An Ethiopian Adoption
My name is Shashu Gebreyesus. I was born in Ethiopia between 1997 and 2000 to a family with six children. I am one of the middle children, born third with two elder sisters and three younger brothers.
I was raised in the farmlands and have clear memories of herding the goats and cows and helping on the farm. I didn’t mind the life. Dad wasn’t around much as he was a priest and mum (who is my father’s 2nd wife) was kept busy looking after us 6 children. I was usually away from home tending to the herds and only coming home to eat my lunch or sleep.
I didn’t have a “childhood” in the way the concept is conceptualised in the western worlds. I was foisted with responsibility from as early as I remember and I didn’t have a close relationship with my parents. I think closeness had to do with us being poor and mum having to raise six children pretty much on her own.
I was around six or seven years old when my mum fell really sick. I never really understood what went on or what was wrong with her but I do remember dad doing a holy water ceremony over her. She came home and appeared to get better for a short while but then she suddenly got really sick again. She went immediately to hospital and never came home. It all happened very quickly and I was very young. The most painful thing was that I never got to say goodbye. It was my job to care for the animals and I remember as I was nearing home, I heard in the distance people crying out announcing that someone had died. I didn’t know who it was until I got closer and then I heard her name.
Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of my mother because there aren’t any. The one strong memory I have of her is the day I visted her when dad organised the holy water ceremony. Even though she was sick, she called my name. People always tell me I look the most like my mother
The responsibility then fell to us older sisters to look after our brothers. The day of my mother’s ceremonial burial came but I was not allowed to attend as I was given the job of looking after my brothers. The older sisters got to attend but not me, so I never got to grieve or say goodbye.
My aunty came in to help with the baking but it was tough once my mother passed away. I was not able to speak after she died and dad thought I had speech problems, but I guess I was in deep shock. My older sister was already engaged before my mother died so she left too and the remaining five of us, were left to cope as best we could with our dad still being mostly absent because of his work.
My dad was planning on giving us to the SOS Village so we could visit and stay in contact with the family but it was my uncle on my mum’s side who worked at an orphanage who persauded him to give up the youngest boy and youngest girl. He believed the younger ones were more “adoptable”. So that ended up being me (the youngest girl) and my three year old younger brother. The other two brothers were to be looked after by my second eldest sister and our grandmother who helped her when she could. My father did finally remarry but it was after my brother and I had been given away via intercountry adoption.
I remember my feelings when my dad decided to give me away. I still have really big issues to this day with my dad. What did I do to be given up? He never talked to me about the decision and now that I’ve been raised in the USA, I’ve lost my language and ability to speak directly to him. Sadly, my uncle told my father that by going to the USA via intercountry adoption, I would come back with an education and money to help them all. He has a huge family resulting from step children plus half and full siblings from all three wives.
My brother and I lived in three orphanages over two years before we were adopted to the USA. The first orphanage was okay because the school was walking distance from the house which meant we got a public and social life. But some of the students were really mean to us, abusing and bullying us, but at least we weren’t isolated. The second orphanage was hell because we couldn’t go anywhere as we had to stay on campus. Everyone was hitting each other and I didn’t like it, it was traumatising. The third orphanage was in the capital. It was like the second orphanage – we were isolated and inside all the time, the students taking care of us would hit us physically, we had to sleep 4 children to a bed, it was really overcrowded and everything went too fast. They moved us from place to place and the only thing that ever happend which was good, was I had two friends who lived with us and spoke the same language. Our tribe has our own language so these two felt more like sisters to me.
My younger brother and I were adopted and sent to the USA in 2008. Our adoption was finalised in the Ethiopian courts and we arrived on a R4 visa which meant we were supposed to be adopted in the USA by our adoptive parents (years later I’ve found out they did not complete this step). He was only three years old and we were placed together into a “new christian” family in the USA. They wanted to “save poor children who had no family” but upon our arrival and hearing that we actually had a family, they wanted to send us back. They didn’t know how to do this and instead, sent my brother to a different family.
Since arriving in the USA, my brother ended up living in five different states with five different families and I ended up in two different families in the same state. We were never together in the same family. The time with the families was always short term and then we’d be back again with our adoptive family. This was our adoptive life until 2011 when someone blew the whistle and told the State Department what was happening to us. Sadly, even when the social worker from the State Department visited, our adoptive family would not allow us to be in the room without one of them being present, so we were never allowed to speak in private. Somehow, someone got our case closed and no action was taken against our adoptive family.
In 2013, my adoptive family decided to try and revoke the adoption and send me back to Ethiopia. I was only sixteen years old and my brother eight. Our adoptive father took us to Ethiopia planning to abandon us but the US and Ethiopian governments told him he couldn’t do this because custody of us was his responsibility. The only way was to legally relinquish us back to our birth father or to the Ethiopian government where we would become foster kids. My brother ended up getting his adoption revoked and placed into foster care in Ethiopia but for me, my adoptive father insisted I come back to the USA and complete high school so that he would not get in trouble for relinquishing both of us.
During the sporadic times I spent in my adoptive family over the years, I got tired of hearing the comments of, “Oh you should be grateful because we saved your life”. How could I be grateful when all I got was punishment and racism. I was not responsible for my colour! I was homeschooled and isolated. I couldn’t go out and walk. I was punished. I was not allowed to do what other people did because I was adopted. They did not treat me with love or compassion and they were “new christians”.
