Making Books and Art With Children in Ethiopia

If we fail to educate little children, if we fail to put books in their hands, then we fail to create a foundation for them to rise out of poverty and oppression. What will there be to build on?


© Maureen McCauley Evans

We were a core group of 8, most of us artists or writers, 6 from the US and 2 from Ethiopia. Just over a month ago, we traveled together from Addis to Maji, a small, rural area about 350 miles southwest of the Ethiopian capital, then back to Addis. We were part of an Ethiopian Odyssey, one goal of which was to create colorful, culturally appropriate books for young children in Ethiopia.

While we were traveling to and from Maji, and during our week there, all of us were writing, sketching, drawing, taking photos, and reflecting on what and who we saw. Ethiopia Reads has been a trailblazer in raising awareness about literacy and libraries for children. Long time Ethiopia Reads leader and prolific author Jane Kurtz, a pivotal Odyssey crew members, spoke at a well-attended public lecture in Addis about the tremendous need for colorful, culturally appropriate books for pre-readers, the toddlers and little kids who can (must) engage with books that start them on the path to reading. The books for these early readers are scarce in Ethiopia, and we are hoping to change that.


Jane Kurtz and Caroline Kurtz, a dynamic duo. © Maureen McCauley Evans

On Saturday February 6, we had an amazing book-making event. Children from the International Community School in Addis attended; they were Ethiopian, Canadian, American, Indian, Chinese, and more. Ethiopian children who are part of one of Ethiopia Reads’ Addis libraries also came for the “field trip” by bus. Some had lots of experience with art; some had none at all.


© Maureen McCauley Evans

Our goal was to talk with the kids: How do we write stories? And then: Let’s make  illustrations! We worked with a Ethiopian proverbs, including “Turina keessatt killen millaan adeemti. By persevering, the egg walks on legs.” The kids did all kinds of drawings as they figured out how to tell stories.


© Maureen McCauley Evans


© Maureen McCauley Evans

I worked with dozens of children using tissue paper collage. They used their imaginations and their life experiences to make rockets, flowers, spiders, butterflies, mountains, trees, and more.


© Maureen McCauley Evans

tissue paper collage

© Maureen McCauley Evans


© Maureen McCauley Evans

Now our task is to take the stories and art of these young people and create books that will be in (we hope) at least two languages, English and Amharic, but also in many of the other languages spoken and read in Ethiopia. We will put the books in the libraries of Ethiopia Reads, and (we hope) in other sites as well. It’s a big, costly project. My fellow travelers on the Ethiopian Odyssey are up for the challenge. The art created and donated by Stephanie Schlatter, Troy Zaushny, Yacob Bizuneh, and Nahosenay Negussie as a result of our time in Maji and on the road will be exhibited and sold this fall.


L-r: Nahosenay Negussie, Stephanie Schlatter, Troy Zaushny, Jacob Bizuneh; in Maji January 2016 © Maureen McCauley Evans

My photographs will also be donated for this fundraising effort to bring books to little children. This is one:


© Maureen McCauley Evans

I will post more info about the exhibitions as we nail down dates and venues. On one level, this was a life-changing adventure by artists to create books by children for children in Ethiopia. On another level, it’s a way to create hope. It is, maybe, a way to build a world that is based in literacy and beauty. Small steps, I know. Still.








Seattle Screening of “Difret”

UPDATE: Tickets are sold out. Many thanks to everyone who bought a ticket.


I am delighted to say that there will be a screening of the award-winning movie “Difret” here in Seattle on December 2, 7pm, at Central Cinema. Please buy your tickets now by clicking here.

The film was produced by Angelina Jolie Pitts, and is based on the true story of a young Ethiopian girl accused of killing the man who had kidnapped her, and whom she was supposed to marry. The writer/director is Ethiopian-born and -raised Zersenay Berhane Mehari; an executive producer is Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu.

Child marriage, or early/forced marriage, has devastating lifelong consequences, according to the film’s writers. Education and empowerment of girls is one solution to eliminating child marriage. The nonprofit She Reads Ethiopia is working to help Ethiopian girls go to school and grow stronger; you can help support their work when you purchase a ticket to the screening.

We will have a panel of Ethiopian speakers after the screening to discuss the film and the impact of child marriage in Ethiopia.

We must sell 78 tickets by November 24 to have the screening. It’s an amazing, important film. Please share this info. Please join us, and buy your tickets today! Amaseganallo. Thank you!



Hana Alemu Trial

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

In 2 weeks, if all goes according to schedule, the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, adoptive parents (and alleged murderers) of Hana Alemu (Hannah Williams) will take place: Monday, July 22, 2013, at 9am at the Skagit County Courthouse in Mount Vernon, Washington.

