Adoptive Parents Who Move to Their Child’s Country: “We Belong Here”

I wrote this article for the October 2014 issue of Gazillion Voices. I am reprinting it here with permission. Warm wishes to all families for very happy holidays, whatever their faith traditions. May all children be safe and loved, wherever they are in the world.

If you’ve adopted internationally, did you ever consider moving to and living in your child’s country of origin? If you are an international adoptee, did your adoptive parents ever suggest that the family move to the country where you were born?

How many adoption agencies suggest that parents should move There rather than bring the children Here?

Isn’t the point of international adoption to get the kids out of their country?

Some 50 years ago, when international adoptions to the US began in earnest, the dominant thought was that the children would leave their native lands, never to return. Who knew that, in only a couple of generations, not only would adoptees return in large numbers to their countries of origin, but that adoptive parents would consider raising their children in their birth countries, as well?

Korean children, the pioneers of international adoption in the 1950’s, traveled via airplane to the United States, where adoptive parents met them at the airport. Most countries and adoption agencies followed Korea’s example for years, with adoptees essentially having a one-way ticket out of their birth country, a minimal amount of information about their origins, and the expectation they would stay put in America.

In 1994, when my twin daughters were adopted at six years of age, families didn’t go to Ethiopia, and the adoption was complete before their arrival in the US. I met the girls for the first time at LaGuardia Airport in New York and then we flew together to Washington National Airport.

Within the last 10 years or so, adoptive parents have traveled to their children’s country of origin to meet their children, as more countries opened to international adoption and implemented legal processes that require the presence of the adoptive parents. Also, there was a growing belief that the adoptive parents should see, at least briefly, where their children came from. Some countries now require long stays, or more than one visit. Homeland tours have emerged, as adoptees travel back as tourists, sometimes also meeting their foster parents or first parents.

Those connections, while significant, are usually done at a distance, with sporadic visits or phone calls, often using translators.

I just returned recently from visiting Ethiopia with my daughter, Aselefech. We spent wonderful, powerful time with her Ethiopian family, with whom we had visited 3 years before. We also spent time with three American adoptive families who have chosen to live in Ethiopia, in part so that their young adopted Ethiopian children would grow up among their family, culture, and history.

Ethiopia is a vibrant, beautiful, ancient, expanding country. It’s also a third world adjustment for first world travelers in terms of convenience, with power outages, poverty, and safe water being among the challenges. Wi-Fi, trash pickup, sidewalks, and street addresses can be erratic. There’s awareness that the government controls free speech in a different way than in the west, for journalists as much as for ordinary citizens. Poverty is overt, as are physical and mental disabilities, which don’t get the attention and care we are accustomed to in the west.

So what would make American families pack up and then put roots down halfway around the world in Ethiopia? How has the fact they are adoptive parents of Ethiopian children influenced their decision?

Richelle Main is an American social worker, currently a child protection consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She and her husband, Nathan, a Canadian also working in Ethiopia, adopted their daughter, Titay, five years ago.

Richelle told me that “Before adopting Titay in 2009, both Nathan and I had spent time living in Ethiopia for short-ish periods of time –one year and then a few months’ visits when I was in grad school. We both fell in love with Ethiopia—-the good, the hard, and all of its contrasts. I would say that it was a somewhat idealized love, but not totally blind either.


With Richelle Main (far left) in Addis Ababa, August 2014.

“When we met Titay, a child who had already spent her entire three years of life only in Ethiopia, only spoke Amharic, and only ate Ethiopian food, there was a part of us that couldn’t image taking her away from this country—her country. Nathan and I had always wanted to live here, and at that point we had had a relationship with Ethiopia for six years.

“I can’t say that adopting Titay pushed us to move here, because we had been looking for ways to move here for many years, but adopting her reinforced the IMPORTANCE that we move here. We wanted to give her diverse experiences in Ethiopia—so that she is able to see the contrasts for herself.

“I think she will always be different than some Ethiopians, since she is adopted by white American-Canadian parents, but living here might give her a sense of this being ‘her’ country. In fact, in her eight years of life, she has only lived in the US for one of those years, so I hope that she feels like Ethiopia is home and that she will always have a place here.

“We also really wanted her to understand the diversity of peoples and cultures that exist within her country. That is something that you don’t necessarily feel when you only visit. People say, ‘Ethiopia is like this,’ but it really isn’t. It’s New Year this week, and yet the area I am in now doesn’t really care or celebrate that. You can’t say a country that is this diverse eats only injera, etc. I want Titay to know and experience those nuances.”

Another family, the Benkerts, have lived in Ethiopia since 2009. They are parents of four children, two adopted and two born to them. Levi told me this: “As far as living in Ethiopia, we were actually living here already when we adopted our daughter from Ethiopia, and so it was not really much of a decision. Of course, living here is hard, and hardly a month goes by without us having a serious discussion about moving back to America, but we feel that we belong here, and are excited to see all that we can do by staying. Our daughter loves it here, as do all our kids, so that part is easy.”


