Ellianna's Story

by Rod and Shellie Smith

© 2004-2023 Rodney A. Smith
All rights reserved.
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In March of 1999, when we returned from China with our newly adopted daughter, Emmaline, we knew that someday we would return to Asia to adopt a sister for her. We had no idea that it would be so much harder to adopt the second time.

We considered several names for her, but finally agreed on Ellianna. As we discovered later, it is a Hebrew name which means, "God answered our prayers." We could not have chosen a more appropriate name.

We started the adoption process in June of 2000 through Journeys of the Heart adoption agency. We assumed that we would adopt from China again but something told us that Ellianna was waiting for us in Vietnam. Journeys worked with an adoption facilitator in Vietnam called International Mission of Hope, IMH. It was started by Cherie Clark, who took part in Operation Babylift as Saigon was falling in 1975. They told us that we would most likely adopt in March of 2001.

When people comment that adoption is the easy way to have a family, we laugh and explain all that is involved in the process. The social worker from the agency met with us in July and asked a lot of personal questions. We both had to pass a physical by our doctor and get a good conduct letter from the county sheriff. We were fingerprinted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, INS. We filled out the application paperwork for the adoption agency and also for the INS. Then we started gathering certified copies of our birth and marriage certificates. These had to then be sent to the Vietnam Consulate in San Francisco to be translated and authenticated.

We had been told that Vietnam is easier than China since fewer forms are needed. But Vietnam requires five different packets of documents to be sent at different stages of the process. Shellie spent most of the summer gathering and organizing the required paperwork. She became well acquainted with the people at the nearest FedEx office.

Our home study report and all of the paperwork for the adoption dossier was completed by September of 2000. The dossier was officially received in Vietnam on October 30. Then came the hard part, waiting for a referral. Months went by with no sign of anything happening. We knew that the some of the paperwork had to be less than six months old so we were up against a deadline. March came and went with no news. The deadline passed and some of the paperwork became useless.

Finally in April we heard from Vietnam. IMH asked us to update our paperwork so we knew that we were close to adopting.

On June 8, 2001, as we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary, our daughter to be, Khanh Ly, was born in Yen Bai province, northwest of Hanoi. Five weeks later, we got the call that she was waiting for us. We were so excited when we received a packet of information and pictures of Khanh Ly. We immediately emailed them to our families.

This set off a flurry of preparations. Our church, family and friends donated toys, medicine and school supplies for the orphanage. We bought gifts for the birth mother and for the officials at the Giving and Receiving ceremony.

On October 16, we were notified that we had to be in Hanoi by October 28, only twelve days away. The next day we mailed our passports and visa applications to the Vietnam Consulate by overnight express mail. Then we bought plane tickets, three round trip and a one way for Ellianna.

The most important preparation we did was to invite forty friends to our house for dinner and a prayer session. We prayed that God would watch over us as we traveled, protect us from harm and bring us safely home.

On October 24, shortly before we left for the airport, we received our I-171 from INS. This is the Notice of Favorable Determination Concerning Application for Advance Processing of Orphan Petition. This was the final hurdle. INS had cabled the American Consulate in Saigon that we had received official approval to bring Ellianna home. No one could guess how absolutely worthless this official approval would turn out to be.

The first glitch in our trip occurred when we reached the airport. Our flight to San Francisco had been cancelled. The airline offered to switch us to another flight to San Francisco by way of Seattle but we did not want to spend an additional three hours on an airplane. They switched us to a different airline that had a direct flight. But since we had changed tickets just before the flight, we had to be thoroughly searched at the gate. This was only two months after September 11th. We were surprised to see soldiers with rifles all throughout the San Francisco airport.

Our flight on EVA Airlines left San Francisco at 1:30 a.m. This seemed like a strange time for a flight but we quickly appreciated how easy it was for everyone to sleep on the plane. And, the plane arrived in Taiwan shortly after sunrise. The airport terminal was new and well designed although it did have one strange quirk. In the men's bathroom, there was a floor to ceiling, clear glass window. Later, I noticed that the first urinal was plainly visible from the moving walkway. Only in Taiwan.