Their daughter was five years old when they took in my brother and I. They always blamed us for the financial problems they were having. They would shout, “You don’t respect us, you don’t care about us!” It wasn’t my fault they chose to adopt. They had no education on colour and we lived in a white town where African Americans were not allowed because of the fear of “property losing it’s value”. I wasn’t allowed to go to church because people would ask questions. I wasn’t allowed to be seen in public. I was isolated and they were racist. I felt depressed, not to mention I was in shock from trying to learn how to survive in a new country with a new language. I couldn’t even communicate. They expected me to forget everything about my home, my people, my country. It was always my responsibility to look after my brother and their child, their daughter. I was to do the housework, be the housesitter for their daughter, and do everything I was asked. I had no choice. I was their slave.
Sometimes I’d talk back but I’d get in trouble. I was treated like I was inferior and nothing. I was told my own family didn’t want me so when I was thirteen years old, I tried to commit suicide. I didn’t want to live. They did take me to therapy but my adoptive mum sat in the same room so I could never talk privately. Therapy was useless because I could never express how I truly felt.
My brother felt the same in how he was treated in this home. My adoptive parents use to say he was possessed by a demon and they took him to a priest to be exorcised. They also used a pendulum to check if we were telling the truth or not. The pendulum would be used to determine if we were to be punished.
In returning to my Ethiopian family years later in 2015, I was initially so excited to see them all because I had missed them so much but I was confronted with a huge rejection because I had no money to give them. I was not able to communicate to them the difficulties I’ve lived via my adoption. They always say the USA is heaven and that money must be falling all over the ground — and why am I so stupid that I cannot pick up the money off the ground?
Before seeing them, I had experienced mixed emotions. Scared because I had left for many years and no longer spoke the language but also excited to be finally out of that abusive home and to have some freedom. But my adoptive family were always communicating with me and I started to have panic attacks and I sank into deep depression. I was there to attend college in Ethiopia but the US government got involved and my adoptive parents had changed my age legally to avoid being seen to abandon an underage child in Ethiopia. Since then, I’ve never known what is my true age because their document made me appear to be older than what I thought I was.
In 2015, my brother returned to the USA but in the foster care system and looked after by guardians who would end up also looking after me. These guardians were the same family my brother had been sent to by our adoptive parents whom I also met in 2011. They were good to him and helped to take my adoptive parents to court about how they treated us. But they were threatened and my adoptive parents hired the best lawyers and in the end, this family decided to drop the case. But at least we had experienced one family who tried to fight for us and gave us the love and respect we deserve.
In 2016, I got to meet this family again because my brother came back from Ethiopia to stay with them in foster care. Finally, for the first time, we were allowed to be in the same family and luckily, I was also allowed via the support of the US government to re-enter the USA even though I had been studying in Ethiopia. Many people and organisations helped my brother and I to be together in this family. It is such a relief! I don’t have everything in life but at least I have someone who says they want us to be part of their family and who truly care for us. Before this, I had never gotten to be a child or a teenager, I had always been in crisis mode just surviving. I can’t go back because those phases of my life are over, but I do grieve for all that I’ve lost and have had to live through.
I’m now living with the same foster family as my brother and I have some sense of being with people who actually care about me. They even asked if I would want to be adopted officially, but I was worried. I did say yes because I need a family, they love me, they care for me and no matter what happens, they will never reject me. I’ve been with them for over 2 years now and I have slowly let them in and learnt to trust and love them in return.
I haven’t had contact with my Ethiopian family now for over 2 years. They live in the countryside so I only occassionaly get news from an aunt, uncle or cousin in the city about how they are doing. It brings up so many emotions to think about my Ethiopian family. They gave me away and now expect me to financially support them. They have no understanding of the life I’ve had to live and my uncle makes it worse because he constantly tells them lies that I’m the only one who can help them come to the USA. I can’t bear to ever see that uncle who persuaded my father to give us up.
In Ethiopia, the word adoption is unheard of, there is no concept for it. In their understanding, I was given to a family to be raised but my Ethiopian father is angry with me that I dare to return and have no money to give him. I could see from her eyes that my great grandmother (who is 92) was the only one who was upset at how my father behaved when I returned with no money. Perhaps she saw the pain in my eyes and that I didn’t even have money for myself. Cutting off from my Ethiopian family is how it has to be for the moment as it’s not healthy for me to live with the distress it causes.
I’m becoming more peaceful and calm these days but right now, the lack of citizenship is disrupting my peace. My request for citizenship has been denied so I’m having to go through the process of re-appealing. If it gets denied again, I will have to find a lawyer which will be expensive. I will always feel that adoption is about child trafficking and not about our well being – it seems to be about what the adoptive parents want and get from the child.
I have now put myself through college and graduated last year. I am working as a dental assistant and this has helped me feel I have some sense of control over my life. I now work full time and have a lovely boss and co-workers.
Sadly, I know of too many like me whose adoptions have been like mine and they’re with a second or third family over 10 plus years. There are just so many with terrible experiences but I hope one day they will reach out to me. There are 3-4 of us who I hope will reunite some day as we have been separated since our adoptions. That would be so nice to share our stories and see each other again!
Research by Prof JaeRan Kim: “Forever Family is like a manufactured Hallmark idea” – adoption discontinuity experiences of intercountry adoptees