Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Orphans" and Economics

One of my most recent eye-opening lessons in the international adoption community is how “family preservation” is viewed. It seems to make people feel uncomfortable, even a bit threatened, yet it would help so many more children than adoption does.
Awassa Reading Center, Ethiopia

Anyone involved in international adoption is aware of the role of money. Adoptions cost around $30,000-$40,000. Children who are adopted internationally have birth families that are poor, some more abjectly than others. Children who are adopted internationally have adoptive families who are way better off economically than their birth families. Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s a reality in most cases, whether you were born in Korea, China, Haiti, Russia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, or India. It’s a definite imbalance of power.

Adoptive parents often hold fundraisers to get the thousands of dollars they need to adopt internationally. Friends, family, and strangers contribute. Many of the parents then claim the adoption tax credit after the child is with them, and that way get reimbursed by the US government for the airfare, hotels, meals, and other adoption expenses.

I’m holding a fundraiser, but it’s not for adoption. It’s for family preservation in my home country of Ethiopia. I was placed for adoption not because I was an orphan, or because my parents had died, but because they were poor.

I have told myself I was done fighting with time, I cannot reclaim the past, and I am ready to move forward. Moving forward has meant not obsessing over every specific detail of what happened and what was lost. It’s a struggle.

I’m not giving up on the struggle, and I am happy that I now know my Ethiopian family. They are happy that I grew up safe and healthy, with a good education. Still, I’ve seen the heartache that adoption has caused each of us, in different ways. These days, I ask myself often what I can focus on. What can I do to fix a broken system, which had failed my first family and many other Ethiopian families like mine? A system that means mothers must lose their children perhaps forever, that sends children to an orphanage, simply because their parents are too poor to keep them. I decided to open my eyes to my pain and that of first mothers and fathers. I’m not weeping anymore; I’m working.

With this in mind, I am returning to Ethiopia in August to visit my family. My 7-year-old daughter will meet her Ethiopian grandmother for the first time, along with the rest of my family there. On August 17, I will run a half marathon in a national park not far from where my family still lives, and where I lived for my first 5 years of life. 

I am running to raise funds for Bring Love In, an organization that unites women who are widows with children who need mothers. Bring Love In also works alongside families who need just a little economic help (about $40 a month) so that they can keep their children with them, and out of orphanages. I find their mission extremely moving and powerful. They, like me, believe in family preservation.

As an American, I am aware of the role of money flowing into Ethiopia because of adoption: millions of dollars. Some is for adoption/orphanage fees, some for court costs, some for hotels, guesthouses, translators, drivers, and guides. Many people have benefited financially from international adoption; some ethically, some not. It’s hard to talk about the role of money without also talking about fraud and corruption, as well as economic inequity. Americans, western Europeans, Canadians, and Australians spend thousands of dollars for adoption and travel costs in Ethiopia, a country where the gross national income per capita is about $400 a year. (In the US, the GNI per capita is about $47,000.)

As an Ethiopian and an American, I want this to change. I refuse to let anyone write off Ethiopia as a poor and helpless country. There is so much beauty and potential. As an adoptee who is a part of the African Diaspora, I have a sense of duty and obligation to my people and to my family.

My fundraiser to promote family preservation has sparked many conversations. Some people will not donate because they feel my cause is taking away the availability of adoptable children, but that’s not true. There are and will always be children who need safe and loving homes, and who cannot stay in the one to which they were born. Poverty, though, should not be the only reason they are adopted.

Some people admitted to me that they feel threatened by the idea of family preservation, and are far more comfortable with contributing to adoption fundraising. But no mother should lose her child, and no child should lose her mother, because they don’t have the pittance of money we waste on a given weekend here.

I’ve also received beautiful messages and words of encouragement from complete strangers, which has moved me to tears. Some have never been to Ethiopia, and probably never will go, but they understand why this matters. I’ve never felt so moved by and connected to a project, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to make a difference.

My goal of $5000 is small, relative to the costs of adopting. All the money (tax deductible for donors) will go to Bring Love In (except for 3% that goes to Crowdrise). No tax credit or tax benefits for me. That small amount of money will mean that 10 families will be supported for a year—none of the children will go into an orphanage. They will receive food, clothing, and education.

Imagine if I were able to raise $30,000. Or $300,000. Someday.

I thought $5000 would be an easy amount to raise, and I was wrong. It’s been a struggle, and a reminder that family preservation is far less popular than adoption, at least in terms of fundraising. It doesn’t have the same appeal as many orphan care programs, because most of these children, like most internationally adopted children, aren’t actual orphans. Those who are orphans are remaining in Ethiopia, living with widows as their moms through Bring Love In. The fundraiser is doing well, but I still have a ways to go with fewer than 30 days left. I appreciate any help you can give me in this race towards a transparent, compassionate future for vulnerable children and their families.

If you would like to donate or share information about my fundraiser, thank you. Here is the link:

Editor's Update: Due to Aselefech's efforts and bravely bringing the reality that family preservation is undersupported to the table, her fundraiser surpassed her goal reaching over $6,000.  Well done, Aselefech!