I first watched the video in January. So I’ve had a lot of time to absorb and understand its message. And yet, as I watch it again today, in preparation for a visit to Ethiopia that begins with a 16-hour flight tomorrow, I am still shaken by this simple, profound fact: No matter how sincere your compassion, no matter how well-intentioned your actions, it is much easier to harm the orphaned children in Ethiopia than it is to help them.
The video is a discussion between Tomilee Harding (who co-founded Christian World Adoption with her husband Bob) and Stephne Bowers, who runs an orphanage in Soddo, Ethiopia. They created the video to help prepare adoptive parents emotionally and spiritually for what they will encounter when they travel to Ethiopia to bring their children home. Its other purpose is to gently dissuade parents from giving in to a very human, but ultimately selfish, desire to visit the village orphanages to press for additional information about their adopted child’s family and background during their short visit to the country. (Children are moved from the orphanages to foster homes in the capitol city of Addis Ababa as they near the date of departure.)
Stephne recommends that parents be very deliberate in making preparations for the emotional impact of a visit to Ethiopia. Though I am going simply to observe as Valley parents Brian and Keri deGuzman bring Tesfanesh and Mintesnot Solomon deGuzman into their lives, I keep listening to the gentle lilt of South Africa-born Stephne, trying to imagine what it will feel like “when you exit the airport at Addis Ababa into a curtain of resistance and oppression.”
Keri and Brian, who have made two prior trips to Ethiopia to bring home 3½-year-old Jesmina and 2½-year-old Musse, also have warned me about this. “You get swarmed,” Keri says.
I await our trip from the cozy comfort of my sons’ two-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C. At noon yesterday, I walked several blocks to meet my son David for lunch. On the way home, I stopped at Eastern Market to pick up supplies for dinner, when I would meet my son Andy’s girlfriend for the first time.
I love the Eastern Market. Local vendors display meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruit, baked goods and flowers. Perfect lighting from huge skylights in the ceiling above add to the sense of freshness and wholesomeness of the selections.
I walked up and down the wide aisle, taking in the colors, smells and sounds. From all this bounty I had only to choose a few items and yet I was overwhelmed.
“Can I help you?” one of the vendors asked.
“Not unless you can help me plan my menu,” I said with a smile, expecting that to be the end of it. Instead, she asked, “What meat?”
“I’m baking salmon,” I said. She pulled a fat zucchini from a pile and a long, twisty-necked yellow squash. “Slice, cook with little olive oil, little salt and pepper,” she said. “Be perfect.”
As I purchased my vegetables, a tiny old woman with the oddly shaped mouth of one who is missing several teeth came up beside me. She started prattling about something I couldn’t make out. I smiled at her, trying to be polite despite the certain knowledge that she was somehow mentally disturbed, and possibly homeless.
She proceeded to follow me around the market, until I apologetically withdrew and headed home.
I told my sons about the encounter when they got home from work. Their reaction told me I still have much mental preparation work to do before I get to Ethiopia.
“Mom,” they said. “If you couldn’t get away from one old woman at Eastern Market, what are you going to do when all those people come up to you in Ethiopia?”
Stephne Bowers describes families going into the marketplaces of Ethiopia, wanting to give food or money to the street children. In some cases, she says, such acts of intended kindness “developed into chaotic situations where the police had to come and rescue the families.
“So it caused tension with the police officers, which affected our work for children in the country and children in the orphanages,” she says. “It also disrupts the daily flow when adoptive families come into the orphanages. These are kids that have just been [through trauma and] rescued,” Stephne says.
They need calm and a predictable schedule to being the process of healing, Tomilee adds. The constant flow of visiting families is very upsetting.
An adoptive mother herself, Tomilee has empathy for the temptation adoptive parents feel “to do everything in their power to find out everything they can” about the children they are welcoming into their lives.
“But what that leaves behind — and the ramifications of that — are huge, because we’ve tried it and we’ve seen what has happened. So we have to look at the welfare of all of the children and all of the families so that the practices that we have are ‘best practice’ and they work.
“We can’t have the parents be so emotional and so interested and wanting to get more from these children. It’s overwhelming to them.”
When adoptive parents visit the orphanages it “creates in children the expectation that families come to see who they should adopt,” Stephne says. “That is very scary to us. So when families leave, we have little girls 4 and 5 years old running up to the secretary and asking, ‘Was that my mommy?’ ‘Was that my daddy?'”
The children who are left behind feel left behind, she says. In one instance, it took orphanage staff three days to calm the children and reassure them that “your time will come.”
“We have traveled so much in this world today and we come with things that we deposit in places that we don’t even know we deposit,” she says. “So families get to leave and that deposit stays behind, which will affect the mission [to help].”
GOD BE WITH YOU, KERI AND BRIAN ON YOUR JOURNEY. HOPE YOU ALL HAVE A SAFE TRIP. CAN’T WAIT FOR TESSA AND SOLOMON TO BE PLACED IN THEIR PARENTS ARMS. IT’S BEEN SUCH A LONG WAIT. SO HAPPY ITS GETTING CLOSER. CAN’T WAIT TO MEET THEM AS WELL.