Everything That Rises Must Converge: Adoption From Ethiopia

Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.

–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from Omega Point

That Teilhard quote is perhaps more known because of Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant short story titled “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” My point in sharing it today is to note and begin to comment on a recent convergence of numbers, money, information, and tragedies that has the potential to deeply impact Ethiopian adoptions. 

If Ethiopian adoptions are influenced, then Ethiopian children are affected. I’m an adoptive parent of daughters from Ethiopia, I’ve traveled to and around Ethiopia, I’m an active supporter of the effective nonprofit Ethiopia Reads (bringing libraries and schools to children who had none in Ethiopia), and I know lots of Ethiopians and Ethiopian-Americans. I’m familiar with the stereotypes of starving children with distended bellies and flies on their faces. I am aware of the astonishing history and beauty of one of the world’s oldest cultures, one which has experienced wars, droughts, famines, civil strife, and extreme poverty, and one which has champion runners, churches carved out of stone in the earth, breathtaking art and architecture, and potential beyond words.

Girls at Ethiopia Reads Library

If we talk about potential, we must talk about children. I’m going to list a number of recent tipping point items that all impinge upon adoption, in varying degrees. More than that, though, they can perhaps bring greater consciousness to the possibilities for Ethiopian children–in a convergence that I can only hope helps more children to stay with their birth families, or to be placed in a transparent, ethical way in families that are safe and loving.

1. Adoptions from Ethiopia to the United States began in a small way in the mid- and late- 1990’s and swelled dramatically. According to the US State Department, there were 42 children adopted from Ethiopia in 1999, rising to a high of 2511 in 2010. In 2012, the number was 1568. The numbers are expected to continue to decline in the light of allegations of corruption, inadequate infrastructure for processing adoptions, use of bribery, and the revelations about fraud made public by adopted Ethiopian children and adopted Ethiopian adults, by adoptive parents (in the US, Canada, western Europe, Australia), and by Ethiopian birth/first families.

A decrease in adoptions is not necessarily a bad thing–if it meant that children in crisis are getting the care they need. However, a decline in adoptions hardly means an automatic correlation with improved services.

2.  The role of money is staggering, and its implications mind-boggling. Approximately 13,000 children have been adopted to the US from Ethiopia in the last 13 years.  Let’s say each adoption was $30,000. This means $330,000,000 has been in play for these international adoptions completed through agencies. $330 million.

This amount doesn’t necessarily include fees paid to drivers, translators, guest houses, tour guides, souvenir sales, restaurants, and so forth by adoptive parents and agency staff visiting Ethiopia for adoption or for subsequent visits. If thousands of Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Europeans go to Ethiopia each year for adoption-related purposes (either for placements or for family visits), it’s a huge boon to the economy,  and a significant influx of cash for a beleaguered Ethiopian economy.

The gross national income per capita for Ethiopians is $371. (For the US, it’s $48, 620.)  Is it possible to overstate the role of western money related to adoption of Ethiopian children, and how easily it could be manipulated, corrupted, and devastating?

3. Facebook groups and the abundance of blogs by Ethiopian adoptive parents have magnified publicity around adoption. The photos of beautiful children and happy families, the sharing of information and stories, the quest for support and resources during difficult times, the building of community–all this can be good.  And all of it can have unintended consequences, if taken out of context.

Adoptive parents have outspoken and public about having been deceived by their agencies and/or Ethiopian facilitators and/or Ethiopian first families, and about the plusses and minuses of traveling back with their Ethiopian children to visit Ethiopian birth families.

Personal, confidential information about Ethiopian adopted children–good and bad news–is available in an instant.

Ostensibly many of these groups are private or closed. The reality is pretty much anyone can join a closed Facebook group. Anyone can take a screen shot and send it to anyone else, anywhere. 

4. Ethiopian adoptions gone horribly wrong are transmitted quickly around the world.

The recent MSNBC airing of the interview of Tarikuwa Lemma, recounting her story of being adopted against her will under apparently fraudulent circumstances, has been shown on multiple Ethiopian outlets: Tadias magazine, ethiotube.net, amharictube.com, sodere.com, ethiosoul.com, ayyaan.com, ethionews24.com, bolepark.com, and more. In other words, negative news–true as it may be–can form opinions quickly. Many of the Ethiopian sites use the headline “Tarikuwa Lemma Exposed the Selling of Ethiopian Kids.”

Information about Ethiopian adopted children who have been abused or died at the hand of their adoptive parents is also tragic, available, and publicized. The cases of Hana Alemu (aka Hannah Williams) in Washington state and of Douglas and Kristen Barbour in Pennsylvania have angered and broken the hearts of Ethiopians and many others.

