US Adoptee Town Hall Event Thoughts

by Kara Bos adopted from South Korea to the USA.

US Office of Children’s Issues: Virtual Town Hall Event for Adopt Intercountry Adoptees

I was notified of this event due to ICAV urging adoptees to represent our voices in this invitation for dialogue from the US State Department regarding adoptee lived experiences. It was my first time participating in such an event as I don’t think of myself as an activist and would imagine these types of invitations reserved only for established groups that speak for the collective. However, I was given the opportunity to join for the first time, a collaborative event with State Department officials and intercountry adoptees. It was a thrilling experience to see a diverse set of adoptees from all parts of the USA sharing their personal stories.

There were at least 60 intercountry adoptees and 15 Department of State team members on this virtual town hall call. 46 of us were given two minutes to respond to the question, “What do you, as an adoptee, want US policy-makers to know about the lived experiences of adoptees?” Naturally 2 minutes per adoptee was not enough time to cover this heavily weighted question, but we all did our best to respect each other’s time and stay within these limits. Topics shared were very personal and emotional and involved issues such as mental health support, citizenship for adoptees to be retroactive and inclusive, connection and resources for connections made readily available for inter-country adopted children independent of adoptive parents who may not support sharing these resources with their child, and post adoption services such as birth family search/right to origin, proper investigation and regulation of adoptive parents/adoption and random post adoption checks occurring long-term and not only within the first 3 years of adoption to mention a few.

The State Department was led by Marisa Light who moderated and provided a listening ear, only jumping in on the occasion to clarify when certain issues such as citizenship for adoptees being “outside their jurisdiction”. However, they did at least mention that they know the people who are responsible for this jurisdiction and promised to bring this to their attention.

Something to also note, is that there isn’t a single intercountry adoptee working in the State Department that holds oversight of intercountry adoption into the USA. When asked this question, they could only emphasise that Marisa’s boss who is apparently higher up in the ‘chain’ is a domestic adoptee and “holds all of our concerns very dear to his heart.” Naturally any adoptee would question, “How accurately can a department who oversees the adoption process truly understand the complexities involved with intercountry adoption if not a single member is an intercountry adoptee?” Furthermore, if intercountry adoption has been functioning since the 1950’s, since when have they started asking for dialogue with intercountry adoptees? Why isn’t there a single intercountry adoptee as part of this oversight division?

Stephanie Eye a Senior Advisor in the State Department replied with the following email, when I asked how they were planning on following up with the issues we had raised:

“We are in the process of reviewing all of the issues, concerns, and questions raised during the call and plan to follow up with adoptee participants to provide clarifying information, including specific areas where we have jurisdiction and where other entities may be more helpful.  That will be disseminated to the adoptee listserv that we are creating and to which all town hall participants will be subscribed.  We hope to get that out to everyone very soon.”

I can only hope that this isn’t just checking the box in regards to listening to our voices. I can only hope that real effective change will be put in place when listening to our voices. I can only hope that the truth of our lived experiences will be used to not only protect future adoptees but to also retroactively help the adoptees that are still suffering. All we can do is keep the dialogue open, and continue to voice our truths. I urge all adoptees to do so, even if it seems like no one is truly listening.

As Ghandi once said, “Many people, especially, ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you. Never apologise for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”

Distorted Priorities

Not being granted Citizenship as an adoptee is like having a False Positive.

It has come to my attention that the US Senate and Congress members have recently been sending letters to push for their agenda in intercountry adoption. The first I attach here to Assistant Secretary Carl Risch requesting attention to recommit to one of the purposes of the Intercountry Adoption Act, “to improve the ability of the Federal Government to assist” families seeking to adopt children from other countries.

The second I attach here to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo requesting resources and focus to address the waiting families wanting to bring home their children with COVID restrictions.

While I appreciate the Senate and Congress members sentiments to get involved and highlight the importance of these issues, it frustrates me that on the one hand these letters are written, using all of the power between them as a collective, yet I have not seen such a letter to push for the Adoptee Citizenship Act 2019 (ACA). For the past 5 years, I know our dedicated intercountry adoptee leaders – Joy Alessi from Adoptee Rights Campaign and Kristopher Larsen at Adoptees For Justice and their teams have been working tirelessly, trying to get Senators and Congress people to support the much needed and overdue Adoptee Citizenship Act 2019 (ACA). We need enough Senators and Congress members to support the Adoptee Citizenship Act 2019 because there are gaps left from the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 that resulted in intercountry adoptees prior to 1983 being left without automatic citizenship.

