- Associated Press - Friday, June 24, 2016

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Nine 4-inch-thick binders sit in a towering stack in Thalia Jeffres’ living room.

The dense column is the accumulation of what she calls her “political activity.” Moving chronologically from bottom to top, Jeffres points out different papers and documents that mark time like rings on a tree stump

“This,” she says, indicating a paper near the bottom, “is the first photo I saw of him.”

Dispersed between the thousands of pages of documents, letters and records are photos of a dark-skinned boy staring into the camera. In some pictures, he’s smiling. In others, he’s not. In some pictures, he looks young. In others, he doesn’t.

The stack is a reminder of the four years that Jeffres, a 52-year-old math professor at Wichita State University, has spent ensnared in doubt, bureaucracy and, at times, hopelessness - a time when she has suffered from chronic insomnia and crippling grief.

“For a large portion of this time, my emotional state was that of a person who had lost their child,” Jeffres said.

Across from the leaning tower of binders - and not much taller - sits Changa Changa, deeply involved in a coloring book. His dark brown eyes focus intently as he shades in Superman’s blue suit, occasionally stopping to ask his mother a question in French. Jeffres replies the best she can. French might be his first language, but it’s not hers.

For the past few weeks, Changa, 6, has been settling into a routine. He takes swimming lessons in the mornings, plays with the three cats and two dogs that share the house and helps Jeffres in the kitchen.

“He’s a really interesting kid, you know,” Jeffres told the The Wichita Eagle (https://bit.ly/28IxI7A ).

You would never guess that just over a month ago, Changa had been in the hospital with malaria. You would never guess that for three years, Changa was one of hundreds of adopted children stuck in the Democratic Republic of Congo, waiting on an exit permit and unable to leave.

“He came home almost exactly three years later than he should have,” Jeffres said.

–—

Adoption begins

It was in spring 2012 when Jeffres and her then-fiance, Dave Kroffsik, began the process to adopt a child.

Jeffres specifically was interested in adopting from the Congo because she had followed the political unrest in the nation since the fall of President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. The Congolese government allows couples to adopt only if they have been married for five years, so instead of waiting, the two decided Jeffres would file as a single parent.

A few months later, in October, she was matched with Changa Changa, then 2 1/2. The couple thought they would be bringing him home within a year. But because of political unrest in the Congo and delays from the U.S. State Department prompted by safety concerns, Changa was not released from the country until April 2016.

Changa’s first visa was issued on Sept. 24, 2013. The next day, the Democratic Republic of Congo placed a suspension on the exit permits minors need to leave the country.

After negotiation through the U.S. State Department, the Congolese government agreed to honor cases that had been completed before the Sept. 25 ban. Jeffres and Kroffsik, confident they would be “grandfathered” in, flew to the Congo in November 2013.

Upon arriving at the orphanage, Jeffres said, she was “inwardly serene” because the adoption seemed to be on track.

“I thought we’d have all the time in the world, a lifetime, to get to know Changa,” she said. “I wasn’t really in any big hurry.”

–—

Exit permits suspended

However, not long after arriving in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, Jeffres learned that the Congolese government did not intend to honor its agreement to let adopted children like Changa leave the country with their adoptive parents.

While Kroffsik returned to the United States to resume work after three weeks in the Congo, Jeffres stayed for four months, trying to take Changa home. In February 2014, she returned to Wichita, alone.

In June 2014, reassured she’d be able to take Changa home, Jeffres returned to the Congo. But she again found herself alone on a flight home.

Exit permits are still suspended, according to the U.S. State Department, which strongly recommends against initiating an adoption in the Congo at this time. The department says the average time it has taken to release adopted Congolese children to their families has been 30 months.

The State Department also has a travel warning for the Congo, advising U.S. citizens to avoid non-essential trips to the country where “instability and sporadic violence continues.”

“Armed groups, bandits, and elements of the Congolese armed forces, primarily located in the North Kivu, South Kivu, and the new provinces of Bas-Uele, Haut Uele, Tanganyika, Haut-Lomami, and the eastern part of Maniema Province, are known to kill, rape, kidnap, pillage, steal vehicles, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians can be indiscriminately targeted,” the warning said.

–—

Difficult and discouraging

Rather than become discouraged by red tape and roadblocks, Jeffres dived into them. She wrote letters, made phone calls and even organized a call-in day to the White House to implore President Obama to demand the release of the children to their adoptive parents.

In March 2015, the Congolese government created a special commission to review the pending adoption cases. But Jeffres said it became clear after a few months that the commission was not doing “any meaningful activity.”

Next, she traveled to Capitol Hill to advocate for the adopted children.

“I went to Washington four times to personally lobby my and other elected members of government,” she said.

Jeffres called her experiences in D.C. extremely difficult and discouraging at times.

But her actions were not entirely fruitless. In particular, she said, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo and Sen. Pat Roberts helped secure the release of Changa.

“Thalia Jeffres and her family have shown incredible love and resolve during this entire process and I congratulate them on bringing their beloved Changa Changa home to Kansas,” Pompeo said in an e-mail. “It was immensely frustrating to all those involved to see a brutal dictator trying to use children as political pawns, but I’m so pleased to see this young child finally home with his family.”

–—

‘I got my whole life back’

On April 27, through e-mails and phone calls, Jeffres learned Changa had been cleared to leave the Congo.

And on May 1, almost four years after they were matched, Jeffres picked up her son from Denver International Airport.

“I felt restored once I knew that he had cleared Congolese airspace,” Jeffres said. “I kind of felt restored to normal. I got my whole life back, not just my child.”

Jeffres and Kroffsik are no longer together. Jeffres said her ex-fiance knows Changa is home.

Ten days after arriving in the U.S., Changa was hospitalized with malaria he had contracted while in the Congo. Ninety percent of malaria-related deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, UNICEF estimated in 2012. For Jeffres, who had watched other Congolese children die while waiting for their exit permits, it was a reminder of just how close she had come to losing her son.

Changa’s passport now contains seven visas, six of which expired while he was waiting to be released from the Congo. Jeffres said when it came down to it, she was not willing to give up.

“The knowledge that Changa was alone in the world and that I was the only person on earth that was legally responsible for him had a very powerful effect on me,” Jeffres said.

___

Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, https://www.kansas.com

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