By Shane Richard Bell
Staff writer/Coeur d’Alene Press Sunday edition
Mihret munches her third brownie after finishing a big bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup while pointing to pictures of her homeland. She talks about the sun, the lush plants, the fertile fields.
“Our houses are different, you see,” said the 6-year-old. “But we have lions in Africa.”
The pictures are the beginning of a story about fraternal twin sisters, Mihret Elise Kuma Washington and Maara Elizabeth Kuma Washington, and how they were adopted from Wolayta, Ethiopia, by two Americans, Greg and Phebe Washington of Coeur d’Alene, when the girls were 6 months old in 2006.
Mihret and Maara’s mother, Abebech, was in labor for four days. Dr. Duane Anderson and Jackie Anderson of Coeur d’Alene were working at Soto Christian Hospital at the time of the birth. Six days after the birth, the twins’ mother, Abebech, died. Their father, who’d spent all of his money on his wife’s medical care, couldn’t even afford to give his deceased wife a proper burial.
Their grandmother held the twins as she grieved the loss of her daughter.
Several hospital staff told the Andersons that the father could not afford milk for his daughters, and that if he took them home to his farm, malnutrition would likely kill them. The Andersons were temporarily entrusted with caring for Mihret and Maara.
The story reached Coeur d’Alene through a friend of the Washingtons whose daughter is married to Duane and Jackie Anderson’s son. After hearing the story, Greg and Phebe, who were in the process of adopting internationally, looked into adopting Mihret and Maara.
Six months later, they were in Ethiopia.
“When we were in Ethiopia, oh man, here I was, a white man with braces carrying a baby in a Moby wrap everywhere we went,” Greg said. “The Ethiopians were laughing out loud at us everywhere we went.”
The Washington family has stood out ever since — in Ethiopia, in North Idaho, wherever.
“When you’re all the same race, it’s easier to blend in,” said Greg, 42. “But when we walk in, we’ve got red hair, brown hair, white skin, and black skin. So we stand out big time.”
Greg and Phebe never envisioned this kind of family growing up on the banks of the Clark Fork River in Missoula, Mont.
Meeting for the first time at Big Sky High School in 1984, Greg and Phebe were soon smitten. Greg was especially excited when Phebe accepted his invitation to his high school prom, even though she’d graduated high school and was then a college student. “Yeah, it was a little awkward, but Greg’s still proud about that,” said Phebe. “I was the man,” quipped Greg.
They dated for eight years and then married. Greg moved to Coeur d’Alene for a business internship. A year later Phebe arrived. They had their first child, Kynzie, now 14.
“After Kynzie, though, we were struggling getting pregnant,” said Greg. “We’re pretty open about it. We couldn’t have another child traditionally.”
The couple tried in vitro technology and got pregnant with their second child, Jaxson, 9.
“It worked with Jaxson so we thought, ‘Oh wow, this is going to work great,” said Phebe, 45. So they tried again. Three attempts later, they decided to adopt.
“Our family is so diverse,” Greg said. “It’s something neither one of us envisioned or planned for ourselves. It never occurred to us that we’d be a multi-racial family, or that two kids from Montana would go to Ethiopia to adopt two children of their own, or that we couldn’t have babies the conventional way. And we never thought about having a child with special needs.”
Maara Washington has autism.
“We knew something wasn’t developing normally with Maara when we first adopted her,” Phebe said. “She’d just sit there. When we would lay her down, she would just lie there.”
When Greg and Phebe were filling out adoption questionnaires, they answered “no” to adopting a child with neurological or mental disorders.
“At the time we just didn’t feel like we were equipped to deal with that,” Phebe said. “But God gave us Maara who has autism and has enriched us because of it in so many ways.”
“What has she taught us?” asks Phebe. “She has taught our family compassion and grace, which is her name. Maara means ‘grace’ in Amharic, and Mihret means ‘mercy.’ Those are the names the Andersons gave the girls, including their second middle name, which is actually their birth father’s name. It’s an Ethiopian tradition out of respect for the birth father that we wanted to keep, so we blended their American-Ethiopian names all together.”
Greg sees Maara as his wife does.
“One of the reasons God gave us Maara is because our family is supposed to be one of those families that creates awareness about autism. They’re not trying to impress; their love is unconditional. So it’s not scary to us anymore.”
Unlike other mental or neurological disorders that are more visibly noticeable, autism is harder for others to discern, Phebe said.