After breakfast, we caught our plane to Bangkok, Thailand. When I visited Thailand in 1981, the airport was well outside the city, surrounded by fields. Now it is surrounded by city. We reached our hotel at 11 a.m., thirty one hours after leaving home.

There is no way to get to Vietnam in one day. The flight connections require an overnight stay somewhere in Asia so we decided to spend two nights in Bangkok and see the city. Our tour guide took us to the royal palace and temple complex in Bangkok and to an elephant farm outside of town. We had our picture taken with two tigers. I was very careful to not let Emmaline step on their tails. We saw a pageant showing how elephants were used in Thailand for logging and for warfare, then we took a ride on an elephant. At the end of the tour, our guide cautioned us that if we visited southern Thailand where there are many Muslims and someone asked where we were from, we should say South Africa, not America.

We flew from Bangkok to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines. As soon as the plane hit the runway at Hanoi, the engines were shut down because the plane was leaking fuel. A tractor was sent to pull the plane to the terminal, but it broke down. A second tractor finally towed us in. I was so glad that we did not know how unreliable their equipment was until we were safely on the ground.

Our taxi ride from the airport took us through fields and small villages, then through small houses on the edge of Hanoi, then through large houses with a distinctly French flavor, then through narrow buildings with a Chinese flavor. We stopped in the oldest part of Hanoi at the Claudia Hotel. It really is less than eight feet wide but four stories tall. Our room was tiny. I had to sit sideways on the toilet because my knees hit the opposite wall. But the bed was soft and the air conditioner worked so we settled right in. Shellie and I had a double bed. Emma slept on a single mattress on the floor. Instead of a crib for Ellianna, there was a small oval bed with six-inch high sides made of foam rubber, a dog bed!

The next morning, we went to the orphanage at Tu Liem to meet Ellianna. We were ushered into the orphanage office where we met two ladies, Dr. Vinh and Dr. Quy, the directors of the orphanage. Ellianna was immediately brought in and Shellie held her while I took pictures. Ellianna was only four months old and she seemed as happy as we were to be in our arms at last. We took turns holding Ellianna and waited for some kind of ceremony. Dr. Vinh and Dr. Quy were probably wondering why we were still sitting there. Finally, Emmaline wandered off so I went to look for her and Shellie came to find me. We saw the crib which Ellianna had shared with another baby and met the woman who cared for her and about ten other babies.

Emmaline was a good big sister and very helpful but we had to watch her. When Emmaline was told that she could go for a walk in the park as soon as the baby was asleep, she held Ellianna's eyelids shut!

On November 2, we rode in a van for five hours up the valley into the mountains to Yen Bai province where Ellianna was born for the Giving and Receiving Ceremony. Dr. Vinh and Dr. Quy sat behind us. Emma was really fussy, whiny and annoying. Shellie and I were worried about the impression we would make on the orphanage directors if we disciplined Emmaline or if we did nothing. Finally I whispered to Shellie, "Maybe they will think that she is retarded and that we are doing the best that anyone can." They must have wondered why we suddenly broke into uncontrollable laughter.

Emma stepped on one of the gifts for the officials and the paper was torn and dirty. We showed it to our translator and he looked horrified. The driver found some paper and re-wrapped it.

The Giving and Receiving ceremony was long and hot and boring. Our translator spoke so softly that we had no idea what was said in the long speeches. But it was obvious that they took the matter very seriously. One thing we did learn was the Dr. Vinh had just retired as orphanage director after working two years past the normal retirement age. Dr. Quy was promoted from assistant director to director.

After the ceremony, we had to wait for a long time while Dr. Vinh went with the local officials to sign documents. We sat with Dr. Quy and another official around a coffee table which had a teapot and several cups which had obviously been used. Dr. Quy poured hot water from a thermos into a cup then poured the same water from cup to cup to sterilize them. Then she served us tea. Shellie whispered to me that she was not going to drink from that cup but I whispered that we did not want to offend them so she should fake it.