Aselefech with Levi Benkert, August 2014

Levi and his wife, Jessie, are the amazing powers behind Bring Love In, a program in Ethiopia that creates new families from widows and orphans and also works alongside families who, without the help of Bring Love In, would place their children in an orphanage. According to Levi and Jessie, “Although we are believers in adoption, personally having adopted two children ourselves, we have seen, from living in Ethiopia, that adoption only solves a minuscule part of a huge problem. More needs to be done to address the greater issues, and we know that our family is called to do just that.” Their work focuses “on keeping the orphans in country and giving them the best possible foundation, both spiritually and emotionally, to go out in their country and contribute to its future success.”

Karleen and Lance Klopp have two sons by birth and a son and daughter adopted from Ethiopia in 2007. They all moved from Washington State to Addis Ababa this past July, a big move for kids in high school and middle school. Lance and Karleen are in the process of setting up a daycare program for Ethiopian women who are widows or whose husbands have left them or are disabled. Without childcare, the women would not be able to work, thus becoming beggars or worse to support themselves. The women’s monthly salaries are often in the range of $20-30 a month. You can read more about Lance and Karleen’s work at Encourage Africa.


With Karleen Klopp (far right) at Kaldi’s in Addis, August 2014.

Why uproot a family and take them all to Ethiopia? Since the adoptions in 2007, the Klopp family had visited Ethiopia a few times, and ultimately felt called to go live and work there. “We also felt a responsibility to our adopted children and to their birth family and culture. We have contact with almost all of the (Ethiopian) family.” As Karleen said, “Yes, we left a lot of family in the U.S., grandparents, great grandparents, etc. But I hope ALL my kids will eventually see the good here and not the frustrations and fraud we have experienced so far. Lance and I love Ethiopia-we see the beauty and the potential beyond the frustrations. We hope to be here as long as we can and hope to open the center in Kirkos in November with 20 kiddos under 2 years old.”

There have been many adjustments. The Klopps’ house had no water for 10 days and sometimes has uncertain electricity. They recently purchased a car; cars are taxed at over 200% in Ethiopia, and the roads have very few rules, signs, or traffic lights. The kids are learning (re-learning) Amharic. They have two new puppies as pets; most dogs just roam around outside in Ethiopia and are not usually let in the house. My sense is that there is exhilaration, exhaustion, uncertainty, and joy in their lives right now.

The religious beliefs of the Benkerts and Klopps were part of the motivation for their presence in Ethiopia; their Christian faith created a call in their lives that they acted on. There is overlap among the families of a deep sense of connection with Ethiopia and of a desire to help their adopted children fully know and understand their families and culture.

Some of the adopted children are in close contact with their Ethiopian family members, who are now across town, rather than across the world. The siblings of the adopted children are embracing a new culture and language—just as the adopted children did when they went to America. It’s a remarkable reinvention of the adoption Diaspora, when American parents emigrate to the land of their children’s birth.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me that our family would move to Ethiopia after we adopted our twin girls 20 years ago. I understood the importance of retaining and honoring their culture as best as possible, though I see now that the retention and honor are often superficial at best. It’s a lip service approach to understanding an international adoptee’s heritage. Pulling up (some) roots and (re) planting others may seem a feat of courage, but I bet these parents would smile and just say it is the right thing for them and their children. Moving to an adopted child’s homeland may not be feasible for most families. Still, what wonderful possibilities. What a powerful re-invention of adoption.


© Copyright. Gazillion Voices. 2014. All rights reserved.

1 thought on “Adoptive Parents Who Move to Their Child’s Country: “We Belong Here”

  1. Moving to Cambodia, for a short time, is most likely in our future. My child is in an athletic development program that would be best served by a summer or semester stint in-country to work with her teammates, improve her language skills & grow her sense of what it means to her to be Cambodian. The visits we’ve made have sparked all kinds of questions and struggles for meaning at each step of her development, but living there for long enough to push through to the complexity of Cambodia is another kind of engagement entirely.

    We’ve talked about ‘how’ a lot (since we are not members of a proselytizing religion or of independent means, we’d need to support our family through work of some kind); ‘why’ hasn’t really come up. It just seems like the right thing to do, if we can figure out a way that doesn’t require us to either split the family so one of us can work (we know 2 families who have done this to support a summer/semester visit) or start a non-profit (another 2 families we know have done this).

    The issue that was raised recently by the NGO Forum in connection with Cambodia–one that applies as well to Ethiopia and other placing nations in IA–was the question, What is the exit plan or end state for the non-profit sector funded and run by foreigners? That problem is hard to avoid when we talk about taking our kid to her other home country: At this point, 25 years since the cessation of a hot war and 21 years since democratic national elections, and $6 billion with a B US of ‘help’ later, what is the appropriate role for foreigners in development? More specifically, how do we–who happily grew our families by adopting the children whose home countries lacked capacity—best support that capacity developing? Hyphen-Americans from developing nations with deep infrastructure deficits, adoptive parents of children from those nations, and our children all have ot wrestle with not just the emotional meaning but the practical barriers to and implications of a home country relocation.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.