Thursday, February 19, 2015

Returning To Ethiopia, Searching For Our First Families And Seeking Justice

Every week, I’m surprised at the amount of Ethiopian adoptees seeking advice and information on how to search for their first families on Facebook groups. We are not only searching for our first parents, but for our siblings, adopted into different families. Most of us are asking how we can get in touch with our siblings and how to access documents from our adoption agencies or orphanages. Some of us are also looking for traveling partners, because not everyone wants to travel alone or with their adoptive parents.   

In my view, creating a program to help adult adoptees return to Ethiopia is a matter of justice, not only for us but also for our first families. Besides the loss of our first families, culture and language, many of our adoptions were not practiced according to ethical and legal standards. Contrary to popular belief, due to a lack of investigative reporting, many Ethiopian adoptions in the 1980s-1990s were fradulent. I know this because I’ve spoken with many adoptees from the U.S. and France who have reunited with their Ethiopian families and have found out why they were relinquished. The same story keeps re-emerging: their Ethiopian parents were told that they were going to study abroad only to return and help them. Their parents, agency and orphanage staff were usually all involved in falsifying documents; however their parents were uniformed and ill-informed about the legal implications of their actions. They didn’t understand that “adoption” meant severing ties with their children and that they were signing off on their parental rights as well as the possibility of their children even knowing them. Perhaps some knew, but they did not have a choice given their socioeconomic circumstances.

Because our adoptions were legal, our adoptive parents never questioned the adoption process itself.
It is adoptees themselves (and sometimes their adoptive parents) who have gone back, searched and found their Ethiopian parents and families intact, despite what their adoption paperwork claims. Can you imagine believing that you were placed in an orphanage and adopted because your parents were deceased, only to find out that they are alive and well? It has happened much more often than people think. In fact, I would argue that it has happened systematically before Ethiopia’s adoption boom in the 2000s.

I’m appalled to hear the same stories over and over again. I’m even more appalled that people (adoption agency workers, orphanage staff or other individuals) are getting away with having actively participated or been complicit in fraudulent adoptions. This should not be happen. There needs to be justice for us and our first families because we are the ones paying the emotional and psychological costs of their corrupt and unethical practices. Many of us feel powerless and are overwhelmed by our situations. Those who have reunited with their families are happy to have finally found them and are trying to figure out ways to return to see them. But what about adoptees who are unable to find their families due to a lack of information, time and of course money? I think part of our unwillingness to talk about our frustrations stems from the fact that some adoption agency professionals (or parent associations) have very good reputations among adoptees and adoptive parents, especially in France.

I am one of the adoptees who has felt disempowered and even silenced. I have felt as though I could not talk about how unprofessional and unethical my private adoption was. For some reason, the names of my Ethiopian parents were somehow left out my documents, therefore I was declared an orphan, eventhough the well-intentioned women involved in my adoption knew that my father was alive (this is how I know now). There is not even a mention of my father in my adoption documents. Yet, when I asked questions about this serious information gap, I was told that getting information about my Ethiopian family prior to my adoption was “wishful thinking”. Hold on, "wishful thinking" for not having communicated vital information to my adoptive parents? This answer is wrong and unacceptable. I am not thankful to the women involved in facilitating my adoption, even if they were trying to help me have a better life in Canada. I don’t give them any credit for “saving me” because their help was based on a lie. This lie legalized my adoption making it extremely difficult for me to obtain the names of my Ethiopian parents. Their actions have completely cut me off from knowing my own flesh and blood. I had a good childhood and I have a great (adoptive) family, but I had zero contact with Ethiopians until I became an adult. Children should never ever be disconnected from a part of who they are and adoption should not be about severing ties to first families and cultures of origin. A good outcome does not justify the means used to get there.

Besides the need for an in-depth, comprehensive study on Ethiopian adoptions that took place in the 1980s-1990s in order to determine their true legality, I’m wondering if there could be greater efforts to help adult Ethiopian adoptees, like myself, connect with our Ethiopian families. It is only fair that people involved in processing our adoptions (agency and orphanage staff and other individuals involved) assist us in obtaining information about our Ethiopian families and in helping them get information about us. More precisely, adoptees should be given access to whatever paperwork they still have. Agencies (also known as parent associations in France) should also cooperate with adoptees requests for information about their files both in France and in Ethiopia. We should be treated with utmost respect and not be ridiculed for asking questions that some people do not want to answer. 

In the future, Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora would like to help adoptees return to Ethiopia. As adoptees get older, more and more of us will want to return to Ethiopia; however many of us are having difficulty financing our trips and accessing information about our Ethiopian families. Travelling to Ethiopia is expensive without including costs related to searching (hiring a searcher, paying for his or her travel expenses and accommodations, fees for documents and translation, etc.). In addition, some adoptees would like to re-learn Amharic, live and work in Ethiopia, so it would be interesting to create opportunities for them to do that. More importantly, putting a structure in place to facilitate adoptees’ return is important, not because it fits into state capitalism but because it should compensate for some of what we (and our Ethiopian families) have lost and had to endure as a result of structural weaknesses, gender and economic inequality in Ethiopia.

I must add that Ethiopian first families have also experienced enormous guilt, shame, trauma and depression for having to relinquish their children. What can be done do to help them? Since many of them no longer have legal rights to their children (who are now adopted adults), it is hard for them to get access to their children’s files. This is why the best alternative at the moment would be helping Ethiopian Adoption Connection, as it helps to connect first families with adoptees. Ethiopian Adoption Connection needs funds (and probably other resources) in order to locate first families and register them in their database.   

While we can't undo past injustices, I do believe in seeking justice. To be honest, I have no idea what this justice looks like or if it is even possible given the circumstances. However, I think that helping adoptees, by answering our questions, giving us access to our files and information related to our families as well as helping us find a way back "home", can be a part of this justice.

Annette-Kassaye (@KassayeBM) is a transracial adoptee from Ethiopia living in Montréal, Québec (Canada). She also writes for Gazillion Voices and co-founded Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora with Aselefech Evans. 

Photo 1: Water image  <ahref="">Hippos and Hyenas</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>
Photo 2: Courtesy of "Adelita" (Adelaida Pardo)