Thousands of adoptions go right; thousands of families are (if not perfect) loving and healthy. That’s not what makes the news, and it doesn’t diminish the tragedy of those adoptions that are grievous disasters.

5. As I type this, a documentary and a book about Ethiopian adoptions are generating much buzz.  “Mercy Mercy: A Portrait of True Adoption” is a heart-wrenching film about 2 Ethiopian children adopted to Denmark. It is causing outcry and outrage, it is difficult to watch and not be moved deeply, and there’s an online fundraising site to return the little girl to her Ethiopian family. A recently published book The Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce focuses on the history and impact of the Christian evangelical movement on international adoption, especially in Ethiopia and Haiti. Both the film and book are sobering for anyone involved in Ethiopian adoption.

Still from “Mercy Mercy” documentary

6. Cultural misunderstandings about adoption are now becoming apparent, which arguably should have happened long ago. Ethiopian culture has a tradition of sending children to other families or sponsors who raise the children, including sending them to school. The understanding is that the children would return to the family to help support them. More than once, I’ve seen this view cited as the (mis-)understanding of a US adoptive placement from Ethiopia, which of course requires total severance of legal rights and no guarantee of a child’s ever returning to the Ethiopian family.

Whether it was inadequate translations, laziness, failure to consider cultural differences, malice, naiveté, good intentions gone astray–the reasons are negligible beside the damage done. Children have been removed from poor families who believed the children would receive an education and then return to them one day. These are parents who did not understand adoption as the permanent placement that we in the US consider it. Increasing numbers of adoptive families, having hired searchers (another profitable new venture for Ethiopia), have found this to be the case, and must discern how to live with this haunting knowledge.

I’m well aware how powerful, overwhelming, and bleak this list is. There are conversations about adoption blazing around the world right now, in the US, in Canada, in Ethiopia, in Australia. Yes, there is anger and frustration, perhaps shame, perhaps sorrow and regret. Nonetheless, I’m hopeful. From these convergences and conversations we must rise; I hope we are led by Ethiopian adoptees and by Ethiopian first/birth families.  We can move toward transparency and creative solutions for children and families in crisis. It is past time to move toward that ascent.

Heritage and Culture Camps: Why Do They Matter?

Did heritage and culture camps even exist before international adoption? I don’t know. They are among the many cottage industries that have grown up as a result of adoptive parents’ and adoption agencies’ quest to provide connections for internationally (often transracially) adopted children with their cultures of origins.

My best guess is that most heritage/culture camps were established about 20 years ago, as Korean adopted adults began to be heard about the lack of connection they felt to their Korean culture, growing up as many did in rural farmlands in Minnesota and elsewhere. (Many, in fact, considered themselves white or wanted to be white while growing up. Their awakenings in college and in adult life were difficult, as racism and other factors challenged or undermined their sense of identity.)

When you adopt internationally, you remove a child from his or her culture and country of origin, and you take on a daunting responsibility. Heritage camps can never take the place of one’s heritage. That said, there are quite a few positives about the camps.

One is surely the opportunity for an adopted child or teenager to be surrounded by other kids like them. Not having to explain about being adopted, or about why they look different from their parents–it’s a relief to be among others who understand.

Another is the chance to meet older adoptees, who often are mentors and role models for young children in ways that adoptive parents simply can’t be. That’s a great gift.

The camps aren’t just for the adoptees and parents in many cases. Siblings often attend, who may or may not have been adopted. This gives them a chance to learn about and have fun while learning about their brother or sister’s culture. Lots of potential for conversations, and maybe deeper understanding.

Another positive about camps is the opportunity to interact easily with people from the child’s country of origin. In an ideal world, adoptive parents would have lots of friends and role models available for their children, friends and role models from the child’s country of origin. There’s a big spectrum: some parents are the same ethnicity and/or race as their child, sometimes the child is only one of her race/ethnicity for miles around, sometimes parents reach out to strangers, in the grocery store or at church, who might be from the child’s country of origin.

At the heritage camps, there are frequently people from the country of origin, people who are there because they want to be, because they want to share their culture with adoptive parents and especially with adopted children. Strong, long-lasting friendships are often formed this way, that otherwise might never have happened.

The camps are also a bit of an idyll in terms of the harsher realities of identity formation. Idylls can be good, but other possibilities exist too. The Evan B. Donald Institute on Adoption published a thoughtful study called “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity in Adoption.” It’s a great resource for adoptive parents.