We spent several days exploring Hanoi. We went to a sixth century temple built on a tiny island near the shore. The grounds were interesting but Shellie walked six feet into the temple and stopped like she had hit a wall. There was such a strong presence of evil. We also toured an eleventh century university and a modern art museum. The streets around the Claudia Hotel were very interesting. The shops were in clusters. There were many jewelry and watch shops on the street. Around the corner were picture shops. The next street had trinket shops and beyond that were tin shops. One shop sold tags for Nike clothing that anyone could buy and sew into their clothing. There were many people on the sidewalks and it was hard to walk for all of the motorcycles parked on the sidewalks. It was so eerie on the morning we got up before sunrise to find that the streets were completely empty and all of the shops were covered with steel doors.

On November 6, we picked up Ellianna's passport. Vietnam had finished all of their paperwork so she was ready to leave as soon as we got her visa from the U.S. Consulate in Saigon. But, we learned that there was a problem with the preceding group who had adopted from the same orphanage. Eight families and ten babies had been held up in Saigon for up to three weeks while they were being investigated by INS. We stayed in Hanoi two extra days until we learned that the preceding group had received their visas.

We flew to Saigon on November 8 and arrived at the Evergreen Hotel in time to meet the Cox sisters. We knew of them before since they had adopted from China about the time that we adopted Emmaline. They showed us where to shop and told us what they had learned from their problems with INS.

The next day, we went to the U.S. Consulate for our appointment with INS. The interview seemed to go well with no problems, but then we were informed that we could not receive our visa because our adoption needed to be investigated by INS. She could not tell us why or how long the investigation might take.

When I spoke with Larry Crider, the head of INS in Saigon, he would not tell us why we were being investigated. He said that our prior approval from INS in the USA did not matter because he had final authority in Saigon. He also said that we were not going anywhere for at least a week. We were stuck in Vietnam.

We emailed our Senators, Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith, and our Representative, David Wu, and asked them to intervene with INS to clear up the holdup. We also asked our friends to contact their congressmen to see if they could help. We got several replies from Congressmen promising to do what they could.

We also sent an email to the Oregonian explaining our situation and asking for help. At 3 am, Margie Boule called us from Portland. She apologized for waking us up in the middle of the night but she wanted to be sure that we were there when she called. It was hard to think of an intelligent explanation of the situation when awakened from a sound sleep. But she was gracious and we had a wonderful conversation with her for more than a half-hour. On November 18, a very nice article about us appeared in her column in the Oregonian.

We were encouraged by all the interest from our Congressmen and the Oregonian. It raised our hopes but they were quickly dashed. INS told our congressmen that the orphanage was being investigated for buying babies.

There had been a charge of buying a baby several months before but it had already been proven to be a fraudulent charge. There was an article in a local paper which tried to make the orphanage look like it was hiding something. The article was based on information from Larry Crider. It was obviously trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. One claim was contradicted by the photograph accompanying the article. We knew that there was absolutely no truth to the charges, but we also knew that our senators would not interfere with the investigation. We were still stuck in Vietnam.

We took advantage of our extra time in Saigon to get better acquainted with our daughter's homeland. We toured the War Remnants Museum. It used to be called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes but the name was changed to avoid offending tourists. It is now the most popular museum in Saigon with Western tourists. It has a courtyard of U.S. military equipment which was left behind and buildings full of pictures of the war. It created conflicting emotions since we went to school with several people that fought in the war and some that didn't survive. The pictures evoked pride in our country's troops as well as horror at the devastation wrought by them as well as to them. The most disturbing was a wall of glass jars containing malformed fetuses which was blamed on Agent Orange.

More families with babies from IMH arrived from Hanoi. Soon there were ten babies. All of them were under investigation by INS. We thought that INS had finished their investigation when four families were granted their visas on November 20. But a phone call to Larry Crider quickly dashed our hopes. Three babies who were approved were from Hanoi Province. The fourth was from an outlying province but the father had to return home that week. INS granted the visa so the family would not be separated. Larry Crider had a heart after all. The rest of the babies were from outlying provinces and were still under investigation. We were still stuck in Vietnam.

We met a woman who had been in Vietnam since November 2nd because there was a problem with her baby's paper trail. This is not the first time that she had a hard time getting out of Saigon. She was an orphan during the Babylift in 1975 as Saigon fell. She was on the airplane that crashed right after takeoff killing many orphanage workers and babies including her brother. She made it out on a later flight and grew up in the USA. Eventually she had to leave her baby behind in Vietnam. It took several months before she was able to return to Vietnam and take her baby home.

