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Families meeting families

MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Rick Toward and Sherry Mergens, married now for more than 20 years, first had their daughter, Harper, in 2000. They turned to African adoption to expand their family. Pictured are, from left, Hana, Massy, Sherry, Al, Rick and Harper. 1 / 4
SUBMITTED PHOTO Before returing to Ethiopia, Massy, 9, had not seen her biological father since he relinquished her for adoption when she was 6-years-old. 2 / 4
SUBMITTED PHOTO Massy, 9, walks down an Ethiopian sidewalk hand-in-hand with her half-brother, Ebenezer, who she met for the first time this winter after returning to her birthplace. 3 / 4
SUBMITTED PHOTO Hana, 12, reconnected with her relatives during the trip to Ethiopia. Pictured are Hana, in the middle, her grandmother on her right, and her brother, Yosef on her left. Also pictured are her aunts and uncles. 4 / 4

After a two-week visit to their birthplaces, adopted sisters Hana and Massy have mapped out their futures.

“Me and Massy are going to be buddies,” said Hana, 12. “We’re going to fly over there (to Ethiopia) and live in the same house.”

Her brother, Al, 6, chimed in, “Massy wants to start a hair salon there.”

“First, I want to do a hair salon,” said Massy, 9. “If I get fired from that job, I will then be a teacher.”

Hana, Massy and their sister, Harper, 12, were among five family members who spent two weeks this winter in Ethiopia as Hana and Massy reconnected with their biological families.

Led by their mother, Sherry Mergens, and her mother, Karen Mergens, the five Bemidjians visited relatives who hadn’t seen the girls since they were adopted.

“They feel like our family,” Sherry said of the girls’ Ethiopian relatives. “When Hana’s family came to the airport to say goodbye to us … we were all hugging and they were so amazing.

“We were all in tears, just crying, all of us, and they kept saying to us, ‘It’s OK. We’re so happy, we’re so happy. You’re our family. Hana, you have a mother, don’t be sad. We love you and you’ll be back. It’s OK.’

“They were amazing. They were supportive of us when we left, when we could barely pull ourselves together.”

‘Room in our family’

Rick Toward and Sherry Mergens, who have been married 21 years, had Harper in November 2000. They were later moved toward African adoption after seeing the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”

“It was just kind of, we have room in our family and there’s a need,” Sherry said.

Masresha — Massy — came to the United States in November 2005 when she was 2-years-old.

It was a time of political unrest, so Rick and Sherry were unable then to track down her blood relatives.

Six months later, Sherry and Karen returned to do just that, also learning then they could sponsor children at a local orphanage.

All the sponsored children could be permanently adopted, but Sherry’s child, a boy, had to be adopted as a sibling group.

That wasn’t the case, however, with Karen’s sponsored child, a young girl named Hana.

“We were not thinking about adoption,” Sherry said. “We were simply sponsoring children.”

She paused.

“That lasted about three months. Then, we called my mom and dad to say we were going to go get Hana.”

Hana came to the U.S. in May 2007, Rick and Sherry believing then their family was complete.

But Sherry later got an email about a 4-year-old boy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“We just couldn’t stop thinking about him,” she said.

Alain — Al — joined the family in December 2010.

“And now really, really, we’re done,” Sherry said. “That’s it.”

But Al is holding out.

“I want a baby brother,” he said.

‘When are you coming?’

Sherry returned to Ethiopia six months after adopting Massy to track down her new daughter’s biological father.

“We searched him out,” she said. “We wanted to have (open communication) and we figured he wanted it, too, although there’s that cultural piece that you always have to be really careful about, but it’s absolutely what he wanted too.”

Sherry learned from him that his wife had died before he relinquished his daughter. He also left the military so he didn’t have income.

“There’s no safety net there, there’s no public assistance,” Sherry said. “He was just at a point in his life he couldn’t get through. In that country, this is the choice you have to make at that time.”

Massy met up with her father, now remarried with three sons, her half-siblings and their mother.

“He was outside waiting for us,” Massy said, recalling how he had expected them to arrive sooner. “He called the translator like 12 times.”

She remembered him immediately. They embraced for a long time.

“He had a lot of tears,” Sherry said.

“He had to go out of his house (to compose himself),” Massy said.

“I think it was the most amazing day of his life,” Sherry said.

‘He wouldn’t let go of her’

Hana decided to give her extended relatives the surprise of a lifetime.

It was only after arriving in Ethiopia that the family called the translator, who alerted one of Hana’s aunts to their presence.

The aunt — “unbelievably excited” — said Hana’s grandmother was just down the street so the family began heading that way.

“We ran into (unsuspecting) Grandma while she was on the road,” Sherry said.

Hana beamed as she recalled getting out of the vehicle; her grandmother instantly recognizing her.

“She just kissed and kissed and kissed you,” Sherry said. “There’s a whole language barrier. Sometimes it’s so evident and other times it just doesn’t matter.”

Hana has a biological brother, Yosef, who is now 14. Yosef reportedly talked about Hana every day since she was adopted.

“When we got there, they called him out of school,” Sherry said. “He came home and he hugged her and held her hand — he wouldn’t let go of her — and he fed her, which is a sign of love and respect in Ethiopia.”

‘Totally accepted’

Harper, with her light skin and beaming smile, drew crowds as the family traveled throughout the country.

“We were all a spectacle, but particularly Harper,” Sherry said. “In Hosanna, you don’t see many Westerners and you certainly don’t see 12-year-old Westerners, so she stood out. She walked way ahead of us at one point and when we did get up next to her, she was already surrounded by a whole group of kids.”

But she was never scared.

“I felt totally accepted,” Harper said.

“I’ve never seen her happier,” Sherry added.

In fact, Hana’s and Massy’s hopes of moving back to Ethiopia someday are shared throughout the family.

“They all want to move there,” Sherry said, with her kids sitting around the dining table. She and Rick have discussed it, but there are no imminent plans.

But they definitely plan to visit again.

“We’d go every year if we could,” Sherry said.

Another trip, some day

Sherry said the family also plans to visit Congo when Al is older.

“The situation there is not as welcoming; it’s not as easy to travel there as it is Ethiopia,” she said. “It’s a hard place to go. We barely got out the first time (when they adopted Al). We were detained at the airport.”

Connecting their adopted children with their cultures and biological families is important to the family.

And, apparently, vice versa as well.

When Massy was introduced to her half-brothers, they all were asked if they knew who she was. All of them answered, “That is our sister.”

“When we ate there, everyone would line up,” Massy said. “I could see the boys staring at me and I could hear them, just softly saying my name, ‘Masresha.’”