Jury selection will probably take 2 or 3 days, so the opening statements might begin on Wednesday July 24 or Thursday July 25. Additionally, there is a meeting among the lawyers scheduled for July 16, for last minute maneuvering. As I hear any news, I will post an update.

Please spread the word encouraging others to attend this trial if at all possible.  I plan to be there, to bear witness for Hana, in the hope that justice will be served.

For background information, please see my previous posts Update on Hana AlemuOn Mother’s Day, and In Remembrance of Hana.

The Williamses are accused of homicide by abuse: this charge means that they caused Hana’s death (May 12, 2011) due to a pattern or practice of abuse or torture. It’s apparently a difficult charge to prove, as a jury must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that a pattern of torture or abuse existed, and that the pattern caused Hana’s death. If the Williamses are found guilty, the average sentence is 23 years.

The Williamses are also accused of 2 other crimes. One is first degree assault on Immanuel, the other Ethiopian child they adopted. The charge means that they caused him serious bodily harm.

While much attention has rightly been placed on Hana’s death, Immanuel was certainly a victim here as well. May we all keep him in our hearts. What that child has apparently been through–terrible abuse by his adoptive parents, as well as witnessing Hana’s abuse and death–is wrenching. He will likely be called to testify at the trial. I have heard he is doing well in his foster home, where his foster mother is deaf (as is Immanuel) and is teaching him sign language in a safe environment. I wish him healing, strength, and justice.

The other criminal charge against the Williamses is first degree manslaughter of Hana, which means recklessly causing her death. That carries a sentence of 7.5 years.

I’m not a lawyer. It’s been over 2 years since Hana died, and the trial is only happening now. Her body has been exhumed and reburied. No doubt there have been dozens of meetings and hearings and other legal actions. No one knows what the outcome of the trial will be. We can hope for justice for Hana.  Whatever happens, we will not forget her.

And let’s remember Immanuel always as well.

Sibling Connections in Adoption


That’s my 26 year old son Sean with Genet Tsegay, Miss Ethiopia 2012/13, in a photo taken recently in SIlver Spring, Maryland. Sean has found his way into many photos with beautiful women. The icebreaker between these two, though, might have been different from his usual (not that I truly have any idea what “the usual” might be lol). For this meeting, it might have been something like “Hey, my sisters are from Ethiopia,” and maybe a conversation would have started around the not immediately obvious connection between these two young people from very different places.

One of the areas I find most fascinating in adoption is one that needs more research: siblings. I have no siblings. I have four adopted children; my twin daughters are biologically related. Our family has had many conversations along the way about the fact that all the kids are adopted. They’ve wondered what it would be like to be in a blended family, where some children were the biological children of the parents. They could all share their experiences of “He’s not your real brother?” and “She’s your sister?”

My Ethiopian daughters have reconnected with their 5 older Ethiopian siblings. So my daughters have four brothers, but the way they connect is very different at this point. For one thing, they don’t really share a common language with their Ethiopian siblings, and that’s a big deal. My sons have not explored any biological siblings, but sInce they were adopted in the US, we know they share a common language.  How they would differ from their biological siblings (if any) in terms of childhood, economics, education, religion–it’s hard to say right now.

As an African-American young man, Sean has known racism and discrimination–as well as solid community, love from family and friends of different races, and the ability to travel in many cultures, because of his own (adoptive) family. He shares race with his sisters and brother. Believe me, there have been many conversations around skin tones, stereotyping, the travails of being asked “What are you?” especially while growing up, when my children of different shades didn’t fit neatly into a category, particularly when one or both of their white adoptive parents was on the scene. Adoption can be complicated, and transracial adoption adds another layer of complexity.

I’ve known families with bio kids who adopt, and then see how the newly adopted child changes their home life in unimaginable ways, not all positive, and wonder if they did the right thing for their bio child.

I’ve known adoptive families with one adopted child of color, who stands out vividly in family photos. That difference can promote feelings of incredible isolation and difficulties with identity, though I’ve known parents who work to empower children around their uniqueness.

I’ve known adopted children who wonder about their bio siblings, older or younger, who were not adopted, who stayed with the first mother. That has a poignancy all its own.

I’ve known siblings with no biological connection who are deeply connected, the lack of common blood making no difference.

My son Sean would probably have found a way to chat with Mss Ethiopia, but the fact that he has two Ethiopian sisters created an easy connection. Miss Ethiopia is from the Tigray region of Ethiopia,  a college student, studying architecture–in her own way, perhaps also challenging stereotypes. I don’t know how much she and Sean chatted about his sisters–prolly not a whole lot. I love the fact that we can make wonderful connections sometimes, when we don’t expect to.  And I hope that we continue to have conversations about siblings, race, and adoption.

