Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Fabulous Frieds in NJ

Randi and Justin Fried have adopted three siblings from Ethiopia with AAI.  They live in New Jersey and this article about their family's experience appeared in their local paper. Copied by permission of the author. 

Family comes in all colors 
and ages in the Fried family, and love unites

written by Michelle Cadeau 
Family Facts
Name: The Fried Family
Country of origin: the United States and Ethiopia
Language: English and Amharic
Family: Justin and Randi Fried Desalegne, 17, 10th ; Rebka, 11, fourth­ grade; Chloe, 9, third grade; Hana, 6, first grade; and  Kyle, 6, kinder­garten

Outside of one West Orange house towers two flags, the Ameri­can and the Ethiopian. The family you are about to meet is not your regular “We are the World” family; actually it is not your regular fami­ly on any level. As I walk in, I see three minivans parked in the park­ing lot. Inside the Fried’s house­hold, Judaism and Orthodox Chris­tianity share space, Scandinavian, African and American blood ties blend and disabilities and sports all live together under one big roof.

There are people in this world who make a difference. Justin and Randi Fried are two of those. Their choices, a tad of faith and a big heap of love have created a family that is totally out of the box. In order to present the family, we have to start from the very beginning.

Randi grew up in the Heights area of West Orange and went off to college and met a man who is orig­inally from Long Island. Fast for­warding a bit, the two got married, wanted to start a family and chose West Orange as the place to be.

“We moved to town to be near family and friends. We opted to raise our family here because of the diversity and sense of community,” Randi said as we are sitting at the big kitchen island in their big house. While Randi and Justin tell me their story, the three younger children, Kyle, Chloe and Hana, play around in the living room, 11­year-old Rebka, is listening to us and 17- year-old Desalegne (Des) is somewhere else in the big house.

All the children but Kyle were adopted. Chloe was the first child to grace the family. Chloe, today, is 9 years old and has Downs syn­drome. The Fried couple was look­ing into starting a family and Justin, who works as a dentist, had had the privilege of working with some developmentally disabled patients. A single inquiring phone call about the options available to them domestically adopting an infant with special needs led to an unex­pected opportunity many months later. The organization called to ask if they would be interested in adopting a baby girl with Down syndrome. The Frieds quickly start­ed a process which would change their lives forever.


Four years later, Kyle, 6, was born into the family. After Kyle, arrived, Randi and Justin began to think about the distant future. Believing there is safety and joy in numbers, they decided the family would be great if the children had an older sister. After considering the best fit, they decided to adopt from Ethiopia. They have a hard time pin-pointing the reason they felt drawn to adopt from Africa, but it was not a decision made lightly. They thought about the impact on the new child since she would be different from them. They feared a child with brown skin, in a white Jewish family of four, would be a significant struggle for all. They stretched their minds and their intentions just a little bit farther and decided to adopt two siblings, thereby the new additions would have a family member to whom they could relate.

In November of 2005, they received a call about two sisters, Rebka, 6 and Hana, 2. The sisters became orphans in Ethiopia after the death of their parents and were moved to a children’s home in Addis Ababa. Almost instantly, the Frieds knew they were meant to give the girls a family once again.

Randi and Justin wrote letters and sent pictures of their family to Rebka and Hana introducing them­selves. In March of 2006, the Frieds made a very important trip — not only was it the first trip out­side of the United States for both of them, but also a trip to bring home the rest of their family, a trip of a lifetime in so many ways and on so many levels.

How do you feel going to pick up a child in a different country, a child that doesn’t speak your lan­guage, a child you have never met? Many times during our interview, Randi gets up and chooses specific pictures from the wall. To answer this question, she brings me a pic­ture of her on the steps to the orphanage with the two young girls. It is an emotional picture which speaks more than that thou­sand words. The picture shows three people, total strangers that already legally are a family. It shows the differences between the three, not only the obvious as the color of their skin but the difference in their clothes, their everyday life, their lifestyle … almost in every­thing. The picture shows three peo­ple’s first groping attempt to under­stand what this moment would mean to all of them.

Rebka, 6 years old at the time, takes the role of the protector and tries to help her sister through her fear.

“Hana would see white people come and visit with her friends (in the orphanage) and then the friend would be gone. She didn’t under­stand where her friends went. She was scared to have to leave her home again,” Rebka explained.

