The Unwanted Arrival of Trauma in Adoption

November is National Adoption Awareness Month. It’s also the month I arrived from Ethiopia to the United States in 1994 at the age of 6.

There is so much I could express here but one thing is for sure: Adoption is rooted in trauma. Despite the new life I was given, I carry with me always the experience of my life before adoption.

The smell of coffee that my birth mother used to roast, the siblings and other family members I loved, the language I lost, and the emptiness I felt in April 1994 when my twin sister and I were placed in an orphanage with very little explanation. Add to that the recurring dream I kept having as a child of my mom coming back to the orphanage to visit me and rock me back to sleep. I dreamt of holding to her tightly and wished that that moment could last a lifetime.

Then later, after 18 years of holding onto that dream, my heart was shattered into a million pieces because I found out that it wasn’t a dream: it actually happened. My mother did come back for me—but the way the system worked, I was no longer hers. She wasn’t empowered to know her rights. But this is how the system works. It preys on the vulnerable, and it leaves them disempowered.

Now, as an adult, I carry with me that pain, the heartache that I now know my mother felt, the trauma it created for everyone, and the resilience of every birth family that has been impacted by a broken system.

I find myself counting my blessings, working through the pain—not being grateful but taking each day as it comes—because anyone that gets through this life, as an adopted person, carries with them the complexities of adoption and is grappling with the trauma in various ways.

As an adult, I’ve been able to work through these feelings, and the loss adoption creates, but I’ve also been lucky enough to live to tell about it.

We lost two young adoptees recently to suicide, and it breaks my heart because life was supposed to be better if you are adopted—at least, that’s the narrative.

I was inspired to share my thoughts today because I’ve been experiencing what some call a “traumaversary,” the idea that on the anniversary of traumatic events (such as suddenly being moved to an orphanage, or unforgivably (for a 6 year old) being moved to a place with strangers and not understanding why), we feel the trauma again, sometimes in our bodies, our minds, or both. November 1994 remains with me. Some Novembers, I have felt uneasy, sad, and confused, and I didn’t know why. Then I remember.

I remember that my new life was supposed to be enough. For some, it may be. But understand that the most resilient soul often still suffers in silence, no matter how well-adjusted they may  seem. My ability to get through this isn’t because I had a perfect life, but it’s because I hold onto the love of my birth and adoptive family—yet, I still struggle with the loss.

I am thinking today also of my fellow adoptees, especially the little ones, who are angry and sad and don’t know why. Or who aren’t able to talk about their sorrow, because they don’t yet have the words, or because they are afraid their adoptive parents will be mad, or because they don’t know what will happen if they voice their pain—and that is a terrifying feeling. We adoptees often have memories that have faded or disappeared, but which actually still reside in our bones and souls.

Now, at 30, I am thinking of my small 6 year old self. One day, with her beloved, devoted mother, and one day gone from her. I reunited with my mother several years ago. I cannot speak to her except through a translator. That is another enormous loss for both of us. We share our love without words.

Adoption is not perfect. It’s not win-win. It’s broken for so many reasons. Through support, counseling, and time, some wounds can heal. We need to reshape the narrative around adoption to normalize pain and trauma, especially for young children, but for all of us.


Black Hair: Beautiful and Political

There are multifaceted ways in which we can examine our privilege. For example, we live in a racialized society where the standards of beauty are measured from the white perspective.  Anyone who does not fit into that standard of beauty is automatically perceived as undesirable, minimized, or fetishized. Now, let’s examine this theory from the context of African-American hair which is often described as kinky, tightly curled, and thick. Like everything else in life, there are always exceptions. For example, being black is not always synonymous with having that particular hair texture. In fact, many black people are mixed with different ethnicities because of slavery, interracial marriages, and geographical locations. I would argue that black hair is extremely diverse in its texture.

I’m speaking about this from a personal lens. I can look at my own experience and compare it to my daughter’s. Growing up, white people were never really fascinated with my hair or made comments. Contrarily, black people would often tell me that I had “that good hair,” because it was wavy and fine, and closer to the texture of white people’s hair. As someone who grew up in a diverse community, that stuff never bothered me, but as an adult, I now realize the impact of colonialism and how detrimental it can be when exploring our complex identities.

My daughter is Half Panamanian and Ethiopian. Her hair texture is nothing like mine or my twin sister’s, and my twin’s hair is not identical to mine either. My daughter’s hair texture has forced me to be more intentional and thoughtful about the care that goes into her beautiful mane. Her hair is thick and tighter curled; it requires more time and attention. So, I’ve had to adapt and make an effort in making sure that I educate myself about the products that work best for her. As I mentioned earlier, black hair is hugely diverse.

