The Band-Aid of Heritage and Culture Camps: An Adoptee Perspective

“I had the privilege of attending this summer’s Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp in Virginia as a guest speaker. The camp is wonderful. It is designed, not only for families with adopted Ethiopian children, but for Ethiopian-American families as well. Nevertheless, most of the families there looked like mine did when I was a child. While I loved seeing the little kids and enjoyed Ethiopian food, crafts, and clothing, it was through dialogue with many adoptive parents that I was better able to understand where adoptive families stand in regards to grasping the responsibilities of raising a child of color, and how much or how little agencies prepare families…”

That’s an excerpt from a powerful article called The Band-Aid of Heritage and Culture Camps, and What They Cover Up by Aselefech Evans, an Ethiopian adult adoptee, writing as a columnist in the current issue of Gazillion Voices.

I wrote about the Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp here and about the Ethiopian panelists (which included Aselefech) Speaking Their Truth here.

(L-R) Nunu Worke, Aselefech Evans, Adanech Evans

(L-R) Nunu Worke, Aselefech Evans, Adanech Evans

Full disclosure: Aselefech is one of my favorite people in the world. She is also my daughter, adopted in 1994 along with her twin sister Adanech, when they were 6 years old. (Adanech is another of my favorites, along with my sons and granddaughter.) Aselefech has reunited with her Ethiopian family, and wrote one of the most viewed posts ever on my blog, Far Away, Always in My Heart. She’s presented workshops and webinars about her experiences as a transracial, older, international adoptee. She speaks candidly, and from her heart. I’ve always encouraged my children to speak their truths, and they have. That can seem like a mixed blessing perhaps, if your children are writing and speaking out about their experiences as adoptees, and as people of color, and those experiences have not always been positive.

Therein, though, lies the genuine blessing: what a gift to be able to witness the honesty and reality and insights of my daughter. She demonstrates, I believe, the fundamental truth of adoption. It is often filled with both love and loss, held together at the same time, tilting one way or the other at other times. We adoptive parents decide to bring children into our lives, and in so doing, we are part of the lost life they might have had, with the family (and culture, language, heritage, race, traditions, history) into which they were born, into which (for good or bad) most children stay. Aselefech loves her dad and me, and we love her. Now 25 years old, Aselefech has struggled with the complexity that is transracial, international adoption. We (her adoptive parents) cannot take that pain away, but we can be open to her journey, joining her sometimes, knowing that the journey is hers alone.

Another excerpt from Aselefech’s article in Gazillion Adoptees:

“As an adoptive parent, when you choose to adopt internationally you must understand the cultural ramifications of removing a child from his or her culture. You must take on the overwhelming responsibility to keep them connected to their country of origin, the place from which you have taken them. You must surround them with a variety of people who look like them. Children’s attitudes towards their own race are deeply influenced by their interactions and observations of those around them. Will most of the children muddle through and eventually form a decent racial and cultural identity if you don’t offer all of this? Maybe. But what right do you have to make them pay that price?”

Powerful words. Aselefech has gotten some pushback, asking if she’s “anti-adoption.” She’s also gotten some wonderful, positive response for her courage and candor. I’m very proud of her. Like many adoptees these days, she provides a voice from a diaspora. I hope the world listens.

Speaking Their Truth: Ethiopian Heritage Camp

Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp, held this past weekend in Harrisonburg, VA, was wonderful. Dozens of families (Ethiopian, and adoptive families with Ethiopian children) enjoyed camaraderie, delicious meals, dancing, music, stories, games, crafts, and the delightful warmth of Ethiopian culture. I wrote about the activities and energy here.

The camp is designed to be, primarily, an opportunity “to connect, to educate.” We were to meet and learn about each other, as much as about Ethiopian culture.

From the camp booklet

From the camp booklet

The children of most of the adoptive parents there were young, toddlers to 10 years old, I’d guess. There were some older kids, as well as siblings of younger Ethiopian adoptees. They were gloriously cute, all those kids.

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Here’s the thing. Little children, if things go as they should, grow up. We have a tendency in adoption to think only about children at the time of placement, and marginalize the reality that they become teens, then young adults, then adults, then old adults. The adorable little girl grows into a young woman who receives racist insults when she is with her friends waiting to enter a nightclub. The shy little boy grows into a young man who people move away from on the subway, or follow around in a nice store.

This year at camp, three courageous young women spoke their truths about “Growing Up Ethiopian In America.” I know two of them–my daughters Aselefech and Adanech–well.

(L-R) Nunu Worke, Aselefech Evans, Adanech Evans

(L-R) NuNu Wako, Aselefech Evans, Adanech Evans

NuNu Wako is the host of the NuNu Wako Show on EBS TV Global broadcasting internationally via Arab Sat and nationally on Dish Network. Born in Ethiopia and raised in the United States, she has been a model and spokesperson featured in print and other media. She is currently studying at the University of Maryland toward a degree in international studies. She is 26 years old.

Aselefech Evans is a rising senior at the University of Maryland, majoring in Family Sciences. She plans to get her MSW, and wants to work with children and families,perhaps in post-adoption services. She has presented numerous workshops and workshops on adoption-related issues (racism, identity, hair care, and more). She is a quarterly columnist for the new adoptee-centric, on-line magazine, Gazillion Voices. Born in Ethiopia, she was adopted as a 6-year-old along with her twin sister in 1994. She is 24 years old.