I gotta ask the obvious question here: why won’t American politicians get behind the Adoptee Citizenship Act (ACA) yet they will use their political force to push for more adoptions? It is the very same Intercountry Adoption Act 2000 that’s cited by them to get support amongst the Federal Government to assist newly desiring adoptive families to build their families, but yet – for the historic families who once sought to adopt children, who find themselves decades later, without citizenship for their children (now adults) – there is no permanence and no political leadership to address the problem. Isn’t it rather distorted that the powers to be will focus more attention on getting new children in without having made sure the ones already here, have stability, permanence and citizenship? What is adoption if it isn’t to ensure permanence, which is fundamentally about citizenship in intercountry adoption? Let’s also not forget every beneficiary of the Adoptee Citizenship Act (ACA) was already vetted at entry and promised citizenship. The Adoptee Citizenship Act (ACA) seeks to cover adoptees who entered on adoption purposed visas (IR4) otherwise known as legal permanent residents.

I feel for my adoptee colleagues who work tirelessly, pushing what feels like an uphill battle to gain the support needed to address this long overdue issue. Why aren’t letters like this being written to ICE or USCIS and to all the top level government officials including the President, who have the connections to influence these important decisions?

I don’t have the answers to my questions, I simply ask them because I hope others are too. We need Senators and Congress members to take leadership on the issue of automatic citizenship for the thousands of intercountry adoptees, now adults, who are living in suspended animation. These adoptees have been asking American leaders to represent their cause and help them overcome what feels like an insurmountable barrier – to be considered rightful citizens of their adoptive country. This right seems to be obtainable in every other adopting country – except the United States of America!

US Dept of State Adoptee Town Hall Event

It has been over a year since the US Department of State actively sought interaction with intercountry adoptees in America.

On 13 Nov 2020, the US Department of State (the Central Authority for intercountry adoption in America) ran a first of it’s kind event – openly inviting intercountry adoptees in America to share what they would like policy makers to know about the lived experience of intercountry adoption. It is awesome that Dept of State actively consulted widely with the adult intercountry adoptee community!! I hope we will see more of this happening, despite their “jurisdictional” restrictions.

Pamela Kim, born in South Korea and adopted to America gave her impressions of this historic event.

Just left the Department of State adoptee Town Hall event. One of the more moving adoptee experiences I’ve had, surprisingly. I had no idea the government even cared about adoptees especially international ones. The facilitators were great. Each adoptee had two minutes to speak as there were almost one hundred adoptees on the call. Two minutes to say how adoption has impacted us and our lives, what we want them to know.

There were adoptees from Russia, Korea, China, India, Paraguay, Ethiopia, Peru, Iran and more. Domestic adoptees too. The stories were hard to hear. Everyone expressed trauma – around race and identity, loss of culture, abusive adoptive parents, abandonment, trafficking, mental health needs, school environments and bullying, failed birth searches, deportation risks.

The lifelong impact of adoption is clear whether one is adopted as a baby or a teen. I heard many stories of good loving adoptive parent families. I also heard those same people say, “I cannot support transracial intercountry adoption.”

Some people cried.

I shared that my adoption should have been successful because I was an infant, part of the model minority, adopted into a family with resources, went to “good” schools etc. I shared that I’ve struggled my whole life from trauma … with life threatening eating disorders, suicide attempts, relationship issues, fibromyalgia. That my family cut me off many times. That even now there are triggers that bring me back to a place of deep grief and fear.

I talked about my friend who may be deported to Thailand. I shared her GoFundMe. I also shared the petition for the single mothers of Korea, KUMFA.

The Dept of State says there will be future conversations and events to hear our voices. I’m wiped out emotionally but so glad this happened.

It’s like after 39 years of feeling invisible and forgotten we actually matter! We actually have a voice.

We can change the culture around adoption all we want but until the laws change around adoption, we continue to clean up the messes that are our lives.

“There have been a lot of failures…” ~Adult Adoptee

Thank you to the US Department of State for Listening to the Voices of Adult Intercountry Adoptees!!

Thank you Pamela Kim for sharing your thoughts after this event!

I Want My Brothers Back

by Erika Fonticoli, born in Colombia adopted to Italy.

What are brothers and sisters? For me, they are small or big allies of all or no battle. In the course of my life I realised that a brother or a sister can be the winning weapon against every obstacle that presents itself and, at the same time, that comforting closeness that we feel even when there is no battle to fight. A parent can do a lot for their children: give love, support, protection, but there are things we would never tell a parent. And… what about a brother? There are things in my life I’ve never been able to tell anyone, and although I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my sister since childhood, there’s nothing of me that she doesn’t know about.

At the worst moment of my life, when I was so hurt and I started to be afraid to trust the world, she was the hand I grabbed among a thousand others. We are two totally different people, maybe we have only playfulness and DNA in common, but she still remains the person from whom I feel more understood and supported. I love my adoptive parents, I love my friends, but she, she’s the other part of me. Sometimes we are convinced that the power of a relationship depends on the duration of it or the amount of experiences lived together. Yeah, well.. I did not share many moments with my sister, it was not an easy relationship ours, but every time I needed it she was always at my side. I didn’t have to say anything or ask for help, she heard it and ran to me.