Some mornings, I find myself re-examining some of my own privilege. I can easily put my hair in a bun at night, wake up the next morning, add water and hair lotion, and I’m ready to go. However, Zariyah at night has to section her hair in 8-10 sections, braid it, and make sure it’s set for it to be styled in the morning. We have had blowups some nights, because it’s late, dance class was intense, and the work-life balance is overwhelming. We are both tired, and cave in and go to bed, but we pay for it the next morning. I’m yelling, she’s crying, and I’m feeling awful because my little beautiful black child is struggling with the feelings of frustration inadequacy.

And in these moments of hair frustration, she revisits those comments that white kids made calling her hair nappy, or “pretty for a black girl,” and violating her space by touching her hair as if she’s some petting zoo. Now mind you this, I’ve never had to go through this, because I had the privilege of living in a diverse community and having hair that is that’s considered “good hair.”

Z is a pretty confident child who has learned to navigate this racist society we live in, but that doesn’t mean these comments don’t sting. Hair and attendant racism also shapes those who have many racial mirrors in their lives, or are immersed in the awesomeness that is black girl magic. It can be a rough journey for those who grow up in racial isolation.

And that gets me thinking often about transracial adoptees who have very few mirrors in their lives, who live in isolated places where no one looks like them; how lonely they must feel. Here I am as a black mom who has built the fabric of activism into the way that I raise my child, yet I’m struggling to shield my child from this white supremacist society we live in. I want to acknowledge that Zariyah is an extremely resilient child who has learned to navigate white spaces with her assertiveness, clever responses, and a not totally calm attitude.

I express all this to say that black children, despite what the world says about them, are magic. When we compare them to other children, understand that they’ve had to grow up a little faster, experience battle scars early, and yet continue to rise above. Because in essence, being black in America–despite how happy, talented and successful one might be–is full of overcoming adversities and fixing your tilted crown, just to say I am worthy and enough.

Zariyah doing her hair before ballet class.

Ethiopia is Ending International Adoptions: Today’s State Department Conference Call

Image result for Ethiopian map

National Adoption Awareness Month can be triggering for many adoptees, but it can also feel like a month of urgency to get involved and talk about adoption in a critical and transparent way. Today, I and other adoption community members, majority of them being adoptive parents (no shock there), engaged in a conference call held by the Department of State to discuss the current suspension of intercountry adoptions in Ethiopia.

While the conversation was enlightening, I couldn’t help but notice how so much of the conversations and questions was centered around advocacy efforts to push back against the Ethiopian government and to advocate on behalf of prospective adoptive parents. One person on the call even thanked the embassy for advocating for families. And for a moment, I caught myself gasping, because I thought to myself, yes adoption is a viable option for some, but shouldn’t we think about the impact it has on birth families and adoptees?

Why do adoptive parents continue to see themselves as victims when Ethiopia is pushing back on intercountry adoptions?

The State Department gave back instructions in April asking agencies not to make referrals for new adoptions, citing reasons for adoption coming to a halt due to corruption, the welfare of adopted children, and the lack of post placement reports. I would add another reason as an adoptee: the erosion of biological families, who are often left out of the conversation. However, prospective adoptive parents continue to hold a sense of entitlement and a sense of ethnocentrism which conveys that children are better off with them, and give no acknowledgment that Ethiopia’s efforts to end adoption might be positive.

Hopefully the Ethiopian government will work to reunify families and invest in family preservation efforts. As the call came to an end today, I decided to ask a question, based on the tone of the conversation, hoping that it would allow those fierce advocates for adoption to pause. My question was “Why does the State Department think Ethiopia has decided to end intercountry adoptions?” Their response walked a fine and diplomatic line, citing issues of severing cultural ties, welfare of children, and lack of post adoption reports.  I honestly asked this question to see how critical their response back would be. Again, it wasn’t surprising. While they acknowledged corruption, they didn’t cite possible trafficking, the murdering of adopted children, rehoming or displacement, because their job isn’t to critically educate people invested in adoption. It is to continue to push for adoption as a viable solution despite ethical dilemmas. Many of you might read this and ask me what side I’m on, why am I so anti adoption. I’m not.  Adoption has touched and impacted me in positive ways, but I and many adoptees have also been the victims of unethical practices that benefited many adoptive parents and caused birth parents pain and heartache that will last a lifetime and impact generations to come.

