Knowing where we come from allows us to recognize the very essence of our existence, and empowers us to understand ourselves better. It’s a central focus to being human, to being sentient, to being complete. It is also a reality denied to too many people, because they are adopted.
Canada Adopts posted this quote on their Facebook page: “It’s not where you come from. It’s where you belong.” I would say that “where you come from” matters a great deal to figuring out “where you belong.” The idea that our past has no meaning or relevance is a direct slap in our faces, and adds to the injustice many of us feel. The pain of not knowing where we come from will forever affect each of us differently.
Adoption begins with a loss for both the adoptee and first families. For us international adoptees, we are placed in a new family oftentimes because of poverty or societal stigma. Both international and U.S. adoptees too often enter new families with falsified documents, gaps in our stories, or sealed records to which we are denied access.
I would like to acknowledge my own privilege. I’m an adoptee who came into perhaps a best-case scenario: my adoptive family is very supportive and they encouraged me to search and piece together my past, despite what my adoption documents said. Fostering my curiosity and encouraging me to be critical at a young age made me realize that my past is just as important as my future. I was an older adoptee, who came into my family from Ethiopia at the age of 6. I came with memories, held on tight to loved ones, and never once put Ethiopia behind me. It was a part of who I was and who I am.
Searching for my Ethiopian family and having a successful reunion was truly a dream come true, something rare. My documents labeled me an orphan. They tried to erase my past but left some clues that led me to my village and to the family I once thought was lost forever. It was just four years ago when I traveled to Ethiopia and reunited with my birth family for the first time since my adoption, with my American mom beside me.
The first person I locked eyes with was my Ethiopian mother, someone who forever held a special place in my heart, despite our being separated for 17 years. Nothing in that moment mattered but the touch, hugs, tears, and joy of my family and the entire village who came to embrace the little girl they once knew, all grown up now. That moment allowed me to reclaim my power and understand the pain I was feeling for years.
Reunion is complicated even in the best-case scenarios, when the very people you love are in front of you. For me, the paralyzing moment was the inability to speak to my mother, siblings and extended family. We did not share a common language. Imagine having to speak to your mother only through a translator.
I’ve been back to Ethiopia once since my first reunion in 2011. A lot has changed drastically since then. I’m still in contact with my Ethiopian family in Ethiopia. One of my older brothers came to the US on a visa in 2009, and a year ago was able to bring his wife and sons to live with him in Seattle. I know: what an unbelievable twist of fate.
I moved from the Washington, DC, area to Seattle 3 months ago, in part with the hopes of rebuilding my relationship with my Ethiopian family. I meet twice a month with my brother, and we feast on Ethiopian food that his wife, my sister-in-law, makes so well. Our children—cousins—laugh and play together. My American mother also lives in Seattle. It’s been beautiful watching how my Ethiopian family has embraced my American mom as family, and how she has also embraced them as well. We are all trying to figure out the dynamics, but are enjoying this rare and incredible time.
Of course, I have no legal connection with my brother. It is possible that my Ethiopian mother could visit or even move here, though I, as one of her 7 children, can have no role in that legal process. My connections are strong to all of my family members, in the US and in Ethiopia. And, post-reunion, the connections are sometimes very complicated.
While I am grateful for my reunion with my biological family, I can’t help but feel angry for those adoptees who will never be able to connect with their first families. My story is something of a fairy tale, and I don’t like to push it forward because I recognize it’s an exception. Privilege and resources enabled my connections with my first family. But we all deserve to know where we come from. Knowing one’s family should not be a privilege, but a basic human right.
For those of us who hold this right of knowing where we come from through reunion, I challenge you to fight for and support those who are struggling to get their unsealed records, and those who are going back to their country of origin to clarify their falsified documents and search for family. Adoption is political, and the injustice that adoptees face is the result of systemic barriers, whether adoptees are from the US or elsewhere. I’ve witnessed adoptees enduring unnecessary pain because of lack of information. Adoptees must fight together to dismantle an institution that has, for far too long, ignored the significance of our past, our first families, and our right to belong.
Aselefech Evans is an adult adoptee who arrived from Ethiopia in 1994 to the U.S. with her twin sister at 6 years of age. She is a founder of the Facebook group Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora. She was a columnist for the adoptee-centric online magazine Gazillion Voices, and is currently a contributor to The Lost Daughters, an independent collaborative writing project by women who were adopted as children.
Aselefech is a co-editor of an upcoming anthology by Ethiopian adoptees, tentatively titled Lions Roaring, Far From Home. She is also actively involved in the creation of a guesthouse facility in Ethiopia, where Ethiopian adoptees from around the world can visit and reconnect with their homeland. She actively promotes family preservation efforts in Ethiopia, so that all children can grow up in safe, loving families.