South Africa to the suburbs: Jessica Van Wyk comes to America from loss

Senior Jessica Van Wyk works on a painting for her AP Studio class. “In South Africa I really struggled [in school] … Then when I got here school was easier. I felt good about myself in terms of that, that’s kind of the only part that made me more confident.” Photo by Jayna Dias.

She pulls her leg up to rest comfortably against her right thigh, head thrown back as quick giggles erupt from her mouth, pausing for the umpteenth time this night to apologize for talking too quickly. It’s almost as though every word is accompanied with a vibrant smile with her strong, feathery brows responding animatedly. If it was not for her South African accent, it would be impossible to recognize that English is not her first language due to the sheer amount of brightness and confidence that permeates from her rosy, glossed lips. 

But even more notable, it would be impossible to recognize the tragedy that occurred to her seven short years ago. 

Senior Jessica Van Wyk laughs, she smiles. The bright pink hues that grace the tips of her hair only represent a fraction of the energy and kindness that she exudes despite carrying with her the weight of not only witnessing, but also experiencing a devastation that left behind permanent scars — both physical and emotional. 

At a loss

Jessica moved to America from South Africa four years ago after a car accident that took the lives of both of her parents. 

Letting her shoulders drop, Jessica blows a quick raspberry before going into the details. She looks up at the wall, sinking further into the beige couch to assume a more comfortable position as though she wasn’t telling anymore than a tale. 

She was waiting for her parents to pick her up from school since it was a rainy day — too wet to walk home safely like normal. However, one of the mini buses — also known as taxis in South Africa, notorious for not following the rules of the road — came speeding in front of the school. Jessica’s father attempted to swerve out of the way when the taxi came directly into their lane, resulting in the car spinning out of control from the slickness of the roads, causing their vehicle to collide into another car. 

Her mother died on impact in the passenger’s since the seat folded in half, causing a break in her neck. Jessica’s father suffered from a rib injury as one of the bones pierced his lung. However, due to the poor quality of the hospital, he did not have access to the appropriate medical care and operations. 

“He passed away,” Jessica says, her voice trailing off into a strained whisper. She was notified of her father’s death the following morning when he was not able to recover from the injury. She sits upright at that and smiles softly, waving her hand in a short movement to signify that she’s fine. “Sorry, I’m not getting all weird and emotional,” she clarifies with a brief chuckle. “I just forget to breathe when I talk.”

After another readjustment on the couch and a quick alignment of her large, dark-rimmed glasses, Jessica continues. She personally suffered from a broken femur and collar bone and since her injuries were less urgent, she had time to get airlifted to a better hospital where Jessica resided for a week. A Go Fund Me was quickly set up by family members to help alleviate the cost of her medical bills. 

“I felt like, in a weird way, I had  an anticipation for something bad happening,” she said. Tears fail to gather in her eyes, her voice remains high with no trace of a waiver. Instead, Jessica’s gray-blue eyes narrow as she searches to describe her initial reaction to the incident. “I didn’t even full on cry. I had a single tear that ran down my cheek and then I was fine.”

Jessica is rushed to the hospital (left) where she recovers from a broken femur, collarbone and scrapes (right). “Before he even died I kept having this weird feeling that my dad was dead … I don’t know why because he wasn’t yet, but he eventually did,” Jessica says. Photo derived from Jessica Van Wyk. 

The period of time after the accident was filled with “more disbelieve than grief” as she put it, consisting of dreams of them still being alive. However, since life continued despite the abrupt ending of all her familiarity, Jessica did as well. 

A calling, a rescue

Pierre and Lettie Van Wyk, Jessica’s aunt and uncle, sit opposite her. Pierre keeps his hands clasped together, pausing every so often to assist the thin glasses perched at the top of his nose. Lettie moves the light-brown wisps of bangs from her blue eyes as the two of them reflect on the dramatic framework shift that required them to go from Jessica’s relatives to her parents. 

The couple moved to America back in 1994 when South Africa began to deteriorate on an economic standpoint for white citizens. Affirmative action was established due to the lasting racial tension, especially after Nelson Mandela’s removal from prison and election as the president of the country. Unfortunately for the Van Wyk’s that meant that black men and women and all other people of color would be considered first for job applications before white women and lastly, white men. 

Since they had a six year old son at the time, Pierre and Lettie decided they wanted to give him a fair chance, and doing so required moving to a place with better opportunities — which happened to be the United States where they raised their son and two daughters. Little did they know, they were going to have another addition to the family. 

Three years prior to the accident, Pierre and Lettie actually considered international adoption to give other children in South Africa a better life. However, that idea was quite foreign at the time, so the pair let it drop without entertaining the thought much longer. 

“When my sister and her husband passed away we remembered the prompting that laid on our hearts three years before the accident,” Lettie explains through an accent as she leans to rest her forearms on her knees. “I turned to Pierre and I said ‘you know what this means.’”

While the decision to move Jessica to the states was unanimous, the process was rigorous. The legal jungle they had to weave through resulted in Jessica being forced to live with numerous foster parents over the course of three years in South Africa before Pierre and Lettie could legally bring her to America. 

For Jessica, the constant changing of environments with no permanent place to reside and call home was not an unfamiliar concept. She had changed schools four to five times when still living with her birth parents and since she was never around family much anyways, there was not necessarily a void left in their absence. 

“I didn’t necessarily receive an example that showed that family’s super important,” Jessica says. She goes on to explain that her father wasn’t one to socialize, so she never got to see her other family members — even those her age that lived a mere 30 minutes away. “I just got used to people coming and going in and out of my life.”

