Hearts in two worlds: Ethiopian girls come of age in Janesville
JANESVILLE—Jerusalem, Frehiwot and Messay were only children when Connie and Dennis Dregne adopted them from Ethiopia.
Now, six years later, the teens are poised to make their marks in the world.
Jerusalem and Frehiwot, who are 19, graduated from Craig High School on Wednesday, and Messay, who is 16, will graduate in January.
For Connie and Dennis, time has passed much too quickly.
“We did all these firsts with them,” Dennis said fondly, remembering when they first arrived. “We went swimming, bicycling. They were so driven to do everything.”
Then the teens got involved in homework, sports and jobs.
“That's America,” said Frehiwot, whose name means “fruit of life.”
Friends and family call her “Frey.”
When the girls came to the Dregne home, they were surprised to find the kitchen in the house. At their orphanage, it is outside and has a dirt floor.
The girls spoke Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, a nation with more than 80 languages.
They knew little English but eagerly absorbed their new language as they learned about the United States.
“We thought America was all concrete, like New York City,” Frey said.
“We never thought there would be homeless people in America,” Jerusalem added.
“We have opportunity here,” Messay, or “Mezzy,” explained. “But no one is going to hand it to you.”
Sometimes school surprised them.
“I thought it was crazy when students did not show respect for the teachers,” Jerusalem said.
The teens have done well in their classes and have jobs and ambitions.
Jerusalem wants to be a flight attendant.
Frey looks forward to starting the fall semester at Pensacola Christian College in Pensacola, Florida.
“I've already met a friend there,” she said, excited.
She might become a nurse.
Mezzy is thinking about careers as a nurse or a teacher.
Sometime this summer, Connie and Dennis and the teens will travel to Ethiopia, the girls' first visit since coming to the United States in 2011.
“I'm looking forward to everything,” Jerusalem said. “Especially the presence of Ethiopian people all around me.”
The young women have not forgotten their first country.
“When you adopt older children, they remember where they come from,” Dennis said. “They never forget who they are.”
In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has suffered periodic droughts and famine. But the country's stirring deserts and sweeping savannahs contain two millennia worth of ancient culture.
Connie and Dennis never suspected they would connect so intimately with the soulful country divided by the ancient Rift Valley.
The Dregnes were in their 50s when their oldest daughter, Kia Andrews, and her husband, Josh, adopted a baby boy from Ethiopia.
Connie viewed the online biographies of other children, including the girls, at the Covenant Orphanage. The Christ-centered orphanage has locations in Debre Berhan and Holeta.
Mezzy's words had a profound impact on her.
Even though the child was an orphan, Mezzy proclaimed that she was not alone because she was a child of God.
Connie could not stop thinking about the girls.
Later, Dennis went with Josh to pick up the new baby.
Connie called the orphanage before their arrival and asked if Dennis could meet two of the girls.
Once he saw them, he wanted them to be part of his family.
“I called Connie and said, 'Start the (adoption) paperwork,'” Dennis said.
Eventually, the paperwork included a third child because they were as close as sisters.
Dennis explained why a couple who had already raised a son and a daughter decided to raise three more children.
“If we didn't adopt them, I would wonder what happened to them my entire life,” Dennis said.
Mezzy's parents are dead, and the mothers of Jerusalem and Frey both have HIV.
Connie knows she and her husband could have gone on with their good life as empty-nesters. They had heard the horror stories about what can happen, especially when adopting older children.
They prayed about it.
“After we said 'yes' to God, I felt no anxiety,” Connie said. “It was the right thing to do.”
Both Connie and Dennis are born-again Christians and belong to Bethel Baptist Church, where members have embraced the girls and raised money to help with expenses. The adoptions cost more than $40,000.
The girls attended public schools when they first arrived. Then they attended Oak Hill Christian School, and Connie home schooled them for a year “to fill in the blanks,” she said.
She taught them U.S. history and cursive writing, among other things.
In their fourth year, the girls returned to public schools.
Connie works part time doing electrolysis at home, while 60-year-old Dennis is a facility repair worker at UW-Whitewater. Prior to that, he was an electrician at General Motors.
“We've learned a lot from each other,” Connie said about herself and her Ethiopian daughters.
She also said she and Dennis have no plans to raise a third family.
“I am happy with five children,” Connie said. “God has blessed us with these beautiful girls, and I am excited about their future. They have worked so hard, and they have overcome so much.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.