Ethiopian girl lands in Maine after long, sad journey of adoption
(NECN: Marnie MacLean, Windham, Maine) - As she walks through campus, there is nothing that sets Tarikuwa Lemma apart from the other freshmen at a college in Maine.
But a closer look reveals a young woman who has been on a long and painful journey - a journey that starts in her home country of Ethiopia.
"My mom died when I was 10," said Tarikuwa.
When her mother died, Tarikuwa says her widowed father struggled financially to care for her and her siblings. It made him vulnerable to brokers who profit when they provide children to adoption agencies.
"It brought in the adoption recruits for people who are friends with my father to come into our homes and tell him that this is a great opportunity to send your children to America to get a great education," she said.
Tarikuwa's father agreed to send her and two of her sisters to America.
What none of them understood was he had given them up for adoption. They were adopted by a family in Virginia who thought they were saving orphaned children.
"They didn't have a word to explain what adoption was, so the translator had to explain it to us, as, we're going to stay here, this is our new family,'" she said. "And I was horrified."
Tarikuwa was 13 when she came to America - old enough to understand she had been betrayed by an adoption system that can be corrupt, especially in poor countries like Ethiopia.
Adoption advocates say fault lies with unscrupulous brokers and agencies that often look the other way.
"Adoption is relatively poorly regulated, so, in effect, you can't sue them because they aren't breaking
the law," said Maureen Flatley.
Flatley has been an adoption advocate for more than 20 years. She says while stories like this represent a small number of adoptions, it is a growing problem.
"It's growing in part because we have been less discriminating about which countries we do business with," she said.
Confused and angry, Tarikuwa rejected her adoptive parents and their attempts to create a new family.
"They wanted a happy story of adoption, a fairy tale where they took us outside and put us in matching clothes and took family pictures," she said.
While her younger sisters finally acclimated, Tarikuwa did not. After eight months of struggling, her adoptive parents sent her to Iowa to visit her adoptive grandmother.
Two weeks later, they told her not to come back.
"That was another betrayal, I would say," Tarikuwa cried. "Because I was separated from my family and they separated me from my sisters."
In the adoption world, it is called "re-homing," or "adoption disruption" - giving an adopted child to someone else. A recent investigation by Reuters and NBC shed light on what has largely been an underground practice.
In some cases, children are offered up on the Internet to complete strangers.
"I would say placing a pet out of your home is more highly regulated than this re-homing system is," said Flatley. "There has to be a safe, organized, orderly way that these children can be moved from one place to another without putting them at risk for being adopted by a predator. That is common in the re-homing system."
Tarikuwa spent five years with her adoptive grandmother. Life was better, but she was never really happy. In her senior year of high school, she left and went out on her own.
"I was terrified. I was trying to do what anyone can in that situation."
Eventually, she landed in Maine. She now lives with a family she chose.
Her dream is to be a children's rights advocate in Ethiopia.
"Though there are adoptive families, adoptive parents, especially, they're now accepting the fact that adoptees - we're telling our story."