Leaving despair to begin a new life
By Courtenay Edelhart
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Five boys and four girls climb out of a packed taxi at the Americans for African Adoption foster home -- a clean stucco building surrounded by carefully tended dahlias and a clothesline draped with tiny jumpers, pants and dresses.
Inside the small walled compound on the edge of the city, there is a swing set, a merry-go-round and a basketball goal. Piles of building blocks, balls and toy pianos litter the porch.
Shouts of laughter fill the air as a dozen children kick a soccer ball around the yard. They stop their play to watch the newcomers file into the house.
Ranging in age from about 2 to 13, the new arrivals look a little dazed as they leave behind a world where children beg in crowded, muddy streets and find food and shelter where they can.
Orphaned or abandoned, they have been living with a Catholic monk in a two-room shelter in the city. They're here this day to be tested for HIV/AIDS and other diseases, then interviewed and photographed in hopes that a family overseas will welcome them into their hearts and home.
Mesfin, a tall, handsome boy of about 13, leads the way. Dressed in their best but well-worn clothes, the other children follow quietly behind him, stealing glances at the bright Mickey Mouse cutouts and the map of the United States on the walls. After the dark but familiar rooms at the monk's house, the foster home seems intimidating.
Then they see Tarekwa, an 8-year-old girl who lived with them at the monk's house before moving here. Born with a deformed leg, Tarekwa hobbles through the front door on crutches. Her hair is braided in neat corn rows, and her brown eyes are full of glee.
Tarekwa beams as she hugs each new child, welcoming them all to this first step on their journey to the United States, a journey she hopes to complete herself this fall.
The children's visit is all part of a cycle that's well-known to Cheryl Carter-Shotts.
Several times a year, the 58-year-old former public relations consultant comes to Africa to oversee the screening of new children and tend to paperwork for those like Tarekwa, who are awaiting adoption. Then she brings back children who have been cleared for adoption and placed with American families.
Carter-Shotts has been part of this cycle since 1986, when she founded the international adoption agency she runs from her home on the Far Westside.
Inspired by a 60 Minutes segment on African famine, she adopted a son from Mali and later an Ethiopian daughter, then used her experience to enable hundreds of other families to adopt from Africa.
To date, Americans for African Adoption has placed 306 children with families in 34 states, Canada, France and New Zealand, including 25 who came to homes in Indiana.
Carter-Shotts now runs the not-for-profit agency full time, traveling to Ethiopia, Uganda and, soon, Liberia, lugging medical supplies, clothing and toys.
The work has its critics, including World Vision, a Christian relief organization that sponsors health, education and economic development programs in impoverished children's home countries.
"Personally, I reject the position that the only way you can give children a better life is to remove them from their homeland," said spokesman Tamirat Yirgu.
Maybe so, supporters say, but children don't have time to wait for governments and relief agencies to solve problems of hunger, disease and abject poverty.
"I do think the children should know where they come from, but I just don't think they would have the opportunity to be educated and even loved in their home countries if they didn't have families," said Jessica Vener, a 36-year-old Virginia research consultant who, with husband Paul Hoyt, adopted one Ethiopian daughter in 1998 and will be adopting another from this trip.
And so, accompanied by a volunteer escort and one adoptive mother, Carter-Shotts finds herself back in Addis Ababa, at the foster home her organization operates in Ethiopia's capital city.
All week long, Carter-Shotts has worried about a change in Ethiopian adoption law that seems to have slowed referrals to her agency. The AFAA house has just 17 children now. Usually it houses as many as 40, a steady stream of children referred by the government, orphanages and smaller shelters like the monk's.
Carter-Shotts sighs with relief when the visiting children arrive, then gets down to business.
All but one of the children, a little girl named Hakema, come from the streets of Addis Ababa and have been given shelter by the monk. Many had been living there for at least nine months and will return there after today's screening.
