ANCHORAGE (KTUU) The holidays are all about family, and a 16-year old from the African nation of Liberia is spending his first Christmas with his new family in Anchorage.
Sampson's tumors before surgery. Photo courtesy Lisa Friesen
His name is Sampson, and his journey to Alaska is a tale of love, patience and faith.
The story began in January, when pediatric nurse Lisa Friesen journeyed from her home in Anchorage, Alaska to Liberia on a mission with The Children's Heart Project, a part of the Samaritan's Purse organization.
Her assignment was to assess Sampson's medical condition. He was born with a disease called neurofibromatosis that results in large tumors that had disfigured his face.
"At three years of age, he started having these tumors grow on his face" said Lisa Friesen, "and at that point his mother was afraid it was witchcraft. In Liberia, witchcraft is still alive and well. Lots of occult, lots of black magic, and so she left him, left him with his father."
Lisa says she felt an instant bond with Sampson the first time they met.
"So, when I got to Liberia, I'll never forget the first day I met him. I see this super shy kid with these huge tumors on his face, but his smile was just infectious and we immediately hit it off."
Friesen said Sampson's facial deformities created fear among many people in his small village. "Everybody shunned him, everybody was afraid of him" Friesen said. "They called him a demon. They called him a witch. His biological father was a big advocate for him, would take him to school and tell the kids 'don't be afraid, don't be afraid of Sampson, he's just like you are'. But, everybody, even the adults in the village, shunned him, so that's what he's lived with his entire life."
After determining that Sampson was healthy enough to travel, Friesen flew with him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to have surgery to try to remove the tumors.
"Dropping him off was really hard" said Friesen."I remember going back to the hotel room and just crying, because I was like 'man, we cannot send this kid back to where he came from'. I mean, we're not doing him any good if we do surgery and then we send his back to the same place he came from."
Sampson's surgery was a success, and as he recovered with a host family in Minnesota, Lisa Friesen and her husband, Tim, made a major decision that would change Sampson's life, and theirs, forever. They decided to adopt Sampson and bring him to Alaska to begin a new life.
"You have to understand, we've been married for 31 years. We don't have any kids, no pets, and we have a great life" said Lisa. "We love our life, but this was something I just felt so strongly that God had called us to do."
"We just talked about it, prayed about it" said Tim Friesen, "and came to the conclusion it was the right thing to do, and I believe it is."
Sampson's biological father passed away four years ago. "Sampson's father told Sampson before he died that God had great plans for him" said Lisa. After his father's death, Sampson's grandmother became his caregiver, but the Friesens said she was ill and prayed for years that someone would give Sampson a home and a future.
Sampson returned to Liberia in May after recovering from surgery, and the Friesens began the adoption process. Lisa returned to Liberia in late August, and Tim joined her three weeks later.
Once the adoption process was made final, Lisa and Tim Friesen, and their newly adopted son, Sampson, flew to Alaska in late September.
Sampson's adjustment to his new home hasn't been easy and smooth.
"You're 16 years old, you're leaving your old life behind" said Lisa."No matter how bad your old life had been, you still cling to some of those things, because you feel like you've lost control of everything, right?"
But three months after arriving in Alaska, the Friesens say Sampson has made a lot of progress. He's taking electric guitar lessons, learning judo, and has even started his own on-line business making fuzzy flip-flop slippers, the way his grandmother in Liberia taught him to do.
"This is a kid who has never had any hope in his life" said Lisa, "and, just whatever he dreams, whatever he wants to do, I tell him that every single day, Sampson, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. And that's my hope and dream for him."
The Friesens said they are talking publicly about his story to encourage more people to consider adoption, especially to help special needs children.
Sampson's medical challenges are not over yet. The Friesens found out a few days ago that more tumors are beginning to grow, which means more surgery in the future.
Friends and supporters of the family have set up an on-line donation page. If you'd like to donate, click on this