Adoption: love in action

In a country like Ethiopia where there are so many orphans, we claim that domestic adoption exists and many may even argue saying “we bring extended families (from rural areas) for better education and life opportunities to cities like Addis Ababa.” But true adoption does not isolate those “adopted” extended family members from joining dinner tables. It does not automatically default them into a night shift school even when there is financial capacity for day schooling just to use their labor during daytime. True adoption does not treat the adoptee differently. It shows no partiality. But isn’t that the case in many households? Aren’t these extended families mostly brought just to be housemaids and guards?

Of course, this is not to undermine the exemplar Ethiopian families that share love and support to the extended families they bring to town to raise them as their own children. I celebrate you wholeheartedly. I also want to celebrate those who have adopted domestically. I can only imagine the criticism and hardship you may have faced, the overbearing comments and dehumanizing proverbs thrown at you — “Better to raise a dog than somebody else’s child” (“የሰው ልጅ ከማሳደግ ውሻ ማሳደግ ይሻላል”). But you and I can challenge these proverbs and stereotypes. We can share stories of adopting families and show that orphans and abandoned children are to be loved and valued. They are not to be dehumanized or to be treated as last resort.

I’m presenting you with the following story of a good friend of mine whom I call a brother, Wondemagegn Begashaw. Wondemagegn was adopted from Kidane Mihret Children’s home by an American family at the age of 12. Even though this is an example of an international adoption, it is my hope that his story will provoke you to think about domestic adoption.

“This is my most favorite childhood picture. It is at Kidane Mihret Children’s home where I grew up. It is a home for orphans like me. My grandpa told me that I was born in Addis Ababa but I have also heard Asmera, Eritrea.” (Wonde is second to the left)
“My brother and I had different fathers. My mom was never married, and we both don’t know our fathers. It was my grandpa, my uncle, his son and me in this house. My grandpa was a gardner in a big compound near our house, and my uncle didn’t have a regular job. Even though I was only a child, I do remember them very well.”
“I remember one time looking through the bamboo fence at our house and seeing my mother and a man talking. It was a glimpse. My grandpa asked me who it was outside and when I told him that they said it was my father, my grandpa shouted at me, “I am your father.” I was probably 4 or so and I have never seen the man they said was my father since then.”
“I remember my mom, she had her Netela folded around her on my first day to school. She bought me Kochoro and Jelati so I wouldn’t refuse to go to the school. I always ran around with her and I used to sleep next to her. She got very sick at some point and passed away during the Ethiopian New Year in 2007. This is how I became an orphan. I only have one portrait of my mother and it is on my bedroom wall.”
“Life was never the same after my mom’s death. My uncle, Shimelis, became an alcoholic. He would beat us until we bled, curse us and it was a life full of physical and verbal abuse with him. My grandpa died the same year. I have always had my grandpa’s name as my last name. He was like a father to me, a great one. My other uncle, Geremew and his family came to live with us but it was very difficult for them and they had to move back. I was tired of all the beating and ran away from home. I became homeless.”
“Street life was hard. I knew some of the kids from the streets so I used to borrow their shoeshine boxes to work. I spent a few nights at our neighbors’ house, but they were later scared of my crazy uncle and refused to let me in. After some time, my mother’s friend found me on the streets and took me in with her but she had to move to the US. She gave me to another woman and I stayed with her for 7 months.”
“Somehow, the woman decided to take me to Kidane Mihret Children’s home and they took me in. This used to be my bed in the orphanage center. I liked it here. I met lots of good friends but the older ones used to kick us and that wasn’t fun at all. We spent most of our times looking through these windows. You could see people walking up and down. We used to call them with random names and hide (laughs). My brother later joined me here and we stayed together until he was sent to another center because he was a naughty one. I remember when the nun came to tell me that my uncle who used to beat me up committed suicide. I didn’t cry, I was stubborn. My other uncle came to stay at our house while I remained at the orphanage center. I used to to sneak out to visit them.”

Interviewing Wonde’s uncle, Geremew, was a very emotional time. I asked how he felt when he found out that Wonde was going to be adopted. He walked out of the house and lit his cigarette. He couldn’t stop crying even though he tried so hard. He said, “Had I known you would ask me this question, I would have refused to join this conversation because it still hurts me when I think about it.”