“When your child is bouncing around and making noise at a restaurant, people automatically assume that you’re a poor parent,” said Phebe. “They sometimes stare and give you dirty looks. They don’t see what Maara is going through.”
But Greg and Phebe know Maara is changing how others view her, and view autism.
“She’s impacted our family and she’s impacted the community already so much,” said Greg.
Suddenly Mihret, in the middle of rocking back and forth on a stool, falls off and lands on the dining room floor, her head making a loud thud.
“Mihret, Mihret,” calls Maara. “Oh poor, Mihret, are you OK? Are you OK, Mihret? Mama, is Mihret OK?”
Phebe picks up Mihret and carries her over to the couch where she cradles and comforts her daughter.
Other than a possible minor bruise, Mihret is fine; nothing more than a childhood mishap.
“They’re very connected with each other,” said Phebe.
“We like to cuddle when no one is watching,” chimed Mihret.
When Maara first started pre-school, she didn’t interact or play with other children.
“Mihret would make her. She’d stage a tea party and be like, ‘Maara, sit. Drink tea.’ So she was the perfect peer model for Maara. She’d tell her what she was supposed to do,” said Phebe.
Mihret was recently awarded student of the month at Dalton Elementary.
“One of the reasons why her teacher chose her is because there is a little boy she goes to school with who has autism in her class. Mihret helps this little boy out a lot, with many of the everyday things. The teacher told her she doesn’t always have to be the one who helps the boy out.
“Mihret replied, ‘Oh, that’s OK. My twin is an autism girl so I speak her language.’”
The Washington family lives like many other North Idaho families.
They pray before every meal, simple and humble words. They have two cats. They enjoy the outdoors. They live in a neighborhood, surrounded by dozens of other families. The siblings sometimes fight, voices sometimes rise, and tears are sometimes shed, but a solution is always found.
Every Friday night they pick up a pizza, rent a movie, and enjoy Phebe’s homemade caramel corn.
Every Sunday morning the family attends Coeur d’Alene Bible Church, where they’ve been worshipping for almost 20 years, and where Greg plays guitar every other week and occasionally sings on the worship team.
“I go early, kiss my wife goodbye, and then see them all roll in a couple hours later,” said Greg.
Every Monday morning Greg gets up to work as a Realtor for Windermere Coeur d’Alene Realty. Phebe attends to everything else.
“She doesn’t work outside of the home but she works very hard at taking care of all of us,” said Greg. “I owe her a lot of money; she hasn’t been collecting a salary for a while.”
Throughout the week their kids participate in a dizzying gamut of activities.
Jaxson, a third grader, claims “to be good at everything,” taking particular interest in reading, science, and social studies, as well as after-school activities, including climbing trees and taking care of his Beta fish, Dragon. One day he wants to be a Realtor and Ironman, just like his dad. He also wants to be a football player and learn a new profession every year.
The eldest, Kynzie, is in driver’s training and is involved with Christian Youth Theater as an actress and stage manager. She’s corralled the entire family into helping at CYT. Jaxson acts. Maara and Mihret take theater classes. Phebe and Greg volunteer.
Most people accept this North Idaho family.
“With the history of North Idaho and the Aryans, it’s always bothered me,” said Phebe. “But it never really hit home until about a year and a half ago when the Aryans were protesting the Mexican food stands and I had Maara and Mihret in the car as I was going by and could see the sign: ‘Honk if you want to keep Idaho white.’”
Phebe could feel her face begin to burn, blood rushing to her cheeks.
“I had anxiety. My heart was pounding. I don’t know if they could have done anything to us, but you don’t know,” she said.
“We know racism will happen, but we just hope we can react appropriately,” said Greg. “But most people go out of their way to make sure we know that this is not what our community is about.”
Phebe also recognizes both sides. “I appreciate the welcoming and graciousness the community has extended to us,” she said.
Mihret finishes looking at the twins’ photo album — for a moment.
“And that’s me,” she said, again opening the book to pages covered in glossy images and colorful paper. “And that is my birth grandma. This is my mother. This is my birth dad. And this is me and this is Maara. She’s sleeping. We’re zero in this picture.”
Greg and Phebe have two trips planned, the first to Disneyland and the second to Ethiopia. They’re waiting for the girls to turn 10, though, four years from now.
“We’d like to take a big trip to Ethiopia, and take the whole family,” said Greg. “We’re going to find their dad and the twins’ brothers and sisters. We’re going to find the family.”