Nolan Crawford anxiously weaved through the crowd.
He craned over the kids, leaned around the adults and searched for a face, the same one he hadn’t seen since leaving an Ethiopian orphanage for Conway a year earlier.
Since that time, Nolan had learned to speak English, to play baseball and to eat Zaxby’s Nuclear wings. You couldn’t find a more American boy at Pee Dee Elementary School.
But he’d never forgotten his past, the days at the orphanage and the handful of boys with whom he’d bonded during soccer games on the cement courtyard. One of them, Mikias, became his best friend.
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So on the morning of Sept. 7, Nolan, his adoptive parents and dozens of their friends formed a small crowd at Myrtle Beach International Airport.
After fidgeting and nervously pacing for a few minutes, the 9-year-old settled in front of a yellow banner. It held a message for his newest cousin: “Welcome Home Mikias!”
The photo is deceptive.
Both boys are smiling, but one sports a fitted gray Red Sox cap and new headphones. The other wears clothes provided by the orphanage.
On the day Victor and Robin Crawford left Ethiopia with Nolan and his little brother Zeke, Robin wondered what Mikias was thinking. He’d been in the orphanage longer than most of the children there. No one knew about his parents, but he’d last lived with a woman who had found him on the streets. She’d taken him in and cared for him until she could no longer afford to. That’s when she turned him over to the orphanage.
So there he was, watching his best friend wear expensive clothes and leave with a new family.
But unbeknownst to Mikias, Robin had shared his photo with Victor’s sister, Tami Thompson, several months earlier.
“You’ve got to see this kid,” Robin told her sister-in-law. “There’s just something about him.”
‘A connection you cannot describe’
The boy in the tie-dyed shirt seemed to stare at Tami.
Short cropped hair. Intense brown eyes. Tightly pursed lips that looked as though they were fighting back a smile.
The Conway nurse had seen dozens of photos of children since she and her husband Greg committed to international adoption, but this boy, he was different.
Greg felt so, too.
“There’s a connection that you cannot describe,” he said, “and you cannot escape.”
For the Thompsons, the road to adoption began when their own paths merged three years ago. Although they’d been intrigued by the concept for years, the real needs of the world’s poor confronted them during a mission trip to Haiti in 2011. They saw earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, with its tent cities and waste-lined streets. In the rural villages where they spent most of their time, they held services for dozens of children who made their way through the woods to go to Bible school.
Tami teamed up with an oncologist for medical missions. She remembers driving up a mountain and passing people who had walked for days to see a doctor.
She was struck by a mother who offered her child to anyone who could provide the little one a home.
For Greg, a pastor, Haiti drove home a Bible verse, James 1:27.
“So many times we just kind of flounder around and say, ‘What is God’s will for me?” he said. “Well, sometimes God’s will is expressly written in his word. And he says, ‘Pure and undefiled religion is this: to care for widows and orphans in their time of affliction and keep yourself unspotted by the world.’”
'God started working on us again'
The Haiti trip did more than show Greg and Tami the needs of the world’s poor. They also saw a need for each other. Both had been married and divorced. She had two children. He had three. They weren’t looking for romance, but they found a shared commitment to ministry.
They began dating soon after the trip. Appropriately, Greg proposed in church.
As soon as they wed, the talk of adoption grew louder.
“God started working on us again,” Tami said. “Newly married, it was kind of like, ‘Can we do this? We’ve got five kids already.’ [We] prayed about it. Honestly, we probably took way longer than we should have to be obedient and do what we knew were supposed to do.”
Around that time, Robin and Victor had begun trying to adopt again. Their oldest son, Josiah, was adopted from Guatemala in 2007. Robin gave birth to Miles in 2010. They had made plans to adopt Alivia, a 5-year-old local girl, but the adoption had fallen through at the last moment.
Unsure where to go, the couple began looking at international adoption again.
“It wasn’t by accident that [God] put orphans on our heart and their heart,” Victor said.
Like the Thompsons, the Crawfords’ journey to adoption also runs through an impoverished country. Victor visited Honduras during a mission trip in 2005. He met an orphan there named Nolan who shadowed him for his entire stay. The boy’s round cheeks and toothy grin reminded Victor of himself as a kid.
Touched, Victor came home with plans to adopt the boy. Then he began studying the adoption process in Honduras. He quickly realized there were too many legal hurdles, including the fact that he and Robin hadn’t been married long enough to qualify.
But Victor never forgot about the boy. And when the Crawfords began looking at international adoption again, their agency found two countries that matched the family well: Ethiopia and Moldova.
Robin and Victor had a peace about the former. For years, they’d worried about raising a black child in the South. They feared the racism the child would face. How would they, white parents, be able to help their child cope with that hostility?
But they felt a calling to Ethiopia and to adopt more than one child.
Like Greg, Victor is a pastor and at that time he’d been delivering messages about surrendering faith, the kind that drives Christians to follow biblical commands in spite of practical challenges.
When their agency found biological brothers Robel, 8, and Nahom, 3, the Crawfords were moved by their story. The boys’ father had died. Their mother gave them to the orphanage when she had no more money to care for them.
It took more than a year of paperwork, fundraisers, prayer and frustration, but the boys moved to Conway last year. The Crawfords called the youngest Zeke. They named the oldest Nolan, in honor of the Honduran child who introduced them to the needs of orphans.
'Let us care for you'
Greg and Tami sent in their adoption application on Aug. 7, 2013. Coincidentally, that was the same day Robin and Victor had turned in their application exactly a year earlier (they didn’t plan that).
