Albert and Sia Mackoty have never seen or talked to little Obediah, but he is part of them.
On Saturday, they leave for Sierra Leone, Africa to begin the process of bringing the three-year-old boy back to Abbotsford. There’s a better life for him here, where he can go to school and have clean drinking water and plenty of food.
He already feels like their son.
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Sia was 13 and Albert was 18 in 1996, when they were both part of the same church youth group in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone in West Africa.
Both had moved away from their families who lived in isolated villages, so they could attend school in the city. Sia lived with a cousin, and Albert resided with an uncle. Over time, their friendship blossomed into romance.
The country was in the midst of a civil war, and in 1997 rebel forces occupied the city. Citizens became prisoners in their homes, fearful of what would happen if they ventured out.
The rebels blocked off the only road leading to and from Freetown. Kids stopped going to school, food became scarce, and fear and uncertainty hung in the air.
Sia’s cousin, who worked for a church organization, was invited to leave the country by boat with a group of missionaries with whom she had been working. She and Sia travelled with the group for days on a small ferry, northward along the coastline, until they reached Gambia.
Sia did not have an opportunity to contact her mom, dad and younger sister, Isata, who lived 300 miles away from Freetown, to let them know what was happening.
She and her cousin first stayed at a refugee camp and then rented a place of their own before they received word that Highland Community Church in Abbotsford was willing to sponsor them. They moved in December 1998.
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Albert and his uncle stayed behind. They did not want to abandon their property in Freetown, where family members would reunite during safe periods.
One of these times was in late 1998, when the rebels were driven out of the city by the United Nations and West African peacekeeping forces. Some 20 family members moved into the home with Albert and his uncle, believing the danger was over and life would return to normal.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. In the early morning hours of Jan. 6, 1999, they were awakened by rebel soldiers who stormed into their home, screaming at them to leave.
Albert cradled his two-month-old sister in his arms as he raced through the home yelling, “Let’s go! Let’s go! They’re coming!”
The soldiers set their home on fire as they fled, and bombs exploded around them. They ran as far and as fast as they could.
They could not return to the city, where the rebels had occupied the east side. The safe place – on the west – was occupied by the UN, but they could not reach it without traversing the challenging terrain and perhaps encountering rebel soldiers along the way.
They decided to wait for help, hiding in the bushes during the day and sleeping in nearby bombed-out homes at night.
One day, about two weeks later, a 14-year-old boy was caught by the rebels. The citizens watched from the hills as the soldiers chopped off the teen’s hand.
Albert convinced his dad that they had to leave and head for the west.
“If we stay, they are going to kill us,” his dad agreed.
During their long trek, they came across Nigerian troops who helped them cross to the west, where they found safety.
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The civil war ended in 2002, and Albert was studying accounting at a community college in Freetown when he came across Sia’s uncle and received word that she was alive and well in Canada. Her family had also survived and was back in their village.
The pair reunited via email, through which Sia confided in Albert about how much she missed her family in Sierra Leone and her struggles adapting to a new culture. It brought her comfort to know somebody cared, and the two communicated often.
In 2003, Sia wrote to Albert to tell him she was coming to Sierra Leone for a visit, and then she made a bold pronouncement: “We should get married.”
About 300 guests attended the wedding in Freetown on Dec. 18, 2003.
It took three years for the immigration process to be complete, and Albert was able to join his wife in Abbotsford in January 2007. He continued with his studies in accounting, while Sia worked as a cook in a seniors’ care home.
One day they received word that Isata was pregnant. Sia was disappointed, because her sister – four years younger – was not married and she was in the midst of going to school, but Sia supported her as best she could.
Obediah Albert was born March 29, 2009, and Isata chose his middle name in honour of her brother-in-law.
Sia’s and Albert’s first child – Emmah – was born almost a year later, on March 20, 2010, and son Anthony followed on Sept. 29, 2011. They missed their families, but their life felt complete.
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Sia was devastated to received a phone call at the end of February, informing her that Isata had died from malaria and typhoid, leaving her young son an orphan. She had not told anyone who the father was, and he had not been involved in Obediah’s life.
Sia’s mother has since taken over his care, but she does not have the financial means to support him. The village where she lives has no schools or running water. Sia and Albert send her money to help out, but they are concerned about their nephew’s welfare.
“He won’t have a good future if he stays there,” Sia said.
The couple, who have never even seen a picture of Obediah or spoken with him, are determined to bring him to Abbotsford. Two local churches – Highland Community and Trinity Christian Reformed – have fundraised to help with the thousands of dollars in travel and legal costs.
The pair leave Saturday and return at the end of May. They hope Obediah will be with them.
“It will be great. He will love it,” Albert said.
Fundraising from the two churches has not fully covered all the costs associated with Sia and Albert becoming Obediah’s legal guardians. Donations may be made at Trinity Christian Reformed Church (3215 Trethewey Street) Tuesdays to Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.