Summer Reading

As we move here in the US toward the Fourth of July holiday, I hope you are all keeping up with your Summer Reading List. I was one of those kids who loved that list of required reading over the summer–and we get to write reports about the books too? Yay!

The Washington Post has a great list of favorite books of their foreign correspondents for 2013. I share it here because it may be of interest in particular to international adoptees and to parents of internationally adopted children, but really it’s a fascinating list for anyone. The recommendations include books about Syria, India, North Korea, Jerusalem, China, Russia, and more.

The 2012 List is great too. Among the selections are these:


Recommended by: Sudarsan Raghavan, Africa bureau chief, who says this about the book: “It’s a wonderfully reported and written profile of Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie’s last days, from the point of view of his servants, aides and others close to him. The book is considered one of the 20th century’s best works of nonfiction literary journalism. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to understand Africa.”

And how about this one?

Recommended by: William Booth, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean bureau chief. “I am delightfully shocked to learn the sublime Mexico City taco as I know and love it — a shave of pork from twirling spit, made happy with onion and cilantro (y por favor señor! that chunk of pineapple) — only dates back to the 1950s. Of course, wrapping something in a tortilla is as old as tortillas, though they didn’t call them tacos.”

And this one is absolutely a must-read:

This is me speaking now, not a foreign correspondent lol: Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a beautifully written book about India–its incredible poverty, and its astonishing potential. A challenging, well-worth-it kind of book.

Not on either of these lists is the newest novel by the brilliant Afghan-born American novelist Khaled Hosseini, And The Mountains Echoed. (He also wrote The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.) Mountains has something of an adoption-related theme, in that one of the main characters was essentially trafficked, as a toddler, by her family, to a wealthier, childless couple, who never told her the truth of her origins. When Pari is a middle-aged adult, she re-connects with her family. In talking with a relative about her realization of what had happened to her, she says “You say you felt a presence, but I sensed only an absence. A vague pain without a source. I was like the patient who cannot explain to the doctor where it hurts, only that it does.” 

To me, that sums up the poignancy of the adoption journey.

I hope your summer time is one of rejuvenation and adventure, and one that includes lots of good books. Library cards are free. Enjoy.



Ethiopian Heritage Camp: We Will Be There!

Ethiopian Heritage Camp

Ethiopian Heritage Camp

This August, my 24 year old Ethiopian twin daughters, my 6 year old Ethiopian-Latina granddaughter, and I will be attending the Ethiopian Heritage Camp in Virginia. Aselefech and Adanech will be on a panel talking about “Growing Up in America.”  I’ll be speaking “Parent To Parent” about our journey as a transracial, adoptive family, in which each one of my four children has approached adoption (including search and reunion) very differently.

Adanech, Aselefech, Zariyah, and me

Adanech, Aselefech, Zariyah, and me

And if the rest of the camp–experts on Ethiopian cooking, history, natural hair care, dancing, and more–weren’t enough, my dear and wonderful friend Jane Kurtz will be there too. Jane is the author of many highly regarded children’s books about Ethiopia, where she spent much of her childhood.  Jane also wrote the Lanie books about the American Girl of the Year 2010. Jane and I met over 10 years, when our paths converged in our work for Ethiopia Reads, a small, robust, highly effective nonprofit that is brining literacy to the children of Ethiopia through libraries, books, and schools.

This camp is not just for families who have adopted Ethiopian children, but for all Ethiopian families.  We celebrate together the beauty and wonder of Ethiopia. No, it does not make up for the loss of original culture.  It does, though, provide a chance for adopted kids to get together with others who understand being adopted and being different, for older adoptees to be mentors and role models to younger ones, and for Ethiopians of the diaspora to share their love of their country and its rich, magnificent culture and history.

Far Away, Always in My Heart

This post is written by my daughter Aselefech Evans. Thank you.

I assumed that once I (re)met my biological family in 2011, I would feel more complete and sure of whom I was becoming.  Some hard questions were answered. And a lot of new ones are on my mind now.

I was 6 years old in 1994 when my twin sister and I arrived in the US from Ethiopia. We had memories, and family, parents, siblings, cousins. For years, I had this soft image of my mother, a kind, loving and giving individual who would just about give up anything in the world for her children to be happy and safe.  That was the love that kept me strong. That was the love that allowed me to embrace my (first) (Ethiopian) family when I returned in 2011.