“When Wonde came to tell me that he was going to be adopted, I felt so sad. Do you know the feeling of not existing? I felt like I didn’t exist, I wasn’t enough for him. I couldn’t say “no” because I didn’t have enough money to raise him. I walked him to the orphanage center and I walked back to my house crying.” Geremew, uncle
“This is me at my grandmother’s house in the US. I was 12 years old when my adopting mom and her two sons came to Addis Ababa to take me to the US. It was mom, dad, two brothers and me in the house. They were great parents. They gave me all the things I wanted. But, it was very difficult at the same time. The language barrier made me an angry kid. I would get angry with them because they wouldn’t understand me. It was hard also because I couldn’t accept them fully. I knew my mother and my grandpa. I had a family, you know?!”
“I got along with my brothers but not with mom and dad. I didn’t speak good English and they didn’t speak Amharic. What was worse is, mom and dad went through a divorce after two years of staying with them. I got angrier because I thought I was the reason for the divorce. I had to choose between them. I chose my dad because he was moving to New York where my best friend was based in — my best friend, Haile, from the orphanage center from what I heard.”
“After moving to New York, I met my best friend Haile. It was much better, but my dad and I couldn’t get along. I was always angry with him for the reasons I told you before but soccer became my life in high school. It was more like a therapy to keep myself busy and not think much.”
“I graduated from high school in NY and moved to Washington State with my Ethiopian friends who were also adopted from the same orphanage center I was in. My grandma is my favorite from my adopting family. She understood me much better than any of them. She is the one who encouraged me to write my story. She would ask me to visit her every Sunday just so she follows up on how I was doing. Writing my story has helped me a lot in my journey and I hope it will be published one day. After 10 years of my stay in the US, I received a message on Facebook. It was my brother from Addis Ababa.”
“It was his brother who came to tell us that he found him on the internet. We were very surprised and grateful but I didn’t believe it until I saw his pictures. And few months later, his brother came again to tell us that Wonde is finally coming to Addis Ababa. You should have seen me then. I have always said to my husband, ‘If it is God’s will, we will meet Wonde again,’ and it was God’s will and time. We couldn’t wait to see him.” Asnaku, wife of Wonde’s uncle, Geremew
“What great news to hear from Wonde’s older brother about Wonde! If I told neighbors and those who knew about Wonde’s adoption that I had never heard from him, they would judge me so I lied to the people who would ask about him, ‘He is fine. He calls often. He is doing well’ for the past 10 years. When I buy something new for my house, I would lie again saying it was with Wonde’s money. I kept my pain for so long but I always thought of him and I used to wonder if I would ever see him again. I am happy people could finally witness his presence. “ Geremew, Wonde’s uncle
“I came to Ethiopia after 10 years. Seeing my brother, my uncle and his family was overwhelming. I never really thought I would ever see them again. I am glad I met them again. My uncle is a great man. Of course, my second home was Kidane Mihret Children’s home. I visit it often and spend time with the orphaned and abandoned children at the center. It brings back so many memories. Sister Luthgarda was very kind to me during my stay at the orphanage, a great mother to all of us.”
“I have gone through a lot as you can see but I try to live in the present. I am currently a mentor for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the US. I workout everyday, it is my motivation in life. I will keep pushing.”

Wondemagegn’s story is one of the many international adoption stories. I have read that Ethiopia has suspended international adoption to all countries as of April 21, 2017. So, who is adopting the orphans in the orphanage centers now? Or better yet, what is being done to prevent the orphan crisis in our country? As a society, are we progressing towards being more accepting of and practicing domestic adoption?

I believe in domestic adoption because we will have orphaned and abandoned children among us that deserve a loving and caring family. I hope to see more domestic adoption stories and orphan prevention efforts. I hope to see more recognition of locally adopting parents who are challenging wrong societal perceptions of domestic adoption. But most importantly, I so hope to see every one of us with positive attitude toward orphans and those who adopt, because change starts from changing wrong perceptions within.