And the brothers found as adults? Can we say that they are worth less? I was adopted at the age of 5, with my sister who was 7 yo. For 24 years I believed I had only one other version of myself, her. Then, during the search of my origins, I discovered that I had two other brothers, little younger than me. My first reaction was shock, confusion, denial. Emotion, surprise and joy followed. Finally, to these emotions were added bewilderment and fear of being rejected by them. After all, they didn’t even know we existed, my big sister and I were strangers for them. So… how could I possibly introduce myself? I asked myself that question at least a hundred times until, immersed in a rich soup of emotions, I decided to jump. I felt within myself the irrepressible need to know them, to see them, to speak to them. It was perhaps the most absurd thing I’ve ever experienced. “Hello, nice to meet you, I’m your sister!”, I wrote to them.

Thinking about it now makes me laugh, and yet at the time I thought it was such a nice way to know each other. My younger sister, just as I feared, rejected me, or perhaps rejected the idea of having two more sisters that she had never heard of. The first few months with her were terrible, hard and full of swinging emotions, driven both by her desire to have other sisters and by her distrust of believing that it was real. It wasn’t easy, for her I was a complete stranger and yet she had the inexplicable feeling of being tied to me, the feeling of wanting me in her life without even knowing who I was. She was rejecting me and yet she wasn’t be able to not look for me, she’d look at me like I was something to study, because she was shocked that she looked so much like someone else she had never seen for 23 years.

With my brother it was totally different, he called me “sister” right away. We talked incessantly from the start, sleepless nights to tell each other, discovering little by little to be two drops of water. He was my brother from the first moment. But how is possible? I don’t know. When I set off to meet them, headed to the other side of the world, it all seemed so crazy to me. I kept telling myself: “What if they don’t like me?”, and I wondered what it would feel like to find myself face to face with them. The answer? For me, it was not a knowing each other for the first time, it was a seeing them again. Like when you move away and you don’t see your family for a long time, then when you come home to see them again
you feel moved and run to hug them. This was my first moment with them! A moment of tears, an endless embrace, followed by a quick return playful and affectionate as if life had never separated us even for a day.

So… are they worth less? Is my relationship with them less intense and authentic than that with my sister, with whom I grew up? No. I thought I had another half of me, now I feel like I have three. I see one of them every day, I constantly hear the other two for messages or video calls. There are things in my life that I can’t tell anyone, things that only my three brothers know, and in the hardest moments of my life now I have three hands that I would grab without thinking about it. I love my family, my adoptive parents and my biological mom, but my siblings are the part of my heart I couldn’t live without. Having them in my life fills me with joy, but having two of them so far from me digs a chasm inside me that often turns into a cry of lack and nostalgia. Tears behind which lie the desire to share with them all the years that have been taken from us, experiences and fraternal moments that I have lived with them for only twenty days in Colombia.

As I said earlier, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter the duration of a relationship nor the amount of experiences lived together but the quality… that said, even those rare moments to us seem a dream still unrealisable. In the most important and delicate periods of our lives we often feel overwhelmed by helplessness and the impossibility of supporting each other, because unfortunately a word of comfort is not always enough. We can write to each other, call each other, but nothing will ever replace the warmth of a hug when you feel that your heart is suffering.

In the most painful and traumatic phase of my younger sister’s life, when she started to be afraid of the world, when she thought she deserved only kicks and insults, when she thought she had no one, I wrote to her. I wrote to her every day, worried and sorrowful, and as much as I tried to pass on my love and closeness to her, I felt I couldn’t do enough. I felt helpless and useless, I felt that there was nothing I could do for her, because when I felt crushed by life it was my older sister’s embrace that made me feel protected. And that’s what my little sister wanted at that moment, a hug from me, something so small and
simple that I couldn’t give it to her because the distance prevented me from do it. And neither could our brother because he also grew up far away, in another family. I didn’t know what to do, how I could help her, she was scared and hurt. I wanted her to come live with me, her and my little nephew, so I could take care of them and help them in the most difficult moment of their lives. I’ve been looking into it for months, search after search, and then finding out that despite the DNA test recognised that we’re sisters, the world didn’t.

Legally, we were still a complete strangers, just like when we first spoke.

I would like the law to give the possibility to siblings separated from adoption to be reunited if this is the desire of both, that the law allows us to enjoy those rights that only a familial bond offers. We didn’t decide to split up, it was chosen for us, but we don’t want to blame anyone for it. We just wish we had a chance to spend the rest of our lives as a family, a sentimental and legal family for all intents and purposes. It must not be an obligation for everyone, but an opportunity for those biological brothers whose bond has survived. A chance for us perfect strangers who, in spite of everything, call ourselves family. Maybe someone will find themselves in what I felt and I’m still feeling, maybe someone else won’t, but precisely because every story is different I think there should be a chance of a happy ending for everyone. Mine would be to have my brothers back.

The Happy Adoptee

by Linzi Ibrahim born in Sri Lanka, adopted to Australia.

This year I had a long time adoptee friend make a comment along the lines of, “Where’s that happy little girl I remember when we were growing up?”

