Zecharias Zelalem, Special to Addis Standard
Thousands upon thousands of skinny, dusty, women and children clad in dirty rags, sitting on a barren land, (the scorching sun consuming what’s left of them), barely able to muster the strength to bat away overzealous flies. The scent of death is all around as another shawl is wrapped around the lifeless body of yet another victim of starvation. Loud weeping from the parched throats of the unfortunate soul’s parents, children or acquaintances breaks out as yet another life is cut short, a tragic scene which is repeated throughout the day again and again.
It’s Ethiopia of 1984, a scene described by a BBC reporter who witnessed it as “the closest thing to hell on earth”. The memories of the famine which claimed the lives of nearly a million Ethiopians are forever entrenched into the global mindset to the point that many today will still refer to that tragedy of Biblical proportions when talking about Ethiopia.
With the overwhelming majority of famine victims being children, a number of concerned citizens from around the world decided to go one step further than most and adopted an Ethiopian child (or two) to rescue them from what appeared to be a future of despair. With this, the trend of adopting Ethiopian children became a phenomenon. The relative simplicity of the process in Ethiopia also played a role in attracting baby hungry foreigners to turn their faces to Ethiopia looking for their future children.
Thousands of Ethiopian children have been adopted into families of foreigners principally from all across Western Europe and North America. Some of these children have assimilated quickly into their new surroundings. But many of them are seen struggling for the rest of their lives. Sadly, even after the famine, the adoption of Ethiopians by foreign parents has continued until today.
The lives of a generation of Ethiopian adoptees, many of whom are in their early thirties or younger, has never been documented as one might expect. Other than the rare cases of adoptees becoming celebrities, as is the case with Ethiopian Swedish celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, the general progress and development of Ethiopian adoptees in their new homelands is somewhat unknown to the world and Ethiopians in general.
Nor has there been a focus on their wellbeing or a meaningful attempt to have them reconnect with their roots by either the Ethiopian government or Ethiopian Diaspora communities. There are several reasons for this. One of the widely held beliefs is the fact that Ethiopian adoptees have long been seen as culturally disconnected from their roots, with no real care or desire to discover their Ethiopian heritage. But this perception couldn’t be farther from the reality. In the hearts and minds of so many of Ethiopia’s sons and daughters, there’s always a yearning to, at the very least, explore what makes Ethiopians different from other people.
Ethiopians taken abroad in their infancy will have – in most cases – no recollection whatsoever of their places of birth and most grow up not knowing who their biological parents are. Thanks to faulty documentation and poor records keeping, these Ethiopians have little to no way of one day tracking down their relatives.
But there are many Ethiopian adoptees, who having gone through the devastation of being deprived of their roots, stubbornly cling on to what’s left of their Ethiopian identity. One among these Ethiopians by birth is 21 year old Selamawit Haile.
The third youngest of four children, Selamawit was born in Bahr Dar, 578 km north of Addis Abeba and the capital of the Amhara regional state. She asks me to refer to her by her Ethiopian name, and not Elisa, her French name given to her after adoption. At age nine, Selamawit lost both of her parents to tuberculosis. Without a legal guardian and with no means of supporting herself, her life was forever changed. Barely a month later Selamawit and her three year old younger sister Askalemariam were shipped off to an orphanage in the capital Addis Abeba.
“I had only just lost both of my parents, which is already hard for a child to deal with as it is,” Selamawit explains. “But I had no one to share my pain with. At the orphanage they just grouped as all together, a bunch of crying, damaged children, mentally scarred from the experience of losing a parent or both. But there was no one present to help us deal with the heartache we were going thorugh.”
In Addis Abeba, the shift from a loving, caring household to the depressing atmosphere of the orphanage was tough for the young Selamawit. Her younger sister, barely a toddler, was unable to comprehend the changes that were happening around her, but Selamawit was old enough to take everything in. Everything she had known had come crashing down in a couple of weeks. But if she thought that the adjustments she had made were already too much, just a couple of months, the new life she was to lead would nearly erase everything about her previous life.
