When Merhawi Stephen Lake of Roseburg was 8 years old, he traveled from his place of birth, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to join his adoptive family in the United States.
“It’s definitely different from being Ethiopian and coming here, but everyone was very loving and very welcoming to me,” Merhawi said. “I don’t think there was a time when I felt homesick.”
From a very young age, Merhawi, now 16, lived with his biological father in Ethiopia, who found it was hard to work and take care of a little boy by himself. Merhawi’s godfather, along with his older brother, Berhanu Tenker, thought it would be better to send Merhawi to an orphanage so he’d have a chance at a better life elsewhere.
From age 5 to 8, Merhawi lived at the orphanage, where he enjoyed playing soccer with the other children. He described his time at the orphanage as a good experience with a lot of friends.
He said it’s funny how people in Roseburg have their own perceptions of what his life was like in Ethiopia.
“I’ve been asked if I speared my food or if I hunted lions or stuff like that,” he said with a laugh. “I never saw a wild animal in Africa.”
“I remember when you were in elementary school, and someone asked you if you were one of those kids you see on a poster with flies in their eyes,” said his mother, Gretchen Lake, to Merhawi. Addis Ababa is a fairly well-developed, metropolitan city, his adoptive father Chris Lake added.
When Merhawi was adopted, the Lakes gave him a list of new names to choose, so he chose the name Stephen.
He usually goes by Stephen because it’s easier for people in Roseburg to pronounce, but lately he’s been liking the name Merhawi.
“If new people I meet wanted to call me that I’m okay with it, but it’s just when they butcher it I don’t like that,” he said. “If they can say it right, I like it when they call me Merhawi.”
The Lakes adopted him through the Gladney Center for Adoption in Texas. They had previously adopted their youngest daughter Micah, now 13, from the U.S. The other Lake children are Rebecca, 22, Daniel, 20, Anna, 18, and Sarah, 15.
“We approached Gladney, and they said it would be effective if you sought an international adoption, that way we could find the right fit for the family,” Chris Lake said. “They said they had openings in Ethiopia, so we got very excited, and then it was a long process.” When Gladney presented Merhawi’s paperwork to the Lakes, they agreed immediately to adopt him.
Merhawi came over for a couple weeks in the summer of 2007 to get to know the family. One year later, in 2008, the family visited Ethiopia and completed the 14-to-16-month-long international adoption process.
Chris Lake said when they first met Merhawi, he didn’t speak any English, but they bonded very well.
“Stephen’s introduction to America and the English language was really an immersion process with our family,” he said. “We weren’t sure that Stephen could speak English or that he talked very much, until he got on the trampoline and started jumping around, he seemed to have a great time.”
But after the two weeks, Merhawi had to go back to Ethiopia for another 12 months until the adoption paperwork was finalized.
“I had a lot of fun and I finally had a dad, mom and siblings, and then when I went back it was just me and a bunch of other kids, and that didn’t really sit well with me,” Merhawi said, adding that he pouted and didn’t talk much the first couple months back in Ethiopia.
He said he’s not sure if he understood that he would be returning to his family in the states.
When he finally joined the Lakes, they lived in Oklahoma, before moving to Roseburg a few months later for Chris Lake to begin work at Umpqua Community College. The whole family adapted to Roseburg together and got to know people in the area. They got involved with Redeemers Church and Merhawi joined local sports teams.
“The first couple of years it was awesome,” he said of going to Roseburg schools. “I got to hang out with a lot of people and it was a cool experience.”
In Ethiopia, Merhawi would play soccer day in and day out, so he joined a Roseburg soccer league and met a lot of friends on the field. Now a sophomore at Roseburg High School, he’s active in soccer, basketball, cross country and track.
“As a family, we’re really happy we ended up in Roseburg, there’s a lot about this that makes it a great community and it’s really easy for us to make friends,” Chris Lake said. “Having such an interesting family mix, we’re very happy we’re in Roseburg and we can share that with people.”
Merhawi said there isn’t much of an Ethiopian community in Douglas County.
“It’s difficult, but I’ve never really had a chance to reconnect with the culture, but when I visit my brother, it’s different,” Merhawi.
He had not seen Berhanu Tenker since he was 5 years old in Ethiopia, but a couple years ago, the brothers came into contact.
Berhanu met his future wife, Emily Tenker, of Salem, while she and her mother were in Ethiopia on a medical mission trip. Emily and Berhanu eventually decided to get married, so Berhanu moved to Salem to be with his new wife. He mentioned that Merhawi had been adopted and was now living in Oregon, so they did some research and Emily’s mother reached out to the Lakes to make the connection.
After living the most recent half of his life in the U.S., Merhawi’s memories of Ethiopia have become fuzzy. One thing he remembers is doro wat, a chicken stew, served on a flatbread called injera. Berhanu makes the dish for Merhawi when he comes to visit.
Merhawi said he hasn’t experienced racism in Douglas County.
“There’s always people who like to joke, but I never really take it to heart. A lot of them are my friends and it’s just the way it is, but there’s no real hate or anything like that because of my skin color,” he said. “When I was in Fir Grove, a kid called me black, and I took that to heart. It’s kind of funny now, but back then it hurt me.”
Merhawi hasn’t been back to Ethiopia since he was adopted, but he plans to take the trip someday.
The family hopes to do more international traveling, but after visiting Canada, they were met with some friction upon re-entering the U.S.
“They probably held us for about an hour checking everything. I think it was because we had two black children, four white children, and at the time some of the kids didn’t need passports, but they were really persnickety,” Gretchen Lake said. “They were strict.”
Merhawi said he doesn’t think he needs to worry about traveling internationally.
“I’m a citizen, and I don’t really think about it,” he said. “I know it’s an issue in America right now, but I personally don’t think it’s something I have to think about.”
After he graduates from RHS, Merhawi is interested in joining the ROTC at Oregon State University to eventually join the Air Force or Marines.
“I like the whole idea of serving our country, and I think it would be cool to say I’ve served,” Merhawi said.
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