Not a hero ... just a dad

Date: 2006-05-04
Source: Gulf News

Not a hero ... just a dad

Matthew Morgan-Jones is a father with a difference. The 34-year-old has single-handedly adopted two toddlers from war-torn Sierra Leone and has also set up a UAE charity to help an orphanage there. He tells Lorraine Chandler why these days he's more interested in potties than Porsches.

By Lorraine Chandler, Staff Writer
Published: 00:00 May 4, 2006

Matthew Morgan-Jones is a father with a difference. The 34-year-old has single-handedly adopted two toddlers from war-torn Sierra Leone and has also set up a UAE charity to help an orphanage there. He tells Lorraine Chandler why these days he's more interested in potties than Porsches.
Two years ago, Matthew Morgan-Jones was a young single guy in Dubai, enjoying a fun lifestyle and the perks of his training career in The Body Shop and later in Home Centre. Now he is a father of two children he adopted from Sierra Leone (and is in the process of adopting a third).
He has also just set up a charity to help the All As One Children's Centre in Sierra Leone, a country that only recently emerged from a bloody civil war that spanned more than a decade.
There's no denying his two children - Dauda, 3, and Magda, 2 - have been spared a tough existence in what the UN has called the world's poorest country. Yet Morgan-Jones, from England, is at pains to point out he didn't adopt them out of altruism, but because he wanted to have children.

"It's a win-win situation for all of us," he says, keen to avoid being pigeon-holed as a do-gooder.
Even as a young man, his paternal instincts were very strong. However, he was devastated in his mid-twenties when he learned that he would never be able to father children biologically.

"It was then that I realised how much I really wanted a family. I started to think about adoption because I knew there were so many children who needed a family, and the equation seemed to add up," he says. "I always thought I'd get married first but that didn't seem to happen."
After completing a BA in administration management at the University of Humberside in 1994, he started working for The Body Shop in London in the business development and training department. After a two-year stint in Australia, he moved to Dubai in 2001 as the company's retail zone manager for Middle East and Africa.
He helped set up the Body Shop franchise in South Africa, where the company sponsored two Aids orphanages. Morgan-Jones was responsible for liaising with the orphanages and it was then that he decided he would like to adopt children from Africa.

He began seeking more information on how to go about it and, sometime in November 2003, came across an article in a magazine that had details about the Dubai Adoption Support Group. He realised he could start the adoption ball rolling from Dubai.

Morgan-Jones did not waste time and soon started undergoing the rigorous clearance process to become an adoptive dad. As a single male, it wasn't easy since most countries had very strict adoption regulations.

While psychologists and the police were vetting him, he did his research on adoption and learned that adopting a child from Sierra Leone might be a good option.
He heard about All As One, a children's centre run by American Deanna Wallace in the country's capital, Freetown. The centre, which has a staff of 30, houses around 70 children. It also runs education, health and community programmes.

The number of orphaned children in Sierra Leone is staggering. There are an estimated 3,000 children waiting to be adopted in the capital alone. The problem is compounded by the fact that adoption procedures in the country are extremely stringent.

Morgan-Jones had expressed interest in adopting two children under the age of 5 - a very brave move, indeed, and fortunately for him, his request to adopt was approved by All As One in May 2004. But that was only the first step in a long journey.

He received referral papers for Dauda, then aged 18 months, and shortly after, for Magda, then barely a couple of months old. But in July 2004 he received disturbing news - the chief justice of Sierra Leone had suspended international adoptions.

Morgan-Jones had already gone shopping for baby clothes and started decorating the kids' room. "I'd done all the things they told me not to do until I had the children," he says, ruefully.
He had to wait for close to six months before Sierra Leone, in January 2005, reopened international adoptions. Never one to give up, he continued pursuing his case and after four excruciating months, his case was heard.

By July, Morgan-Jones had miraculously gained custody of both children and was able to fly back to Dubai. Now he is in the process of adopting a third child, David, who was Dauda's best friend at the orphanage.

All the months he spent in Sierra Leone gave Morgan-Jones a new perspective about children and adoption. He felt compelled to do something for the children there.
Shortly after returning to Dubai, he heard from Wallace that the centre was in dire financial straits and might have to close within months if it didn't receive more funds.
He sprang into action, organising a charity dinner in December that raised $15,000 (Dh55,170) and enabled the orphanage to fund itself for another two months.
In the meantime, he contacted the Dubai Aid and Humanitarian City to consider steps for setting up an organisation in the UAE to support the centre. He was fortunate yet again.

