A few weeks ago we here at Land of Gazillion Adoptees heard a lot of conflicting information about Tarikuwa Nigist Lemma, an Ethiopian adoptee. Some of what we heard was troubling. So, rather than attempt to figure out “the truth” on our own, we decided to go directly to the adoptee at the center of it all to obtain clarification.
Land of Gazillion Adoptees: If you don’t mind, could you tell us about your extraordinary adoption story?
Tarikuwa: Five years ago, two of my sisters and I were adopted from Ethiopia. The adoption agency told the American family that adopted us that our mother had passed away from AIDS and our father was dying from the same disease. They said that we would become prostitutes if we were not adopted. This was not the truth. The reality is that our mother had died in childbirth and that our father was healthy. We were living a good, upper-middle class life by Ethiopian standards. We had lots of family to care for us.
After getting adopted I saw that it was a set up. The agency paid my father to give us up for what he was told was something like an exchange student program, where we would be educated in the US and able to return whenever we wanted. You can imagine our surprise and anger when we met our adoptive mother and found out that we were supposed to stay with her and her family forever, and that our names were being changed to American ones. I am now working to get my birth name back.
The initial adoption did not work out for me. Many things happened when I got adopted from Ethiopia, and my adopted family couldn’t handle the truth. I wasn’t going to give them a perfect story of how they saved us and we were happy in their home. Eventually, I was re-homed with the mother of my first adoptive mom (who lived in another state), but my sisters stayed with the first family. Living apart from my sisters was and still is horrible. I felt so empty. I had lost all of my family – everyone who really knew me.
My second adoption didn’t work out either because of a lot of reasons and many complications. Soon after I turned 18, I found myself sleeping on the floor at a friend’s house. A family I knew through my work with advocacy organizations to make sure people know about corruption in adoption offered me a place to live. I am now living with them in yet another state.
LGA: Thanks for that. Do you mind talking about your fundraiser? What’s it for? Where will the money go?
Tarikuwa: Since I was adopted in 2006, I have not seen my father and four of my siblings. Especially considering the circumstances of my adoption, being apart from my birth family has been really hard and painful. I’m a junior in high school so saving up the money for such a big trip is hard. I have part of the money from working, but not all of it. I know that lots of adoptive parents do online fundraising through sites like GoFundMe, so I thought: if they can do it to adopt, why can’t I do it to reunite myself with my family. In five years, I have missed so many things of my culture and family, including the death of my beloved grandfather, may his soul rest in peace. There is really no way of telling how much I have missed. Additionally, I have been talking with three different nonprofits operating in Ethiopia about doing volunteer work while I am there, and any funds I raise that go beyond the price of the plane ticket and other travel expenses will be spent to take over clothing, educational supplies, and other necessities for the nonprofits that are helping kids to stay off the street and giving them education and home (finding extended family for the kids to go back to live with).
LGA: You’re still very young. The world is in front of you. What is your goal in life for the next few years?
Tarikuwa: My dream is to create businesses in Ethiopia because there are too many educated girls and boys on the street because they can’t find jobs.
Right now my number one goal is to finish high school and go to college so I can most effectively speak up for the voiceless children of Ethiopia. I want to find a way to help Ethiopian family to stay together. I also want to help Ethiopian adopted kids, especially adoptees who come to America and have to leave their adoptive family for whatever the reasons. I just can’t stand the thought of kids on the street in a country they don’t know where they don’t even speak the language. It scares me to think that they just lost everything and there is no way for them to go back to their homeland and back to their family or extended family.
I am hoping that speaking up will lead to many good changes in Ethiopian adoption because right now it seems to be all about money. Adoption agencies are so powerful. They are bigger than adoptees, adoptive parents, birth families, and people who are in the process of adopting. I feel that people who still want to adopt even after hearing about the corruption in Ethiopia adoption are part of the problem because it feels like no one wants to make sure they are doing what is really best for the children. They think what they are doing is “saving” these kids from their horrible life, which isn’t always true. The Ethiopian way of living is very different than life in America, but it doesn’t make the American way of living better; it just makes it different.
Most children who are getting adopted from Ethiopia have one living parent, and in my opinion (but not in the opinion of the United Nations and other groups) that doesn’t make them orphans. If kids with single parents are orphans then boy, America has a lot of orphans! I think it’s time for Ethiopians to help themselves. I’d like to see a foster care system in Ethiopia, and more resources for families who want to keep their kids but can’t afford to do it. The best way to make a difference in Ethiopian adoption is to have more and more people speak up, especially adoptees who experienced corruption. We should demand change.
LGA: Indeed, we should demand change. With that in mind, Tom DiFilipo of JCICS, since you’re all about engaging the adoptee community, we here at LGA would love to get your perspective on this.