Child Thrives in Foster Home

October 13, 2003

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Yabsira surrounded by her toys Yabsira is a happy, loving, outgoing child, the kind of little girl who assumes everyone she meets is her friend. It's hard to believe her grandmother wants her dead.

Yabsira, whose name means "gift of God," was born with severely webbed hands and deformed legs and feet. In her small village in Ethiopia, her deformities were considered a sign that she would bring a curse to her family.

Fearing for her daughter's life, Yabsira's mother fled with her to the capital city of Addis Ababa and sought shelter with her brother. Unfortunately, her brother also believed the child was cursed and threatened to run over her with his car. So mother and child ended up living on the streets of Addis Ababa.

Today Yabsira is 4 years old and a well-adjusted preschool student in New Orleans. She lives with her foster mother, Cheryl Borne, clinical coordinator of the Tulane/Louisiana State University Pediatric AIDS Clinical Trials Unit. A New Orleans surgeon has separated her fingers, allowing her to fulfill her wish of wearing a ring. But soon it will be time for Yabsira to return home to Africa.

Borne wants to make sure she has a home to return to. Yabsira came to New Orleans in January through the efforts of Children's Cross Connection USA, an Atlanta-based non-profit organization that brings children to the United States for medical care unavailable in their own countries. The organization contacted Borne's pastor about finding a home for her in New Orleans. He remembered that Borne was a pediatric nurse with an interest in being a foster mother. Yabsira has been staying with Borne since March. In that short time she has transformed her foster mother's life.

"I just admire this child so much," Borne said. "She's taught me so much about unconditional love. I'm sure she's been teased. I see people staring at her in the store and it bothers me, but it doesn't seem to bother her."

When Yabsira first came to the United States, she spoke no English. But within two months she was fluent in her new language, and her caretakers were concerned she would forget Amharic, her native language. The one time she has been able to talk to her mother on the phone, she had a hard time understanding her mother's words.

In July, Borne got in contact with Wodajo Welldaregay, research assistant professor of medicine, who is from Ethiopia. He invited Yabsira and Borne to his home for Ethiopian-style dinners and conversation in her native language.

"She went right to the food and knew just how to eat it," Borne said. "It was really neat to see that." And even though she has forgotten much of the language, Borne and Welldaregay agree it will come back to her easily when she gets home. That day is coming soon. She is recovering from surgery on her hands. Children's Cross Connection USA has been investigating treatments for her feet. All the surgeons consulted so far want to amputate, something her caretakers are reluctant to do.

"Her mother doesn't want to amputate," Borne said. "For one thing, it's not culturally accepted there. In addition to that, this little girl can run and jump as she is. And if you amputate so young there would be constant refittings of prostheses, and that could get expensive."

While they are still investigating other options, most likely Yabsira will return to Ethiopia in October or November. The problem is that Yabsira's mother is still homeless, although she is receiving assistance in finding a job. Yabsira's caretakers want to make sure she has a good place to go home to. They're trying to raise $10,000 for her, which is enough to build a new house with electricity and a well in Ethiopia. Any additional funds will be used to pay for her education. In the meantime, Borne has to get ready to say goodbye.

"I love her and I'm going to miss her. I'm sure there are going to be some teary-eyed days," Borne said. "God gave her to me for a season, but she has a mother who loves her dearly. And you never know what she'll be able to accomplish in Ethiopia. She's truly an amazing child." Elysian Fields Avenue Baptist Church will host a fundraising supper for Yabsira on Saturday, Oct. 4, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information contact Cheryl Borne at 283-3500. Heather Heilman can be reached at

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000