International adoptee Lea Wright wrestled with both identity and belonging growing up. Now, it seems like she’s on her way to getting it all figured out.
How does your international story begin?
I was born in Ethiopia about 12 hours drive from the capital city. I was adopted by [white] Americans, who were serving as missionaries. They moved specifically to serve at a theological college there. There was a lot of transition in Ethiopia as a whole as the communist government had just fallen and the school was just launching. As a result, there was a great need for teachers. My father’s Masters degree is in intercultural communication but his background is in theology, so he was kind of a perfect fit.
My parents thought they were not able to have children [at the time]. They would eventually have two biological children later on. However, when they moved to Ethiopia, they applied to adopt two girls. I was the first. I have a sister, who was adopted a year later. We come from the same city but we are not biologically related.
We were both abandoned and have had no contact with our birth families. I was adopted when I was a about month old. They guessed my birthday when I was placed in my parents’ care. My sister…she was about 10 days old. We are about a year and 2 days apart in age.
We stayed in Ethiopia until we were about 4 and 5. We then moved to Denver and my dad took a position as a pastor of a church, so we moved to the suburbs and we have lived here for the past 18 years.
What are your memories of growing up in Ethiopia?
It’s a weird feeling of deja vú. I remember what our house looked like. I remember the compounds with multiple families living in that area. I can remember the people who were there. Addis Abbas has since changed, but I remember the feeling of the busyness and how close proximity of people were at all times. There were animals running around in the streets. There’s something about the rhythm of life in Ethiopia that just stuck.
Growing up in Ethiopia (Image: Bud Wright)
You moved to the U.S. at a really young age. What was that experience like for you?
When we moved back to the States, we moved into a majority white, affluent neighborhood. It was a really well established community. Looking back now as an adult, I could see that it was conveyed that white was normal and what was good. I think in many ways I internalized that and was trying to get as close to that as I could. So identity wise, I swung as far away from being Ethiopian as possible.
I was in public school and kind of wrestled with facing racism for the first time. No one seemed interested that I was Ethiopian. They could just see that I was black. That put me in a category I didn’t like. I could tell that meant that people wouldn’t like me.
Growing up I was recognizing that people didn’t necessarily like black people. And when I say black I kind of feel like I just got shoved into this category. People would think of me being like [Tyler Perry’s] Madea. I was just this funny black kid. Everyone’s token black friend, I represented diversity in almost every situation.
I was in
I think I always tried to scrub the
black outof myself and push away my Ethiopian heritage to fit what other people needed because I could just sense that racial tension in almost every environment.
That’s pretty powerful. When did these feelings show up?
I would say it was really in middle and high school. I spent a year going to college in Virginia and that’s when it really hit. It was a small college, and I get there and there were three black people. Two of us were freshmen. One of us identified as African-American. His family was from California, going back generations. The other girl was someone else was also Ethiopian, who had been adopted and grew up in Vermont.
What happens when you get there?
I quickly assume the Madea-like role. I garnered a reputation as this insane force. I was the crazy busybody of school. I was loud. I had signature phrases. It’s kinda weird. I almost feel detached from that person now. I can’t tell you how many times people would say to me, I’ve never had a black friend before. So I was trying to fit a mold of what they thought. Just because I wanted to fit in, and because I was painfully aware it was just me and two other people.
It seems like [creating a caricature] was a defense mechanism. We slip into roles that are almost protective, right? You’re there for
only a year. What prompted you to change?
To be honest, I couldn’t do anymore. I kind of collapsed under the social pressure. I really struggled academically. It had started to be obvious that government wasn’t for me, which was the original reason I went there to study. I just came to realize, it wasn’t where my skills are.
I started to feel this burden I needed to engage with who I was and try engage with ministry. Something that would take me overseas. At the time I didn’t want to go Ethiopia, but I did want to spend a period of time in Africa. My parents were supportive and they said I could do what I needed to do. I couldn’t just be the cool black kid in the room. The environment was toxic.