Me: The Happy Adoptee

Depression
Anxiety
OCD
Religious
Self harming
Overdosing
Promiscuous
Excessive drinking
Risk taking behaviour
Impulsive
Low self esteem
Smoking
Drugs
Body dysmorphia
Binging
Starving
Purging
Stealing
Using Laxatives
Learning disorder
Suicidal

Also me:

Happy
Loving
Caring
Thoughtful
Fun
Creative
Talented
Loved
Beautiful
Strong
Resilient

To the world, I’ve looked like the happiest person alive and yes, I was happy.  I was also, very lost and confused. Apparently because I talk about the “dark-side” of adoption, some people find it a bit too negative, and conclude therefore I must be unhappy and need to change, right? Wrong! It’s actually the complete opposite. I’ve never been happier and I’m finally becoming my true self! 

Talking about these important issues, makes me feel more alive, more myself and more positive. That is true healing. ADOPTION CHANGED ME, that’s a fact, it rewired my brain, adoption taught my brain trauma based thinking. But I didn’t know this until I was much older. I never understood the cause of my self sabotaging behaviour, after all, why would I think “beautiful, life saving adoption” could possibly be the cause.

One of the hardest silent battles I’ve been through, is with weight and eating. I’ve been on  diets and have been restrictive with how I’ve eaten for most of my life. I’m starting to now understand that just like the Adoption Industry, the Weight Loss Industry also preys heavily on the vulnerable. I’m learning to eat intuitively. My body, my mind, knows exactly what it needs. I’m not depriving myself of whole food groups. When I deprive, this leads to binging and spiralling downhill .. And inevitably starting a new diet. A cycle that constantly has my body and mind living in fear of eating and not eating.

I was recently on the Keto diet. It made me feel incredible, but I was cutting out all carbs, aside from what was in vegetables. I’ve slowly started introducing small amounts of the dreaded carbohydrates back into my diet, it’s been tough, I’ve felt the most intense guilt at even thinking about eating carbs, that’s not normal. But you know what? I feel AMAZING!! I’m now taking back the power. My body is my home, I will take care of it. That also means, spoiling myself sometimes and being happy about doing that for myself!! Having healthy eating habits will not only help me, it will help my children and teach them good habits too. Time to break the cycle!

Ce n’est pas un choix

Nous ne choisissons pas de naître
Nous ne choisissons pas d’être adopté.e

par Thomas Zemikaele SJ né eb Ethiopie et élevé en France.
English translation here.

No Choice par Michael Lang, Saartchi Art

Comme à des milliers de personnes adoptées, une des nombreuses questions qui m’a été posée fut “Tu viens d’où ?” Ma réponse commençait invariablement de la même manière : “Je viens de loin. Et même de très loin.” Car psychologiquement, géographiquement, et comme beaucoup de personnes, je (re)viens de loin.

Longtemps et plutôt inconsciemment, j’ai considéré que j’avais eu de la chance. La chance d’avoir été choisi, malgré tout, la chance d’avoir pu être sauvé. C’était une loyauté implicite. Mais tout aussi inconsciemment et en parallèle, une part de moi ressentait fermement que c’était et que c’est en réalité un faux sujet que cette loyauté. Une approche et une lecture pernicieuses même.

Aujourd’hui, je le dis sans hésitation et sans trembler : en tant que personne adoptée, nous ne devons absolument rien. Je dis bien : absolument rien. Pourtant, mon propre parcours me ferait dire, et ferait dire volontiers, que je suis supposé devoir quelque chose, la survie. Sauf que je ne suis pas responsable de ce qui s’est produit. Avoir été adopté n’est pas, de mon point de vue, et ne peut pas être fondamentalement avoir été sauvé. Alors que c’est exactement ce que les autres entendaient lorsque je leur disais d’où je venais ; ils entendaient que j’avais été sauvé (grâce à l’adoption). Mais s’ils m’avaient bien écouté, ils auraient surtout entendu autre chose, ce que j’avais pourtant clairement dit : j’ai survécu. La nuance est de taille.

Car oui, il serait plus exact de dire que j’ai survécu. J’ai survécu car même en ayant souffert moralement et physiquement, en touchant du doigt la solitude glaçante, en ayant ressenti la peur, l’inconfort, en ayant été immergé dans une obscurité où la mort n’était pas bien loin, j’ai tenu. J’ai tenu car mon père biologique avait été là, juste un peu avant que je ne fasse l’expérience de la laideur du monde. Il avait fait en sorte que je survive. De lui, oui, je pourrais dire qu’il m’a sauvé. Oui. Et s’il y a bien un autre être à qui je dois quelque chose, un sentiment, une chaleur, c’est à ma mère, celle qui a dû supporter l’impensable pour une mère : accepter et continuer de vivre sans son premier enfant. Elle non plus n’a pas choisi.

