Abandoned as a baby, woman finds lost mother in Ethiopia

Lydia Assefa-Dawson shared her story at the Federal Way Kiwanis Club meeting Jan. 30 at Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club. - Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror
Lydia Assefa-Dawson shared her story at the Federal Way Kiwanis Club meeting Jan. 30 at Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

As a 5-month-old baby, Lydia Assefa-Dawson lost her legs and her family.

The Federal Way woman was born in a remote village in Ethiopia where families farmed the land and lived in grass huts. Her mother, then age 13, suffered a seizure while cooking at an open fire — and accidentally dropped baby Lydia into the flames.

The family sold an ox to pay for transportation to the nearest hospital. The trip took five days. Doctors amputated baby Lydia's infected legs. Her parents made a difficult decision to leave their daughter behind and return to the farm.

Lydia spent four years in the hospital. She was raised by American missionaries who taught her English. She learned to crawl and survive.

A photo in the Saturday Evening Post led to a series of events that changed her life. In response to the story, U.S. readers sent Lydia a pair of prosthetic legs, a rarity in rural Africa. Women from a New Jersey church helped send Lydia to a boarding school, then to college in the United States.

Over the years, the growing bones in her legs meant more amputations until she reached age 15. But the real pain that outlasted those surgeries was the painful mystery of her mother.

Upon reaching adulthood, Lydia still had no clues or information on her mother's whereabouts. However, a chance encounter opened a door: a cousin from Ethiopia confirmed that her mother was alive.

In 2000, Lydia and her husband, Troy Dawson, boarded a plane to Ethiopia. After two fruitless weeks and nearly giving up on the quest, she and her mother finally reunited in a grass hut deep in the countryside.

The news show "20/20" captured the moment when Lydia and her mother, Asha, embraced for the first time in 38 years. There were tears and awkward moments between the two strangers, but also an uncanny resemblance between mother and child.

Lydia gave her mother $500, a small fortune in the eyes of the villagers. She also learned that Asha, age 50 at the reunion, had a total of 12 children, but only four survived — including Lydia, a brother and two sisters.

Less than 24 hours later, Lydia left Ethiopia. She and Troy soon returned with their three boys (Christian, Joshua and Caleb) for another family visit.

Today, Lydia reports that her mother is alive and well. Her brother now has a cellphone, which helps everyone stay in contact.

Lydia, now a social worker for the King County Housing Authority, has reflected on how life might have turned out if she still had her legs. She said she would have remained in the Ethiopian village, which is too small to be found on a map. Perhaps she would have married young and followed in her mother's footsteps.

One certainty is that she finally found peace after meeting the family she never knew.

"My mother didn't know if I was dead or alive," Lydia said Jan. 30 while sharing her story with the Federal Way Kiwanis. "That became the driving force to look for my mother."


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