(Fort Mill, S.C.) — Applause, cheers and chants of “welcome home” filled the lower concourse of Charlotte Douglas International Airport last month as a crowd of supporters witnessed the reunion of a Fort Mill family.
The homecoming, Aug. 24, ended a 10-month ordeal for the Stasi family, as they worked to bring their newly adopted 6-year-old son Obadiah to the U.S.
Luke Stasi, who had not seen his wife Brittney and their five children since January, had been in Lagos, Nigeria since November waiting for the U.S. to approve a visa for Obadiah.
The Stasis are familiar with Africa, as they have completed a number of mission trips to Kenya as pastors, specializing in marriage and families, for the MorningStar Fellowship Church. The family also operates two small businesses on their farm in Fort Mill.
However, the Stasis, who are enthusiastic advocates of adoption, had no idea the difficult journey that would await them as they tried to complete their own international adoption.
It all began last May when the family was officially matched with a young boy from Nigeria, after the country became eligible for adoptions in the U.S.
“He was the only (child) sent to us and we just knew as soon as we saw him, that he was our son,” said Brittney Stasi, who described the moment as an answer to a prayer.
Over the summer of 2018, the family engaged in home studies, completed numerous background checks, underwent physical exams — on all seven family members — and had their fingerprints taken, all in preparation for the adoption.
They were also required to complete 20 hours of online education courses covering international and interracial adoption, which the Stasis described as incredibly helpful.
“All adoption starts with a decision to educate yourself and a decision to say ‘yes’,” said Brittney.
After completing a dossier, which took nearly three months to complete, Luke, Brittney and their five children — Hadassah, Judah, Gia, Levi and Zion — traveled to Nigeria in November to meet Obadiah and bring him home.
A Nigerian court finalized the adoption in December, but not long after the family began to face a number of obstacles, which started as soon as the Stasis applied for a visa for their newly adopted son.
For example, officers working at the U.S. Consulate found that Obadiah’s date of birth was off by a day in the paperwork that was submitted and they began to question the family and their intentions.
“It’s supposed to be totally normal stuff. Somebody just wrote it down wrong, and they just acted like it was the biggest deal in the world,” Brittney said.
Later, the Stasis said, consular officers would accuse the family of fraudulent activity, including paying Obadiah’s birth mother to abandon her child six years ago, so they could ultimately adopt him.
While the accusations were unfounded, they ultimately delayed the approval of Obadiah’s visa.
Additionally, the 35-day government shutdown that began Dec. 22, making it the longest shutdown in U.S. history, may have helped to hinder the process.
“(Consular officers) were supposed to still be working, but, from what they rudely communicated to Brittney, they were not being paid,” said Luke Stasi.
Next, Brittney went to the consulate to inquire about the visa, after an alert was sent to all Americans in Lagos warning that political unrest in the city could lead to dangerous conditions.
However, Brittney said a frustrated consulate employee failed to provide an answer and only made things worse with verbal attacks.
For example, the employee, Brittney said, insinuated the Stasis might be human traffickers and suggested the family should drop Obadiah off at an orphanage and return to the U.S. to wait it out.
“I just started to cry,” said Brittney. “I wanted to get mad, but I knew she had the power to deny the visa.”
A Financial Burden
As the family, now totaling eight members, remained in Nigeria, the financial burden began to grow. “It was more expensive to stay in Lagos than it is to stay in Paris,” Brittney said.
Additionally, the family’s Nigerian visas were set to expire within their first 30 days in Lagos.
The Stasis faced a $75 per person fee for a first renewal. A second renewal would cost $325 each and a third renewal would cost up to $1,200 per person.
Thus, it became time for Luke and Brittney to make a difficult decision. “We knew that all of them had to go home before their visas expired,” Luke said.
So in January, the Stasi family separated, sending Brittney and the five children home to South Carolina, while Luke and Obadiah remained in Nigeria.
“We were still under the assumption that this wasn’t going to take much longer. I told them I would see them in two weeks,” Luke said.
Over the next few months, Brittney would struggle to make things work at home.
“I had to do everything,” she said. “I was running our business myself, taking care of our whole farm and homeschooling (the children) at the same time.
“I had to take on other jobs just to get us through it (financially). I was babysitting, I was trying to do a summer camp, I was doing photography. I entered into a level of exhaustion that I cannot even begin to express,” said Brittney.
The Waiting Game
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean in Lagos, Luke and Obadiah continued to wait for the approval of a visa, which had been put into what the government calls administrative processing.
“It essentially means we require more information,” said Scott Renner, director of the Office of Children’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.
Because the term itself is classified, Renner said he was unable to elaborate on what administrative processing entails.
However, the status is essentially a heightened security check and applicants are often forced to wait while they are given little information.
“They didn’t give me any explanation. They just said we were under administrative processing,” said Luke.
“Administrative processing is just a term the State Department uses when they do not want to tell the applicant the reason for the denial,” Jeffrey Gorsky, senior counsel at the law firm of Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP, told Forbes.
Gorsky is the former Chief of the Legal Advisory Opinion section of the Visa Office in the U.S. Department of State.
“It normally means either the case is being investigated due to concerns over visa eligibility or fraud, or that the case is being submitted to Washington agencies for clearance based on security or criminal ineligibility concerns,” said Gorsky.
