Lifeline to Ethiopia

Date: 2006-12-07

Waltham agency paves the way to adopting orphaned children

Erica Noonan
The Boston Globe

A ear ago, in a desperately poor corner of the world, Richard Fournier of Plainville became a father for the third time.

Fournier traveled to Ethiopia to adopt Samuel, a 3-year-old he and his wife, Susan, had known only through photos and medical reports.

His new son spoke no English, so Richard learned a few words of Amharic, such as dabo (bread) and abba (daddy). Today, Sammy chats away about the Red Sox and "Big Papi."

Americans adopt 20,000 children a year from overseas, a number that has tripled in the past decade. The Fourniers are among a small but growing number of families choosing to adopt from Ethiopia, rather than from countries such as China, Russia, and Guatemala with much larger, established placement programs.

Samuel came to America via Waltham-based Wide Horizons for Children, one of only a handful of US agencies licensed to work in Ethiopia, where more than 4 million children have been orphaned by war, famine, and AIDS.

"We wanted to expand our family and help a child who needed it," said Sue Fournier, a pediatric nurse. "And there is such tremendous need there."

Michelle and Rahul Dhanda of Watertown considered adopting from several nations, including India, where Rahul has family, before settling on Ethiopia. They adopted their son Sameer from Horizon House in November 2005, when he was 10 months old.

"It was a country where it was obvious that you could have a great impact," said Michelle Dhanda, a Suffolk University law student.

But her husband is quick to say that adopting Sameer was not purely an altruistic gesture. He hates it when people gush about how lucky his son is to have a new life in the United States.

"We wanted to become parents," Dhanda said. "What we've done for his life is nothing compared to what he's done for us."

Approximately 80 percent of couples adopting children from Ethiopia are white, but the number of African-American parents participating in the program is far larger than in any of the agency's other international programs. A growing number of single African-American women are inquiring about adopting through the program as well, said Laura Wells, the agency's public relations coordinator.

Wide Horizons runs Horizon House in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa for children who have been orphaned or given up by families too impoverished to care for them.

"We can really say to prospective parents, 'You can save a life when you adopt from Ethiopia,"' said Vicki Peterson, the agency's founder and executive director of external affairs. "And some people find that to be especially meaningful."

Overseas adoption used to be taboo in Africa. But that has changed as American society has become more inclusive and the AIDS epidemic in Africa has claimed the lives of so many parents. (The Ethiopian government does not allow children who are HIV-positive to be adopted overseas.)

"Most countries in the world don't understand 'stranger' adoption. 'It takes a village' really is a model, and it's believed that extended families and society should take care of kids," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York-based adoption advocacy organization. "But when the village of adults is being wiped out, the country has to say to themselves, what do we do for the kids?"

In the three years since it opened its Ethiopia program, Wide Horizons has placed 250 children and expects to place another 150 in the coming year, said Sarah Mraz, who directs the program.

This is a tiny number compared with other programs around the world - nearly 8,000 visas were issued by the State Department for Chinese orphans last year, compared with 450 for Ethiopian adoptees. Fewer than 200 total visas were issued to orphans from Liberia and Nigeria, the only other African nations for which records were available.

But Ethiopia could be poised to gain popularity, Mraz said. "We would never have dreamed the program would be so successful, that so many families would come forward or that the children would do so well when they got here."

Wide Horizons got a jolt of Hollywood star power in July last year, when Angelina Jolie adopted an Ethiopian infant. The agency fielded more than 1,700 requests for adoption information that month, triple its normal volume.

Families who adopt from Ethiopia generally have a short wait - often less than 10 months to be matched with a child - as opposed to a 12- to 16-month wait for a child from China. Fees to adopt from Ethiopia also tend to be lower - less than $15,000 compared with more than $20,000 for Guatemala and South Korea.

Ethiopia also is less restrictive about eligibility, allowing adoptions by single women and couples up to age 55.

