20/20: Ethiopian Daughter Reunites with Family

Lydia Dawson was just 5 months old on the day her life was changed forever.

The baby lay cradled in her 13-year-old mother's arms as she prepared the family meal in their tiny village in western Ethiopia. Without warning, the teenage mother suffered a seizure and accidentally dropped Lydia into the open fire.

Precious seconds passed before the baby's tortured screams brought her father running to pull her from the flames.

Lydia's family lived in a place so remote and so primitive that the nearest medical care was 100 miles away. By the time the terrified family reached the hospital — five days later — Lydia's legs were so badly infected they had to be amputated, one above and one just below the knee.

Lydia's parents — too poor and too scared to remain far from home for very long — made the wrenching choice to leave Lydia at the hospital to be raised by American missionaries.

She was only a baby and already her life was marked by tragic loss.

But Lydia's childhood tragedies were followed by a series of miraculous events that carried her from the abject poverty of rural Africa to a comfortable in the United States. She is now a social worker in Seattle, married and raising a family of her own.

At 38, she recently decided to return to Ethiopia to find the mother she lost so long ago.

A Chance Encounter

After the accident that took her legs, Lydia spent the next four years in the hospital. There was no place else for her to go.

The staff — mostly made up of American missionaries — cared for her and taught her English. Mary Nell Harper, one of the nurses, remembers Lydia as a beautiful child who made everyone laugh.

"She was loved," says Harper. "And when somebody's loved, they really manage."

Lydia did indeed manage, learning to crawl instead of walk, barely noticing how different she was from everyone else around her.

A photographer, passing through, snapped a picture of the little girl with no legs for an article about Africa that later appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.

It was just a chance encounter, and the picture in the magazine was a tiny one on an inside page, but that little picture moved a group of strangers in the United States to change Lydia's life.

The Kindness of Strangers

The first donation came from a Philadelphia maker of artificial limbs. He was so moved by the little girl's plight that he offered to make a set of prosthetic legs for her. The ability to walk on her own gave Lydia hope for an independent future.

A group of women from a Presbyterian church in New Jersey also saw the photograph and decided to finance a first-class education for Lydia. Together with Nurse Harper, they sent her to an exclusive boarding school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Later they sent her to college in the United States.

These were, perhaps, small acts of charity; but for Lydia, it was nothing short of another miracle.

Lydia got straight A's in school and maintained a remarkably positive attitude.

"I think I had everything," she says. "I really did."

But Lydia's difficult times were not over.

"The only thing I experienced that was negative," she says, "would be the pain… you know, when I grew up and when my legs hurt. That period was no fun."

The pain came because Lydia's bones grew faster than the flesh around them. So the amputation had to essentially be redone every year until she was 16.

'Wouldn't Trade My Life for Anything'

Today, Lydia is beautiful, confident, a college graduate, and busy wife and mother. She works full time as a social worker and her husband Troy says that even she is surprised by her many accomplishments.

"She never thought she was going to get married," he says. "We got married. She never thought she was going to have children; we got one, two and then three children."

Perhaps even more remarkable is Lydia's attitude about all she's suffered.

"I wouldn't trade my life for anything," she says.

Even as a child, she says she realized that losing her legs and her family was the price she had to pay for a better life.

After becoming a mom, Lydia says she reached a turning point. She began to yearn for her own mother — whom she had not seen since she was a baby. Suddenly, she needed to know what had happened to her family, if they were still alive, and whether they needed help.

But she did not even know their names. She had no idea how to begin.

More Miracles

But once again, Lydia's life took a serendipitous turn. At church one Sunday, a visiting stranger approached her with unbelievable news.

"Somebody came to me and said, 'I know your family,'" she recalls.

The man turned out to be her cousin. He told her that he had grown up hearing about his Ethiopian cousin who lost her legs in a fire. He eventually moved from Ethiopia to Canada and heard again of Lydia's story from a mutual friend. Realizing the connection, he came to Seattle to find her.

Since he was then living in Canada, he couldn't tell her much about her family's current situation. But on his next trip back to Ethiopia, he returned with joyous news: The family was alive and anxious to see her.

Lydia and Troy made plans to go to Ethiopia.

"If my mother died and went to her grave wishing she had met me now that she knows I'm alive and living in America," she says, "that would be really a nightmare for me."

Into the Past

When Lydia and Troy arrived in Ethiopia, they faced a serious setback. They could not find the man who had planned to meet them and act as their guide. Lydia knew roughly where her mother's village was, but there are no detailed maps of the region so she couldn't go alone. Lydia and Troy spent two frustrating weeks desperately trying to find someone who could help them.

Finally, just two days before they had planned to leave, their guide, a cousin who still lives in Ethiopia, made contact and they were on their way to the bush. Lydia's friend, Solomon Gizaw, a pilot in Ethiopia, donated his time, ABCNEWS paid for the plane fuel and they were off.

On a small landing strip, 10 miles from where Lydia's mother lived, the plane landed on a grassy clearing. In the field, a group of villagers had gathered. "Everybody was totally lost in amazement," Solomon remembers. "Everyone had heard the story of Lydia "

But Lydia could not make the hike to the village on her prosthetic legs. Her cousin and Solomon would have to make the trip, first by truck, then on foot, to fetch her mother while Lydia waited nervously at a small guesthouse nearby.

Long after dark, more than five hours after they left, Solomon and Lydia's cousin returned and a small woman dressed in the headscarves of her Muslim village appeared in the doorway. The mother, whose name is Asha, clung to her long-lost daughter and tearfully repeated to herself, "Oh my God, it is really her."

They spent several tender hours together, sharing tears and life stories.

Asha was amazed that Lydia could walk and kept asking about her legs. She said she remembers having the seizure while holding her daughter near the fire, but she doesn't remember anything else after that. She also told Lydia how painful it had been to give her up, but without money for medicine or even a clean place to house her injured daughter, she felt she had no choice.

Asha, now about 50 years old, lives as Ethiopians have for centuries. She and her family share a simple grass hut, keep chickens for eggs and grow what they need to survive using primitive tools. Lydia brought about $500 — a small fortune — to help her family.

Less than 24 hours later, it was time for Lydia to get back on the plane and start the journey back to the United States. She kissed her mother goodbye and promised to return some day.

But that seemed small comfort to the grieving mother, who had to say goodbye again to the daughter she lost so long ago.

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