It is time for Justin and Randi to take the girls home to their new home in the United States. The agency arranges a meeting so that the children’s relatives, if there are any, can come to say good- bye right before the children leave for their new life. At the meeting, Hana’s and Rebka’s older brother and a neighbor are there.

Justin tells me about the sur­prise: “We had known that there was an older brother but we thought he was a grown person. When we met him, it turned out he was 13 years old.” It was a very emotional meeting. The Frieds were told it had been decided it was best for Desalegne to stay with the neighbor in Addis Ababa.

The Fried’s travelled back home to West Orange to start their new life with their new children. They can’t stop thinking about Desaleg­ne and Rebka and Hana would talk often about him, too. Randi and Justin just couldn’t leave Des with­out any help. Through West Orange Ethiopian- American friends and their adoption agency, they set it up so that Des could attend school in Ethiopia and so that he was taken care of. Justin went back to Ethiopia for some volunteer work and took the opportunity to speak more with Des. They were wonder­ing if they could stretch once again to include Desalegne in their home. Randi and Justin wanted Des to be involved in the choice and asked him if he wanted to become a part of their family in the United States where he would be reunited with his sisters. Without hesitation, Des said that was exactly what he want­ed. All people involved knew that this would not be an easy task for them to adjust and make it work as a family, but they were willing to make the effort.

The process took some time but, two years after his sisters were here, Des joined the family in West Orange. When he, as a 15-year-old, came to his new home and met his sisters, it dawned on Randi how hard this would be.

“He walked in and saw his sis­ters. They no longer speak Amharic fluently and Des didn’t speak Eng­lish.” The obstacle of geography was overcome, but the road to real­ly re-uniting and healing is long.

Des, who got here in January 2008, got assimilated with the help of an adult ESL program and the life saver — soccer! By August, he earned a spot on the high school junior varsity team.

“ Desalegne blossomed in school. He was placed in a self­contained ESL program and bond­ed with the students there, but the soccer team was a bridge Justin remembers.

The “other sport” chosen ended up being wrestling, a sport that Des had no knowledge of. He put his all into it and, even though he had to learn the sport from scratch and his English still was limited, at the end of his freshman year, he earned his varsity letter.

“He was told to grab the other guy’s ankle and he didn’t even know the English word for ankle yet. He really had to work hard, but he wouldn’t give up. What kept him going was that he really bonded with the coaches and his team­mates. He refers to them as his brothers.”

In order to get the children to adapt to America, the Fried family has created a haven for them. The family has many close Ethiopian friends. They are especially close with a man named Beniam (Ben) Bekele and his family. Their friends helped them with everything from translating in the early months to teaching Randi and Justin how to cook Ethiopian food. The Fried family regularly attends the Ethiopian Orthodox church in town and one of their young friends there, a Roosevelt student, helps out by braiding Rebka’s hair.

Des, today, is a young man with a showcase full of trophies, every­one well-earned and a testimony to his great success in his new coun­try. He is no longer in an all-day ESL program but takes some ESL classes and some regular ones at the high school. He is quiet and gives a shy impression but the pic­tures his mom shows me bear wit­ness about him being different when he feels comfortable.

Hana and Rebka are two won­derful girls, seemingly as American as can be, but very proud of their heritage. They show me all the Ethiopian artifacts in the house and explain what they are for. Chloe is a happy, talkative 9-year-old who loves everyone. If you are close to Chloe, you are bound to get a hug or two. Kyle is a warm and giving brother to the whole bunch. If it was not for the obvious, such as the color of their skin, you would not have guessed that this is a self­assembled family. Justin and Randi are extremely involved in anything their children do. Their determination to go to any length to make their family work and be happy is apparent all over the house. Rebka shows me a traditional hand-woven basket table called a Mesob in the living room; on my way to my car, we go through the basement and there is a wrestling/ tumbling room for the kids. The minivans in the parking lot are used not only to shuttle the children to their activities, but also to make sure all the kids, not just the Fried children, will be picked up and taken to wrestling practice or tournaments or wherever they need to go.

On my way from the Fried house, I realized that, if more peo­ple were like Randi and Justin, this world would be a much better place. I am sure that four adopted children, the WOHS wrestling team, all the people that know them and all the teachers and educators that have come in contact with this family will second that. Thank you Fried's, all seven of you, for show­ing us what is important in life and for choosing our community as part of your life.

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