As the Thompsons began to tell their friends and family about adopting Mikias, some were stunned, offended even.
“What about the kids you have now?” some asked.
“As if we’re going to love them less,” Greg said, “as if love is a pie that can only be doled out so much and when it’s gone it’s gone. That’s ridiculous. That’s not love.”
Tami said even some close relatives didn’t grasp it.
“They’re trying,” she said. “They don’t understand it. It’s completely foreign to them.”
Despite the pushback, most people supported them.
Some wrote checks. Others bought barbecue plates and yard sale items.
Then there was the group that showed up when they returned with Mikias on Sept. 7. They held posters and balloons. One of Greg’s buddies who lives in Atlanta brought fresh Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
“It was just the practical love,” he said. “That kind of thing was as significant as the biggest donation: ‘You guys are here. Don’t worry about these things. Let us care for you.’”
Mikias and Nolan couldn’t be more different.
Sure, they share a passion for soccer, Manchester United and video games. They whisper about the girls they meet at school.
But personality-wise, they’re opposites.
Nolan is the quiet one: bashful, reserved, so much so that his never-shy father celebrated when the boy passed gas in front of him and didn’t slink away in embarrassment.
Mikias is the ham. Unlike Nolan, his English is still piecemeal, but he communicates with animated gestures. When he feels he’s been tripped on the soccer fields at the Conway Rec Center, he flops to the ground with all the theatrics of the English Premier League stars the 11-year-old adores.
The boys primarily speak in their native Amharic, and Nolan often translates for Greg and Tami. In the nearly two months since Mikias arrived, Nolan has taught him “Yes, ma’am” and “no ma’am,” “please” and “thank you,” and not to say, “Oh, my God.” He also tells him not to stare at girls. They don’t like that.
“He don’t know lot of things about America,” Nolan said. “I’m helping him like that.”
The two are a force on the rec league soccer field. Having played their whole lives, they’re each other’s only true peer in terms of futbol prowess. But when they play soccer on video games, Nolan has a clear advantage.
On a recent Friday night, the boys sat on a couch and debated their gaming skills.
“He thinks he’s good,” Nolan said. “But he’s not.””
“What?” Mikias replied, his English obviously improving.
“You video game no good,” he said. “Me good.”
Nolan admits he was nervous at the airport when Mikias arrived. Although he had been asking about his friend almost daily, so much had changed. He hadn’t seen him in a year, he rarely spoke Amharic and his best friend was coming to the U.S. to become his cousin. That's a lot for a 9-year-old to process.
Gliding down the escalator, Greg placed his hand on Mikias’s shoulder. Tami wiped back tears. And Nolan retreated, overwhelmed by the moment.
Victor ushered him back to meet his friend.
The boys slapped hands, hugged, and as Nolan pulled away, he grinned.
Nov. 2 is Orphan Sunday. Although churches around the world have held similar events for years, the Christian Alliance for Orphans trademarked the term in an effort to provide a united focus on the plight of the world’s parentless and abandoned.
On this day, churches deliver sermons, hold concerts and share stories about the challenges orphans face.
The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, estimates there are nearly 18 million children worldwide who have lost both parents. That doesn’t include the millions who have lost one parent.
For the Crawfords and the Thompsons, the day isn’t simply about the need for adoption or caring for the poor. It’s also symbolic, Victor said, a reflection of the need for people to be adopted into God’s family.
“We’ve got to be careful as a church that we don’t take Orphan Sunday and make it into better meeting the needs, the physical needs, of kids around the world,” Victor said. “The plight of the orphan is a direct picture of us. We all are orphans.”
Victor and Greg admit that sometimes their conversation gets “hyperspiritual,” but that’s the lens through which they view the world.
They also say it explains why Tami was able to find a way to keep her job and work from home; it's how Greg, who after serving more than 15 years in administration at Horry-Georgetown Technical College, was able to take a step back and teach English, giving him more time to focus on his ministry and his family.
But the greatest sign of providence, they said, came when Victor and Robin were contacted about adopting Alivia again. She moved into their home two months ago.
“That’s the beauty of this to me,” Greg said. “That intense pain that they went through opened the door for something even more beautiful than they even planned and that we had ever planned. And they still got what God had set their heart toward to begin with. ... That type of thing is not something you explain away as circumstance. That looks very deliberately like the pieces of a plan being laid out in ways we can’t imagine.”
Both families acknowledge that plan doesn’t always make sense. And it’s not easy. There are language barriers, cultural differences and the pitfalls of just life in general.
Mikias refused to eat anything but french fries when he first arrived in the U.S. Nolan and Zeke had to learn about bed times and school hours. There are temper tantrums and pouting and frustration that runs both ways.
“You are crazy,” Nolan often tells Victor. “And you make me crazy.”
“It’s raw and reality comes,” Victor said. “You have to really be solidified in your calling and the commitment to the child.”
But there are breakthroughs and there is joy. Robin remembers Josiah kissing her cheek and saying “I love you” for the first time, watching Miles and Zeke hold hands and hearing Nolan talk about wanting to pray with his teammates before soccer games.
For Tami, the moment was the day she picked Mikias up and he told her he’d missed her.
“He absolutely sees me as his mom,” she remembers thinking. “I called Greg. I said, ‘He missed me! He missed me!”
Those are the hope milestones, encouraging them to keep the faith.
“If we were able to fastforward 10 years from now, 15 years from now,” Victor said, “I think the greatest impact the adoption will have made is in us.”