exposing the dark side of adoption
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Still a Long Way from Home


Still a Long Way from Home

In a dark room off a dirt lot, a child leafs through the laminated pages of a picture album. There's jade green grass and a white paneled house and a little blond girl smiling. There's a big minivan and a bigger play set. There's a countertop completely covered with food. "This is a very nice place," Emmanuel Williams, 10, says in a quiet voice. "I would like to go to this place."

From the point of view of an orphan in Liberia, suburban America looks like paradise. But for Emmanuel, it is a paradise beyond reach; at his age he is unlikely to be adopted. For 13 others living in the same orphanage, however, the pictures could turn into reality — and salvation. Monrovia is essentially under siege. Food, clean water and medicine become scarcer by the day. These 13 children don't suffer any less than the rest of the population. The difference is that they could have a way out. They have been adopted by American parents. But a civil war stands between them and their new homes.

So far, the orphanage where they live has escaped the worst of the war. The woman in charge, Hannah Williams, 59, has heard mortars fly overhead to explode harmlessly in the ocean; none has landed nearby. As Williams shows a visitor around her place, she apologizes for the darkness. The orphanage has a generator, but no gas. Williams shares a double bed on wooden slats with four babies. The older kids have metal-frame bunk beds. The mattresses, where they exist, are inch-thick foam pads. Rambunctious kids have torn down pieces of the straw ceiling. Daylight shines through the corrugated tin roof.

Williams' main worries are food and medicine. During peacetime, she would get bulgur wheat from the World Food Program. Now she gets nothing. The price of a bag of rice has quintupled since the latest round of fighting began. Her storeroom holds only a half-bag of flour among empty drums of cooking oil. There's a well, but no chlorine to treat the water. Some of the kids have dysentery. Nearly 200 children depend on her. She barely manages to feed them once a day. "But why?" she asks. "Why can't the Americans help, since I've got these documents, to carry away the children?"

Under American immigration law, a child can only be adopted if his or her parents are dead or unable to provide support, and the U.S. embassy must look into each case — a process that even in normal times can take months. "While we remain concerned for these children, the ongoing violence makes conducting investigations impossible," says an embassy official. According to this official, there are several orphanages in Monrovia with a similar number of children awaiting investigation, but only a handful of cases are being processed.

Adoption organizations in the U.S., concerned about the rise in violence, keep pushing cases through. "We just want her here," says Ellen Carlson, a trainer for Wells Fargo in Long Lake, Minnesota, who has adopted Patience Williams, a big-eyed, 2-year-old Monrovian girl in short braids and a blue and white polka-dot dress. "We have her bed ready in her bedroom. We have her enrolled in her preschool. Her big sister is waiting for her little sister."

The Carlsons have used a photograph of Patience — who's suffering from anemia and severe diarrhea, and no longer has the energy she once had — to introduce her to friends and family in Minnesota. It was the Carlsons who put together the picture book for their new child, a kind of window that all the orphans have been peering through. The second-to-last page shows the Carlson's biological daughter, Zoe, beckoning from a gleaming hall, with the caption: "Come join us at preschool soon." The last page has only this text: "Generally, stories say 'The End' right here. But let's try this — 'The Beginning.'" For now, though, the new start will have to be delayed, probably until the Liberian civil war comes to its own end.

2003 Aug 3