Yami Albrecht, a senior at Caro High School, didn’t know if he would see his family in Ethiopia ever again.
But last month, Albrecht, 17, returned to his native country of Ethiopia, over 7,000 miles from Caro, to visit his family. It marked his first visit to the African nation since he came to the U.S., in 2009 at the age of 8, after being adopted by Connie Albrecht, 53, of Caro.
Yami, who speaks English with no foreign accent, was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the nation’s capital, in 2000.
Ethiopia is located north of the equator within the continent of Africa. Its population is over 102 million and it is the most populous landlocked country in the world.
“I had always wanted to adopt, and it was a good time in my life to do it,” Connie said. “I stumbled across an agency online which adopted from various countries including Africa and I wanted an African child and it just happened to be the only country they did adoptions through in Africa was Ethiopia.”
When Connie met Yami, he had been living in an orphanage for 10 months.
Yami arrived in Addis Ababa, a region in the mountains of Ethiopia, on June 20, where he was welcomed by his Ethiopian family. Connie Albrecht and Becky Albrecht, Yami’s 26-year-old sister, also went along for the trip. Becky flew to Ethiopia from Oman, where she lives. Oman is on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula in western Asia.
“To me, it was basically just how I left it,” Yami said. “To live there, it might not be as suitable for Americans, but I went there and fit in.”
When Yami first came to live in America, he thought he might not be able to see his family in Ethiopia again.
“Coming off the plane, the smell of the place took me back to when I first lived there,” Yami said. “As we got closer to them and saw them, it was emotional. I said, ‘I thought I would never see you again, it’s kind of crazy being here with you guys.’”
Connie said that seeing Yami’s half-brother, Kalkidan, 13, “was pretty special because he looked a lot like him.”
In Addis Ababa, Yami reunited with relatives from his mother’s side of the family – three uncles, an aunt, three cousins, his grandmother and his half-brother. They live in what Connie calls a ‘compound.’
“It’s a fenced-in area with three different living quarters, there’s an outside shower, outside kitchen and outside bathroom,” she said. “The hallways of the compound are outside, if you can imagine that.”
Yami was also able to meet up with his biological father’s side of the family, which lives on a rural farm in Tulo Bolo, roughly two hours southwest of Addis Ababa.
Both of his biological parents passed away when he was young.
“We don’t have any official word on how they passed away, but Yami is pretty sure they both died of AIDS,” Connie said, adding that Yami does not carry the virus.
According to the United Nations Program on HIV/AID, UNAIDS, there were approximately 36.7 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2016. Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that includes Ethiopia, is the most affected region, with an estimated 25.6 million people living with HIV in 2015. AIDS is caused by HIV.
Life in Ethiopia
Although the United States has over three times the number of inhabitants as Ethiopia, Addis Ababa has a population of about 3.3 million. Or about 825 times as many people as Caro, population of about 4,000.
“The city was really crowded,” Yami said. “As far as city life, it’s very different from Caro.”
He noted that Ethiopians don’t get into a lot of controversy or arguments.
“In America, everyone wants more and more so they are striving for better and if you reach that goal, they just want more and are never satisfied, whereas in Ethiopia, it’s not like that,” he said. “You just live day-to-day and if you have family, that is the most important thing. You’re satisfied and not always stressed about the next thing.”
For the most part in the larger cities of Ethiopia, like Addis Ababa, vehicles are the transportation method of choice. The farther away from the city, and closer to farm country one gets, the less cars there are.
“Traffic is crazy and you kind of just drive however you want,” Yami said. “There’s no road signs or anything like that. You have to drive aggressively.”
Albrecht’s uncle, Kebebe, his biological mother’s brother, is the oldest of the three brothers (Yami’s uncles). He planned the day-to-day activities for what the family would do while together.
“He wanted to make us happy so we can come back again maybe,” Yami said. “My cousins and two of my uncles can speak English so that was really helpful.”
Other than brief communication via Facebook with his uncle, Yami hasn’t had any contact with his family in Ethiopia since leaving the country a decade ago.
“His uncle invited him to Ethiopia and we gave it some thought before we decided to go,” Connie said. “He’s a senior this year and we really wouldn’t have time to do it next year after he graduates. It was either now or never, so we decided to go after his junior year.”
Success as an athlete
Adding another layer to his story, one can say Yami has made quite a name for himself as a three-sport athlete at Caro High School, competing in cross country, basketball and track.
“Jeff Schember tried to get him to race in a couple races in middle school and he was very successful,” Connie said. “When high school came around, he chose cross country over football and turned out to be the right choice I think.”
Schember met Yami when he attended McComb Elementary School in Caro. He has coached Yami in cross country and track at the high school level since 2015.
Some of Yami’s achievements from the 2018 track season were setting the school record as part of the 3,200-meter relay state champion team in a time of 8:05.71 and being named all-state in the 1,600-meter run with a fourth-place finish (4:19.31) that marked a season-best performance and regional runner-up and league champion in the event.
“He’ll excel in college as a runner because he’ll be more committed,” Schember said. “He’s dedicated now, but still does basketball. They won’t let him do that in college so he’ll be able to put more effort into running which will only further his development.”
In the 2017 cross country season as a junior, Yami won his second consecutive Division 3 state championship in November, giving him the rare opportunity to compete for a third straight state title this coming school year.
“I could tell that he was a special athlete when he came over in second grade,” Schember said. “In second grade he was way more advanced than most kids. He wouldn’t get tired at all.”
Schember said Yami has received interest from in-state schools like Michigan, Michigan State University, Central Michigan University, Grand Valley State University and Saginaw Valley State University.
“He’s also had some out-of-state schools like Iowa and Clemson,” Schember said.
A highlight of the trip for Yami was a special visit set up by his uncle Kebebe at a track club in Addis Ababa with the Ethiopian Track Federation.
“I was able to go where the best runners train and I was able to meet a couple of the guys that compete on the national stage,” Yami said. “I ran on the track but other than that didn’t run much through the city.”
Having now been to Ethiopia as a teenager, Yami realized that “It’s not as far as you think it is. The world is a lot smaller than you think it is,” he said.
“It meant the world for him to go back and be with his family,” Connie said. “It was a very emotional trip for all of us, especially him, because he saw the places where he grew up. It brought back a lot of memories and spending time with his biological relatives after being adopted, was huge because he didn’t know if he would ever see them again.”
After graduating high school, Yami plans on going to college in the United States and Connie said he wants to visit Ethiopia as often as he can, not to live, but possibly to train and visit family.