Adanech Evans is a rising senior at Bowie State University, finishing her degree in psychology. She was chosen to be a Teaching Assistant for freshmen psychology students starting in Fall 2013. Adanech is an avid traveler, from when she spent 3 weeks in high school going to school in Japan and touring the country, to her recent trips to Italy and England. She hopes to teach English in Korea or Japan when she finishes her degree, and especially to continue traveling. Born in Ethiopia, she was adopted as a 6-year-old along with her twin sister in 1994. She is 24 years old.

These 3 talented young women spoke eloquently and movingly about their love for their families and about the pain of racism. NunNu recalled seeing KKK while attending a West Virginia boarding school as a young girl, reflecting through tears the pain and confusion that caused for her. Aselefech talked about going recently to a predominately white DC club with her black girlfriends, and being taunted and insulted as they waited in line to get in.

All 3 spoke thoughtfully about whether they considered themselves black, African-American, Ethiopian, Ethiopian-American, or something else. How they see themselves and how the world sees them can often be at odds. They responded to questions from the audience members (primarily adoptive parents) about how having brown skin translates into being black, about the artificiality and the reality of the terms “black” and “white,” about how Obama’s election may have had great symbolism but that racism permeates our American culture as much as at any time in our history.

They talked about being proud of being Ethiopian, though much of the world does not understand more than stereotypes.  They talked of the heartache of not being “Ethiopian enough” or “black enough” in certain contexts. And they talked about dating.

We in the audience both teared up with them and laughed out loud together. I hope that in the next few weeks to have one, two, or all three of them “guest blog,” because their words, their voices, matter most. Listening to them speak so beautifully from their hearts was powerful, and a privilege.

Heritage Camp: Ethiopian Celebration

Recently, I’ve written often here about the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, adoptive parents accused of homicide and manslaughter of their Ethiopian adopted daughter Hana and accused of first degree assault of their Ethiopian adopted son Immanuel. The case is tragic, unacceptable, and horrifying. It is also not representative of the vast majority of adoptions from Ethiopia to the United States. Here’s another, important perspective.

This past weekend, my twin daughters Adanech and Aselefech (adopted at 6 years old from Ethiopia, now almost 25), my granddaughter Zariyah, and I attended the Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp held in Harrisonburg, Virginia, at the Massanetta Springs Conference Center.

We joined over 200 people there, mostly other adoptive families like ours, as well as some Ethiopian families raising their children in the US. The camp is the beloved brainchild of Mekdes Bekele, the founder of the camp and a beautiful dynamo. This was the 5th year that families had gathered to celebrate and share their love for Ethiopia and its rich culture.  Mekdes would be the first to say the camp is the result of a lot of wonderful, passionate volunteers working extremely hard to present this thoughtful planned and executed 4 day event of workshops, kids’ activities, dancing, story telling, amazing food, terrific speakers, and more.  That’s true.  But Mekdes is the compassionate, energetic force of nature that propels the camp into existence.

Mekdes Bekele, founder of Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp

Mekdes Bekele, founder of Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp

This is the camp’s fifth year, an achievement in itself. Designed for both Ethiopian-American families and American families who have adopted Ethiopian children, the camp aims to connect and to educate, to celebrate being Ethiopian. It is a family camp, and not specifically focused on adoption, but adoption is a big part of this camp.

All the kids, from toddlers through teens, had their own track of activities. Most of the kids were Ethiopian, and some were siblings of adopted Ethiopian children. It was wonderful and amazing to see the kids connect. Some had been here before; for others, like my granddaughter, it was their first time. They learned to make chechebsa and to make Ethiopian baskets.  They listened to Esubalew Meaza talk about the stories behind his travels across Ethiopia, gathering photos for his beautiful book, Ethiopia: Inspiring Journey.

The Wolves (6, 7, 8 year olds) at Ethiopian Heritage Camp

The Wolves (6, 7, 8 year olds) at Ethiopian Heritage Camp

The parents also listened to wonderful speakers, including Esubalew Meaza, Dr. Electron Kebebew (chief of the Endocrine Oncology Branch of the National Cancer Institute, and possessor of a cool name) and writer Jane Kurtz (Jane grew up in Ethiopia as the child of missionary parents, and has written many award-winning children’s books, including several about Ethiopia; she is also a founder of Ethiopia Reads).

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Perhaps the most meaningful time for the children and the parents was the Saturday night traditional Ethiopian banquet, for which everyone wore their beautiful Ethiopian clothing.

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IMG_9109The weekend also included lots of Ethiopian music and dancing, from many regions of Ethiopia.

Dancing Saturday night

Dancing Sunday morning

While that was great fun in itself, it was witnessing the sheer joy of children taking pride in their culture and witnessing the strength and love given to the children by the many Ethiopian role models that was astonishingly powerful.

Making connections, building pride

Making connections, building pride

Many of these role models are immigrants themselves, who love and miss Ethiopia, and who left Ethiopia to find more opportunities in America. They have a special place in their hearts for the Ethiopian adoptees. An amazing, beautiful weekend.

This post gives you, I hope, a sense for the overall energy of Heritage Camp. My next post will look at some of the challenging, courageous conversations that occurred around race, around bigotry, around hope, around expectations, and around listening.

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.

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.

Harrisonburg, VA www.heritageandculturecamp.org

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.