Adopted twins stranded in Sierra Leone could soon be on way to Canada

Jonathan’s Children Centre in Sierra Leone is home to about 60 orphans, many with little chance for adoption in the West African nation struggling to contain the deadly Ebola virus. But it is also a place where there is renewed hope stranded twins could soon be on their way to their adoptive parents in Alberta, the CBC's Carolyn Dunn reports.

Adoption certified by court in West African nation, but Canadian authorities have questioned legality

Grace and Leo are waiting at the Jonathan's Children Centre orphanage in Bo, Sierra Leone, for officials to clear the way for them to join their adoptive parents Kayt and Stefan Mahon in Canmore, Alta. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC)

Jonathan’s Children Centre sits at the end of a dusty road just outside Bo, Sierra Leone.

It is home to about 60 orphans, ranging from babies to youths of 17, most with little chance for adoption in this West African country struggling to contain the deadly Ebola virus.

Mbalama (Grace) and Mbatilo (Leo) Konneh were officially adopted by Kayt and Stefan Mahon of Canmore, Alta., in February 2014. (Submitted by the Mahon family)
It is also a place where there may be renewed hope that stranded twins just shy of three years old may soon be on their way to their adoptive parents in Alberta.

At JCC, all the orphans go to school. Even as young adults, the orphanage will help them learn employment skills.

"They are loved," orphanage co-ordinator Christie Kainwo says of the children.

“But they don’t have their own mother and father to read them a story every night, to tuck them in. It’s great to be in a family and to be in a place you know is safe and secure forever."

For orphans Grace and Leo (born Mbalama and Mbatilo), however, there are eager adoptive parents waiting in Canmore, Alta., to welcome them into their home.

But circumstances and bureaucracy in Canada and Sierra Leone have kept Grace and Leo apart from Kayt and Stefan Mahon, whose adoption of the twins became official in February 2014.

Behind a locked gate

I first began covering this story for CBC News from Canmore in August. While assigned to cover the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone recently, I took the opportunity to meet Grace and Leo at their orphanage a few hours southeast of Freetown. 

The gate to JCC was locked when we arrived, and has been most of the time since Ebola hit.

After some negotiation, a Sierra Leonian cameraman and I were granted special permission by JCC’s board of directors to enter, but under strict conditions.

We were only allowed in a few metres, a good distance from most of the children, While we could meet Grace and Leo, we had to follow Ebola protocols: no touching whatsoever.

The twins were walked out by their caretaker, Amie Bundu. They were dressed for visitors, Grace in a fresh pink dress, Leo in a T-shirt emblazoned with Canada across the front. 

Grace is the bigger of the two and has been since the twins were saved from death at a Medecins Sans Frontier hospital after their mother died in childbirth in 2012.

She is also quieter, a little wary of the strangers who have come to see her. Her brother Leo has no such reservations.

Within minutes, he was showing off for the camera, kicking off his sandal and collapsing in peals of laughter as it launched several feet  in the air.

'Mama, Papa'

Through it all, each of the twins clutched a photo, laminated to protect it from dirty toddler hands.

The mother of Mbalama (Grace) and Mbatilo (Leo) Konneh died during childbirth. (Submitted by the Mahon family)
“Mama Amie” as Bundu is known, pointed at each picture. “Who is that?” she asked the twins.

“Mama, Papa,” the twins answered in unison. 

“Every day, I show them those pictures,” Bundu says.

"This is your father, your mother, so by doing that, they have been used to them."

They are also mesmerized by cellphone video of the Mahons singing their ABCs to them. This is typical of how the Mahons try to be regular parents to children so far away.

It is nearly a year since they have seen Leo and Grace.

The twins' mother died in childbirth and Grace and Leo barely survived in hospital. 

Fighting Ebola

Their biological father, unable to care for them, surrendered them to the orphanage. He attended court when on the Mahons' third visit to Sierra Leone, the adoption was certified.

Then Ebola hit Sierra Leone in March 2014 and with 80 per cent of Sierra Leone’s government resources directed at fighting the deadly virus, there was no chance the twins would be issued passports from their birth country. 

By the summer of 2014, the Mahons had turned to the Canadian government to recognize the adoption and grant the twins citizenship. 

After all, the Mahon family had long before passed all Canadian inspections to show their home was suitable for a foreign adoption. 

But the Mahons' hopes to have the immigration process fast-tracked in light of the Ebola crisis were quickly dashed. 

Since August, there have been increasing demands for more documentation from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, which the department says is necessary to satisfy Sierra Leonian and international adoption laws.

Much of it has been difficult to obtain in a country far more focused on a public health emergency than foreign adoptions.

A blow and a mystery

But the last request in mid-November was perhaps the most difficult.

It asked for full court transcripts of the adoption as well as “an affidavit from the presiding justice … attesting to the fact that he was aware that you did not have continuous care and possession of the children for six months before the adoption, along with a written description of the exceptional and special circumstances that led to your exemption from those requirements.”

Despite the fact that a Sierra Leone High Court had certified the adoption, “concerns remain … about the legality of the adoptions,” an immigration counsellor wrote.

That was a blow to the Mahons and a mystery to the orphanage.

It doesn’t do many foreign adoptions, but of those it has done, no country has ever questioned the decision of a Sierra Leonian court, at least not in recent years since Sierra Leone  revamped foreign adoption rules.

While in Sierra Leone, I reached Justice D.B. Edwards on the phone. He said it would not be proper for a sitting judge to do an interview, but he did confirm he had certified the adoption.

So I checked with the director of Sierra Leone’s Social Welfare Department, Mariatu Bangura, about the legality of the adoption.

She also refused an interview, but did respond by SMS text message, saying, “a competent court of law has already issued the adoption order which is in line with (the Sierra Leonian) government's regulations.”

Action behind the scenes

Anecdotally, I had been told the six-month residency requirement required in the case of foreign adoptions is not enforced simply because it’s impractical for adoptive families from abroad to abandon their jobs for six months to live in Sierra Leone with the children they wish to adopt.

But no one would tell me on the record what had happened in Grace and Leo’s case. 

Yet it seems while I was visiting the twins and tracking down government and court information, something else was going on behind the scenes.

The registrar of Sierra Leone's High Court was preparing a letter that stated the Mahons' longtime “financial support and visitations (were) sufficient evidence of a true relationship.”   

And further, with the judge’s knowledge, the residency requirement “was waived by the court” during their adoption a year ago.

We read it and danced and jumped and we were like: "Yes! This is exactly what we need."- Stefan Mahon

The Mahons are convinced the information in that document should spell the end of any doubt about the legality of the adoption. 

“We read it and danced and jumped and we were like: ‘Yes! This is exactly what we need,’ ” Stefan Mahon said from their Canmore home.

Now, they are waiting anxiously for an official copy of the letter so they can in turn send it to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

“This is all they need,” Kayt Mahon says. “It reiterates that the six months was waived by the judge.”

And, like they have several times during the past two years, they have renewed hope that their twins could soon leave their Sierra Leone orphanage for a home in Canada.


Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email


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