Sunday, October 4, 2015

Redefining "Normal" in Haitian Adoptions

What would it look like if adoptive parents embraced their child’s country and culture instead of the other way around?

In international adoptions, it’s normal for adoptees to leave their home country and leave behind any extended family. It’s normal for adoptees to be given a new name, a new language, and a new culture, but is there another way?

Mariah and Josiah in Haiti 
Mariah Wilson, 23, had anything but a normal adoption. Her parents, Don and Liette, realized the importance of immersing themselves in the Haitian culture before adopting and moved to Haiti, living there for three years before adopting Mariah and Josiah, now 20.

Mariah’s entire adoptive family made Haiti part of their lives. When Liette’s mother, Karen, flew down to Haiti to meet her first granddaughter, she fell in love with the country and decided to stay. Karen permanently moved to Haiti, and for the past twenty years she has operated Hands Across the Seas (HATS), a school and orphanage located in Deschapelles, about 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince. 

Mariah and her grandmother, Karen 
Mariah was two when she was adopted, and Josiah came to be with the family when he was only five months old. Mariah’s mother passed away when she was a year old, and Josiah’s mother passed away four days after he was born, leaving both fathers to raise children while also trying to earn a living. 

After adopting Mariah, Don and Liette stayed in Haiti for another two years before relocating back to Canada. During that time, Josiah was able to track down his birth father, and they were able to meet before he passed away when Josiah was eight. As for Mariah, her dad was present to give consent when she was adopted, and he visited her every few months while the family lived in Haiti.

Liette and Mariah 
Don and Mariah 
Don and Liette are fluent in Creole and when Mariah was growing up, both of her parents knew how to braid her hair with beads and extensions.  Mariah attributes her parents’ appreciation of Haitian culture to their own unique backgrounds. Don is a First Nations Canadian from the Heiltsuk tribe, and her mom is from the Yukon, a remote territory in Canada.

Mariah says that growing up in a Native family gave her a special perspective. Her parents taught her about the importance of connecting to the earth and to others, and she saw and participated in the traditions and customs of the First Nations community in Canada. And because Mariah was adopted into a First Nations tribe, she was able to receive funding to pursue her post secondary education.

Josiah, Ariane, Mariah, and Tevan 
Every two years, Mariah returns to Haiti with her parents and her younger siblings Ariane and Tevan. She visits her father and her five half siblings, and she also visits her grandmother and spends time volunteering in the orphanage.

Many Haitian adoptees dream of having a relationship with their families one day, but struggle with the expectation that they should send money to support their families. After a reunion, Haitian families expect help, leaving adoptees in a potentially uncomfortable situation. Unfortunately, the fear of this added responsibility often keeps adoptees from searching and possibly reuniting with their families. 

But there is another option. Mariah’s parents pay for her eight Haitian siblings to attend school, and they have bought land and built a home for her father.  Instead of expecting Mariah to support her Haitian family, her parents have taken that burden off of her shoulders, allowing her to enjoy her relationship with her family without any pressure. The contributions to Mariah’s family will be felt for several generations. Twenty years ago, her father was unable to raise his daughter and support his family, but now he has a home, his children have an education, and the entire family is better because of it.

Mariah with her father and stepmom in Haiti 
Too often adoption is one sided, when an ideal situation is a partnership between families. To prospective adoptive parents, Mariah recommends taking adoptees back to Haiti so they don’t lose their culture and heritage. She says enrolling Haitian children in a French immersion school will help them be able to communicate when they return to Haiti to visit. Mariah also advises adoptive parents to connect with other adoptive families and connect adoptees with black role models. Lastly, she says parents should provide their children with opportunities to openly discuss their adoption experience.

None of this advice is new. But it seems pretty unrealistic for a busy family to completely rearrange their lives after an adoption. Until you realize that one family has managed to make it work. The biggest difference between Mariah and other Haitian adoptees is that Mariah’s parents have worked hard to keep her connected to two families, two countries, two cultures, and two languages. Her parents took the time to invest in her family’s future and to also honor her past, which Mariah thinks is “pretty awesome.”

Mariette Williams (@mariettewrites) is a transracial adoptee born in Jeremie, Haiti. She was adopted at the age of three and grew up near Vancouver, B.C., Canada. She founded Haitian Adoptees, a Facebook group that serves to connect and offer support to other Haitian adoptees. In July of 2015, Mariette reunited with her birth mother and several members of her birth family.
She lives in South Florida with her husband and two children. In addition to being a Journalism and literature teacher, she writes essays, short stories, and poems that usually focus on adoption.