Elmwood Park Couple Adopts Liberian Orphans
By Rob Valentin
Thanks to good-hearted couple Christopher and Naomi Langkamp of Elmwood Park, a pair of orphans living in Africa are now experiencing lives they never could imagine. Ruth and Linda Langkamp are senior athletes at Elmwood Park. They are sisters now, but 10 years ago they didn’t even know each other. The story of their lives and their journey from Liberia to the United States after being adopted is one of sadness, faith, hope and triumph.
Thirteen years later, Ruth Langkamp still remembers the trek. Born in the bush of Liberia — either Feb. 4 or July 4, 1996 (birth records differ) — and christened Mabee Kromah, she was the middle child of three. Her father died when she was little and her mother felt she could no longer care for her. Her mother took Ruth and older brother Elijah to live in an orphanage/ “I remember that we had to walk there,” Ruth said. “It took about three days and all I remember is feeling scared. I remember that my mom kept repeating, ‘This is for the best.’ She thought taking us to the orphanage would be a good way for providing for us. My brother promised that he would never let anything happen to me.” Ruth hasn’t seen Elijah since. After arriving at the Daniel Hoover Children’s Home in Dixville, they were split up because boys and girls lived separately. She didn’t even know until years later that he had left Africa after being adopted by a family in Washington.
While the childern of the orphanage were provided with little schooling, they spent Sundays in church. “Every Sunday we would wake up at the crack of dawn and would be in church until sunset,” Ruth said. “We did a lot of singing and would stand for hours. We had a lot of bible stories and I knew about God, but I didn’t know about Jesus.” After moving to America, she decided to change her name to Ruth, after the biblical figure.
Meanwhile, Linda Langkamp was enduring her own hardship. She was born Linda Tamba on Feb. 7, 1995 in Liberia; her mother died giving birth. She was raised by her grandmother Susana, who took Linda to the Daniel Hoover Home when it became too difficult for Susana to continue supporting her. Life wasn’t much easier at the orphanage. “There were over 500 kids there and you had to fight for yourself,” Linda said. “You had to do whatever you could to survive. There was food but it wasn’t a lot.” Life at the orphanage was extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous. “I tried to stay quiet and unknown so nothing bad would happen to me,” Ruth recalled. “Sometimes I accepted where I was and felt happy. But there was never really any safety. I always had to be on guard.
“Things happened and girls got pregnant. People got hurt and boys had to leave. I could not really grasp or understand what was happening but I knew there had to be something better out there.” Schooling was also something that the orphanage lacked. “There was really no education,” Linda said. “When I came to the United States I was 11 years old and I had the education of a first-grader.” Liberia, whose official language is English, is home to about four million people on the west coast of Africa. With American assistance, Liberia began to modernize midway through the 20th century. But in 1980, a military coup overthrew the government and the country would eventually endure two successive civil wars that would claim more than 200,000 lives.
The first civil war lasted from 1989 to 1996 and the second from 1999 to 2003. It was under these circumstances that Ruth and Linda were born and raised. Although the Second Liberian Civil War had ended, the orphanage was still looking for families to adopt children. Some 5,300 miles away, Christopher and Naomi Langkamp were raising a family of three boys in Elmwood Park. “We had three boys in a row and after we had a third son I felt like I didn’t want to do pregnancy any more but I wanted a girl,” Naomi said. “When we were looking into adoption we learned the darker the skin the cheaper the adoption. We didn’t have much money and we didn’t care about skin color.” The couple talked to Children Concerned, which connected families with orphanages in Liberia. They decided to adopt two girls and used Bethany Christian Services to help navigate the process.
Back in Liberia, Ruth and Linda, who didn’t really know each other, were called into an office in September 2005 and told a family in America was adopting them. They were handed a phone and briefly spoke with Christopher and Naomi Langkamp. The two girls reacted in different ways. “I didn’t really want to go because I knew I was going to leave my grandma,” said Linda. “She worked at the orphanage and I was scared because I didn’t know who I was going to. Where I was, they didn’t really like America and they said it was a bad place. I really didn’t have an option. It was during a war and they were just shipping kids out. My grandmother really wanted me to go. She said it was best for me.”
For Ruth, who was told for the first time that her brother Elijah was living in the United States, adoption was a chance she was more than willing to take. “I was excited,” Ruth said. “I wanted something different. I knew feeling scared and being on my guard all the time wasn’t normal. But there was a fear of leaving everything I knew behind. I was going to a totally different place with totally different rules.”
