When the Emirates plane landed at J.F.K. on Saturday after a 23-hour trip (with 18 of them in flight), my daughter and I were filled with both joy and relief. Her second child and my seventh grandchild was now a citizen with the promise of a good life. Besides, we had fallen in love with him.
At the age of 20 months, our little boy had spent the previous year in an orphanage in Addis Ababa, one of millions of children in Ethiopia who have lost parental care due to extreme poverty, AIDS, or some other combination of misfortune (but one of only thousands who end up in care centers run by foreign adoption agencies).
According to a Central Intelligence Agency Web site, 43 percent of the Ethiopian population is illiterate. Agriculture accounts for 85 percent of the economy despite droughts and much of the soil having been severely denuded and overworked, leaving many of the 82 million people who live in the country without enough to eat.
Teodros was nicknamed Taydee in Ethiopia, and that’s what we’re calling him. Officially, he is now David Teodros Rattray, after his uncle (and his uncle, and his uncle). His sister, Nettie Tesfanesh Rattray, who was adopted from the same agency three years ago, will be 4 in 10 days.
It was my first time in Africa. Although the effects of famine and disease were obvious out on the streets of the capital, in some instances dreadfully so, my stay in Addis Ababa filled me with respect and admiration for Ethiopians. The staff at the care center, which is run by the Children’s Home Society and Family Services organization, based in St. Paul, Minn., were kind and gracious to us, and very loving to the children. Their smiles were endemic.
The children we met were getting acquainted with their adoptive parents in a carefully programmed transition over five days. They smiled, too, showing affection for each other with hugs and kisses. A few older kids broke unbidden into song in the guesthouse dining room at breakfast one morning and when the electricity went out in a thunderstorm one afternoon. It should not have surprised me that children who had grown up with no radios, let alone televisions or video games, would like to sing, but I found it touching nevertheless. One talented boy, about 10, who had been adopted with his younger sister, led call and response songs, with the cooks’ voices joining in from the kitchen. I hope he doesn’t forget these songs as he grows up in America.
There was talk among the adoptive parents of how their charges would adapt to new surroundings and siblings, of how to make sure they learned of their heritage, and of how to know when it would be appropriate to bring them back to Ethiopia for a visit.
My daughter and I had no fear that Taydee would not take hold of his new life easily. Imagine: Here was a child who had spent most of his hours over the previous year in a single room, full of cribs, but who quickly overcame confusion and fear to smile and laugh out loud constantly, as, for the first time, his new mother toted him into cars and vans, and fed him strange new foods, and marched him into a crowd at the United States Embassy — and then carried him away on a long, long airplane trip.
The future of the adoption of Ethiopian children was thrown into doubt this spring when the Ethiopian government took measures that could radically delay the process for any given child, in effect cutting the number able to be adopted out of the country by as much as 90 percent. It is certainly understandable that Ethiopians would be concerned and upset to see their small compatriots leaving the country. More than 2,500 left for new homes in the States in 2010. It is also certainly very right and good that both Ethiopians and Americans should be extremely vigilant in protecting against corruption and exploitation; there is a very real potential for child-trafficking in a situation like this, where there is such huge wealth and power dividing the “sending” and “receiving” nations, to use the jargon.
But, even so, at least in some cases, adoption is sometimes the best remaining solution — and the solution most desired by surviving birth families. The future of a boy like Taydee would have been very grim indeed if this avenue hadn’t been open.
We are thankful we were able to bring him home and very grateful to those who nurtured him till now.