The charity, also called All As One, was recently approved and Morgan-Jones, the UAE director and chief volunteer (as he quips) is full of enthusiasm about spreading the message around the country, after yet another successful charity dinner in March.

He tells me that he's looking for volunteers from different fields, including journalism - he says this in a very pointed way - and I ask myself if this tremendously passionate man will end up persuading me to be more than just a volunteer of his charity organisation.

I
I've always had a strong picture in my head of myself struggling off a London train with three small children. I'd seen it so many times when I was working in London, and I used to wonder, "Why do they do this?" so now I'll be getting my own back. It's funny because even then I could see the children as African.

I have so much admiration for my parents because of the way they brought us up while being so active in the community. My background really instilled in me a desire to be a parent myself.

I'm very goal-oriented so when I decided I wanted to adopt, I didn't want to wait around to meet the right partner (and then begin the process).
I wanted to have children, not save the orphans. People make you out to be a hero for what you've done, but as far as I'm concerned it was a win-win situation. I'm thankful to my children because I've learned and grown a lot more than if I had never adopted them.

I love it when people say how beautiful my children are and wish me luck. I hate some of the questions and insensitive things that people say.
If Magda is crying when we're out, women will come up to us and try to comfort her - as if I'm not able to do that. They'll often ask, "Where's the mother?" or ask something like; "Who could have abandoned such a pretty boy?" I don't like it when people ask about their personal history because I think that belongs to my children alone.
I was really changed by my experiences in Sierra Leone. I had seen poverty before but the emotion of becoming a parent while seeing all this misery left a burning impression on me. I felt very strongly for parents living with difficult choices and I came back to Dubai wanting to do something for the country.

I think it's great to set up the charity here in Dubai. Sierra Leone is perhaps the world's poorest country while Dubai is one of the richest countries in the world. All the recent natural disasters have meant that people are giving less to small charities and people are also worried about where their money
is going.
Deanna (Wallace) is taking a minimum wage while her staff are all getting paid fairly.

Me
Me and my parents:

My dad, Bill, was a lorry driver. He died of lung cancer when I was 21. My mum, June, was a very traditional housewife, although she did work part time as a social worker and later as a counsellor for the Marie Curie Foundation (for cancer).

She later married Les, who I have a very good relationship with. I always felt very grounded growing up. It was a very loving background and I was also close to my cousins.
We lived in (Croydon) a working class area (of London) and my mum saw the need for starting a relatively less expensive activity club for children and teenagers. It started with 20 kids as St Augustus Holiday Club when I was about 6 and grew to an NGO with about 200 children.

She managed to do that while looking after me and two older sisters. Sometimes she even took us with her to meetings because she'd have nowhere else to put us. As a result, we very rarely had a holiday, but we didn't mind.

In that atmosphere, I learned that working in the community was something one should do. My mum and dad taught me that if you're going to be a parent, then you'd better put your whole heart into it. I have so much admiration for them.

When I told them about adopting, they were surprised. They'd heard me talking about it, but now it was real. I included them in the whole process and they were so supportive. My mum came with me to Dauda's court hearing because we'd been told it would strengthen my case.

We are having a family blessing service back home (in England) to welcome Dauda and Magda into our family. It's a wonderful way to say, "We're here as a family, and we need your love, support and guidance."

Me and Sierra Leone:
A lot of African countries require that adoptive parents live six months in the country before adopting, but that doesn't apply in Sierra Leone. However, the adoption process is quite arbitrary as it depends on the judge who's appointed to your case.

When the country suspended international adoptions, I asked Deanna Wallace, 'What can I do?'. My friends and family supported me by sending about 250 e-mails and 50 faxes to the press, the American Embassy and the British Embassy (in Freetown) to pressure Sierra Leone to open up again. A test case in December 2004 restarted adoption.

In May, I took two weeks off work to go to Sierra Leone, but I ended up staying for nearly two months. My boss at Home Centre was very good about it. I had decided not to give up until I had my day in court. I was really shocked by the harsh conditions there.