Systématiquement, chaque fois que je songe à ces décennies perdues, gâchées par le hasard et les circonstances, gâchées par l’incompétence de certains incapables, ma gorge se noue et je dois m’efforcer de retenir et mes larmes et mes cris. Si je m’autorisais à flancher, une seconde, juste une seconde, on me prendrait pour un fou. Je dois à mon père les risques qu’il a pris et fait prendre aux autres, sur plus de 1000 kilomètres pour ne pas que je succombe. Non, ni mes parents, ni ma terre, ni moi, n’avons véritablement choisi tout ce qui a suivi.

Bien sûr, je peux être respectueux de ce que j’ai eu par la suite, des soins, de l’éducation, du toit qui n’a pas toujours été protecteur et apaisant, je peux être respectueux pour l’assiette pleine. J’ai été et je suis respectueux mais pas redevable. Je ne dois rien. Car je n’ai rien demandé, j’ai accepté. Accepté de vivre. Mais ce qui m’avait été promis, ce qui avait été promis au travers du deal de l’adoption, je ne l’ai pas vraiment eu, loin de là. J’ai subi d’autres pertes, mon sourire s’est fait plus rare, mes rires ont disparu, beaucoup trop tôt, mes douleurs ne se sont pas toutes envolées. Ma flamme intérieure a continué de vaciller sous les vents de l’existence et des névroses d’adultes. La sécurité, la paix, ne parlons même pas du bonheur, je ne les ai pas vraiment eus. J’ai fait avec. Ou plutôt sans.

Mais “ça va” ! Combien de fois a-t-on éludé des questions derrière ce “ça va” alors que rien n’allait. Bref beaucoup de choses sont désormais claires dans mon esprit, je ne négocie plus ni implicitement ni ouvertement. Tous comme certains de mes souvenirs enfouis jusqu’ici, ma colère se libère. Une colère froide, une colère qui n’emprisonne plus, une colère qui n’aveugle plus. Une colère que je pense être légitime. Je n’avais pas compris. Je ne comprenais pas. Je n’avais pas digéré.

De nombreux témoignages loin d’être anecdotiques, et pourtant on continue de présenter l’adoption comme une chance, un cadeau. Mais à bien y réfléchir, NOUS SOMMES le cadeau. Nous n’avons reçu aucun cadeau et n’en recevons toujours aucun. Sauf à considérer que le fardeau de la survie soit un vrai cadeau. Nous avons perdu et continuons parfois à perdre au fil du temps. Clairement, nous sommes offerts à des destinées hasardeuses, et rien ne nous est offert. Pas même parfois l’amour désintéressé, non égocentré, le véritable amour, et pas même l’écoute. Nous comblons des manques, des carences, mais nos propres manques et nos doutes sont parfois démultipliés, confirmés, nourris. Nous sommes supposés dire “merci” alors que ce sont des “pardon” que l’on devrait nous dire, sans manipulation. Nous sommes parfois considérés comme illégitimes alors que ce sont les conditions de l’adoption, ses modalités, qui sont parfois manifestement illégales, illégitimes. Et il arrive même que ce soit notre “nouvelle famille” qui soit en réalité complètement illégitime. Illégitime quant au droit qu’elle est persuadée d’avoir sur notre mental et sur notre corps, et quelquefois sur les deux en même temps. La légitimité est de notre côté. Nous ne sommes plus des enfants, et nous avons aussi, d’une certaine manière, je le crois, une responsabilité vis-à-vis des petits, des jeunes, des adolescents dont on croit qu’ils sont juste en crise d’adolescence ; une responsabilité aussi pour ces adultes dont la parole continue d’être niée, caricaturée, décrédibilisée, minorée. Nous ne choisissons pas de naître. N’oubliez jamais, qui que vous soyez, que nous ne choisissons pas non plus d’être adopté.e.

J’ai vécu mon arrivée et mon “adoption” avec la sensation profonde d’émerger d’un long cauchemar, d’un monde sans sons, sans saveurs, fait simplement de peurs et de douleurs. Comme un véritable moment de renaissance inversé. Ce n’était pas une “adoption” à mon sens, ce n’était pas ma “nouvelle” famille, c’était ma famille. Sans forcément être heureux, j’étais à la fois fasciné mais surtout apaisé. Comme si enfin je déposais les armes après une éternité faite d’instants d’hypervigilance. J’étais apaisé lorsque je me suis retrouvé devant mon père “adoptif”. Oui, bien qu’épuisé par le voyage et l’intensité des instants, j’étais happé par ce nouvel environnement, ce nouveau monde, lors de ce soir d’arrivée. Ca pourrait sembler beau présenté ainsi. Et pourtant… C’est tellement plus complexe et tellement différent en profondeur. Car n’oubliez pas non plus : un bébé, lorsqu’il naît, il crie et pleure. C’est plutôt bon signe et rassurant pour sa courageuse mère et pour ceux qui le font venir et l’entourent. Mais des cris et des pleurs, ce n’est pas un hasard, pour le coup. Je n’ai pas crié, je n’ai pas pleuré ce soir-là. Je regardais juste, je levais et relevais la tête, silencieux. C’était il y a près de 32 ans.

