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Adoption Blog: Melting Pot Family

What Do Our Children Really Leave Behind in the Orphanage?



When Melissa Faye Greene was promoting her latest book, No Biking in the House Without A Helmet, I took my three children with me to a book talk. My 11-year-old and three-year-old  daughter, Leyla, adopted from Ethiopia, enjoyed the funny anecdotes about life with nine children, including some who had grown up needing different survival skills. Being goat herders in Ethiopia lends itself to knowing how to use slingshots and bows and arrows in ways that kids who grow up here can only imagine. My two youngest then happily joined other kids making crafts and playing in a back room of the Ethiopia Community Mutual Center in Seattle.

My teenager, Dimitri, who was reluctant to come and had pleaded to bring his Kindle, was rapt when the conversation turned to more serious issues involved in adoption -- bonding, hoarding, post adoption depression, and realities of orphanages and older child adoption. I looked at him and could see the wheels turning. Melissa shared her bout with post adoption depression in a brutally honest yet humorous fashion. She also shared the gut-wrenching story of meeting one of her son's birthmothers whom she had understood to be dead. This is not such an uncommon occurrence, if the stories from various adoption groups are to be believed. Dimitri leaned over to me at one point and said, "I am so glad you brought me. This is more grown up stuff than I expected and it is very interesting." In the tumultuous teenage maelstrom, I cherish moments like these, that give me a glimpse of the man he is becoming.

Melissa opened herself to questions and a woman at the back of the packed room stood up. She identified herself as an orphan who had suffered greatly as a young girl and had been brought to the U.S., though it wasn't clear to me whether she was an adoptee. She offered her opinion that the son Melissa talked about, who had a mother, should never have been adopted. The woman concluded with a statement to the effect she did not think it was worth losing your culture to gain a brighter future, because culture can never be replaced.

A hush came over the room, composed mostly of adoptive parents of Ethiopian children. I felt my son stiffen next to me as he prepared to defend our family, even if only in his mind. His loyalty is one of his best qualities. All eyes turned to Melissa. She began with, "I respect your point of view and I respect the importance of culture." Her words were spoken carefully and appeared deliberately chosen. "However," she continued, "Every child wants and needs a family first." She then described her experiences with orphanages in Romania and Ethiopia and concluded with, "In an orphanage, there is only orphanage culture -- not the culture of the people of that land."

After the talk, I made my way over to the woman who made the thought provoking comments and thanked her. I know it is not easy to raise these questions in a setting where most would prefer not to consider their children's losses. I appreciated the courage and candor it took to speak her truth, even if I did not agree with all of it. The responsibility of raising a child who has lost a great deal weighs heavy on me. It was one of the driving forces behind our library planting and other efforts to keep our daughter connected to her birth country. As I explained a bit of what we were doing, the woman nodded enthusiastically and said, "That is so good. Don't just take the babies; help the children there have a better future in their country." Her words felt like a gift, validating what we were attempting. Melissa's words also gave me a different perspective and additional comfort. I too believe that, in the hierarchy of children's needs, having a family comes before culture, although I had not thought about it before in those terms.

I did not fully appreciate Melissa's statement about the culture of an orphanage until last summer, when we visited the place where my daughter spent her early days. (On our adoption trip, we met her at our agency's transition house in Addis Ababa.) But when we traveled to Leyla's hometown and visited her orphanage, the understanding of Melissa' words hit me like a thunderbolt. Every second that we toured the clean, well-run grounds, orphans' eyes followed us hungrily. I felt sucker punched. I knew deep in my gut that these children desperately wanted nothing more than a family and a brighter future, no matter where in the world that might be.

The process of adopting from Ethiopia has changed a lot since we adopted our daughter in 2008. Prospective adoptive parents now make two trips and the waits are much longer. Allegations of one kind or another are swirling and it seems people are questioning whether adoptions from Ethiopia will even continue. For the children's sake, I sincerely hope they do. Adoption is not a solution for all orphans. International adoption, by its very nature, is and should be a last resort. But I believe that these children, who live in such dire situations, deserve the chance to know the love and security of a family now, while governments and other concerned groups work to address the underlying root causes of their plight.

Turning my back on those children and walking out to our waiting van felt like I was taking a bit of their hope away with me. As I put one foot in front of the other, I tucked my face into my precious daughter's neck so she would not see the tears.


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6 Comments

Wow Ellenore… this is a wonderful post… thank you so much for sharing!

By lesmem on Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm.

Thank you Leslie!  You are very welcome . . .

I think sharing our perspectives and learning helps us all along the way.

By Ellenore Angelidis on Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 6:07 am.

Melissa’s comment about orphanage culture hit home for me as well.  Our son is from an Eastern European country but of Roma background.  Many of our friends who also have Roma children are conflicted about which culture to emphasize with our children—the country, be it Ukraine, Romania, etc.—or the Roma heritage.  If our children had grown up in their birth countries, they wouldn’t be waving the Russian or Ukrainian flags; they would be isolated in their Roma communities, speaking Roma dialects & facing great prejudice from the natives.  On the other hand, as Melissa pointed out, there would be no culture for them after 18 years in an orphanage.  Just the results & problems that develop from a life spent in an orphanage.  Good for all of us to remember this.

By JRo'sMom on Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 11:15 am.

Thank you for sharing your challenges JRo’sMom,

Culture is not a simple concept.  I grew up in America with Dutch parents, married a Greek man and adopted a little girl from Ethiopia.  I found seeing the beauty in many cultures gave me peace with what culture meant in our family.

I did find Melissa’s comment a very good reminder too. 

Best,—E

By Ellenore Angelidis on Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 9:14 pm.

We have a copy of Melissa’s lastest book available for sale—all proceeds go to Ethiopia Reads literacy efforts:

http://www.ethiopiareads.org/store/open-hearts-web-items/books/no-biking-in-the-house-without-a-helmet

By Ellenore Angelidis on Friday, February 10, 2012 at 11:19 am.

Update on last comment.  Melissa’s book sold.  We do have other books about Ethiopia and Africa available if interested.  All prices include shipping and 100% of the proceeds go to support the work of Ethiopia Reads. Thanks!

—E
http://www.ethiopiareads.org/store/open-hearts-web-items/books

By Ellenore Angelidis on Friday, February 17, 2012 at 9:09 am.

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Ellenore Angelidis

Ellenore Angelidis



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