Faces: How America saved Tanzanian girl's life


God had guided Jill and Ben Gibbs, of Fifty Lakes, to adopt their sponsored child in Tanzania. At least that's how they see it, and who is going to argue after the journey to America accidentally saved Bahati Juma's life.

Ben, Jill and Juma shared their story of adoption July 17 in front of a summer book club group who had just read "A Long Walk to Water," a book about the lost boys of Sudan.

Juma regaled the group with her own story of living in Tanzania, a place different, but similar to Sudan.

Juma grew up with an unwell mother and five brothers in a home smaller than many people's living rooms. Her family was protective of her, but they had very little as far as possessions and walked miles for anything from water to school.

Their poverty was how Juma became connected to the Gibbs family. She was their sponsor child for years with them providing financial assistance that would benefit the family. In truth they had no plans to adopt Juma, but a fateful trip guided their hand during a tragic time in Juma's life.

"We went on a missions trip with Jill's stepfather and for our daughter's graduation. We took the family to Tanzania and we met Bahati over there," Ben said. "Bahati's mom wasn't feeling very good. She was sick and we were able to get her help the next day. She died about two weeks later."

Juma was 9 at the time, but after her mother died she was given into the care of guardians, first one family, then another. Within two months, Ben and Jill realized they had been introduced into Juma's life for a reason. They were meant to adopt her.

Ben and Jill had already raised two daughters, now ages 23 and 20. They thought that was the end of their parenthood, but they could not deny what they saw as God's hand in Juma's life.

"We had no plan of getting more kids, but God spoke very clearly that our 9-year-old orphan needed us," Jill said. "It took a year and it's been four trying to adopt her."

Nothing was simple about bringing Juma to Minnesota. Their plans were nearly dashed right off the bat when they learned that Tanzanian law would require them to live in Tanzania for three years before it would allow them to adopt. A twist of fate again intervened and showed them another way.

"My father-in-law was in line in Amsterdam going through security and heard a guy talking in front of him about getting a child from Tanzania on an education visa," Ben said. "He just happened to go to the same village as my father did, so they got set up with an attorney."

Even this plan wasn't without its hurdles, as their first application for a Visa was denied. They persisted and applied a second time, though their lawyer told them it wouldn't work. Somehow their application ended up on the desk of exactly the right person.

"The attorney said it wouldn't work," Jill said. "We said we believed God was calling us to do this so we tried again. The guy was from Minnesota and knew where Brainerd was and said, 'I don't know why I'm doing this,' and granted her Visa."

Even after all the paperwork and legal documents were signed, there was still the question of one frightened 10-year-old flying 40 hours away from the only home and family she ever knew, leaving behind the sweltering heat of Tanzania and arriving at her new home in the dead of winter amidst 30-below-zero temperatures. It's hard to blame her for having some doubts or feeling homesick.

"It was in the middle of the winter," Juma said. "Over there it was really warm. It was even much hotter than it is now. I came here and it was snowing. It was so cold because I was used to the Tanzanian temperature. I didn't like it. I wanted to go back because I was not feeling like myself."

After only three months it almost seemed as if Juma would prefer to return to Tanzania. Ben said they agreed to let her go back for a few months and Ben would bring her back in August. She had only been back in her home country one week before asking, "Dad, when are you picking me up?" She came back to Minnesota and though she misses her brothers and her country's food and would like to go back to visit, this time she felt like Minnesota was her home.

"She wrote, when she came back, 'Bahati' in permanent magic marker on the door of her room," Jill said. "You probably shouldn't do that, but it showed in her heart she felt settled and this was her home. Like every family we still have our issues but we are very, very thankful."

Now Juma is a typical Minnesota girl. She has an iPhone, she goes to school, she plays basketball in school. This year, her team went to the championship game and lost by one point. Juma doesn't even remember her native language of Swahili.

Being in Minnesota may have saved her life. Ben said Juma had been feeling sick when he took her to a doctor for a checkup. On a whim, he asked them to test her for diabetes.

"About a year and a half ago we found out she had Type 1 diabetes," Ben said. "She definitely can't go back because in her village most places don't have electricity or refrigerators, which are needed for insulin."

Her condition is manageable in Minnesota where electricity and refrigeration make storage of insulin a breeze, but in her village in Tanzania she may have gone untreated. Juma said in her village it is normal for people to die of illness, especially children.

Jill and Ben now wonder if Type 1 diabetes contributed to Juma's mother's death, and Juma would like to bring test strips for her brothers when she visits them next, in case they also have the condition.

"She's very strong and brave," Jill said. "We are thankful God brought her here to us because she might not be alive."

Though Ben and Jill had first agreed to bring Juma back home every two years to visit her brothers, they had to cancel their first trip back to the country when they found out she might not be able to return. Naturally, Juma was upset to find out that she would not be able to visit her brothers until she receives some sort of green card or citizenship.

"Once she gets a green card we can come and go like anyone," Jill said. "We'd like to go to Tanzania in the fall and stay 10 days."

In the meantime, Juma and her brothers keep in touch through email thanks to a principal at the school in her village.

The Gibbs family hopes they can apply for a green card for Juma because her father abandoned her and her mother died. If she is granted a green card, then they can also file to adopt her officially, though they say it doesn't matter that she has a different last name.

"She may not be Bahati Gibbs, but she is Bahati Gibbs in our hearts," Jill said.

Juma said she already feels like an American. In Tanzania, she was taught at an English-speaking school, so she is fluent in English. Jill said she is entertained how Juma went from living with virtually no possessions to obsessing over tracking Amazon packages.

Adoption could still be a long, difficult challenge, but they are keeping faith that someday Juma will be able to return to travel back and forth between the United States and Tanzania with no hassles, as a Gibbs.