"I guess I didn’t realize how devastating that was for us, how you can really love a child that you’ve only met just briefly," Stephanie Umberger tells PEOPLE.
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When Jim and Stephanie Umberger first decided to adopt a little boy from the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan in January 2008, they couldn’t believe how quickly everything fell into place.
Within three weeks of seeing a photograph of the 2-year-old with curly blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes, they were on a plane to meet him in person. Several days later, they were saying goodbye with promises to return to bring him home in a few months.
“Our adoption agency said it was the fastest adoption in the history of the agency,” says Jim, 45, of Scottsdale, Arizona, who works in corporate marketing.
Instead, it turned into an 8 1/2-year ordeal. “We had several court dates that were scheduled and cancelled without any real explanation,” says Jim. “At the same time, we started to learn that other families were being matched with children in Kyrgyzstan, and so really over the next year, we started to learn of more and more families that continued to be matched with children, and no one knew that they weren’t going to get a court date. This eventually created a backlog of 65 cases across five agencies.”
In October 2008, the country stopped processing foreign adoptions due to reports of corruption and bribery in the adoption process and in February 2009, they announced a moratorium on them. (Kyrgyzstan officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
The Umbergers were crushed but quickly banded together with other waiting families and became known as “The Kyrgyz 65.” They lobbied lawmakers here and abroad, marched on the nation’s capitol in 2011 and even sent a small delegation to Kyrgyzstan to press their case in person.
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The other members “became like family,” says Stephanie, 46, a stay-at-home mom. “Only this group of 65 waiting parents understood the heartbreak. We had met this child. He was our son. We thought about him every day. We thought about our family with him in it.
“I remember being places with our other kids and feeling like there was a chair at the table that he should be sitting in,” she says. “I guess I didn’t realize how devastating that was for us, how you can really love a child that you’ve only met just briefly.”
The Umbergers had already adopted Alex, now 15, from Mississippi; Ariana, now 11, from Russia and, while waiting for Ethan, adopted Isla, now 7, also from Mississippi. But they refused to give up on Ethan.
“He was our son in our heart as soon as we met him,” says Stephanie.
But they might have lost him forever had it not been for two women: Tatiana Belousova and Zamira Sydykova. Tatiana, the Kyrgyzstan program director for Across the World Adoptions, spent months tracking down Ethan after they lost touch with him. And Zamira, a former Kyrgyzstan ambassador to the United States turned newspaper founder and editor in chief, had one of her reporters write a front-page story about their plight in December 2015. Two months later, the last legal barriers to Ethan’s adoption were lifted.
“Tatiana and Zamira are our heroes,” says Stephanie.
On Sept. 4, they finally brought him home, a day they weren’t sure they’d ever see. He was the last of the 65 waiting children to come home (24 were reunited with their adoptive parents while most of the rest were adopted by Kyrgyzstan families).
“We’re all overjoyed that Ethan is home at last with his wonderful family,” says Suzanne Boutilier, founder of “The Kyrgyz 65,” who was able to finalize her 6-year-old daughter’s adoption in 2014.
Since then, a whole new world has opened up for Ethan, who turned 11 in October and was treated to birthday pancakes in bed, an Umberger family tradition. He also had his first Halloween. His costume? Captain America.
“I love experiencing life through his eyes and finding complete joy in everyday things we take for granted,” says Jim.
Adds Stephanie, “I feel like I have known him forever and I am also just getting to know him. It is an amazing process of discovery. Discovering his like and dislikes, his gifts and talents and every other thing a mother should know about her child.”