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Star dancer born into war grows up to inspire

“They came to me sick and traumatized by the war,” DePrince said. “Michaela arrived with the worst case of tonsillitis, fever, mononucleosis and joints that were swollen.

Michaela said the war and her time in the orphanage affected her for years.

“It took a long time to get it out of my memory. But my mom helped me a lot and I wrote a lot of stuff down so I could recover from it,” she said. “Dance helped me a lot. I had a lot of nightmares.”

Michaela, Mia and Mariel were among children whose adoptions became controversial in Sierra Leone.

In 2010, some parents of 29 children left at the Help A Needy Child International center, known as HANCI, stormed the office of Sierra Leone's social welfare minister demanding help finding their sons and daughters. They claimed many did not know their children would be adopted.

HANCI maintains the parents consented and said it arranged the adoptions through a U.S. agency that placed 29 of the children with American parents. DePrince confirmed three of her daughters were adopted through the U.S. agency.

In April, Sierra Leone police opened an investigation into the adoptions.

The adoptions took place as the West African country suffered a decade-long war that ended in 2002. Rebels burned villages, raped women and turned kidnapped children into drugged teenage fighters. Tens of thousands of civilians died. Countless others were mutilated by rebels who hacked off hands, arms or legs with machetes.

Michaela said her father, a trader, was shot dead by rebels and her mother starved to death. It is unclear if she has family left in Sierra Leone. While Mia told her mother that many parents visited their children at the orphanage, Michaela didn't get visitors.

“I would like to say that, if she has any relatives alive in Sierra Leone they should know that she has been extremely well cared for and loved, and we have put our hearts and souls into making her dreams come true,” DePrince said.

DePrince and her husband Charles have adopted nine children, and had two biological sons. Two of Michaela's brothers died before she was born, and a third died when she was young. Their deaths were a result of HIV contracted from a manufactured plasma product that was used to treat the hemorrhages associated with hemophilia.

DePrince said the family has worked hard to develop all their children's dreams.

“She says she would have not had this dream come true if she had not become Michaela DePrince” by adoption, DePrince said, adding that none of the three girls adopted from Sierra Leone have expressed interest in finding their biological family.

But Michaela said she does eventually want to return to her birthplace to open a school for dance and the arts.

“I hope to inspire a lot of young children,” Michaela said, “no matter what people tell you, you should focus on your goals and you should do what you want to do, especially if you want to be a ballet dancer.”

Her story, her technique, her focus, is set to inspire other young black and African girls who face hardship to pursue their dreams.

Michaela's presence “shakes and rattles the whole idea that ballet is not for black people and shows it's for all people,” said Dirk Badenhorst, CEO-designate of South Africa Mzansi Ballet. “Brilliance is colorblind and it really is proved by Michaela.”

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In this Tuesday, July 10 photo, dancer Michaela DePrince, left, rehearses for her lead role in Le Corsaire with dancer Andile Ndlovu in Johannesburg. DePrince, who was born in Sierra Leone, escaped civil war and was adopted by a family in the U.S. This will be DePrince's first professional full ballet role.

(AP)

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