Christopher Langkamp arrived in Liberia to pick up his new daughters, about 13 months after first talking to them on the phone. The girls would have quite the adventure ahead of them. They had never been in a car before, let alone a plane. Their trip to the United States would take them from Monrovia, Liberia, to Rome to New York City and eventually to Chicago. Stepping off the plane on Oct. 16, 2006, Ruth and Linda were greeted with a type of weather they had never experienced. The record low in Monrovia — Liberia’s capital — is 64 degrees. Four days before their arrival, according to the National Weather Service, Chicago had set a record for the earliest measurable snow in the city’s history. The average temperature for that month was 49.0 degrees, the 11th coldest October in Chicago records. Adjusting to the cold weather was just the start of a difficult process and learning a new way of life. And it wasn’t easy.
After growing up in a Liberian orphanage, Ruth and Linda Langkamp — formerly Mabee Kromah and Linda Tamba — were adopted by Elmwood Park residents Christopher and Naomi Langkamp in 2006. The first few months presented a culture shock. Linda, then 11 years old, went to the dentist for the first time and had 12 cavities filled. She was so malnourished that she put on 12 pounds in the first couple months. Adjusting to her new surroundings was difficult and she still dearly missed her grandmother back in Liberia.
“I would sometimes get in trouble on purpose and they would send to me to my room and I would scream that I wanted to go back [to Liberia],” Linda said. “I had family there so it was hard to let go.” Linda didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the Langkamp’s oldest biological child, Gary. She was outgoing and Gary, who was 7 then, was used to being the oldest child. “It was very complicated for my parents where to draw the line,” Linda Langkamp said. “Gary and I would constantly fight and we’d be jealous of each other. He felt like they liked me more because I was adopted and I felt like they liked him more because he’s their biological child.” She estimates that it took a year for her to become comfortable with her new family.
Ruth Langkamp had to make adjustments of her own. In the orphanage, she kept to herself and didn’t make many friends. Now she was living with a large family more than five thousand miles from where she was born. “It was overwhelming,” she said of her introduction to the Langkamps at the airport. “It was weird seeing all these white people for the first time and they were all looking at me and paying attention to me. I never got hugged so many times.” Ruth Langkamp ate and ate and ate in her new home. Worried that the food would eventually run out, she snuck meals into her bedroom and hid them like she was storing for the winter. “I had to pinch myself,” she said. “I thought I was in the middle of this dream and I would wake up and it would all disappear.”
The two girls were home schooled by their new mom, Naomi. She was the daughter of missionaries and spent six years in Kenya beginning when she was 12. She believed she would have an easier time understanding them and their background. “I didn’t have to leave my family but I knew what it was like to totally change where I was at that age,” Naomi Langkamp said. “That’s a really formative time when you learn what you believe in and care about. I was home schooling them then and I’m really glad we had that time together.” The girls began attending public school in eighth grade and they’ve flourished. Linda carries a 3.8 grade-point average at Elmwood Park and Ruth’s GPA is 4.2; they both belong to the National Honor Society. They also began to embrace new sports. In Liberia, they only knew soccer, but were also good runners. Without access to bikes or cars in Liberia, if they wanted to go somewhere they ran.
Growing up in Elmwood Park, they played softball, then when they reached high school they decided to run cross country in the fall and participate in track and field in the spring. “I didn’t like running when I was younger but my dad introduced it to me,” Linda said. “I felt I was really good at it.” Both girls were in the Tigers’ top seven for cross country and helped the team make downstate for the first time since 1991. Now in the midst of their senior years, Ruth and Linda are starting to look towards the future. Their visions are as different as their personalities. Linda Langkamp has never wavered in her desire to return to Liberia. She plans on studying business at a smaller college like Judson or Trinity Christian. “I do want to move back there permanently,” Linda said. “I feel like it’s still my country. I’d like to learn more about business and then be able to go back and teach people how to run their own businesses.”
Ruth has already been accepted to Loyola and has also applied to University of Chicago. She wants to study psychology and use her experiences to help others. Ruth is hoping to get together with her biological brother, Elijah Nash, sometime after Christmas. It will be the first time they’ve seen each other since they were separated at the orphanage and he was adopted by a family in Washington. Ruth has no desire to move back to Liberia, but has considered going back to visit.
“I used to think that I’d never want to go back and experience that all over again,” Ruth said. “But I do have a family there and I want to be able to close that chapter of my life. I don’t think I can be fully at peace with myself, so I do think I will go back someday.”