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.

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: Our Voices in Black History

Black History Month is a month set aside to learn, honor, and celebrate the achievements of black men and women through history who have paved the way for many people like myself. To honor Black History Month, I have collaborated with 3 transracial Ethiopian adoptees on a video project which aims to educate others on how Ethiopian adoptees fit into Black History Month.

Although most of us identify with being Ethiopian first, as transracial adoptees we’ve had to juggle multiple identities such as being immigrants, Ethiopian American, African, and black. Those multiple identities sometimes can be challenging and hard for us to explain to others. Often times our identities are challenged, with some people considering us not to even be black, and some who challenge the authenticity of our Ethiopian identities.

My hope with this project is also to pave a way for Ethiopian adoptees to be a part of the adoption discourse. I think it’s very important for us to share our experiences, because oftentimes our stories are being told through the adoptive parent perspective. That needs to be challenged and changed: no one should be speaking for adoptees except the adoptees themselves. Ethiopian adoptees may be the youngest wave of adoption to the United States, but we are loud and proud and ready for our voices to be heard.

I would like to thank my sisters at Lost Daughters for inspiring me through their #flipthescript campaign which was launched during National Adoption Month, and which I was also a part of. This project could have not been possible without Bryan Tucker, who is the producer of the highly regarded adoption documentary Closure and a huge adoption ally. Last but not least I would like to acknowledge Annette Kassaye, who has really been an amazing friend and teammate on this project. Looking forward to sharing this exciting venture with you all–the video will come out at the end of this month. Amaseganallo! Thank you!

The shadow of a supporter of Ethiopia's Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ) is seen through an Ethiopian flag during a demonstration in the capital Addis Ababa