In 2006, less than a year after my sisters and I were brought to America as the victims of a corrupt adoption agency, I told the Americans who were saying that they were our “forever” family that I wanted to return to Ethiopia. I didn’t want a new family, I wanted my family and my country back.
So, my adoptive family got in touch with my biological family in Ethiopia (using documents given to us by my father, that were confiscated from us by our adoptive family after we arrived) to find out the truth of our background, since they were lied to by the adoption agency. Through a translator in Ethiopia, my father told my adoptive family to bring my sisters and me back, where he would be able to enroll us in school.
But the translator – whose translations were colored by her own impressions of life in America – instead told my adopters that my father wanted us to stay in the US for a better life, and that he didn’t want us back. That message was relayed to me by my second adoptive family (relatives of the first, but strangers to me). As a result of the translator’s lie, I fell into a deep depression – even becoming suicidal – and hated my father all through my teen and young adult years.
I missed nine years of growing with my family. I missed speaking my mother’s tongue. I missed my friends and my culture. I missed the sounds and the smells and the bustle of my hometown. I missed everything.
But on 2 June, I left the life I have made for myself in Maine to return to my life in Ethiopia. I was filled with joy and excitement – and a little bit of nervousness – because I wasn’t sure if my family would like the person I turned out to be.
I quickly realized that, although I was in Ethiopia, I was no longer an Ethiopian – and I was not equal, economically or socially, to the family who brought me into this world. In my eyes, I was a college student with student loans, working a part-time job for just a bit above minimum wage in the hopes of finding a good-paying job in the future to pay off my student loan debt. People in Ethiopia, on the other hand, saw me as wealthy and privileged. To them, I was an American.
When you live in poverty, you see developed nations as heaven on earth – economically speaking – and my family, their friends and our neighbors were not exempt.
For instance, though I am barely able to pay my own bills in America, I can make more in a week at a part-time job than my brother, a university graduate working as a teacher in Ethiopia, makes in a month. And, when I was in Ethiopia, gossip-filled townspeople told my family that my friends were scamming money off me, or that I was giving my friends money instead of giving it to my family. They chided my family, saying that a friend – whose purchase of a motorcycle coincided with my visit – was benefitting from my parents’ “investment”. Even my own father asked me what I was going to do for him, so that people in town could point to some material object and say, Lemma’s daughter went to America, and she bought him a car, or she renovated his house.
I had gone from daughter to commodity.
I’m left to try to figure out, as an adoptee, what my role within my family in Ethiopia is now. What is my responsibility to those who sent me off with a stranger – one who didn’t look like me and didn’t speak my language – believing that they were investing in our shared future, and that I would someday make things better for them?
Ethiopian families often place, or are coerced to place, their children into “education programs”, like the one I was sent away on, after being told that the mostly white people who sponsor their children will help the families financially, or their children will help the families later. ( The word “adoption” is never used, and Ethiopian families are not told that they will lose their rights to their children). By allowing a child to come to the US for what they understand to be educational program, Ethiopian parents believe that they are making long-term investments in the future for the entire family.
But we adoptees didn’t sign those adoption papers – we had no choice as to whether we wanted to go on an education program, let alone be adopted. Many of us were adopted at a very young age and don’t even have memories of our families, homeland or the cultural expectations that go with both. Instead, we grew up in a Western culture, in which we are taught to take care of only ourselves, while Ethiopian culture teaches its people to take care of their family.
International adoption is built upon a foundation of lies and cultural misunderstandings. Better regulation would help, but the power is concentrated in the hands of a powerful adoption agency lobby and adoptive parents, who have legal rights adoptees lack. Adoptive parents’ desires become instantly more important that the child or the child’s homeland, culture, and first family. Adoptees’ histories are erased when their birth certificates are changed to reflect only the names of their adoptive parents – and those parents can change adoptees’ names against the children’s wishes. Adoptee voices are rarely heard in policy discussions and, when they are, they are often dismissed as “angry” or “ungrateful”.
Adoption didn’t help me; it helped the adoption business. Adoption didn’t “save” me; it served the American view of adoption. Adoption didn’t find families for me; it found me for families that wanted to look like heroes in their community and their churches. I wasn’t saved from Ethiopia; I had Ethiopia stolen from me.
* Originally published on The Guardian, Oct. 31, 2014.