But adopting children from Ethiopia can pose greater cultural and emotional complications than from other countries. Frequently, members of the child's birth family are still alive and request to meet with the adoptive parents. Parents must be willing to provide photos and periodic updates on the child as he or she grows.

Fournier recalled his meeting with Sammy's birth father, an impoverished widower in ill health.

He assured the man that Sammy would be encouraged to remember his birth family and his home. "Sammy will always have two fathers," he told him.

But to Fournier's surprise, Sammy's birth father said he felt his son was leaving Africa for a happier, healthier life. The family was so poor, it had nothing to offer its children - not even food. "You are Sammy's father now," the man told Fournier.

The Dhandas attempted to meet with members of Sameer's extended family, but they were busy with their harvest. Instead, the Watertown couple met with neighbors, giving them photos of their family and Watertown home.

The couple have assembled a detailed scrapbook for Sameer that includes photos they took in Ethiopia when they picked him up.

"When he's a teenager he'll have questions, and we did this so he would know that we thought his background and heritage is as important as he does," his mother said, adding that they would likely take him on a visit to his homeland when he is older.

The Dhandas and their in-laws are also sponsoring two of Sameer's young female relatives, sending $400 annually through a seperate Wide Horizons program for their schooling.

As their children grow, adoptive families inevitably grapple with cultural and adjustment issues.

Sammy Fournier, now 4 1/2, loves art, soccer, computers, and playing with his older siblings Ben, 11, and Katherine, 8, the Fourniers' biological children. But Sammy also had to unlearn skills that helped him survive a harsh and deprived infancy, his mother said.

"For a long time he would ask, 'Are we going to eat today?"' Fournier said.

Discipline was also difficult at first, she added. Giving Sammy a timeout from his playthings for misbehaving had little effect because he was less attached to toys than a typical American child.

Drucilla Roberts of Millis and her husband, Nick Semine, adopted sisters Simret, 9, and Simenesh, 7, from Horizon House in 2004.

They are organizing a four-day-long Ethiopian heritage camp for adoptive families at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire this June. A similar camp has been run on the West Coast for several years and allows families to network, share resources, and make friends, said Roberts, a Massachusetts General Hospital pathologist.

But keeping her girls connected to their heritage isn't a simple proposition. Simret and Simenesh had traumatic childhoods and refused contact with members of their birth family during a recent trip back to Ethiopia, Roberts said. The girls are still working through painful feelings and adjusting to their new lives, even two years after coming home, their mother said.

The family plans to visit Africa every several years - and financially supports the sisters' grandmother and other family members - but Roberts said she wouldn't force the girls to re-forge family ties unless they wish to.

"We want to give them as much control of their lives as possible," she said. "These are children who had no choice over the most basic things in their lives."

Last month, African adoption by a celebrity made headlines again when pop singer Madonna adopted a boy from Malawi, a tiny, impoverished southern African country where the average life expectancy is 41 years.

Critics accused the pop star of using her fame and fortune to obtain guardianship of the boy from a country where adoption by foreigners is rare. But the media frenzy may have done some good.

"Any time attention is focused on the desperate need of children in African countries, it is a good thing," said Peterson. "Now more people are aware of the responsibility we have to the children of the world."

For more information on Wide Horizons for Children's Ethiopia adoption and sponsorship programs, visit www.whfc.org.

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

Caption:
PHOTOS BY BILL POLO/GLOBE STAFF
At Horizon House in Ethiopia, Meskarem Strama, 8 (front), who lives in Maryland, and Rebeca Weege, 9, who lives in Wisconsin; Tsegaye Berhe, founder of the orphanage, hugs a resident; a nanny cuddles 6-month-old Simano Gundson, who along with boys at right has been adopted.

Rahul and Michelle Dhanda with 20-month-old Sameer in their Watertown home. He was adopted through Wide Horizons for Children.Richard and Susan Fournier with Katherine, age 8, Sammy, 4, and Ben, age 11. A growing number of Americans are adopting children from Ethiopia.

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