We agonized over the idea that Rod should return home the day after Thanksgiving so he could return to work and make some money to pay for this expensive stay in Saigon. But we decided that it would be too stressful for us to be separated. Fortunately, some people from our church took an offering for us and deposited the money in our checking account. Also, Rod's employer continued to pay him after he had used up all of his paid vacation. Praise God!

Thanksgiving Day was hot and sunny. We went for a swim on the rooftop pool, probably the only time in our lives that we will swim outdoors on Thanksgiving. Beth and Frank of IMH organized a Thanksgiving Dinner on Thursday evening for the families here. We had ham, turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy. They all tasted great. Then we had corn on the cob, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie which didn't taste at all like we expected. There were also prawns and spring rolls which were good but hardly traditional foods. The oddest thing was trying to eat the meal with chopsticks. Fortunately, Beth was quickly able to get forks for everyone. It was a very nice gesture by IMH and we all enjoyed eating the Thanksgiving meal together.

On Friday, we went to another Thanksgiving Dinner by an American family who lives in Saigon. They were a friend of a friend of a friend. They had loaned us a Bible and later invited us to their church which meets in the ballroom of the Prince Hotel. The church is for foreigners only since it is illegal to proselytize in Vietnam.

On Monday, Rod called to see if INS had finished its investigation and was ready to start granting immigrant visas. They had been up to Yen Bai province on Friday but they were waiting to hear from a few people. At least they said, "Maybe tomorrow," instead of "Nothing until next week."

We realized that our Senators and Representatives were not going to intervene with INS on our behalf because of the investigation. Also, emails from our friends to INS in the USA were not going to help our situation in Saigon. We concluded that the only one who could help us was God. We emailed our faithful prayer warriors and asked them to really pray for us. Rod prayed that God would move INS to grant visas to all of the families before the end of the month

On Tuesday, all of the families called INS and finally got a straight answer about the investigation. The whole problem was a question about Vietnamese law, whether it is legal to have the babies in an orphanage in Hanoi and the adoption ceremony in their birth province. INS was waiting now for some high ranking Vietnamese official in the Ministry of Justice to clarify this point.

But on Wednesday, they announced that we were required to submit a document that they have never requested from anyone before. IMH managed to contact the necessary officials and get the documents in one day. All of the families decided to go to INS on Thursday to present the documents in person.

On Thursday morning, five husbands and one single mom arrived at the INS office and turned in our documents. We were ready to leave but we were asked to stay for a few minutes so we could meet with Larry Crider. Rod prayed non-stop for the entire time we were in the waiting room until we were ushered into a conference room. Larry Crider announced that all of us would receive visas for our babies that afternoon. We were all frozen in unbelief. Crider claimed that some Vietnamese officials were acting outside the rules, but when he was questioned, he backed off his original assertion and became even more vague. We left the meeting and looked for the nearest phone so we could share the news with the wives back at the hotel. There was much rejoicing until we all went to the U.S. Consulate to pick up the visas.

Other families who had recently arrived from Hanoi also received their visas. INS granted visas to seventeen babies from that same orphanage that one day. They even asked two families to hurry down to Saigon from Hanoi so they could get their visas the next day, November 30. Nineteen families received their visas before the end of the month, just as Rod had prayed.

God must have moved INS to grant the visas because INS did not change its mind about the orphanage. The families who tried to get visas the following week were held up for three months.

With visa in hand, we called the airline and managed to get seats on a plane the next day. Several of the families celebrated by going to an Italian restaurant in the oldest part of Saigon. We enjoyed the last evening in Saigon very much. We would have enjoyed all of our stay in Vietnam if we had not been so worried about being able to leave. We spent three full weeks trapped in Saigon and a total of five weeks in Asia.

We were very tired, but relieved when we arrived back in Portland, Oregon, after travelling for twenty-four hours. A small crowd of friends were waiting for us at the airport and welcomed us home. We were so glad to finally be home with our precious daughter.

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Ellianna's Story
Prayers for Ellianna
Ellianna's Timeline

Emma's Story
Emma's Timeline
Nathaniel's Story
Journeys of the Heart Adoption Agency
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