Hannah and Paulo Lee were nearing the end of their international adoption process from Korea when COVID-19 became a global pandemic — shutting down travel and causing obstacles they never could have expected.
Three years ago, we were a family of three and we desired to have one more child. However, this time God led us on a journey of adoption to grow our family. After many months of praying, we decided to adopt from South Korea. We quickly finished our homestudy and were matched the following summer.
It was in June of 2019 when we finally got to see what our son looked like. We now had a face in our minds of the child we had been praying for. Using Holt’s timeframes provided, we expected to meet him in person in about a year.
But never could we have prepared for a global pandemic and the unexpected obstacles we would have to face.
A COVID Outbreak and a Global Shutdown
In February, we began to hear about the outbreak of the coronavirus in South Korea. My disappointment turned to anxiety and fear. Fear of the impact it would have on our adoption, fear of our child and his foster family getting COVID, fear Korea would close its borders to foreigners. But there was nothing I could do.
It was now March 2020, nine months since our match with our son, who we planned to name Elliott, and things began to shut down in the United States. I was more nervous than ever before. Would the United States not allow us to travel overseas? What was going to happen with our adoption if we couldn’t travel? We had no idea when the process would start moving again. Would we not be able to get our son?
Waiting was incredibly difficult. There was nothing I could do to help the situation and I didn’t understand why this pandemic had to happen in the year we were adopting. I just wanted our son with us.
By April, I was obsessed with checking email for any news at all. It was bittersweet to read the Holt bi-weekly emails. I loved getting more information, but at the same time, I was also disappointed in how slow everything was moving. It was hard to wait, plus we had stopped getting updates about Elliott; the adoption agency in Korea decided it was not safe for children to come to the agency for updates during this time. Not receiving photos or any updates made the waiting even harder.
In mid-April, we received an email to let us know our dossier was submitted for EP approval. I started tearing up, my heart was overjoyed! We were so incredibly happy, but it was short-lived because now we had to wait another 1-5 months for the EP to be approved — a normal part of the process not impacted by COVID. Still, we were very grateful that our adoption process was moving forward.
I had to fight with myself to not dwell on the fact that we should have held Elliott in our arms by now. He was growing up so fast and we were missing out. My heart ached.
We were nearing the end of July and finally received news of our EP approval! We were ecstatic and praising God. It then took exactly two weeks for our case to be submitted to court in August. There was something we could actually do now.
We could start picking out outfits for our first meeting with Elliott and for our court hearing. We could prepare gifts for the adoption agency staff and foster family. We could purchase toys we would bring to play with Elliott. So much to do! I was excited again.
Soon after we received our court date, we were notified we had 2.5 weeks to get to Korea. We also knew we had to do the mandatory 14-day quarantine in Korea once we arrived. We planned to leave as soon as we could at the end of September. We left home with excitement as we headed to the airport.
An Unexpected Delay and a Miracle
We were standing in line to check in and it was finally our turn. We handed over our passports and eagerly waited for our boarding passes. The agent looked at all three of our passports and set mine and our daughter’s down. He took my husband’s passport and began to flip through the pages. He kept looking at his computer screen. He then asked us if we had Paulo’s visa to enter Korea. We were so confused. A visa was not required for Americans or Canadians to enter South Korea….
The agent’s supervisor came over and told us that South Korea now required Canadians to have a travel visa starting in the spring due to the pandemic — a last-minute change that neither we, nor Holt, knew about as South Korea did not update this information for travelers. They told us to go to the South Korean consulate to apply for a visa, which would take 2-3 weeks. My heart dropped. If we didn’t get on that plane now, we wouldn’t get to see Elliott and we wouldn’t make our court date.
Tears started rolling down my face and I could not stop crying. The long-awaited court date would have to be delayed again and our case would be put back in the queue for a new court date. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Holt was very supportive and let us know what our options could be at this point. They encouraged us that things would work out. However, I was just devastated.
After we came back home defeated, we went straight to the Korean consulate and pleaded our case for an expedited visa. We explained we needed to make this court hearing to bring our son to the U.S. They handed us application forms and asked for proof of our court date. They said they couldn’t guarantee it but would try to expedite the visa. We wanted to fly out on the next flight, which was in four days and pleaded with them to help us.
We were emotionally and mentally drained. How was it that a requirement could be changed without notifying anyone? There was so much time when we were just waiting, we could have done this months ago. Could I wait any longer? It was going to be hard.
The next day we heard my husband was going to get his visa possibly that day. Another miracle provided by God. We re-booked our tickets for the next flight out.
Quarantine, Court and Meeting Our Son
Leaving on this flight meant that after our 14-day quarantine, the day we leave the quarantine facility would be the day we have our first meeting with Elliott. We would head straight to the adoption agency. Literally just in time. We did not have to reschedule any appointments, we did not have to miss our court hearing, and we were going to bring our son home. God’s timing is perfect.
When we arrived in South Korea, we followed the signs for foreigners to go through immigration and leave for the quarantine facility. It was well organized and easy to follow. Once we got to the quarantine facility, workers in hazmat suits gave us a quick orientation of rules during our stay. They also had us download an app so that we could be tracked during our time there. They required us to check in twice a day to report our temperature and symptoms, if any.
Our room was small, but enough space for the three of us to live for 14 nights, 15 days. We quickly set up two “office” areas for my husband and myself and a space where our daughter could do school. We had a good daily routine and the days went by fast. Our highlights each day were meal times. We would wait for that knock at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. We received Korean meals, tons of fruit and snacks, and drinks. To be honest, the quarantine experience was kind of nice and restful.
Quarantine went by quickly and it was now time to meet our son.
In the playroom, Elliott was shy at first but warmed up to us. It was surreal that we were here, and he was in my arms. He was sweet and absolutely adored his big sister right away. The hour and a half went by way too fast. We tried to take as much video and photos as we could to remember this special moment.
I had the opportunity to speak with his foster parents and they were so wonderful. I could tell Elliott was well taken care of and dearly loved by this family. Another answer to prayer. It was hard to say goodbye that first day, but we went our separate ways and looked forward to meeting him again. It was now time to focus on the court hearing.
We were again nervous the morning of our court hearing. However, the hearing wasn’t scary at all. The judge was warm, and I could tell she wanted to make sure Elliott was going to be taken care of. At the end of the hearing, the judge thanked us for flying all the way out here and going through this process for Elliott and to please raise him well.
Suddenly I felt energized by the judge’s words. This whole time I felt we had to prove we were good people. There was so much effort and pressure to prove we were qualified to take care of him. But I felt the judge’s gratitude to us in those words and it made everything worth it. She was not the enemy; she was Elliott’s advocate.
The rest of the process went completed smoothly, and we arrived home in just eight weeks. We are now a family of four and Elliott has adjusted so well. He’s a bright and happy kid. We just cannot imagine life without him now.
Hannah Kim Lee | Adoptive Mom
Although the pandemic has delayed some steps of the adoption process, now is a great time to start your adoption! Visit holtinternational.org/adoption to learn more about adopting from Korea and other countries where children are waiting for families.