Some of those people included her friends’ parents whom she stayed with for three months, another classmate’s mother who did foster care for six months and with one of her aunts. However, since all the homes were only temporary, Jessica felt as though she never received proper discipline and structure since each caretaker knew she would be out of the house and onto the next shortly. 

Meanwhile, Pierre and Lettie were working tirelessly to become more of a permanent foster home for Jessica to reside at. The only problem was that if one fosters a child from another country, once the child turns 18 they are deemed ‘self-sufficient’ and must return back to their country — meaning Jessica would be forced to go back to South Africa alone. 

“So the only way we could take care of her was by adopting,” Lettie states, shaking her head and causing the light brown strands that frame her face to sway softly. “And I actually didn’t want to adopt … her life was turned upside down. I didn’t want to turn her upside down again by saying ‘okay now you are part of a whole new family,’ but that was the only way we could get her here.”

What followed was numerous calls to social workers in South Africa. However, since international adoption was so new for everyone in the area, they weren’t receiving much assistance. 

“When my sister and her husband passed away we remembered the prompting that laid on our hearts three years before the accident,” Lettie explains through an accent as she leans to rest her forearms on her knees. “I turned to Pierre and I said ‘You know what this means.’”

— Lettie Van Wyk

Lettie recalls that her aunt, who was a social worker at the time, had said that she never in all her years working that allowed an adoption to take place with family in another country . Her eyebrows shoot up and she bends forward at the waist to emphasize that the idea in itself was still as foreign as it had been those three years ago. 

Eventually, Pierre and Lettie discovered that the phone call process was not going to successfully get Jessica to America in a timely manner, especially since their calls continually got dropped and they were losing contact with available social workers. So, the couple got on a plane and flew down to South Africa themselves. 

“We got on an airplane and flew down and we had a quite a fight with social security and social workers,” Pierre says as the corner of his mouth twitches up into a soft smile. “And finally … a year later she was here. The actual adoption took a year.”

Adjustment, no easy task

Jessica’s right arm snakes down to pull at her sock as she huffs out a quick reply. Turns out, the adjustment from living in South Africa from such a loose amount of structure between the lack of strictness from her parents and the absence of proper discipline from her foster families proved to be a lot more difficult to adjust to than any of them could have anticipated. The rolling of her eyes and the extra octave that her voice takes only indicates a fraction of what that frustration was like. 

Jessica was 14 when she came to the United States, a pre-teen finishing up her freshman year of high school. For most parents, that alone would be enough to drive them up the wall, however, Pierre and Lettie had to factor that in letting Jessica adjust to the new environment, to them and to new rule — which proved to be no easy task.

Jessica poses with Pierre and Lettie Van Wyk, who double as her aunt and uncle and adoptive parents in front of their fireplace. “We’re hoping and we’re praying that what we did make a difference in [Jessica’s] life. From our side, we can say it was quite a learning experience,” Pierre stated. Photo by Jayna Dias. 

While Jessica admits she is grateful for the opportunities Pierre and Lettie–whom she now refers to as her parent– provided her with, that did not come without some disparities. Suddenly there were high expectations, responsibilities and homework to keep up with. 

“[It] was hard … Coming from a place where I had absolutely no structure in my life and then coming here and having rules and I was being told what to do,” Jessica says. “While their intentions were good, to me it was like ‘Why are you telling me to do all these things?” She laughs and waves her hands out in exasperation. 

The conflict with sudden discipline caused the new family to struggle in understanding one another. Even just this past summer, Jessica wanted to be emancipated due to the consistent challenges they faced. 

However, Pierre and Lettie were determined to ensure that Jessica would be brought up with a solidified foundation. Pierre mentions that they had unrealistic expectations about the adoption on both ends. Having Jessica come to America, a country with better opportunities and a new, more structured life seemed quite sensible and simple, but proved to be much more difficult than anticipated. 

“The best way we could adjust was to adapt and change expectations which was not easy. It was a lot of counseling and we did read a lot of books,” Pierre explains. His eyes wander up to the ceiling as his hands remain firmly clasped in his lap. “I tried to coach Jessica through it but she had her own struggles she was going through. How much she actually got [out of it]? I don’t know. But as we learn we try to pass it on, but you can only pass on so much.”

Therapy sessions took place, as well as studies from parenting books like “The DNA of Relationships” and teaching Jessica “The 7 Principals of Highly Effective People.”

A mask

Jessica smiles again as she lets her hair down from its messy bun. The ends are dip dyed a shade of red-pink that contrasts with the light brown waves at the roots. Despite all the countless endeavors she was required to go through, she admits to never letting the situation damper her character. 

She had always been sociable, with words that left her mouth a mile a minute–even warranting strangers to tell her to be a radio host with the amount that she talked. Jessica confesses with a soft smile that she uses this trait to combat any of the negative feelings she has, almost overcompensating for when she’s feeling down. 

Coming to America led to lots of insecurities. Friend groups at East were already well established, and the sheer size of the building was daunting in itself. Suddenly, her charisma and charm was becoming harder and harder to rely on with the amount of change she had to navigate through alone. 

Jessica moves another strand of hair from her face and let her shoulders drop with a soft sigh. She explains how hard it was to make friends. Many gravitated towards her simply because she was international, which only left room for empty conversation as she was never comfortable enough to open up about what caused her to come to America. 

“I tried to just, I don’t know be … talkative I guess. I [didn’t] necessarily want everyone to be like ‘oh i feel so bad for her’ I don’t want people to feel bad for me,” Jessica says with a shake of her head. “But at one point I was like, I’m not even going to try to make friends, I’m just going to get through school, graduate and be an adult.”

But an opportunity was going to permeate through that was going to help Jessica navigate through such desolate, unfamiliar environment. 

End of Part 1. 

Jayna Dias is the Personality Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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