanderlust and I wanted to see the world. Growing up, my parents also did foster care and adopted my 11 siblings. It was filled with ups and downs, but we hold sweet memories of summer bicycle rides, cooking insane amounts of food, and rambunctious card game competitions. My heart was on fire for two things: fostering children and seeing the world. I vowed that I would do both.
But standing in that small airport where the languages went over my head and the air hung heavy from humidity, I wanted to run. I convinced myself I would do the brave thing scared. I would give it one week, even if it meant crying myself to sleep some nights.
A week turned into six and the homesickness disappeared into a deep appreciation. The culture, the beauty of the country and its people just held an extraordinary beauty. There is something magical about it.
I returned in 2013, ready to brave the unknowns and stay long term. But within a few months, I witnessed corruption and theft in western-run organizations. The people who came to help were hurting and disregarding local voices. I left and told everyone I would never return to Uganda. I loved Uganda and its people, but I was horrified at the white saviors I had witnessed.
I found myself in the United States, yearning to be anywhere but there. I struggled with depression and anxiety, and in the midst of it all, I wondered what was next for me. I wanted to belong and I desperately wanted to foster children but nothing felt right.
Then in 2016, it happened. As I surfaced from depression and life felt beautiful again, I began having this feeling like I needed to make my way back to that pearl of a country that had captured my heart. I did the logical thing. I booked a ticket and returned to Uganda. I was careful about what organization I would work with. I was careful to stand out of the way while Ugandans gracefully showed me how they did things. I just wanted to do life in Uganda. I never wanted to be a hero or insert myself where I did not belong.
I began working with a children’s shelter whose heart and soul is for family reunification. I watched our Ugandan social worker trace families and reunify children who had been simply lost make their way back to loved relatives. I witnessed him sit with relatives and listen to their stories with a heart of compassion.
Most of our children in the shelter make their way home within a matter of a few weeks. As with all things, some do not end with the stories we want to tell. No matter how hard we search, no matter how hard we fight for reunification, it does not happen the way we want. There’s brokenness to it, but beauty always rises.
In early 2017, I was asked to be a long term foster placement for my son when he was 5 years old. It was months of paperwork, meetings, and court approval. I remember watching him sleep the night he came home, perfectly safe for the first time in a very long time. It was not easy, but we grew together. He only spoke the local language and I barely knew a handful of words. There was one night I was not understanding what he needed and there were many tears, so I handed him an almost empty jar of Nutella and we just sat on the kitchen floor as he ate it. He is now 9 and is all boy but so much joy. He climbs our guava tree and hands them out to the neighborhood children. His heart is full of courage, kindness, and forgiveness.
I have had a few foster children pass-through for a couple of months as we got them settled with relatives and school. It is not easy to watch them go, but it is beautiful to witness relatives rise up for their children. The saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is taken seriously here and I have seen it with my own eyes.
I recently was asked to foster a two-year-old little girl, as family reunification was taking longer than hoped. I welcomed her into my home and will provide her shelter for however long she needs. It has been so different than with my first foster son. I speak the language enough now that we communicate mostly in the local language.
Foster care is not easy. It is learning to recklessly love these little lights, knowing one day you may pack their bags and kiss them goodbye. It’s another brave thing scared. But it’s one filled with so much hope.
Recently, as I sat at the bank paying my rent, a bank teller was watching us closely. It was hot and humid, but my son was playing and whispering to me about the milkshakes we were going to get after finishing at the bank. After awhile the bank teller asked, ‘Is he your son?’ I nodded and braced for the chuckle and the disbelief that I would call him my son due to cultural differences. He just smiled and said, ‘I could tell he was your son because you two look like the best of friends.’ I caught myself about to cry in the bank because what he did not know was how long the journey had been, how many side glances we got, and how many times my foster son had been told not to call me mom because I was not blood-related. The bank teller got it. That family runs deeper than blood and love can be found in the least expected places.
If I could go back to the 2012 version of me, I would tell her to keep doing the brave thing scared because in the end hope runs wild.
Hope fills the walls of my home to the brim, living and breathing and almost touchable. Hope. It has filled up the wounds until they have been given a chance to heal again. It has bridged the gap while we search for belonging: me in a country that would become home and my little lights as they found a home.
Hope has stood in the midst of the brokenness and it has taken our hands to lead us into the redemption and rebuilding of wreckage left by unspeakable tragedies. Hope will keep you going and make you choose to do the brave thing. Even when you are terrified, hope wins.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kristianna Noelle from Kampala, Uganda. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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