Before we visited the Children’s Cross Connection orphanage at Soddo, I was told I could not take photographs of the children. So I can’t show you the best part of our visit — the beautiful wide-eyed babies, the curious toddlers, the smart, bright-eyed, affectionate and eager-to-please school-age children.
But I can show you where they live. And I can tell you they are loved — cherished, in fact — by each member of the orphanage staff, from director Stephne Bowers to the cook, the teacher, the secretary, the nurse and the nannies.
We’ve all heard horror stories of children left to languish in the orphanages of some countries that allow international adoptions. We’ve heard about failure to thrive. Failure to bond. Developmental delays due to lack of stimulation. Communication and learning delays due to lack of opportunity.
The children in this Ethiopian orphanage are not like that. They are healthy, vibrant, insatiably curious. Their clothing, though second-hand, is immaculately clean. Some were near death from starvation or disease when they first entered the orphanage but they now reflect the advantages and glowing health of good nutrition and medical care. Except for a few runny noses (something you’d see at any preschool, nursery or classroom of children in the U.S.) they appear to be absolutely perfect. Exquisite.
They seem so normal, so unspoiled, that it’s hard to believe the back stories you hear about many of the orphans of Ethiopia. Children born of dying, HIV-infected parents. Children born of rape. Children who have lost mothers, whose fathers have remarried, whose stepmothers do not want them in the new family. Children who have been abandoned, left somewhere to die because their families lacked the resources to feed and care for them. Children rescued from impending genital mutilation or the continuing practice, among some tribes, of child sacrifice by drowning.
These are happy, hopeful children awaiting homes and families. They are unaware of the powerful forces manipulating circumstances behind the scenes, forces that quite likely will make their chances for adoption even more bleak than they already are. A pebble is tossed into the pool — whispers of child trafficking are seized upon by an ambitious TV journalist and one negative story is played hundreds of thousands of times around the world. Its ripple effects wash over these children and the systems that guide their future. Governments crack down, procedures are tightened, requirements for adoption become even more complicated and hopelessly expensive because of additional travel requirements. Orphanages, like this one in Soddo, are filled beyond capacity and can accept no more children. So more will die.
When we visited this orphanage, Keri deGuzman warned me that it is quite likely the “Taj Mahal” of Ethiopian orphanages — the best of the best. She knows Stephe Bowers runs a tight ship. That she insists on cleanliness, organization, structure and a predictable routine. Children need all of that; they thrive in the sense of security it provides.
Not all orphanages are this well kept, I am sure. But seeing this one gave me pause. If one staff of caring individuals — most of them Ethiopian — can provide this kind of a loving home within an institutional environment, what would happen if more could be taught, and funded, to do so?
As we said our goodbyes, Keri was overcome by emotion. She hugged each member of the orphanage staff, thanking them for their loving care of her two babies — “this gift, this blessing” of two perfect children who are now part of her family.