See, the thing was that distance never changed how much I love her.  Although her face slowly started to disappear as I lost my native language, that tender feeling in my heart for her was always alive and burning. No one could ever tell me that I was not loved nor well taken care of before I came to the US.  Because you see, my past says otherwise.  I came from a poor family, but we all were rich in the sense of culture, unity, and love.

Embracing my mother upon arrival in Ethiopia, and looking into her tired eyes, I saw years of pain, emptiness, regret, and much heart ache.  Although in that moment she was happy to see me, the sadness really never left her eyes.   In front of me I saw a strong and resilient woman, one who had grown very weary of her circumstances but yet was still hopeful.  It’s quite profound that hope and faith during times of destitution and despair are what give certain people purpose and meaning.


So where do we go from here? I really don’t know. We can’t change the past. I’m trying to figure out the future, without a common language but with lots of love.

On Mother’s Day: A Prayer for Hana Alemu (Williams)

This is a prayer for Hana Alemu, born in 1997 in Ethiopia, brought to Washington state in the US for adoption in 2008, died naked at night alone in the cold, locked outside her adoptive family home, on May 12, 2011: two years ago today, Mother’s Day. She weighed less at her death than she had at arrival 3 years earlier from Ethiopia.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana, may we learn from the loss of your life, that no child should ever suffer as you did.

May we remember and pray for your Ethiopian mother, keeping her in our hearts always.

May your Ethiopian family, those who knew you and those who grieve for you (whether angry, heartbroken, confused, prayerful) find healing and comfort.

May we adoptive parents deeply understand the responsibility we have, to care for and treasure our children.

May all parents who need help in caring for their children reach out and receive that help.

May adoption agency workers, child protective services staff, lawyers, police officers, and government officials receive encouragement and insistence that they do their difficult work conscientiously, aware that lives hang in the balance.

May justice be done.

May we never forget Hana.

A note:

I visited Hana’s grave this past Thursday (May 9), in anticipation of both Mother’s Day and the second anniversary of her death, May 12.

Hana's grave at Union Cemetery, Sedro-Woolley, WA

Hana’s grave at Union Cemetery, Sedro-Woolley, WA

As an adoptive mother of four children, including two daughters from Ethiopia, I have been both outraged and aching over Hana.

I wrote previously about Hana here.

Her adoptive parents Larry and Carri Williams have yet to go to trial. Hana’s body was exhumed and reburied in January, because there was a question about her actual age. If she is proven to be older (say, 16, at time of death), the charges against her adoptive parents could be reduced. Their next court date is in July.

Facebook group honors and remembers Hana. There is much interest in getting Hana a decent grave marker, and we hope that can happen after the trial concludes and justice is done.

What If Adoption Agencies Provided Top Quality Services–to First Families?

In cognitive therapy, there’s a useful technique called “What If.” It’s used for taking fear-filled thinking down a notch. “What if I am fired?” “What if my brother keeps drinking?” “What if my child loses the scholarship?” The idea is that listing possible solutions calmly can give us a sense of control, and can ease the sense of helplessness. Sometimes fears are reduced, and possible solutions increased.

Ethiopian adoptions are at a critical tipping point. While the number of children being adopted from Ethiopia has decreased, signficant numbers of adoptive families are taking their adopted Ethiopian children back to visit their birth families.  I wouldn’t say it’s common yet, but as a trend it’s on an upswing.

Among the lessons learned from these trips is that while some Ethiopian families are getting current information (and photos, maybe more) about their children, many other first families are not.  US and Canadian families report that, during their visits to Ethiopia with their adopted children, they are often besieged by other, grief-stricken Ethiopian parents. These are not the families of their adopted child who is visiting, but of other children who have been adopted and never heard from again, despite assurances or misunderstandings that there would be word.

Two questions (at least) come to mind.

Were the children placed for adoption in an ethical, transparent way?

What were the families told about whether there would be future communication about the child?

The answers to both questions can be fear-filled, for first families, for adoptees, and for adoptive parents.

What if we changed the way first families are treated in the international adoption process?

What if the US adoption industry and US government saw the first families as equal to adoptive parents in the way that services are provided?

What if first families received the equivalent of the counseling and classes that pre-adoptive parents are required to have?

What if the counseling was provided to them by a well-trained professional social worker, who speaks their language?

What if the legal rights and responsibilities were clearly and consistently explained to the first families, with a witness? What if they had time to think over their decision before signing legal agreements? What if adoption agencies videotaped the explanation of rights and responsibilities when explained to the first family, and provided adoptive families with a transcript?

What if we adoptive parents insisted that adoption agencies made a much greater and more visible effort to ensure that first families received the letters and photos that adoptive families send to first families?

