The orphans left behind

Robin Summerfield, Calgary Herald

Published: Sunday, November 09, 2008

From his bed in the orphanage, Yared Wolde witnessed international adoptions unfold first-hand.

Many times, he watched as other orphans left with new foreign parents for futures much better than the one he faced.

"They were always there for me and when they got adopted, it was hard," he says. "I would rather die in front of them than (keep on) living," says Wolde, his voice trailing off.

No one wanted to adopt the boy, a sickly orphan with a life-threatening heart defect.

His heart is fixed. But more than a decade later, the wound of being left behind still hasn't healed.

"It hurt me a lot. I still feel it," says the 21-year-old, who now works with other poor and sick children in his country.

As one of millions of Ethiopian orphans who are never adopted by foreigners, Wolde has mixed feelings about international adoptions.

By chance or circumstance, children like Wolde don't land in the queue.

Indeed, the vast majority of orphans in the impoverished east Africa country are never adopted.

In Ethiopia, there are approximately 5.4 million orphans, and more than a million children have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDs, according to UNICEF estimates.

Of those millions of children without families, only 1,800 Ethiopian orphans are adopted by foreigners every year.

"It's seen as winning the lottery," says Kristen White, country director for Hope for Children in Ethiopia, a children's charity that works with poor kids.

Ethiopians still want to care for their own but given the crushing poverty, there is a feeling that not all the children can be helped.

Despite the sheer numbers of children without parents, ordinary Ethiopians, government officials and those working with the poorest children are divided over the issue.

The Ethiopian government ultimately wants to close its borders to foreign parents, says Maheder Bitew, the official in charge of international adoption for the country.

Calling international adoption "a last resort," Bitew says Ethiopian children should be raised in their homeland, with their people and culture.

To that end, Bitew says government programs help keep many orphaned children living with extended family.

Yet within Ethiopian culture, those orphaned children -- who have lost one or both parents -- are often mistreated or viewed as second-class citizens within the extended family, counters White, an Australian who has worked in the country for three years.

And many orphans whose parents have died from HIV/AIDs are ultimately shunned and abandoned by their kin, she says.

Ethiopia has a 30-year history of international adoption, but has just recently become the global hot spot for foreigners looking for children.

Prior to 2005, between 500 and 700 orphans were adopted by outsiders. Movie star Angelina Jolie's adoption of a little Ethiopian girl that same year contributed to the nearly three-fold increase, experts believe.

In Canada, adoptions from Ethiopia have also steadily grown since 2004.

Last year, 134 Ethiopian orphans came to Canada and the African country ranks second only to China for international adoptions.

That upward trend shows no sign of dipping, given the relatively fast, regulated and predictable process in place in Ethiopia.

On the streets of Shiro Meda, a poor neighbourhood in Addis Ababa, locals, too, are conflicted about the practice.

Habtamu Kene's younger sister was adopted by a Swedish family 23 years ago. 

Last year, the adoptee, now 26 and named Jeanette Sandstrom, came back for the first time to meet her birth family. Kene was thrilled to be reunited with Sandstrom and hopes to move one day to Sweden to live with her.

In the meantime, all Ethiopians adopted to foreigners should keep in contact with their birth families, he says.

"If they go, they get a better life. They learn. They get a good frame of mind because everything is fuller for them," says the 29-year-old. "But my complaint, is when they should come back. They should come back once a year."

Indeed, in adoption, a cultural expectation of reciprocity is also at work in the country, White believes.

Families who give up their children for adoption expect that child to return back to Ethiopia to help financially support their kin, she says.

"With a lot of these families . . . it's seen as an opportunity to bring in income in the future," she says. "If they have a connection with a foreign family, (that) family feels guilty and will send money in the future."

It's against Ethiopian laws and the Hague Convention, an international agreement governing inter-country adoption, for adopting families to pay birth families for their children.

In Wolde's case, his birth family -- both his parents, a younger brother and an older sister -- all died before he was six. For a time he lived on the street, before landing in an orphanage.

He was passed over for adoption, while his friends, other orphans, left with families for new lives overseas.

"All adopted parents don't care about the (birth) family, they just want to have children," says Wolde, "but it's not right."


"left behind"

Years ago, when my friend and I began calling ourselves Pound Pups, we used to joke how we must have been the ugly runts left in the back where the "good, loving and attentive PAP's" could not or would not see us for the easy taking.  Although there was nothing medically wrong with us, for some reason, it took a while for our agencies to sell send us to our final destinations.  [Imagine.... healthy white babies in the US and Canada having to wait for a place to call home!!  We'd tease, using our well-crafted self-depreciating humor, "What was it -- was it our lame awkward looks from too strange a mixed-breeding?" ]

For some reason, very few people think the lucky bastard being adopted by a well-to-do family is never going to be hurt, neglected or abused.  [Imagine my surprise when I learned there were adoptees in this world who got to experience a home-life that did not include some version of sexual trauma or physical abuse!  My friend and I would explain, "That must have been because those kids were really cute, strong, and very well-behaved." <nodding>... "Sure, only an animal would hurt the sweet obedient pup, unless of course, the stupid pup was asking for a good beating lesson."]

Ultimately, we decided a very simple truth.  Once adopted, no one cares about the health or well-being of the child who was not left behind in some over-crowded, ill-staffed, poorly equipped orphanage.

"If they go, they get a better life. They learn. They get a good frame of mind because everything is fuller for them," says the 29-year-old. "But my complaint, is when they should come back. They should come back once a year."

I could barely mention the word Canada to my aparents, let alone suggest we take a family-trip to visit there.  [It would have made no difference, anyway, because where I was born and sold was not where my first-family actually lived.  My first-mother left those family members behind when she gave birth to me in another part of her native-country -- the part of the country that was known for its poverty and poor living-conditions, I'd like to add....]

I wonder how many international adoptees would be hurt and abused by their new-owners if the mother-land expected the children to return for their yearly scheduled visit? 

I imagine such an effort would cost too much time, effort and money.  [Who would be expected to pay that yearly trip, anyway -- our wealthy loving families, or the adoption agencies that make International Adoption dreams a reality for so many?]

Pound Pup Legacy