Still reeling from the loss of two parents, Selamawit and her sister would be shipped off for adoption to a foreign land, new surroundings, to begin a new life. Just months after the tragic deaths of her two parents, nine year old Selamawit and her three year old sister Askalemariam had their documentation completed to be resettled in France.
Barely able to process the changes that had taken everything away from her, Selamawit, very conscious and alert as any nine year old would be, resisted. Her remaining relatives tried to console her telling her that they would remain in constant communication, giving her a list of phone numbers and family pictures before her departure.
“Upon arrival in France I had all my family’s contact information and pictures taken away forever,” explains Selamawit. “This is the norm. Adoption is also about changing you as a person and erasing your past.”
Adoptees in several countries, most notably France, have similar stories which show a similar trend of forced assimilation. Many of them speak of being forbidden to speak in their native languages and getting scolded when they do. Material possessions from Ethiopia are normally disposed of immediately.
“Yes there is an effort to eliminate the original you!” Selamawit continues. “We are all given new French names once we arrive here. But we are also baptised as Catholics which is supposed to help us turn into authentic French children.”
It is not different for other adoptees. Due to a desire to hasten the child’s repudiation of his or her identity, there is rarely any effort made to understand issues and social norms of Ethiopian society. “I had no one. I never had anyone stand up for me. No one knows the hell I’ve been through,” says Rahel Feleke, 25, and another adoptee.
Rahel left Ethiopia at age four for rural France. She was suffering from the Polio virus, which left her handicapped. The community she was adopted into had almost no immigrants or people of different ethnicities. She spoke of the difficulties of being the only black student from primary school to secondary school and throughout college, made far worse due to her disability.
“I’ve had to fight all my life. Fight ignorance, racism, loneliness. My entire school life was spent hearing incredibly hurtful racial slurs, and being taunted because of my disability. As a young girl I was always stared at, looked down upon, with no attempt at being discreet. I had no one.”
Rahel says growing up her experiences have traumatized her and left her with self esteem problems she still suffers from. It seemed overwhelming that no one in the district school system would notice her plight.
“Nobody. My own parents would simply tell me that I should be happy and should consider myself lucky that I’m here and not in Ethiopia where there’s nothing to eat. Nobody would share my sorrow,” said Rahel. “I would later grow accustomed to the stares and being the only black kid at school. But I could never take the insults. The school principal never cared, the teachers never cared.”
Into her teen years, Rahel turned against a community she held responsible for her miserable childhood. She would get into fights at school and made constant enemies among school authorities. She later left her village and now lives on her own in Paris.
Re-discovering the self
Recently Rahel made a huge personal discovery. Despite being told by her adoptive parents that she no longer had any living family members, she discovered that she has plenty of relatives based in Addis Abeba; she hopes to initiate contact with them soon. “My real family lives in Addis Abeba today. I want to write them, but after more than two decades of separation I wouldn’t even know where to start. I need to get to know them first.”
On the question of identity, Rahel is unwavering. “I have never been a Frenchwoman. They never let me feel like one anyways. I’ve always said I’m African and Ethiopian because I grew up hating all that is French and really felt a sense of attachment to African cultures.”
Although most haven’t left Ethiopia stricken by Polio like Rahel, growing up as adoptees still has endless challenges. For those adopted as infants, there are no memories of their previous lives, they’ll tend to start confronting their adoptive parents with poignant questions about their identity, their skin color and their biological country towards their teen years, when they start becoming more and more self conscious.
But those who start new lives in foreign lands after having their lives in Ethiopia abruptly cut short go through an especially gutting journey.
“There is a very egoistic notion attached to the concept of adoption,” Selamawit says. “Adoptive parents, especially those in France, feel better about themselves and flaunt their children to others to appear as humanitarians and thus better than the average human being. We went out to party after party, celebration after celebration, without anyone asking me for my personal input or what I thought. My sister was too young to comprehend what was going on but I was still in mourning. I wanted none of this. I wanted to be alone. Nobody would respect my wishes or even listen to me.”
Many Ethiopian adoptees speak of a similar experience: growing up without having met a single Ethiopian in their lives. According to what most of the adoptee children I’ve spoken to for this article, adoptive parents have gone the extra mile to prevent their children from even mingling with thriving Ethiopian expat communities.