Pendant ces 3 décennies, je n’avais pas saisi certaines choses, je ne réalisais pas quelques-unes des facettes de sujets qui pourtant me concernaient aussi. Comme celui de l’adoption. Je n’avais pas été un enfant adopté, je n’étais pas une personne adoptée. C’était autre chose. Les circonstances avaient juste permis que je vive plus longtemps que ce qu’un hasard avait tenté d’imposer. Cette même loterie qui m’avait enfin permis de sortir de cette obscurité.

Pour toutes ces raisons, et longtemps, je n’ai pas été très critique concernant l’adoption. Mais c’était tout “simplement” parce que je tenais à la vie que j’avais accepté le moindre mal. Parce que j’étais déjà épuisé, éprouvé, dans tout mon être. Alors je crois que je voulais simplement souffler un peu. Mais même si elle a été plutôt supportable au début, l’adoption n’a pas manqué directement ou indirectement, de m’apporter son lot de difficultés, d’autres traumatismes, d’autres souffrances.

Pendant plus de 30 ans, j’ai vécu, ou cru vivre, au grès des flashs, sans savoir d’où je venais exactement, sans avoir d’informations sur mes origines précises, sur mon passé. Seuls quelques instants étaient préservés, gravés. Imprimés dans un cerveau en mode sécurité car en alerte permanente. Bien sûr je savais que je venais d’Ethiopie. Mais l’Ethiopie c’est 2 fois la France et avec une diversité que l’on imagine pas. Nous, adoptés éthiopiens, sommes tous nés à Addis-Abeba à en croire la version officielle. C’est écrit noir sur blanc sur le certificat de naissance. Dans notre cas, c’est surtout écrit blanc sur noir le plus souvent. Pourquoi faire compliqué lorsqu’on peut faire simple et modeler une réalité, lorsqu’on peut falsifier et s’arranger avec les “faits” ?

Survivre à certaines affections physiques et chocs psychologiques, c’est parfois possible. Parfois. Mais clairement, les quelques difficultés majeures restaient de ne pas savoir, de se sentir multiple, d’avoir parfois le sentiment étrange d’être un autre, au fond, tout au fond, et donc de ne pas se sentir vraiment soi. Comme s’il y avait un autre “je” préservé quelque part, comme si parfois on était juste spectateur de cet autre soi déraciné et contraint de vivre une vie dans un environnement différent, un environnement dans lequel il avait fallu s’adapter, se nier aussi parfois. Un tiraillement constant, plus ou moins tenace. Qui vous freine, vous désoriente, vous fragilise, vous affaiblit, vous oblige, donc malgré vous, à creuser en vous, pour voir s’il reste quelque chose. Oui, le plus dur ça a été de ne pas savoir, et de faire l’expérience de parties de soi qui s’éteignent. Il en va du muscle comme de parties de votre âme. S’éteindre en partie, littéralement.

Pourtant, j’avais accepté le principe de mon adoption, en témoignait le fait que je ne le vivais pas en tant qu’adoption. Et puis objectivement, il n’y avait pas d’autre solution dans mon cas, dans le contexte, dans cette époque. Tout ça, je l’intégrais et le cautionnais même. Mais je n’ai jamais compris pourquoi ça devait aller de pair avec l’injonction d’être heureux, voire même avec celui de faire le deuil de son passé. Je n’étais pas heureux et je n’avais fait le deuil de rien. On ne m’avait pas prévenu qu’il y aurait autant de deuils à faire. Même après. Surtout après.

Hélas, le bonheur ne se décrète pas. Ca se saurait si tel était le cas et le monde ne serait pas à ce point barré, éclaté, instable. Je n’acceptais pas et je n’accepte toujours pas que l’on prétende, même subtilement, que je suis supposé être heureux, content, satisfait, sous prétexte que j’ai échappé à la mort, à la famine, à la guerre, à un non avenir. Je ne l’entends pas et je l’entends plus autrement : le plus triste et douloureux reste malgré tout que je n’ai pu échapper à l’adoption. Car dans l’adoption, tout y est pour partie : la mort, la famine, la soif, la guerre, le non avenir, un avenir perdu car non vécu. Des pertes. Des pertes inestimables. Mêmes si l’on a l’immense joie, la délivrance, de retrouver les siens ou d’avoir été retrouvé.e. Des instants, des années, une part d’une vie est perdue.

Non décidément, nous ne choisissons pas d’être adopté.e et au fond, je pense que nous subissons au moins une double violence. La première, la naissance, est acceptable et même belle, magique, sauf éventuellement pour l’être qui naît. C’est la vie, le mystère et le sublime de la vie. La seconde violence, l’adoption, est beaucoup moins belle : car c’est le monde. Le monde que l’on fait, le monde que nous subissons, le monde et ses injustices. Nous les avons subi, nous les subissons longtemps parfois ces injustices, sous des formes diverses. Mais subir ne signifie certainement pas accepter, ni tolérer.

