Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Modern family

Family, at last. All six Moghadam kids together for the first time in Ghana.
(Photo: Sol Moghadam/June 2012)

We are surrounded by ordinary people living extraordinary lives all the time. It could be the person standing next to you in line at Starbucks. It might be the busy mom pushing a full grocery cart while rowdy children follow close behind. Or the guy on the subway who's got his nose buried in a book. We just need to pause, take a good look and wonder, "What's their story?"   

I first met Christine Moghadam at a women's bible study two years ago. We were in the same small group at Newsong Moms Ministry -- a rock-solid community of mothers based in Orange County, California. Though she was one of the leaders of this group, we rarely saw her. She would pop in occasionally. Some days she looked exhausted. Other days it seemed like she was in a trance. I surmised Christine was probably going through some kind of life-altering season (either that or "Motherhood is sucking the breath out of her, poor thing," I thought). Little did I know God was calling her to the greatest and most transformative adventure of her life.

It was around that time Christine and her husband, Sol, were looking to expand their family. And by expand, I mean double. Though they had always shared a deep-rooted desire to adopt, they had no idea it would mean welcoming four additional children -- at the same time.

It was around Thanksgiving in 2011 when Christine saw siblings Stephen, Derick, Phylis and Elyana on her adoption agency's waiting list. The moment she laid eyes on their faces, something happened. Something wonderful and cosmic and crazy in that soul-stirring kind of way. "I scrolled down and then felt prompted to look at their photos again and again," Christine remembers of that late November evening at her computer. "I kept thinking, 'Four without a family. I wonder who would take four kids?' The next few days, I couldn't get those pictures out of my head."

The photos that started it all.

It's like when you meet the love of your life and you're in that fog. You can't think straight. Christine thought maybe she was supposed to pray for these kids, that they would find a forever home. But it became obvious she and Sol were the answer to that original question, "I wonder who would take four kids?"

God clearly told her, "These are your four children." How can you ignore a message like that? So she and Sol pursued them. They spent countless hours preparing their dossier. Gathering official papers -- medical records, marriage and birth certificates, tax returns, updated home studies, fingerprinting, interviews. They prepared their home for four more. Closets filled. Rooms arranged. Pantry stocked with familiar foods. Hundreds of hours spent in prayer. Sleepless nights. Vivid dreams. Hopes and fears. Anxiety. Joy. Anticipation.

Clockwise from top left: Derick, Phylis, Stephen and Elyana.
(Photos: Sol Moghadam)

Then last summer, the moment had arrived. Christine, Sol and their two biological sons, 7-year-old Ethan and 4-year-old Isaac, would travel to West Africa to meet their new family members for the first time.

The Moghadam's journey in Ghana is a whole other saga within a story. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. A Ghanian judge had approved the adoption of Stephen, Derick, Phylis and Elyana. The Moghadams were now a complete family of eight! But the dream took a terrifying turn when Ghanian police detained the family as they were en route to a restaurant for lunch. You are being arrested for child trafficking, officials told Christine and Sol. But look at the court documents, they explained, these are OUR KIDS. Dubious, the police separated the family. All six children were sent to an orphanage while Christine and Sol spent the night in a crowded jail cell.

Armed with a mobile phone, Christine started making calls, sent emails and posted desperate messages on her Facebook page. Then she prayed like she had never prayed before. Within 24 hours, she had mobilized an army. Friends and family bombarded the US Embassy in Accra with letters and petitions. The international media picked up their story. 

One of the many articles written about Christine and Sol's arrest in Ghana.
This one's from the Daily Mail in the UK.

The false charges were dropped and the family was freed. But the experience was traumatizing. An intensely private person, Christine hated the media attention. They were waiting for her when she returned to the US. They hounded her. Even waited at her doorstep. She shut down her popular blog. She needed space. But more importantly, she wanted to protect her children. 

"I have finally allowed myself to catch up on emails, journal and actually complete a thought... let alone... just cry," Christine wrote when she returned to her blog eight weeks later. "Crying is good... tears are healing. It's good to finally FEEL again."

This past September, Christine, Sol, Ethan and Isaac welcomed home Stephen, 13, Derick, 10, Phylis, 7, and Elyana, 2. Finally, a family united! I was lucky enough to be at the airport for the reunion. I felt honored that Christine and Sol allowed me to be a part of something so special. I will never forget the tearful hugs, the cheers, the laughter, the look on Christine's face as she embraced her kids. All six of them. Here was a woman who fought, truly with all of her heart, wits and strength, for the family she had always dreamed of. 

One year before this photo was taken, these children were
separated by an ocean. Today, they are siblings forever.
(Photo: Christine Moghadam)

And the fight's not over now that all of her kids are home. There are new battles and new hurdles to overcome. Parenting has become something like climbing Mt. Everest. "One of the greatest challenges we face every day is homeschooling four and entertaining our other two," Christine writes in her blog. "Unfortunately, we were told by their previous school in Ghana that all of our kids were academically at their appropriate grade levels and received perfect grades. To our surprise, our 10-year-old is barely at a 2nd grade level and our 7-year-old is between K-1st grade. It has been a rough road for all of us."

In spite of tantrums and meltdowns, the sound of laughter always rings louder from our house, she says. "Tomorrow provides me its challenges... but it also gives me the joy of watching all six of my beautiful blessings learn from their weaknesses and grow in their strengths."  

I think one of the most beautiful things about Christine is her authenticity. She doesn't pretend she's supermom. She'll be the first one to tell you having six kids is hard, hard work and that it's not always filled with high-fives and fist bumps. She takes risks and questions the status quo. She seeks adventure. She's never chased after a safe and predictable life (which makes her the perfect culture shifter in safe and predictable Orange County). She loves her kids with the ferocity of a mama bear. She loves God with all her heart, mind, soul and strength.

I admire her greatly and I look forward to how her journey continues to unfold...

My beautiful friend Christine Moghadam and her beautiful child, 2-year-old Elyana.
Both are strong,independent and free-spirited. Like mother like daughter.
(Photo: Sol Moghadam) 

What is family? 
They were the people who claimed you.
In good, in bad, in parts or in whole, 
they were the ones who showed up, 
who stayed in there, regardless. 
It wasn't just about blood relations 
or shared chromosomes, 
but something wider, bigger.

From Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen

Below is the Moghadam family's CBS2 interview that aired on November 16, 2012: