Zaila Smith finds a new home in Liberty Hill
By Scott Akanewich
When Zaila Smith was a little girl growing up in Ethiopia, she never could’ve dreamed as she was carrying wheat into the village market to be made into flour that she would one day be attending high school and competing in athletics in the United States.
However, here she finds herself as a Liberty Hill freshman, burning up trails as a member of the Panther cross country squad a world away from the mountains and wide-open plains of her homeland.
“All I knew about America was that it was a rich country,” said Smith, who was adopted along with younger brother Kebede, when they were 11 and eight years old, respectively, at the time, by Matt and Bethany Smith of Liberty Hill.
According to Bethany Smith, the fact that she and her husband already had three biological children of their own wasn’t enough to satisfy their hunger for parenthood.
“Matt and I always wanted the energy and laughter of a large family. Matt works in tech so we moved around quite a bit, having our three biological children (with us) in Memphis, Nashville, Seattle, then Cincinnati before moving to Texas,” said Bethany. “We also felt very strongly that God had called us to adoption as a way to grow our family.”
As a result, the Smiths got the ball rolling toward expanding their family once again.
“After we moved to Austin in 2011 and got settled we felt like it was time to begin researching adoption,” said Bethany. “In 2013, we began the process for domestic adoption and quickly our son Ezra (also adopted) came home when he was just two days old. We now had four children, so life was very busy, but we still didn’t feel complete. We had researched adoption from Ethiopia and from those initial inquiries we decided to pursue two children that were waiting in an orphanage in Ethiopia.
“The Ethiopian adoption process was much more arduous and it was a very challenging time, but one year later we brought home Zaila and her brother Kebede, who was adopted by close family friends in Round Rock. They had waited for several years in a series of orphanages in both rural northern Ethiopia and Addis Ababa. They had lived in a world very different from the one we brought them home to. As children, they lived in a very remote part of the country where they didn’t have access to modern conveniences such as easy access to clean water, electricity, or cars. They also didn’t speak any English and hadn’t been to school,” said Bethany.
One of Zaila’s first Western memories was what she ate on the flight to her new home.
“Sausage,” she said. “It smelled so good, so I asked for it, but I didn’t like it.”
But, Zaila quickly canceled that culinary experience out with one much more palatable.
“Our first real American meal was chicken fingers, which I loved,” said Zaila. “Even now, my favorite is a spicy chicken sandwich.”
Aside from a different diet, Zaila had many adjustments as she transitioned from a third-world existence to her new life in the Lone Star State.
Like learning an entirely foreign language.
“I learned English just by talking to people,” said Zaila. “I also learned on a computer.”
What were the first words she learned?
“I knew the words ‘water,’ ‘green,’ because I love spring and ‘My name is,’ she said.
Bethany said it didn’t take very long for Zaila to warm up to her new cultural surroundings.
“When Zaila came home to the United States, she surprised everyone by rapidly becoming ‘Americanized,’” she said. “Learning English quickly, working very hard in her new schools, learning to play organized team sports and learning how to be a part of a large family. She was immediately accepted in her new schools, made many friends and had absolutely fantastic teachers who spent countless hours with her getting her caught up.”
Zaila began her first year of school in fourth grade studying a second-grade curriculum, but that didn’t last long as she proved to be a fast learner and by the following fall, she was ready to begin fifth grade on the same level as her classmates.
Amazing considering only a short while before, she had such menacing barriers in front of her that needed to be overcome in order to acclimate to her new environment.
“Some of Zaila’s greatest challenges have involved language,” said Bethany. “When she came to the United States, she didn’t speak English, so it was a huge challenge communicating with her. Especially on that scary flight home. Can you imagine getting on a plane (the children had never seen planes, escalators, cars) and traveling to an unknown place with total strangers?”
But, it didn’t take long to begin soaking up her new surroundings, she said.
“Once in Austin, she quickly lost her native tongue and had replaced it by rapid acquisition of English,” said Bethany. “It’s a very unique situation and a lot to take in — a new family, new school, new everything. So many changes and so many losses all at once. It’s amazing for children to be chosen, to be adopted and we were overjoyed she was home, but adoption always stems from loss, so there is much pain among the beauty. There were many challenges, but our family was very blessed to have a strong support system.”
However, despite her rapid educational growth, she was still filled with anxiety on the eve of the first day of school the following year, she said.
“I was really nervous to start fifth grade,” said Zaila. “The night before I was crying, not sure if I was ready, but then it ended up not being as tough as I thought.”
Zaila said one instance stands out in her mind, something she never wants to experience again.
“I was called on in class and didn’t know the answer,” she said. “It haunts me – I never want to feel that way again – I always want to be better.”
When it came time to begin athletics, soccer and basketball were right at the top of the list once she reached junior high school, but she soon discovered running was what she was best at and it wasn’t long before she was turning heads with her times on both the track and the trails, said Liberty Hill head cross country Coach Kim Holt.
“Her junior high coaches told us how good she was,” said Holt. “Zaila has a lot of ability and a desire to win, which you don’t see in a lot of kids these days.”
Zaila finished second and third in her first two varsity races and neither athlete nor mom are surprised, said Bethany.
“Zaila is a naturally gifted athlete and we have a strong family heritage of running, so we spent many hours running together as a family,” she said. “From the very beginning, running has been a common language among all of us.”
Zaila knows a lot is expected of her and her brother.
“My mom thinks we’re super-humans from Ethiopia,” she joked. “But, because of the high altitude there, we don’t need as much oxygen.”
Bethany is quick to give credit where it’s due as far as what Zaila’s success is attributed to, she said.
“We couldn’t be more proud of how far Zaila has come. People tell us all the time what a great job we’ve done parenting her, but I always say it’s nothing we’ve done – she came that way,” said Bethany. “She is just an inherently kind, encouraging, thoughtful human who is naturally very driven, organized and committed to her goals. She knows what she wants and she works incredibly hard. She has been an American for five years now and in that time she has been a committed student and a dedicated athlete. She’s a joy to parent and we’re so grateful for the blessing to be her mom and dad. We just know God has amazing things in store for her future and we’re so glad to be there for all of it.”
Moving forward is always on her mind, but she also entertains thoughts of going back, said Zaila.
“I would love to go to Ethiopia some day,” she said. “Our old life is what got us our new one.”
All that being said, Zaila realizes her new life is a far cry from how it would be if she and her brother had never left behind the African continent, she said.
“I would probably be married by now and be a housewife doing all the same chores I used to do as a young girl,” said Zaila. “Instead, I’m so blessed it’s hard to grasp it all. When I think about it, I ask myself ‘Who am I to have all these things?’ It’s a big deal and hard to imagine. I’m a blessed child.”