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"Will Angie Lose Zahara?
The birth family of Angelina Jolie’s daughter wants her to bring Zahara home to Ethiopia
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Will Angie Lose Zahara?

The birth family of Angelina Jolie’s daughter wants her to bring Zahara home to Ethiopia

Angelina Jolie shares a special bond with her daughter Zahara, whom she adopted more than two years ago from Ethiopia. Malnourished and suffering from rickets, Zahara was days away from death when Angelina found her, bonded with her and nursed her back to health. Today, she cherishes time alone with her happy toddler, 2, and “chooses special stories” to read to her when they’re together, a pal says. But now a dark cloud of unhappiness hangs over their relationship. And Angelina’s worst nightmare may come true.

On June 20, 2006, Angelina proudly told CNN’s Anderson Cooper about the daughter she named Zahara. “She’s from Ethiopia. She’s an AIDS orphan,” Angelina said. But Zahara’s adoption papers, which an In Touch representative was shown on November 12, clearly states that Zahara has a grandmother and extended family alive in Africa— and the grandmother introduced In Touch to her daughter, who claims to be Zahara’s mother.

In 2005, the U.K.’s Sun also talked to the woman, who claimed to be Zahara’s birth mother. In the town of Awassa, 140 miles south of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, In Touch spoke with that woman again. She’s very much alive, she doesn’t have AIDS — and she’d love to be with the child who was taken away. “I want my daughter to come home to see where she is from,” the woman who says she’s Zahara’s mother, Mentewab Dawit Lebiso, 24, tells In Touch. “Her grandmother and I both tried very hard to raise her, and I want her to come home to regain her identity.”

Was Angelina lied to?

While her birth family may not be able to afford to challenge Zahara’s adoption, they do claim they were misled. They say a local official, who took Zahara to the adoption agency, told the family they would get to see the baby again and maintain contact with her. Most people hoping to adopt who are working with the U.S.- based agency Wide Horizons for Children (which Angelina used to adopt Zahara) visit the child’s village and surviving family members. But Angelina, 32, could not do so when she adopted Zahara more than two years ago. “There were a lot of journalists following her,” the agency’s Ethiopian head, Dr. Tsegaye Berhe, tells In Touch. “She was not able to travel as much as she would have liked or as we would have liked her to do.”

Still, after speaking to the agency, family members hoped Angelina and her partner, Brad Pitt, 43, would bring Zahara back for a visit. But that has not happened. “After they took the baby, they didn’t keep in contact. They didn’t tell us anything about her,” Zahara’s aunt, Zinash Haile Yenero, 20, tells In Touch. “My mother was very sad. At one point she was even thinking of trying to find a way to bring her grandchild back, but she has no money, so she can’t.”

Angelina, an insider says, has heard the published tales of Zahara’s African family, but feels on a deeper level that Zahara is part of her family. “She believes that Zahara is an orphan and the woman who claims to be her mom is mistaken,” says a friend. Government papers said Zahara was an AIDS orphan, says the pal, and “Angie had no reason to believe otherwise. Zahara was days away from death and Angelina saved that child. As far as she is concerned, that bonded her to that little girl forever.”

Because of her own stormy relationship with her father, Jon Voight, Angelina has strong feelings about parenthood. “She feels that while a person may have a biological parent who is still alive, that parent has to earn the right to be with their child,” the pal explains.

Zahara’s real story

Dr. Tsegaye says that Angelina has no obligation to keep in touch with Zahara’s blood family. “It’s up to the adoptive parents,” he says. “We cannot force them.” But Zahara’s grandmother, Almaz Elfneh, 45, insists that the circumstances behind their decision to put the baby in an orphanage must be told to Zahara and to her adoptive parents. “I miss my grandchild a lot,” she adds. According to Mentewab, Zahara was conceived when she was raped by a stranger who broke into her home. After the baby — whom she named Yemasrech, which means Good News — was born on January 7, 2005, she moved in with her mother and got a job as a laborer. But Mentewab became overwhelmed. “I thought the baby was going to die because there was no food, so I ran away,” she confesses.