I dropped out of school and moved back to Colorado. I just worked random jobs for a semester. I somehow
Image Courtesy: Kelly Boyd
How was that emotionally as someone who was returning to the Continent for the first time since you left?
It was overwhelming. It was so restorative in ways I could not have imagined. Being back in Africa — it doesn’t even matter where. I felt my entire body just had the ability to [finally] breathe. The ability to blend in…I would’ve never considered. Nobody noticed that I’m different, which is so funny because we spend so much time in the States talking about what makes us unique and what makes you stand out. But for the first time, I didn’t
It was powerful. It felt for the first time, I was being seen as Ethiopian. I was sitting in a coffee shop in Zambia, and this guy comes up to me and he starts shouting, “You’re Ethiopian. You’re Ethiopian!” And I had a moment, where I thought, “Yes, yes I am. You called it. I’m here.” <laughs>
Lea with her dad and a family friend in front of their old house in Ethiopia (Image: Belay Gebru)
After almost two decades, you return to Ethiopia. How did you get back there and what was the experience?
I ended up back in Ethiopia accompanying a family that was there to adopt to their youngest child. I certainly didn’t think they were serious about me going with them. I still hadn’t had the desire to go to Ethiopia. I knew it would be hard and emotional. I had such great experiences in other places in Africa. Why would I ruin the memories I had [of the Continent]?
But I ended up on the flight and I spent three weeks in the country as they went through the final steps of the adoption. It was the first time I’d been back in 17 years and that was during the summer of 2017.
During that trip, I visited a non-profit organization called Hope for the Fatherless, that’s about six years old. I had met the founder Belay Gebru, who is Ethiopian while in Denver and knew he ran a small children’s group home that was focused on orphan care in Ethiopia. The home was absolutely beautiful and I always tell people that’s what I hope Heaven looks, just a place of healing and redemption and restoration and love and care. I spent the day there to learn more about their work.
At the end of the meeting he says, “Lea, I really think you need to come back to Ethiopia.” I was like what are you talking about? When I came back to Denver, I kept working at my old church and was asked to be on the fundraising committee for this organization. Then I was asked to serve on the Board of Directors. But Belay came back to the States, and he kept asking me when I was coming back to Ethiopia.
I ended up working for him in the summer of 2018 for two months. I didn’t know what to expect but I just joined the staff and worked with our thirty kids who are orphaned or come from hard backgrounds. While I was there, he told me about the process of gaining dual citizenship and that idea just stuck in my head. He told me there was a way to essentially gain dual citizenship
This is wild. You’ve come full circle.
Yeah. International adoptions have completely stopped from Ethiopia. Hope for the Fatherless is working with local adoption agencies to try to empower and encourage a culture of domestic adoption. So much life here has been interacting with those who have been internationally adopted, so for me to go back is just [unbelievable].
We had our first two adoptions while I was there. There is nothing more beautiful than having native Ethiopians deciding that they want to participate in the lives of these kids. To see someone in their own community raised in their culture and their heritage. It’s really exciting.
Now, you’re returning to Ethiopia. What does home mean to you?
I have an appreciation for home. My heritage is fully Ethiopian. My upbringing is American. I was truly holding my Ethiopian ID and U.S. passport at the same time the other day and I thought “wow I’m both.” And it’s okay to be both. And even if I’m the only person who recognizes that — I’ve just found a sense of peace and belonging to myself for the first time.
When I think of leaving Colorado, it’s home. It is where my three siblings are. There are wonderful memories and friends. But Ethiopia is also home. So just feeling the fluidity of the word “home” and no matter what side of the world I’m on I’m going to miss people. And there will be hard things about that. But there will also be beautiful, significant things about that. I know it sounds weird but I know I belong in Denver and I belong in Addis Abbas. But more importantly, I belong to myself.
To learn more about Hope For the Fatherless or to support the mission, visit here.