Hakema, around 2 or 3 years old, has bounced around various homes and institutions since her mother's death from AIDS. She'll stay at the foster home until she's adopted. Her hair is infested with lice and she clings to a filthy, naked doll with matted blond hair, one arm and no legs.
Ethiopian foster mothers wash the girl, delouse her hair and give her new clothing and shoes from a storeroom crammed with supplies -- most from Indiana.
After making sure each child is stuffed with lamb, vegetables and injera (an Ethiopian bread), Carter-Shotts is ready to compile information for their social profiles. The children sit quietly on a couch. All she needs now is an interpreter.
Over the years, Carter-Shotts has become adept at identifying leaders, and quickly zeroes in on Mesfin, who has been tying shoelaces and mediating disputes all morning. The oldest of the group, Mesfin is with his 9-year-old brother, Muluken.
"Do you speak English?" Carter-Shotts asks.
He does -- he learned a little in school and speaks in choppy phrases. His mother died of AIDS, Mesfin explains. He and his brother have been at the monk's house for some time.
Carter-Shotts asks Mesfin to translate as she interviews each child: "What is your name? How old are you? How did you wind up homeless? Do you have brothers or sisters? Where are your parents?"
Every child who comes to the foster home has a sad story. A 7-year-old girl named Shewangezew picked up a land mine and lost a hand and an eye. A 6-month-old girl named Selamawit was found in an abandoned church.
Even sadder are those who have no story at all. Some children arrive here with little more than a name; some don't even have that.
This day, each child answers Carter-Shotts' questions quietly and politely. Some are orphans, others abandoned by impoverished parents. Few of the children are certain of their ages, common in a country that rarely records birthdays.
These social profiles are important in placing children and helping them adjust to life in the United States. While adopted infants adapt easily to new environments, older children can have more problems. Knowing their histories in Ethiopia helps smooth the transition.
Even so, these youngsters have much to overcome.
A country's despair
Located in the horn of Africa just north of the equator, Ethiopia is among the poorest and most undeveloped countries in Africa. The per capita income is $110 a year, and about 40 percent of children under the age of 5 are malnourished, according to the relief agency Save the Children.
Many are abandoned by desperately poor parents or orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, which, the United Nations reports, has infected about 3 million of Ethiopia's 64 million residents.
Less than a quarter of the population has access to safe drinking water; fewer than half receive basic health services.
The more affluent residents of Addis Ababa live on the outskirts of town, while the poor are concentrated in the center.
Men, women and children of all ages beg on street corners. If visitors give to one, they're mobbed by others, and the youngest and weakest beggars are vulnerable to abuse. Older children prey on smaller ones, and adults, in turn, prey on them.
Women and children strip trees of their branches in the nearby mountains to sell as firewood. What little they earn gathering wood or begging is often stolen by robbers.
Families living in mud homes or rough shanties urinate in the street, where cars compete for space with donkeys, goats and cattle.
Yet most of the people are friendly and proud. When news of a gold medal in the World Track and Field Championships circulated through the crowds in August, young men dashed through a marketplace cheering and carrying the Ethiopian flag.
Children without families want to be touched and held. A 10-year-old orphan pressed a small St. Christopher medal into the hand of a visitor. "For good luck," he said in Amharic.
Carter-Shotts tries to make the AFAA house an oasis amid the despair. It is clean, comfortable and patrolled by a security guard.
The poverty, illness and political strife that dissuade many Americans from visiting Africa are precisely what draws Carter-Shotts here two or three times a year.
"I've been to international adoption conferences where people from other agencies ask me, 'Why Africa? You could make so much more money if you worked in Russia or China.'
"What they mean is that everybody wants white children. But if I wasn't here, what would happen to the African children?"
First step to adoption
It will take time to determine when the children from the monk's house will be placed for adoption in the United States. The paperwork alone could take a year or more to process.
If their blood test results are favorable, they'll probably relocate to the AFAA house once they get government approval.