Bolivian Family Searching

by Atamhi Cawayu, doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and the Bolivian Catholic University ‘San Pablo’ (Bolivia). Together with Vicente Mollestad and Teresa Norman, they run Network of Bolivian Adoptees.

This blogpost was initially posted on Atamhi’s Facebook profile and Instagram-account @displaced.alteño

Searching for first family and adoptee activism: Some reflections

In 1993 I got displaced/adopted to Belgium when I was six-month-old. According to my papers, I was found as a new-born in the city of El Alto in Bolivia. Since my twenties, I started to return and reconnect with Bolivia. In the past two years I live more in Bolivia than in Belgium and I consider myself ‘based in Bolivia’. In all these years, I have attempted to search for information about my pre-adoptive past. Since June, together with a fellow Bolivian adoptee friend, we started our search here in Bolivia by starting a big campaign to make ourselves visible.

Reflection 1: Putting up posters in the city

In June 2020, my friend and I started to prepare our searches for our Bolivian relatives by designing posters and putting them in various streets and neighbourhoods in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. It’s not the first time I engage in searching for first families, in the past years I have completed searches for other Bolivian adoptees, which sometimes led to reunions. However, searching is challenging, especially when you don’t have names, places or anything that might lead to our families. 

In Bolivia there is a central authority responsible for international adoption, yet there is no support from organisations or institutions who can really help us. In our cases, we have limited information, but other adoptees have the full name of their mother, or names of family members. Even in their cases it’s often a bureaucratic journey to obtain more information. In addition, most of us don’t know the language, are not familiar with the system, and do not always have the time to search. 

When I started to do my PhD on this topic, my goal has always been to have not only a better insight into the adoption system in Bolivia but also to ‘crack’ the system and understand which clues are necessary in finding one’s family. Besides I think it’s important to document the stories of the first parents and take their experiences into account if we really want to make an honest evaluation of the system of adoption. 

When preparing the posters, making the design, paying the prints, I could only think of one thing: we as adult adoptees have the resources to start this search and do it in an almost professional way. Our parents probably didn’t have the same amount of resources, and even if they did, their stories were regarded as less interesting than ours right now.

Reflection 2: Engaging with TV media

After our first round of posters, we received a message from a journalist from a Bolivian TV channel who was interested in our stories. A few days later they interviewed us, and it was broadcasted one day later. Since then our story was covered by national TV media in Bolivia and it received lots of attention. The media is a necessary evil. It helped a lot in having our cases visible, yet it’s hard to control the questions. They also have their own narrative they want to show.

These experiences made me reflect about several things. Our stories were largely framed as ‘abandoned babies’ returning to Bolivia, after being adopted internationally, however this narrative already makes a lot of assumptions of our mothers abandoning us. When reading the comment section (I know I should not do this) a big part of the viewers didn’t understand why we would search for someone ‘that doesn’t look for us’. However, it’s so much more complex… 

In my case I was found, but I don’t know what really happened. It’s easy to assume I was ‘abandoned’ by one of my parents, but I don’t know. In my research on first parents, I have encountered several parents who never gave up their child to adoption, did it in vulnerable circumstances, or were even pressured by intermediaries (and I’m not even talking about kidnap and illegal adoption). Yet, in many cases they were interested to know what happened to their children, if they were still alive, if they ended up well, etc. Part of our activism is also to speak about this other side of adoption. It’s not always a fairy-tale as many people think. We are part of system that exploits global inequalities, displaces poor brown/indigenous bodies from South to North, and prefers parenthood from the Global North over parenthood of the Global South. 

It is irritating people don’t understand the complexity and violence relinquishment and adoption can entail. Even if our parents wanted to look for us, they wouldn’t be able to find us as we have been relocated and displaced to other continents. When I search for my ‘family’, it is to make myself findable, so they know I am here in Bolivia and willing to be in touch with them. 

Reflection 3: The violence of international adoption

In the days after our first interview, various Bolivian TV channels called us for an interview. Our story was spread nationwide by radio, TV, newspaper. We tried to take advantage of this moment to open the discussion on transnational adoption.

During the interviews we tried to mention that for us adoptees there is no assistance for adoptees to search. Not in our adoptive countries, nor in Bolivia. We have to do almost everything by ourselves, and then I am not even talking about learning the language, understanding the documents, being familiar with the city. As my friend mentioned in several interviews, “searching is something political”. For me searching is doing something you were not supposed to do. It’s opening up histories that were meant to be hidden, it’s doing something within a system that tried to erase everything of your being.

