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.


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.

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.

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.