Adopted at the age of two from a Japanese orphanage by American parents, Gabriel Toepel (born Tateshi Sakurai) was part of a military airlift in the 1990s. His adoptive parents were serving in the United States Navy and living in Japan at the time. Half Japanese and half Kenyan, Toepel was dropped off at Aikeikai Baby Home in Tokyo and subsequently adopted by the Toepels.
Usually, there is a lot of paperwork in adoptions. And foreign adoptions include a trail that documents legal entry into the country through immigration and customs. For Toepel, that wasn’t the case. And a series of unfortunate events left him without documentation.
Rude Awakening About his Status
It wasn’t until he was applying to colleges that he discovered he had no paperwork to prove citizenship. All he had was a tax identification number. In actuality, he was still a Japanese citizen.
As an elite runner at Brighton High School in Colorado, he was sought after by several colleges and was being recruited by West Point and MIT. One of the requirements for admission to the military academy was U.S. citizenship. “My family didn’t realize we didn’t have the correct paperwork until West Point did the checks. It was a surprise,” Toepel says.
They tried to track down his paperwork but soon discovered that Toepel’s original documents were destroyed in a fire. Because he was unable to prove citizenship, his scholarship was revoked. Around that time, the U.S. government passed the Child Citizen Act of 2000, which contains two provisions that allow foreign-born, biological, and adopted children of U.S. citizens to acquire U.S. citizenship if they satisfy certain requirements before age 18. The Act applies to children who did not acquire U.S. citizenship at birth. Unfortunately, Toepel missed the cut-off by one year. Toepel recalls, “I missed being grandfathered in to get U.S. citizenship. That was a bit of a blow.”
Consequently, his path to citizenship became a little less direct. He began college at Adams State University in Colorado with a partial athletic scholarship. His mother was supporting him financially at the time. Unfortunately, she was laid off which made it extremely challenging. “I know she wanted to continue to support me, but I couldn’t bear the thought of her having to work three times harder to find a way to financially support me through school,” says Toepel. So, he made the difficult decision to drop out after his sophomore year.
After leaving school and quitting sports, he fell into a depression. “I had to figure out what my next steps were going to be since school and work were no longer options for me.” After applying for citizenship three times and being denied, his future was uncertain. He eventually obtained a work permit, followed by a green card.
The Long Way to Citizenship
Upon the advice of his father and an immigration lawyer, he joined the military as a non-citizen resident and was eventually granted U.S. citizenship upon completion of basic military training. “I’ve always felt I’ve been playing catchup. There have been limitations on not being a citizen. Despite the setbacks, it’s all been worthwhile. Military experience has been a dream.” In the seven years he’s been in the Air Force, he has seen eight countries, which have provided a wonderful education and many opportunities. ”Deployed in several countries, I’ve been exposed to a lot of hostile environments. And it makes me appreciate what we have,” says Toepel.
Throughout the years in the military, Toepel has earned three degrees -- an Associate of Arts and an Associate of Sciences degrees from the Community College of Aurora and an Applied Science degree in Logistics Science from the Community College of the Air Force. He is currently earning his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Colorado College of Nursing. “It’s all been paid for by the military. It’s a blessing not to have any school debt and the stress associated with it,” he says. “Education has always been my passion and getting a chance to serve my country while going to school helped me understand that persistence is the key to success. I may have left my running career behind, but I look forward to doing other things that give me a better purpose.”
Toepel as a young child.
Loving his Family; Learning his Roots
The youngest of five children, Toepel calls his family “the skittles family.” Two children were born with the help of in vitro fertilization, two were fostered and then adopted, and then he came along and was adopted from Japan. According to Toepel, “I was so fortunate to have found my family.”
However, he knew he wanted to know more about his biological family in Japan, and a few years ago located his birth mother. “Originally, I was scared of being rejected. But I was tired of not having answers.” Wanting to know more about his family health and hereditary history, he reached out to the adoption agency (International Social Services of Japan). He learned his biological mother’s story and discovered that she came from a very traditional Japanese family and became pregnant when she was studying in Nairobi, Kenya. “Being unmarried and pregnant in Japan at that time was considered dishonorable. It would have been a difficult life,” says Toepel. One day when his mother was at work, her brother took Gabriel to an orphanage and dropped him off. “Knowing why and what happened was important to me,” says Toepel.
For the first two years of his life, Toepel lived in the orphanage where food was scarce. Then one day the Toepels visited and adopted him. “My mother said that she knew the minute I walked in the room that I was going to be a part of their family.”
Today, Gabriel is in his last year of the nursing program at CU with dreams of becoming an Aeromedical Evacuation flight nurse. Currently serving as a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force as a reservist at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs, his job focuses on logistics readiness and moving air cargo around the world. “I load aircraft planes one weekend a month, so I’m very comfortable around airplanes and jet engines.” With a dream of becoming flight crew, Toepel plans on earning his flight wings as an officer and working with veterans as a nurse. “Working with veterans is one of the best experiences in my life. I love the veteran population.”