This August, my daughter Aselefech and I will be among the speakers at the Ethiopian  camp held in Virginia. Unlike many camps, this one reaches out to all families of Ethiopian-American children, not just adoptive families. Aselefech and I spoke there together in 2009, and really enjoyed meeting the many families who are connected to Ethiopia by birth, adoption, or both. This year, we will be talking about the journey of search and reunion, in Ethiopia and Seattle.

Adoptive parents of internationally adopted children have themselves founded camps, which are now available for many heritages (Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Indian/Nepalese, Russian/Eastern European, Ethiopian, Caribbean, etc.). Some adoption agencies also hold camps. Here is one list from Adoptive Families magazine.

Citizenship Isn’t Automatic for Internationally Adopted Children to the US? Really?

Children can be brought to the United States by US citizens for purposes of adoption, and the US government (who has to approve all these adoptions) does not provide automatic citizenship to thousands, past and present.

Adult adoptees have been deported. Others are in line to be deported.  Some have committed a crime inadvertently by voting. They have been denied scholarships and lost jobs due to the inability to pass background checks/prove US citizenship.

Citizenship prior to February 2001 was not automatic. And that is a huge injustice to these children (many of whom are now adults), an undermining of the integrity of adoption, and a slap in the face to adoptees.

How did this happen? Adoptive parents failed to follow through on citizenship. Adoption agencies did not impress families sufficiently about why proof of citizenship matters. People got bad legal advice.

Whatever the reason, the bottom line remains: the US government does not provide automatic citizenship to thousands of children brought here legally for purposes of international adoption.

Some sobering statistics: Between 1999 and 2011, approximately 220,000 children arrived to the US from other countries to be adopted. Of those, about 157,000 arrived on IR-3 visas, and about 65,000 on IR-4 visas.

That’s 65,000 internationally adopted children who do not have automatic citizenship, and that’s only since 1999.

Of the 65,000 above, who arrived here on an IR-4 visa, about 40% are from two of the main countries of origin for adopted children. About 8,600 came from Ethiopia and over 18,000 from South Korea. South Korea has been sending children to the US for 50 years: hundreds of thousands of children.

Adoptive parents: If your child came here on an IR-4 visa, s/he must be readopted before s/he turns 18. US citizenship is not automatically granted to them.

If your child came here on an IR-3, after the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, protect that Certificate of Citizenship. It’s incredibly important and valuable, and not to be taken for granted at all.

Hold on carefully and protectively to all adoption-related documents.

The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 provides US citizenship to children who arrive here in the US with IR-3 visas after February 2001, with various paperwork and fees. Children who arrive here (as international adoptees) on an IR-4 visa have different hoops to go through. Information is available here. I wrote about this in additional detail here.

Of Search, Heartache, and Connection

“There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?”
― Rumi

With my four children, two sons adopted as babies in the US and twin daughters adopted at 6 from Ethiopia, I felt the decision to search for first/birth family was theirs, and that it would be best to do so when they were at least 18. They are all in their 20’s now. Searching (and re-uniting) is a big, complicated, emotional, intricate process. My view as a parent was that this was their decision, their story, their information. Their dad and I also always let them know we would help and support them in their decision.

While they were growing up, the kids and I had lots of conversations about their first families. I offered to give them all the information, when I felt they were ready, that we had from the adoption process. I shared different information at different ages. They looked at it, or not. Over the years, they kept copies in their rooms, occasionally asked questions, talked to each other a little about their information, asked questions, went to basketball practice, came to me with heartbreaking insights, and asked more questions.

I believe rituals are important, especially in adoption. At Thanksgiving, we would sometimes all light candles before dinner to honor the people who were not with us that day.  I would say something about my children’s birth/first families. Over the years, their reactions might be eye-rolling, indifference, a slight tearing up, a slight smile.

Each of my kids had different levels of comfort and curiosity about searching, at different times in their lives, and that’s still very true today.

My daughter Aselefech, once she had been here long enough to speak sufficient English to understand what Mother’s Day meant, would weep deeply that day. She would talk through tears about how very much she missed her Ethiopian mother, and how deep the pain was of forgetting what her mother looked like.

I knew she and her mother had to have been very close, because of how much Aselefech loved me. Oh, my heart ached so for my daughter and for her mother. My daughter and I cried together.

And, not surprisingly, Aselefech has been the most proactive about searching and connecting with her Ethiopian family. She and her twin sister now know their Ethiopian family in Ethiopia, and here in Seattle,  as it turns out, where I live.


They re-connected about 4 years ago. We all got together most recently last week here in Seattle for dinner. This photo shows Aselefech with her brother, and with her daughter/his niece (my brilliant, amazing granddaughter) who is the same age Aselefech was when she arrived in the United States some 18 years ago. There is to me an incredible light in everyone’s eyes here–a connection always, a void filled, a candle lit.