So my sense of advocacy comes from being a privileged adoptee who’s had the opportunity to reunite with my Ethiopian family and get answers regarding my relinquishment, but who also has spent hours on the phone with adoptees who have been harmed and paralyzed by the injustice of adoption. While I don’t know the intentions of the Ethiopia government, I hope that ending intercountry adoptions means providing services for families separated by poverty and for adoptees to have access to their birth records or any information. I’m no longer looking for the United States government to make a structural difference, despite having heard from numerous adoptees. I am sure that adoptees and their Ethiopian families need to be the ones to bring about long overdue change.

Being Black in White Liberal Seattle

I’ve often wondered about the experiences of black adoptees raised in an all white environment, where they had very little contact with people of color. Moving from DC area to Seattle has made clear to me how exhausting, isolating, and alienating life can be as a black person in a sea of white liberalism.

About 8 months ago, my daughter and I flew out of Reagan National and landed at SeaTac. Settling into Seattle, WA, the 5th whitest city in America, has been a huge cultural shock in more ways than one. I was raised in a diverse community with people of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, which I believe in many ways gave me an extremely balanced perspective on the black experience and a strong black identity. Even so, I don’t think anyone could’ve ever prepared my daughter and me for the challenges and complexities of living amongst well-intended progressive white liberals.

As an outsider, before moving here, I was somewhat blinded and misled by the utopian rhetoric of Seattle and its racial progressiveness. That veneer can at times undermine and silence the injustices that many blacks feel in Seattle. My curiosity began to kick in after I’d been here a while, and I searched the web for black voices in Seattle. I’d hoped they would give me better insight about the experiences of black people in Seattle, but that in itself became challenging: there weren’t many resources out here. I felt deprived and alienated.

I soon started to grapple with the realization of how exhausting it is to be black in a predominately white environment.

The racist incidents here have ranged from small (“What kind of name is that?” “Your hair is nappy.” “Your name is funny.”) to overt, tinged with violence (My daughter was told by a 3rd grade classmate: “My grandfather said he would kill a black person if they ever came to my house.”). I began to see painful parallels between my daughter’s experiences and those of thousands of transracial adoptees who are raised in racial isolation, with no contact with people of color.

The huge difference in her experience is that she has a black mom who can validate those experiences as real and painful. I have found myself engaging in many conversations of self worth and acceptance with my daughter, with the hopes of repairing the damage and preserving the innocence of a compassionate, accepting and loving 9 year old whose world had been turned upside down. I have gone to bat for her at school in handling the racist incidents, and modeled for her how to negotiate a white world that is often shocked to hear about racism in its midst.

The harsh reality of living in a predominately white environment is that your space is violated intentionally and unintentionally more often than you’d like through microagressive comments and other forms of racism. You begin to feel and internalize the weight of racial scrutiny. This is true for my child, and for me, an adult. My world started feeling unfamiliar, more intense, and I began to observe everything that made me different from the people around me: my name, my hair, my blackness. Those differences made me become more conscious than ever of my race and reality. They reminded me that racism is systemic, and that liberal empathy is an insufficient solution.

If I wanted to reclaim my own space and strength, I had to fiercely advocate for my child, and engage and connect with other black people in Seattle, which isn’t easy. Even traditional black spaces are predominately occupied by white people, whether it’s a talk about Blacks in Seattle or panel discussions on Hip Hop as a Form of Activism. The biggest challenge I faced and continue to face is the lack of accountability and recognition of white privilege amongst white liberals, who are undoubtedly misinformed and in denial about racism.

As I continue to find my way in a space that doesn’t quite feel like home, I’m reminded of the strength and resilience of many black people, especially transracial adoptees who manage to remain strong in completely isolated communities. I’m also grateful that my white parents raised me amongst people of color who I can call my best friends, teachers, and mentors. If I had not had that experience, my solidarity with black people wouldn’t feel as validating and powerful and positive as it does. In a racially divided nation, black children’s self worth will be constantly challenged, in the classroom, the neighborhood, the court room, and across social media. What makes those challenges manageable as they grow up is the strong bonds they create with other black people, and the reassurance they gain through meaningful connections and engagement.


Zariyah in Seattle

Lions Roaring, Far From Home

2016 is going to be a great year for Ethiopian Adoptees of The Diaspora . Our upcoming anthology, Lions Roaring Far From Home will include essays by Ethiopian adoptees from the US, Canada, Spain, France, Holland and Sweden, ages 8 to 47. Edits are done and author agreements will be sent out in the next 2 weeks. In the interim, we are creating a website for the book. In the next few months, we will launch a fundraiser to help with the cost of the translation, publication, and marketing. This probably has been one of the most fulfilling projects that I’ve been a part of, and of course it wouldn’t be possible with out Maureen McCauley Evans and Kassaye. Stay tuned!