Those who don't pass the medical screening for HIV or AIDS will go to the orphanage run by the late Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity to live out their lives.
Carter-Shotts is careful that the eight visiting children don't get their hopes up after seeing the bigger, cleaner foster home. It must seem like paradise compared to the house where they and an Ethiopian foster mother share three beds.
"Do they understand that they're just visiting today, that they won't be staying?" Carter-Shotts asks Mantegbosh Asmare, the Ethiopian adoption representative for AFAA.
That's all been explained to them, Asmare assures her in heavily accented English.
After the interview, each child poses for a photo to be published in a newsletter to recruit parents -- one of the first steps on their road to adoption.
"Saki, saki, saki! (Smile, smile, smile!)" urges Tarekwa in Amharic, the official language of the multilingual country.
Mesfin helps, too, assuming the role of photo assistant.
As he directs a trio of siblings to scrunch together and look into the lens, the usually tough Carter-Shotts suddenly cups a hand over her mouth, drops the camera and runs from the room in tears.
Placing Mesfin and his brother Muluken will be very hard, she explains.
"That older one, especially, is so smart and sweet and helpful," she whispers so the boys can't hear her. "What am I going to do with them? I'll never get them out."
Boys are harder than girls to place with adoptive families. So are children approaching adolescence.
But there are still pictures to be taken, and the children are confused by Carter-Shotts' sudden disappearance. After a moment, she sighs, composes herself and returns to finish the pictures.
Meanwhile, a freshly bathed Hakema is whimpering uncontrollably.
"Where's her doll?" Carter-Shotts asks, identifying the problem.
A foster mother at the home has taken the doll away in favor of a cleaner one with all four limbs attached.
"We have to find that doll," Carter-Shotts says, her voice rising as she scurries from trash can to trash can.
Finally, one of the foster mothers finds the sorry doll and waves it in triumph.
Hakema flashes her first smile of the day, rushing to embrace her doll.
Carter-Shotts shakes a finger at the staff.
"I don't care how bad it gets, don't anybody take that girl's doll away," she admonishes them. "That's probably the only consistent thing in her whole life. It's her security blanket."
Children are always frightened and disoriented when they first arrive, say the home's foster mothers, all of whom declined to be quoted by name, fearful that the Ethiopian government would disapprove. Ethiopian officials declined repeated requests for interviews.
Tarekwa, the little girl with the deformed leg, was shy and reserved when she first moved here from the monk's home in July. It was unclear what had happened to her parents.
Today, Tarekwa showers friends and strangers alike with kisses. She plays catch in the foster home's front yard and maneuvers her crutches and one good leg to kick the soccer ball.
Children here for an extended stay settle into a routine of baths, meals, school and playtimes. Until they are assigned to parents overseas, the foster home becomes a refuge and its caretakers a makeshift family.
As the screening process ends on this particular day, each child is told to pick a toy for the return trip to the monk's house. One chooses a doll, another a ball, another a toy piano.
Led once again by Mesfin, they leave as quietly and as orderly as they came.
Heading for new homes
A few days later, Carter-Shotts' attention turns to the six young children who will come with her to their new families in the United States. Many have been at the foster home for more than a year.
In Carter-Shotts' 15 years of delivering children to adoptive parents, this is one of her youngest groups.
She quickly can find homes for cute babies. Sick, disabled or older children take longer, but everyone she takes in is placed eventually.
Suzanne Leveille, a Boston epidemiologist who is adopting Tarekwa and her playmate, Abeba, says she chose to adopt from Africa because she wanted to go where the need was greatest.
"I wanted school-age girls, so Tarekwa and Abeba were the right ages," said Leveille, 47. "Plus, I knew other families might be intimidated by Tarekwa's leg, even though with a good prosthesis it really wouldn't be much of a disability."
Carter-Shotts says she's honest with prospective parents because she wants them to know what they're getting into.
