Thursday, October 22, 2015

Celebrating My Birthday By Embracing the Land of My Birth

October 22, 1988 was the day my twin sister and I came into this world. We are the youngest of seven children in our Ethiopian family, and the only ones placed for adoption.  That fact has seldom bothered me. My rationalization about my placement was my parents had very few choices: during a post-war time of famine and job loss, out of desperation and with hope for a better future, they gave us up for adoption, trusting that it would be the best decision. My memories of my family and life in Ethiopia were something that kept me hopeful when I was a child; I was loved by many (mother, father, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and the entire community). The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” has had a profound impact on how I view what family is.

Arriving in the US at six years old, my sister and I grew up in a Washington, DC, suburb. I returned to Ethiopia in 2011, after 17 years of growing up in the US, and my family and relatives there greeted me in excitement and joy. My life in Ethiopia can’t be measured by monetary values, but by the love of those people in my early life, and with whom I have reconnected.

Today is my 27th birthday. I spent 6 years in Ethiopia, and 21 here in the US. I’d like to acknowledge birthdays are hard for many of us adoptees for various reasons. They are reminders of beginnings that may have been joyful or sad, reminders of childhood journeys that took a serious turn. On this birthday, I would like to recognize and celebrate adoptees like myself who feel a deep connection to Ethiopia, and who strive to make a difference in a country we still consider home.

In the last year, I’ve made some deep and valuable connections through co-founding Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora,which now has hundreds of members from around the world. Several of us—from the US, Canada, Sweden, Holland, and France--are contributing to Lions Roaring, Far From Home, the first Ethiopian adoptee anthology, to be published in 2016, in which we tell our stories in our own voices.

Last weekend I attended my first Ethiopian adoptee-centric meeting. It took place in south Seattle at Kaffa Coffee and Wine Bar, which generously donated their space for adoptees to come together.  The meeting included three adoptees passionately talking about their organizations, goals, dreams, and drive to be a part of the change happening in Ethiopia. Who knew Seattle had such a vibrant Ethiopian adoptee community? Sitting there, among about 20 other adoptees on a rainy night in the Pacific Northwest, I felt a sense of pride and solidarity. I was surrounded by people who look and shared similar experiences to mine, young people who had been born in Ethiopia but were placed for adoption as babies, or as young children or teens. Wow what a powerful space I was in.  Liya Rubio was the first speaker of the night. She eloquently discussed her commitment to children, about doing several fundraisers for organizations in Ethiopia, and wanting to give back to Ethiopia. Her words were inspiring and motivational. 

Next Wondemagegn Breen embraced the room with passion and drive in his voice. He is the founder of Hope in Helping Hands an adoptee-centric organization working to improve the quality of life for children in Ethiopia. Many of us in that room were touched by the power in his voice: “As Ethiopians we are obligated to help our people. We survive together.” What stood out to me was his personal narrative, which pushed him to establish his organization: “You don’t grow out of the pain of losing your mother.” He witnessed his mother die in Ethiopia when he was just five years old. The loss of our mothers is something that sticks with us adoptees forever. We are the street children, we are the orphans, and we know first hand what it feels like to be separated from your family. That pain pushes us to create a safer space for children of Ethiopia. We need to be a part of any conversation about the future of children and orphans.

It was good to hear a male’s perspective on adoption issues; women tend to dominate that discourse. He will travel to Ethiopian in January to volunteer and mentor young children with different organizations; I’m looking forward to hearing about it after his return.

Last but not least Sarah Negash embraced us with her warm and kind heart, which illuminated the room.  She opened the conversation with a quote by David Pratt: “Orphans are easier to ignore before you know their names.” They are easier to ignore before you see their faces. It is easier to pretend they are not real until you hold them in your arms, but once you do, everything changes. She was there to talk about an orphanage, Sele Enat, where she spent several happy years and which now is in danger of closing, The 80 children there are at risk. Sara wants other orphans to feel the love by caregivers that she once felt, and also to share the beautiful memories and space with other children.  Keeping the compound open to her means preserving memories, laughter, safety, and friendships. Please consider helping her in her efforts by donating to Mamush. Put “Save the compound” in the donation section to ensure your funds will help the Sele Enat orphanage.

There was something groundbreaking about last weekend’s meeting. It reminded me that many adoptees forever feel obligated to their country of birth, even after spending many years outside of it. Our privilege of growing up in a country, which has given us so much, makes us even more aware of sisters playing in the orphanages and our brothers begging in the streets. Our past is so much of who we are. The people left behind will forever hold a special place in our hearts and because of that we feel a huge obligation to go back and give back, in ways that preserve families and protect children. We are the Lions Roaring Far From Home, loud, proud, and dedicated to strengthening Ethiopia and changing the future of vulnerable children in Ethiopia, the land of our roots and our birth.

Sara Negash, Aselefech Evans, Liya Rubio and Wondemagegn Breen
October 17, 2015