Journey to the root
Many adoptees speak of a desire to visit their country of birth for various reasons; to reconnect, to seek relatives long thought to be dead, to satisfy the burning feeling of belongingness. But as of the publishing of this article, there is little to no evidence at all that suggests Ethiopians abroad even know of the existence of a generation of their adopted countrymen and countrywomen, let alone attempt to bridge the gap and cushion the path to a future return.
Tragically, it was too late for Hana Alemu. Hana and her brother were adopted from Ethiopia by Carri and Larry Williams, a couple living in the Washington State area in 2008. Hana was eleven years old when she arrived in the U.S. The two children suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of their adoptive parents. Deprived of food, proper clothing, frequently locked in a barn and beaten Hana died in 2011 aged only 13. She was cold, weak, and lying face down on a pile of snow in a cold winter outside the Williams’ home. A coroner’s report later declared that Hana died of hypothermia. Larry and Carri were later convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Hana’s brother, born with hearing impairment, was rescued by state authorities. Thankfully, such cases are rare, but a diaspora based Ethiopian watchdog agency or even a registered group of concerned citizens who would check up on adoptees could have perhaps seen warning signs that may have saved Hana’s life.
The plight of adoptees abroad and the failure of Ethiopian diaspora communities to make any serious attempt at engaging in dialogue or incorporating the former into Ethiopian diaspora society highlight the cultural problems which too many Ethiopians themselves are in denial about.
“Right now our biggest issue is visibility,” Selamawit says. “We want to tell Ethiopians at home and abroad that we exist, we want to be involved and we want to participate. We aren’t lost and gone forever.”
Kassaye Berhanu, co-founder of the advocacy group, Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, believes that more resources need to be allocated to families so that they are not forced to relinquish their children.
“We should be focusing on keeping families together, not separating them. Adoption is an easy solution but it’s not always done in the best interest of the children. Being raised in a white family and having a middle-class life in a Western country will never replace the loss of one’s birth family, culture and language.
In Addition, Kassaye believes adoption agencies do very little to prepare adoptive parents for the challenges they will likely face, especially with raising children of color. “To make it even worse, there are barely any services or support systems for adoptees besides the internet where they can find others in similar struggles and share [their experiences]”.
In 2005, after nearly a decade away from her country, Selamawit returned to Ethiopia against the wishes of her adoptive family. She was able to locate her birth family and discovered that unlike what she was told, her older siblings weren’t dead and she still had aunts and uncles. Ever since then Selamawit has made several trips to Ethiopia and is making a stern attempt to learn Amharic language and get reacquainted with her Ethiopian side all over again. “I can travel around Bahir Dar by myself now,” she says proudly. “I know the taxi routes, if anything I can call my brother as well.”
Selamawit is personally determined to prove that there are alternatives to adoption. Recently she has taken steps to organize a central leadership for the community of Ethiopian adoptees in France so that adoptees can gather in numbers and have a collective voice. Like Kassaye, she is also fighting to gain that eagerly sought visibility for those in her shoes. In Bahir Dar Selamawit and a group of fellow adoptees have obtained land permits and are funding the construction of a building which will house orphans. They plan on “adopting” children without taking them away from everything they have known. Called the Anbessa Guest House, the building is located in the “Diaspora sefer” (Neighbourhood) of the city.
Kassaye, fellow co-founder of ‘Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora’, Aselefech Evans and her mother, Maureen Evans, creator of the adoptee-centric website ‘Light of Day Stories’, have also decided to work on organising a collection of stories by Ethiopian adoptees. Their aim is to have the vast array of experiences published for public awareness.
One thing that they took notice of was that most Ethiopian adoptees tend to still feel connected to Ethiopia, and are proud to self identify as Ethiopians despite having lived outside of Ethiopia for many years and despite having been assimilated into their adopted country’s culture and ways of life. The anthology, titled “Lions Roaring Far From Home” will feature the voices of adoptees ranging in age from children to adults, primarily from Canada, the U.S., France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain. Details on the eagerly awaited release are available on the ‘Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora’ official page and on the ‘Light of Day Stories’ website.