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From the Central African Republic to Clarence: Dr. Daniel brings home new daughter Chekina

Dr. Greg Daniel watched the TV news as a little girl in Africa told a reporter how men shot her mother. A tear rolled down the girl’s face.

From what Daniel could see from his Clarence living room on a January night a year and a half ago, the 8-year-old orphan sitting on a floor mat in the Central African Republic possessed uncommon poise.

The girl held up a picture, drawn in red pencil, of her old life. A house with flowers. A stream with fish. It was all gone. She lost her parents and grandparents.

“I raised my hands to God like this but they didn’t listen to me,” Chekina said through a translator.

As the TV camera rolled, she pressed her hands together, closed her eyes and said a prayer from the monastery where she and a great-aunt were taking refuge from war.

“Bless me and keep me safe,” she prayed.

Daniel was so touched by Ann Curry’s report on NBC’s “World News Tonight,” he thought for a few days about adopting the child.

Do you really want to do this? he asked himself.

He was already the father of three grown children and a teenage daughter who lived with her mother.

A former emergency room doctor with an MBA who founded and sold the first local chain of urgent care centers, he is wealthy. A private jet sometimes flies him from his mansion in Clarence to his oceanside house in Florida.

Why should he put this comfortable life aside for some kid in Africa?

The conversation in his head kept going. The answer came. A child without parents in that part of the world was destined for poverty.

Sometimes, he said, the underdog needs to win.

“That’s what makes life exciting and interesting,” Daniel said.

And so began his quest in January 2014 to become Chekina’s new dad. It was not an easy one.

Finding Chekina

Calls to NBC led to a woman who refused to help.

“I can’t share that information with you,” she said.

The international children’s aid agency pitching in at the monastery was more discouraging. They didn’t believe in foreign adoptions: Children should grow up in the culture and place where they were born.

He didn’t buy it.

“You go to any embassy in the world and there are long lines of people trying to get into the U.S.,” he said.

How could an orphan be better off in the middle of a war?

A friend who used to work with the Secret Service told him to find the security firm NBC hired in Africa. It was Halliday Finch, based in Cameroon. They knew exactly where Chekina was in the Central African Republic.

Daniel hired an operative, Stephan Atteba, to navigate rebel roadblocks to the monastery. On the way, Atteba met parents who offered their own children.

It was March when they brought Chekina to a hotel for a Skype call. Daniel peered at the forlorn, unsmiling girl. He showed her his cockatoo, Grace. If Chekina came to Buffalo, she could meet the bird in person. She grinned a small grin.

“Do you want to come to America to live with me?”

And, with another little smile, she said yes.

“Oui.”

For the next year, Daniel figured out the complicated and expensive rules for adopting.

There were times when he wanted to give up. But he wouldn’t.

“I asked myself, ‘How would I like it if somebody gave up on me?’ ” he said.

Meeting Chekina

On his trip to meet her, he nearly flew home in frustration.

That was last April in Yaounde, Cameroon’s cramped concrete jungle of a capital. To leave the Central African Republic, she needed a passport, but had no birth certificate. The CAR government was in shambles because of war that broke out when rebels ousted the president.

The Central African Republic, a Texas-sized former French colony of 4 million, is considered a failed state in permanent crisis, according to the country’s online profile by the British Broadcasting Service.

Happily, a judge certified the birthdate that Chekina’s aunt verified and a passport went through. Then Daniel had to fight off the aid organization from the monastery. It tried blocking the adoption, claiming she was at risk of human trafficking.

When Daniel at last arrived at the Yaounde hotel in the safe haven of Cameroon to meet Chekina, he thought the obstacles were out of the way. But she wasn’t there. Tuesday came and went. So did Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Saturday he gave up. He was in the airport lounge about to get on a plane home when the Wi-Fi kicked in and messages flooded his iPad. Chekina was on her way.

The next morning at the hotel, the front desk called. He took the elevator down, the doors opened and Chekina ran to him with a hug.

“It made me feel like I better go through this adoption,” he said.

She had a blank look and a stare that seemed to take in nothing. It had been six months since her parents were killed. Daniel figured the pain was too fresh.

Her family said the men who killed her mother still threatened the young witness.

“She was literally in hiding from what I was told,” he said. “The family wanted her out of there.”

Adopting Chekina

When Daniel got back to the United States, the formal and maddeningly slow adoption process churned on. He had to take a class, get home study and apply for an immigration visa.

He called the Homeland Security office in Oklahoma so often, they stopped calling him back.

The U.S. embassy in Cameroon stopped taking his calls, too.

He was traveling when he finally got word last winter that she was cleared to leave. He hired a nanny to pick her up and make the 6,000 mile, 20-hour trip home.

Chekina arrives

Chekina landed in Buffalo on Feb. 22, 2015.

Despite her surroundings, Chekina’s transition has been difficult.

Once when he took her to a tennis lesson, she sat down and refused to budge. Then there was the time she was angered over something and went for kitchen knives. He told her he was tempted to call a travel agent and get her a plane ticket back to Bangui.

Yet, he believes, her strong personality helped her survive the horrors she witnessed.

She smiles more now. She hugs and kisses him hello. She washes the dinner dishes. She’s grown at least an inch.

This spring, Ann Curry came for a visit and to do a follow-up story on Chekina. After that story aired last month, a woman in Indiana tracked down Daniel. She, too, went to Africa in search of Chekina. Instead she wound up adopting other children at an orphanage.

“I’m happy that three kids benefited from Chekina’s story,” Daniel said.

Chekina today

On a recent afternoon after school, Chekina offered a tour of her bedroom, stepping lightly up the staircase that wound up from the foyer. She was lithe like a dancer, in stripped leggings and a T-shirt with a bright parrot applique.

She talked as she jumped on her big bed beneath a painting of an African village with orange-pink sunset sky.

Then she climbed down and lifted her arms as she sang a song that fit her new home. Half in French and half in English, the hit from Disney’s “Frozen” was recognizable.

“Let it goooo! Let it goooo!”

Her grace and confidence make Daniel proud. She finishes second grade at Sheridan Hill Elementary School in Clarence next week.

As she sat with her homework at the kitchen table, Daniel paused to coax her away from her iPad.

“Ant, ax, apple,” he said. “Write them all down. … You gotta do less playing and more homework.”

He now knows he was right to help the little girl he saw when he switched on the TV after work that night in January.

One day, Chekina would like to return to her homeland.

That is also what Daniel wants, so she can help others as she was helped.

“She has to give back what life has given to her,” he said.

email: mkearns@buffnews.com