Ethiopian Adoptees Are Also the Diaspora

When we discuss the Ethiopian Diaspora, people typically think of immigrants, refugees, and Ethiopian Americans. Adoptees often times are not acknowledged as part of the diaspora, not purposefully but because people are not aware of us. We are a wave of immigrants through adoption who have been displaced in many ways. Balancing our multiple identities as Ethiopians, Africans, Blacks, and Immigrants is a constant struggle. We never really feel at home in one place.

Although we share many parallels with Ethiopian immigrants and Ethiopian Americans, we often lack cultural confidence and competence. The huge disconnect for us as adoptees is that we in many ways don’t feel Ethiopian enough. Having been raised by white parents has stripped us of our Ethiopian identities and put us at a cultural disadvantage and isolation. For me, creating a community for Ethiopian adoptees was critical. When I established Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora (EAD) with my co-founder Annette Kassaye, our mission was to create a space for adoptees to feel connected and at home. We’ve only been around for 6 months, and already the support and feedback have been amazingly empowering. Our Facebook fan page is at almost 600 likes. We have been contacted by journalists in Canada, the US, and Europe, and we have done interviews for newspapers and radio shows. We have appeared on TV through our involvement with the #flipthescript campaign, thanks to Lost Daughters. We have also spoken at conferences in Boston, NYC, and St. Louis.

Our most exciting venture is our upcoming anthology, Lions Roaring, Far From Home: An Anthology By Ethiopian Adoptees, which aims to tell the stories of Ethiopian adoptees in the diaspora. We have already had submissions from adoptees in Ethiopia, U.S, Canada, UK, France, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. It’s very exciting, and the perspectives of our contributors (as we envisioned) have a lot of variety.

The most impactful moment for me has been the support and feedback we’ve received from various Ethiopian communities. Through our work with EAD, the gap and disconnect between us adoptees and the Ethiopian community could possibly be bridged. Most recently, we connected with Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship (EDF),  whose mission is to promote leadership development, public service, creative storytelling, training, and peer-to peer mentorship. They seek to increase cultural identities and to be a catalyst for growth and change in Ethiopia. Currently, EDF and EAD are working together to see how we could be of service to each other. Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship has an amazing program to train Ethiopian Americans in the U.S and then send them to Ethiopia to work and volunteer in Ethiopia. This perfectly ties into what we at EAD hope to do some day. While we are a community working on adoption-related issues, one of our missions is to also go back and give back to Ethiopia. Aligning ourselves with organizations like EDF allows us to build our community worldwide. Although EAD’s following is largely by the adoption community, specifically adoptive parents of Ethiopian children, our hope is to expand our network and connect with Ethiopian immigrants, refugees, and all who are a part of the Ethiopian diaspora community.

Connecting with Rediate,the founder and Executive Director of Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship, made me realize the need for educating the Ethiopian community about the adoptee community. Contrary to what others may believe, adoption in Ethiopia is a taboo, often misunderstood ,and its realities are often poorly communicated. Many Ethiopians understand issues regarding adoption, but the need for transparency with the community is very critical. While educating the Ethiopian community about adoption, I hope to make people more aware of the complexities, and to open doors for other possibilities to help families in need. Our next big step at Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora is to establish ourselves as a non-profit organization, especially as we move toward establishing a presence in Ethiopia for adoptees who are there to visit, live, work, volunteer, search for their Ethiopian family, or learn about their culture. EAD is rapidly growing. Many thanks to those who continue to support us.

Girl's hands holding globe --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
Girl’s hands holding globe — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

I Am Black History: Ethiopian Adoptees on Race, Identity, and More


I am Ethiopian, Ethiopian-American, black, African-American, American, and African. I am also an adoptee, an immigrant, and part of the African Diaspora. All these identities and categories have had different impacts in my life. As part of Black History Month, I collaborated on a video with three other Ethiopian adoptees (three of us raised in the US, one in Canada).

You can view it here: I Am Black History.


My thanks to Rahel Tafere


To Annettte-Kassaye


And to Mekdes SOulgarden.

You are all so beautiful, speaking truth to power.

Thank you also to Bryan Tucker of Closure for his incredible patience and talent in editing. My sisters at Lost Daughters have given me so much support and inspiration as we continue to #flipthescript.

Please watch our video, and share it with others. Let us know your thoughts. “Black History” means so much more than a month on the calendar.