Unable to care for her alone, Almaz says she brought the child to a local authority, explaining that her daughter had run away. Another man, who worked on behalf of WHFC, but was not an official employee, took the baby away and told the agency that her mother had died. “What he has done is equal to murder,” charges Mentewab. “He took my daughter away and he just disappeared with her. He said I was dead, but I heard from my mother that she never said that.” But Dr. Tsegaye disputes this account.

Despite their sad story, Angelina feels that she must put Zahara’s needs first, says an insider. “She believes that you protect your child and put them first,” says the pal. Another friend says that Angie thinks contact with Zahara’s birth family at such a young age would be too confusing. Others disagree. Adoption specialist Jerri Jenista says, “Most parents want their children to have some contact with where they came from.”

The choice, however, remains Angie’s until Zahara has grown and can choose for herself. Much as they’d love to see her, Mentewab and her family know they cannot force Angelina to bring Zahara home. They realize they could never give the child the happy, privileged life she shares with her new parents. Maybe one day, Zahara will enjoy the best of both worlds.

Angelina thought she had no mother

Angelina, who proudly introduced Zahara to her co-stars on the set of The Good Shepherd in August 2005, believes Zahara’s mother died.

They will adopt again

Despite the heartache involved with international adoptions, Angelina and Brad plan to have more children together, say friends, with at least one through adoption.

Could her birth mother get Zahara back?

Mentewab never signed the papers giving up her daughter, which could give her a case for getting Zahara back — if she had the money to pursue it. “If some family member comes in and leaves the child at an orphanage and signs her over, and then the mother wants her back, you can make the argument that the person didn’t truly understand that their child is gone forever,” says adoption specialist Jerri Jenista.

Mentewab struggled to feed her family. “Sometimes all I had was a piece of bread all day,” she tells In Touch.

Zahara’s mother Mentewab sells onions at the market. Her grandmother Almaz says they couldn’t afford to keep Zahara

“I would tell other families not to give up their children,” says Zahara’s aunt Frehiwot, 18, with another aunt, Zinash Haile Yenero. “I would tell them what happened to us.”

Two neighbors, including Asegadech Asefaw, concurred that Mentewab had run away — not died.

Another neighbor, Bekelech Haile, accompanied Almaz to the government offices.

But the agency says Angelina adopted legally

Wide Horizons for Children claims it told Angelina that Zahara’s mother was dead because the documents that her real grandmother, Almaz Elfneh, and three witnesses signed said so. “We have to trust the documents we received from the local government,” says Dr. Tsegaye Berhe, who tells In Touch that Almaz is indeed the baby’s grandmother. “She’s signed a document saying, ‘My daughter had died and she left the child behind.’”

Madonna’s son also isn’t an orphan

Madonna has had trouble with a foreign adoption, too. Yohane Banda (right), the father of her son David, protested that he didn’t know he was giving up his son forever. Angelina also appeared critical of Madonna for taking a child from Malawi. “It’s a country where there is no real legal framework for adoption,” she told a French magazine. “Personally, I prefer to stay on the right side of the law.” But later, Angelina insisted she favored Madonna’s adoption. “I said many positive things that were omitted,” she said. “I encourage everyone to be supportive so that every child can adjust nicely to their new home.”

Should celebrities help children stay with their families?

The plight of Africans affected by AIDS and living in poverty has led other stars to lend financial support to communities without removing children from their homes and villages. For instance, in 2005, the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project was created by the Oscar-winning actress to fund mobile health clinics to serve the poorest and most rural areas of South Africa. Save the Children’s Tonya Nyagiro tells In Touch, “It’s more acceptable for most of these kids to remain in their villages among family and friends who do their best to care for and support them.”

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