Additionally, the time-frame for administrative processing was extended in February from 60 to 180 days, which has affected a number of people applying for visas, including international students.
“It wasn’t just us, everybody got tossed into administrative processing,” said Luke, of other families he met in Lagos, who were in similar situations.
Renner said international adoptions can often receive further screening through administrative processing.
“Our goal is to enhance the viability of inter-country adoption around the world and make sure the adoptions that do occur are ethical, safe and protect the children and families involved,” Renner said.
The Office of Children’s Issues serves as the U.S. Central Authority for the Hague Adoption Convention and handles cases of abduction in foreign countries and oversees investigations into international adoption cases.
“We’re committed to making sure children in need of a permanent home, that don’t have options in their home country, get a permanent home,” said Renner, a 20-year veteran of the State Department who has served as the office’s director for the past year.
A Silver Lining
Regardless the reason for the additional screening, the time apart was taking its toll on the Stasi family.
“Our youngest is only 5 (years old), it’s heart wrenching,” said Luke. “I missed all the birthdays and Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. It just became too hard and they wanted me to come home, but they didn’t want me to leave Obadiah.”
Brittney said the separation was especially hard on the children, who often found themselves in a state of grief.
“They were all experiencing what an orphan experiences,” she said. “They were able to partner with Obadiah in ways they couldn’t have before. That is kind of one of our silver linings that we have tried to find in all this.”
As time went on, the family started to become hopeful the situation would be resolved by July.
“July just became solidified in our minds. We just kept thinking ‘July. Something is going to happen by July,’ which was both helpful in some ways and unhelpful in others,” said Brittney. “When July came and nothing happened, we were crushed.”
As Luke approached a 10th month in Nigeria with Obadiah and an eighth month away from the rest of his family, the Stasis started to wonder if things might not work out.
A Last Resort
As time went on, the family business was taking a hit, debt was starting to mount and the children were continuing to live life without their father.
“We kept saying we know too much about attachment and we cannot do this to (Obadiah),” Brittney said. “There would be days where we were feeling so broken, but what staying would do for our son; we knew we would reap the benefits for years to come.
“Your temporary suffering for this child equals what, compared to the rest of their life,” she asked.
“We sacrificed so much. We sacrificed so many finances and so much pain, but we were unwilling to (leave Obadiah). He is such a sweet boy and we kept saying ‘we would not be the cause, despite how much pain it has caused us, of him being broken for the rest of his life.’”
As a last resort, the Stasis shared their story on Facebook.
“It feels like my own US government is holding me and my adopted son hostage abroad,” Luke wrote in a post urging family and friends to write to the State Department on the family’s behalf.
The effort sparked a small movement, as nearly 200 people contacted the State Department within a matter of days. They also reached out to state officials and members of Congress, asking them to intervene as the ordeal reached the 10-month mark.
“I believe I would still be sitting there if it wasn’t for us rallying our friends to put pressure on the Department of State,” said Luke, who finally heard from the U.S. Consulate in Lagos in August.
The Stasis give credit to Scott Renner and the Office of Children’s Issues for the sudden progress in their case.
“I have to give the State Department a huge shoutout. Scott did something,” Brittney said. “I don’t know what happened, but he really stepped up. He helped us, and if it weren’t for him, they would probably still be in Nigeria.”
While the Stasi family considers him a hero of sorts, Renner said he was just doing his job.
“Every family is important to us. I am happy to try and help people,” said Renner.
“I’ll let the Stasis tell their own story,” he said. “If there is an American family that has a new child, that has a permanent home, and is getting on with their lives, we are thrilled for them.”
One Last Obstacle
The family was finally able to anticipate a reunion, but there would be one last problem.
Upon arriving at the airport in Lagos, it was discovered that Obadiah’s visa was marked as female instead of male. Luke was told U.S. customs officials would not allow Obadiah into the country and they could be sent back to Africa if they boarded the flight from Nigeria to Atlanta.
“I was just shaking, thinking this is not happening right now,” said Brittney, of the moment she received word of what was happening in Lagos.
Brittney said she was initially instructed by officials not to encourage her husband to board the flight to the U.S. So in a state of desperation, the family reached out to Renner for a second time, who stepped in and helped bring the pair home.
Ultimately, Luke and Obadiah were reunited with Brittney and the five other children when they landed in Charlotte on Aug. 24. They were met with balloons, posters and cheers from a crowd of family and friends who welcomed the father and son home.
Now, four weeks after their return, the Stasis have had time to reflect upon their long and emotional journey.
“Despite all of the difficulty we had, it’s still worth it,” Luke said.
“Significant things don’t happen easily. A lot of people like to play it safe, but you don’t ever make a lasting impact by playing it safe,” he said. “We live in this generation that is very big on social justice, equal opportunity and giving those with less a fighting chance. What more of a fighting chance can we give anyone than to give a child, without a family, a home.”
The Stasi family has asked the community for financial assistance, as they face the crippling debt of their international adoption. The family says they may have to sell their home next year to help with their financial recovery.
In the meantime, the family has set up a GoFundMe account, which has already raised more than $10,000 from more than 70 donors.
“After we take time to recuperate and recover, we would like to become advocates for change,” said Luke. “There are so many other kids who are still not able to come home because of over-regulation.”
For the time being, Luke and Brittney Stasi and their six children live on their farm in Fort Mill, where they are taking a short break from their involvement with their church to focus on their family.