"Some tell me they don't think they can handle a child with serious emotional or medical problems, and that's fine," she says. "I'd rather know now than later.
"Others say, 'Give me the ones no one else wants.' "
As a general rule, Carter-Shotts discourages adoptive parents from going to Africa to pick up their children. Visiting a formerly communist, Third World country tends to rattle the nerves of those already overwhelmed by the drama of impending parenthood. She suggests they visit later as a family.
"I'd rather they come at a less emotional time when their children are old enough to appreciate the trip and learn from it," she says.
But 40-year-old architecture Professor Donna Cohen of Gainesville, Fla., could not be dissuaded. After flying 16 hours, she went directly to the foster home, woke 20-month-old Sanait from her nap and lifted her from the crib. The baby immediately snuggled into her new mom's arms.
The journey begins
On the day of their departure from the foster home, the children are dressed in traditional Ethiopian clothes -- white or beige loose-fitting pants, tops or dresses with colorfully embroidered trim.
Carter-Shotts sees the attire as a symbol of their heritage.
"I know other agencies send kids off to America from China or Korea or wherever with absolutely no hint of where that child came from," she says. "That's just wrong to me."
Each child is also given a backpack with souvenirs of their homeland that Carter-Shotts purchased -- pencils, books, small artifacts.
A going-away party features fruit, bread and a "bon voyage" cake.
Just as Tarekwa welcomed the children visiting the foster home for screening, she now prepares to say goodbye to the little ones leaving for the United States. She hugs and kisses each child, one by one.
The babies are oblivious to their destination, but the foster home's staff is not. Caretakers inevitably get attached to the children and are sorry to see them go.
"No, no, don't you start," Carter-Shotts fusses at the lead foster mother, whose eyes have begun to brim. The woman fights back tears as a caravan of airport-bound taxis drives out of the compound.
Tarekwa and the children left behind continue waving through the foster home's windows long after the vehicles have disappeared.
The airport is a chaotic tangle of security scanners, bolting toddlers and passport and visa checks.
Carter-Shotts drafts strangers to hold babies as she fishes through 2-inch-thick stacks of paperwork and boarding passes. One stunned bystander carries a contentedly babbling Beza through the terminal.
A surprising number of strangers help on these excursions, Carter-Shotts says. "Ethiopian women see you with all these children and just start grabbing hands and wiping faces."
On this trip, Carter-Shotts needs all the help she can get.
Once on board the plane, 11-month-old Beza develops a violent case of diarrhea, nearly exhausting the limited supply of diapers on the 16-hour flight to Newark, N.J., and a connecting flight to Indianapolis.
Tsehay, 2, cries or moans during every waking moment, and 18-month-old Bayush quickly learns to unfasten her seat belt, enabling her to wobble down the aisle to investigate the lights in the cockpit.
Through it all, Carter-Shotts maintains her sense of humor. No amount of mischief seems to bother her.
It's worth every moment to see the expressions on the parents' faces when they see their little ones, she says.
After the stop in Newark, the long journey comes to an end at Indianapolis International Airport. Many adoptive parents have waited a year or more for their child's arrival, and they come equipped with cameras and balloons.
"Hi, honey," says a beaming Paul Alford, 36, as he takes Beza into his arms and his wife hugs Bayush. The baby girls meet their three new brothers, who have traveled with their parents from Bloomington.
Carter-Shotts visits briefly with the Alfords and the other new parents, doling out bits of information and advice: This one bites. This one's sick. This is how you say "stop" or "wait" or "toilet" in Amharic.
The parents nod, gratefully hugging their new babies while surrounded by friends, relatives and curious bystanders.
Carter-Shotts is all smiles as she watches the children leave with their new families.
Ironically, the woman who ushered six babies across an ocean has neglected one chore.
She's made no arrangements to get home from the airport.
Photographer Mike Fender contributed to this story. Contact Courtenay Edelhart at 1-317-444-6481 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org