Moreover, another dominant idea is to be lucky and fortunate when being adopted transnationally. One of the journalists said to me “you must be very fortunate”, “many people here would love to be in your shoes”. Throughout the years I have met many people, especially here in Bolivia, who told me I must have been lucky to be have been saved from my ‘miserable future’ in Bolivia and to have a ‘wealthy’ life in Europe. It’s like people think we only ‘won’ by being adopted internationally, but they often forget we have lost many things. I consider all the opportunities I have because of growing up in Europe as compensation for everything I have lost, and I have lost everything.

From my personal perspective, the violence implicit in transnational adoption is to be involuntary transcontinentally displaced, completely severed from our genetic ancestors, disconnected from our community, culture, language, nation, continent, and without any possibility to find our families ever again. For most of us Bolivia will become a country we once lived in. In addition, all our former identities are erased so we can be reborn, renamed, Christianised and assimilated with our adoptive countries. We grow up with complete strangers we are expected to love and call family. We are being brought into a society that doesn’t want us, that racialises us and discriminates us, without any community that provides shelter or understanding. This so-called child protection system – mostly in the benefit of well-off Western adoptive parents who wants to fulfil their heteronormative parental dream – erases everything from us. It is not the first time in colonial history child welfare systems are used to shape, control and erase indigenous children’s identities, and most children adopted from Bolivia have an indigenous background, be it Aymara or Quechua. Transnational adoption is for me an ongoing colonial project of civilising, controlling and managing children from the Global South, transforming them from ‘savages’ to ’civilised’ citizens in the benefit of the capitalist machine of the North. Transnational adoption would not have been possible without a history of colonialism and its ongoing colonial gaze towards countries in the South such as Bolivia.

The adoptee experience is something very diverse. I know some adoptees might disagree on this and that’s fine. I also know other adoptees might recognise themselves in what I write. Every experience is valid. However, my fight and activism are structural against a system that has caused a lot of injustices and is not in the benefit of first parents and adult adoptees. As another adoptee once told me: our parents maybe didn’t have the resources to fight for their rights, but we have, and we will fight for them.

Further Reading

Atamhi’s latest research paper: From Primal to Colonial Wound – Bolivian adoptees reclaiming the narrative of healing

Life Lessons from an Adoptee – Part 6

This is a series written by Tamieka Small, adopted from Ethiopia to Australia.

‘Be your own hero, be your own saviour, send all your suffering into the fire. Let no foot, mark your ground, let no hand, hold you down.’

Patrick Wolf

I don’t know about you but as a woman we are force fed the idea since we were little girls that a big strong man will come along and ‘save us’ from our troubles and fix all of our problems. And maybe not everyone believed that literally but I think you will find that especially for women the fantasy may linger in our subconscious more than we think. It can sometimes be a narrative we subconsciously place ourselves into, especially in relationships where all our inner fears and unhealthy beliefs are mirrored to us.  I also know especially for the younger generations that love is painted as this happily ever after where the partner will come along and solve all our problems if we just find the right one, when really it is no one else’s responsibility but our own to fix our problems.

Maybe that’s just the nativity that comes with youth and young love. And for me personally I believed that as a little girl and when I got older I thought that to an extent that my partner should be there to go through every battle with me, to hold me up, be a shoulder to cry on, to cheer me on, to be everything to me, and I went through an abusive 3 year co-dependent relationship to realise that is not love. Its co-dependency. And co-dependency tends to happen with people who haven’t worked on themselves and their unhealthy coping mechanisms to defence mechanisms to having an unhealthy definition of what love is.

With being adopted as a little girl in some way or another I would dream of getting a letter from my birth family to come in the mail and to come tell me everything as to why they abandoned me. To come and save me from my loneliness, from feeling like I don’t belong in this country or community. It felt like I was an alien that fell out of the sky with no history, no past, just a blank canvas. I remember watching films like ‘Lilo and Stitch’ and feeling like Stitch exactly; who was exactly an alien with no real parents and trying so hard to understand why he didn’t. I felt like every hero and heroine who had no back story, and would often fantasize about being suddenly whisked away on an adventure, where I would find out an epic story about my roots and my birth family and realise my place in the world.

Basically, I was waiting for someone to come save me, to help me understand my pain but no one ever came. And that was devastating.

What I realised growing up, and from having experiences in different relationships that I was the one who had to save myself. I was the woman who had to pick up the sword and fight my own battles, to find out my own truth, to wipe my own tears from my face. I had to be the hero in my own story. I had to be the one to unpack my trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms, unhealthy definition of love, and heal myself because no one else was going to do that for me. And frankly it’s no one else’s responsibility but mine. I think as adoptees we need to realise that, take accountability in our pain and trauma and take the steps in unravelling that and healing ourselves.

Because honestly if we’re told since children or traumatized into a narrative where we have to rely on others for our happiness and our rescue from our pain or suffering; we rid ourselves of our own personal power to do so. We put ourselves into a narrative where we become even more powerless than we already imagined ourselves to be as orphans or children or adoptees. But we have a choice when we get to adulthood; we can choose what our narrative is, we have the power, the proverbial pen to our story in our hands.