I've been to Bangladesh and India, where there are extremes, but this reminded me of Soweto ... there weren't any better-off suburbs. Everything was bullet-ridden and run down. People were living in complete poverty and each day was a struggle. There was no proper sewage system and no electricity.
(About) 80 per cent of the people in Freetown had no jobs or income.

I stayed in a hotel while, waiting for my case to be heard. One day the woman who cleaned my room told me her husband had been tortured and killed in the war and she had two sons and a daughter.

The previous year her sons were ill. Both of them needed to undergo an operation but she could only afford to pay for one. She bought medication for the other but he died.
The story horrified me because I had never realised how lucky I was as a parent and how lucky my children now are. I knew I would never have to face that decision, and I was shocked that so many (parents) lived in a situation where they had to make choices like that.

Me and All As One:
I initially tried to set up a charity when I came back to Dubai but I was a bit overwhelmed ? (and had) my new family responsibilities.
However, when Deanna contacted me to tell me she might have to close down her centre in Sierra Leone, I sprang into action mode to organise our first charity dinner, with the support of a lot of friends.

I reconnected with Dubai Aid and Humanitarian City and managed to start registering the charity with the help of the CEO, Barbara Castek.
Now we're looking at fundraising, in addition to increasing awareness and education about Sierra Leone. Imagine that two out of five children in the provinces don't live beyond the age of 5. We're also going to be organising collection drives, in partnership with DHL, for clothes and food.

We're in talks with a bank to set up a sponsorship facility and are also organising balls and other events throughout the year. Our recent ball in March raised $30,000 (about Dh110,000). I'm also looking out for some office space.

I want to get a team of volunteers together and organise some of them to go into schools to educate children. Imagine if we could get every child to donate one piece of secondhand clothing.

In the future, I'd like to launch a fund to build a new orphanage. The current one was ransacked during the war, is bullet-ridden and looks a bit like a dungeon.

Me and my new venture:
I wanted to spend more time with my kids, so I left Home Centre this January to start my own company. Now I can work from 8am to 4pm, spend time with them and then work on the computer in the evening.
I have a master's in human resources (completed at the University of Westminister in 1996) and I had done a lot of work in training and development, particularly in retail.
So I decided to set-up my own training company, Retail People Consultancy (a specialist retail HR provider). We're starting with training but will also add recruiting and consultancy arms later.

Myself
Are you very conscious of the fact that your children are growing up in a different culture? How much effort do you make to preserve their cultural identity?
While I'd been researching adoption, I'd learned a lot about cross-cultural adoption and I was very concerned to make Dauda and Magda feel good about themselves, while also providing good role models (for them).
I used to go to a white Western doctor but now I go to a more multi-cultural clinic. Even when considering schools, I'd like them to go somewhere multicultural. Similarly, we have some African friends and I've made an effort to fill our house with African artefacts and books. I want to celebrate our cultural diversity.
At 3, Dauda is starting to notice things. At a recent gathering, he stood up on a table and said, "I'm lovely and black," and then he looked at me and said, "You're lovely and white."

How has adopting children changed you as a person?
I'm a lot less selfish. Before I only had myself to think about. Your children mirror what you do, so it made me conscious of how I act and my behaviour is a lot more positive nowadays because there are always little eyes and ears following me.
I want to be the best role model I can. I'm also less materialistic. I used to buy Prada but now I'm wearing a shirt and trousers from Max store. In London, I would think nothing of flying to New York for the weekend. But there comes a point where you change. Sierra Leone showed me how lucky I was and now I want to give something back.

You're a single parent now. Do you think it would be difficult to find a partner to settle down with?
It would have to be someone very special. I always wanted to adopt children and I think if I met the right woman, I'd like to adopt more children. For me right now, adopting David will complete my journey. Every time I look at Dauda I think of David still in the orphanage.

Many people may find your story inspirational. What would you say to them?
I don't want people to be impressed. We're sitting around and people are starving. If someone tells me he thinks I'm great, I say, "What are you doing about it?" Try to omit one item from your shopping list and instead consider sponsoring a child. Think about adopting a child into your family. Forget about the big picture and see what you can do to help.

For information on All As One, log on to www.allasone.org or contact Matthew Morgan-Jones on 050 645 9343 or e-mail matthew@allasone.org

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