Her name is Salome Nengean – born in the northwest Iowa town of Sioux Center – raised in Nigeria. She’s 29 now and, with her husband, frequently travels to the place of her youth where her mother still lives. She says during one of these trips in 2011.
“We happened to meet two kids, who were living with an elderly woman, and somehow they just caught our attention," she said. "There was just something cute about them, there were other kids, but they would just separate from the rest of the group and sit together.”
A girl and a boy – Joy and Isaac, ages three and five. Back in Des Moines, the Nengeans couldn’t get the kids out of their minds or their hearts. They sent money to pay for school expenses.
“And then one day we went running at Gray’s Lake," she said. "And my husband looked at me and said, do you think we should adopt them?”
Salome has a law degree, and she spent the next nine months in Nigeria working through its adoption system. That wasn’t so bad. But there were delays at the U.S. consulate getting the medical clearance for the kids to receive exit visas.
“We just waited and waited and waited," she said. "And while we were waiting, one evening a group of men came to the place where I was living with the kids.”
The thugs grabbed Isaac and Joy and ran off. They weren’t terrorists, Salome said, not members of Boko Harom , just young men looking for an easy payday.
“This group of guys who came up with this plan and felt this was a good opportunity to get some money out of some rich Americans,” she said.
So what to do? Negotiate a costly ransom with a gang of criminals, something the American and Nigerian governments warned them against. The agonizing decision to return home without the children sent Salome into a downward spiral.
When it first happened, I think I was pararlyzed by sorrow and anger and, I told myself I wasn't going to do this," she said through tears. "When you give yourself so wholly to someone and you love them."
For the next year Salome could barely function. Fears about the children’s safety were more debilitating than if they had been murdered.
“When somebody dies, you have a place you can go to, you have a grave, and like on their birthday or something, you can go to and talk to them and grieve," she said. "We don’t really have a grave site, we just have this hanging thing in our minds.”
Then Salome’s husband told her to snap out of it. He said she needed to find purpose in life. And so was born Impact Missions Worldwide – an effort to bring comfort to the lives of young people in Nigeria.
“And it’s just the simple things in life, like even a soccer field where kids for an hour or two a day can come and play soccer with each other," she said. "And laugh and drink clean water and just be kids.
It’s early days for the non-profit, too soon to know what projects it will afford. But it’s already paying off for Salome. It has given her meaning, a reason to get out of bed each day. It has given her a way to honor Isaac and Joy, two children a half-a-world away with whom she hopes to someday be reunited.