 What if adoption agencies made sure that the letters were translated accurately, that the language of the translation was the same one the birth family used, and that the letter would be read to the birth family if they were illiterate?

That is, what if post-adoption services were considered as valuable, accessible, and viable for first families  as they are for adoptive families?

What if adoption agencies provided equivalent services to wealthy American prospective adoptive parents as to poor uneducated Ethiopian birth parents?

Because that’s surely not the case now. Is everyone okay with that?

Insisting on a Place at the Table for Everyone

Ethiopian food

If you’ve never had Ethiopian food, the first time can be challenging. The food can seem unfamiliar and strange. It can be spicy, raw, bland, mushy, crunchy. You tear off the injera (spongy bread) and eat with your hands. You share one big plate with your companions. You will probably ask questions about what is what, and watch how others eat. You might need some translation (see the photo above); it would be great if you learned some Amharic words. You dive in, hoping to be polite and to enjoy the experience.

The joys and challenges of Ethiopian food for us ferenjis (the Amharic word for foreigners) made me wonder if there was a correlation with improving services to children in Ethiopia, whether through adoption or otherwise. (I think about metaphors a lot lol, and mix them wildly sometimes–such an English major.)

I recently posted about several significant challenges in Ethiopian adoption issues. The main points were the rise and fall of number of children being adopted to the US, the approximately $330 million that has been paid for those adoptions since 1999, the impact of Facebook groups, the instantaneous sharing of bad news about Ethiopian adoptions gone wrong, a new film and new book related to Ethiopian adoptions, and the increasing awareness of cultural understandings of adoption.

Big, complicated stuff.

I heard back from a lot of people (thank you!). I’m diving today into something that’s crunchy and fearsome: how to begin to address the huge challenges in Ethiopian adoptions.

One reader asked : What can we do to get the adoption service providers (ASPs, which can include home study agencies and placement agencies) and adoption lobbyists to listen to all the damage that’s been done, and get them to change? Good question.

Ok, put the berbere spices on the table. Chop the vegetables. Turn up the heat.

Keep talking and telling stories. Do not underestimate the power of effective stories in bringing about change.

“Stories” means candid, honest narratives. They are very powerful.

My 3-placemat strategy for effectiveness:

Who should do the talking? Adoptive parents, yes. Speaking only from my experience, perspectives change as children grow up and one has decades of parenting under one’s belt. I am not dismissing the valid and valuable experiences of parents of young children–keep speaking out. I wish, though, that more “seasoned” adoptive parents would share their stories as well.

That said, I encourage Ethiopian adoptees to speak up and share their stories, positive and negative. The adoptee community award for Most Vocal currently would probably go to Korean adopted adults: they are the oldest, largest group of international adoptees, and are leading the way in terms of activism, networking, socializing, lobbying. Look at their models and learn: no need to reinvent that particular wheel.

Unlike most other international adoptions, Ethiopian adoptions are increasingly “open,” inadvertently or purposely. Adoption agencies have had birth families and adoptive families meet at the time of placement. Adoptive parents have done their own searches, found birth families, and connected with them, via occasional letters or routine visits to Ethiopia. Adoptees themselves have searched and reunited with Ethiopian family members by traveling to Ethiopia or using Facebook and Google.  Older child adoptions have often meant that the children themselves, while in the US, talk with birth family regularly in Amharic or Tigrinya or Oromiffa.

As a result of these increased and open connections, both adoptive parents and Ethiopian adoptees can be the key ingredients to providing Ethiopian birth/first parents with a seat at the table, to tell their stories and to be seen. 

In all adoptions, birth/first families are usually the most marginalized. They are usually the weakest economically. Poor people have the least power in any society.

We adoptive parents have a tremendous responsibility to care for children who were placed with us, to know the truth behind the reasons for placement as best possible, and to share that truth with our children. I recognize the need for privacy and confidentiality. I understand there is tremendous complexity for adoptees in traveling the journey of loss and grief that is adoption. But we are in this together, and sharing the loss eases the burden. Acknowledging the birth family, connecting with the birth family, speaking out about the realities that cause children to be placed for adoption: it’s time.

And that to me is one of the keys to bringing about positive change in Ethiopian adoptions, to getting ASPs to listen (and the State Department, the lawyers, Congress, and so on): that everyone’s stories are heard.

Those of us who are connected by Ethiopian adoptions have a great opportunity right now, to share a meal, to talk together, and to bring all our truths to the table. It is crowded and noisy. Good listening and excellent translators will be important. But like any raucous family meal, it can offer connection, information, communication, and the possibility for nourishment and change.

Tomorrow: Some thoughts on the responsibility adoption agencies have to the birth/first families, and how they might bring about change.