Harambee Culture Camp

Harambee African Culture Camp 2015

It was over a month ago now, but better late posting than never!

Every year our family goes to Harambee Camp for families with children of African heritage. Some of our best friends in the world go, and it’s always an amazing time to connect and learn. Sugar and Spice feel so comfortable will a camp filled with over 120 families that look like ours… Transracial adoptive families, as well as a few African families thrown in for good measure. We play drums, dance, go to parenting workshops, play games, do crafts, talk and make memories. There isn’t a lot of relaxing… That’s for the other antidote camp, Mehaber, on the August long weekend. But it’s an intense week of acceptance and celebration.

This year was unusual for a few reasons. It was the camps 20th anniversary, so instead of the kids being in workshops all day long, there were more festival-like big audience shows. There was West African drumming, Capoera and Samba dancing, Haitian dancing, and hip hop singing. We enjoyed it, but I think we’ll also be happy to return to the more learning-focussed format next year.

Jason could only come for a few days out of the week this year, due to being busy at the clinic. This totally stunk for him, and we missed him dearly. The only plus side was that my food organization worked out perfectly, without the interference of the snacking monster!

This year was also Tully’s inaugural camp, and he was a big addition, literally and figuratively. At only 7 months old, Tully behaved beautifully, lying down when small kids were around, and not chewing I the cabin. The only exception to this was when 400 people were drumming 100 metres away. I came back from the drumming workshop and he had moved the double mattress across the room and against the kitchen counter. Oops. When a 130lb puppy gets scared, he can really move the furnture.

The other weird / interesting / occasionally annoying thing about Tully being at camp was how much attention he got. You have to realize, this is a whole camp full of conspicuous families. Most people at the camp share the experience that they get unusual attention because they are a transracial family. What could possibly garner the same level of heightened attention at a camp full of people used to being stopped in the streets? An Irish Wolfhound puppy, that’s what. It was hard to get to the bathroom without being stopped and asked what breed he was and was he getting bigger. Most of the time, I enjoy sharing him with others, but when I had to get somewhere (like the bathroom!) well… Let’s just say it was reminiscent of when the girls were cute Ethiopian twin toddlers at the mall.

There were all the usual activities, like the water fight, crafting, side trips to get icecream, and even a full dinner that all 400 of us ate tougher (thanks to our amazing friend Pam. Served in 45 min, can you believe it?)

Two other notables: first, we had a new lady doing parenting workshops, and she specialized in talking about race. We haven’t focussed on this side of transracial parenting in our workshops for a long time, and it was some awesome discussion and ideas for parents.

The other was one of my daughter’s first mutual crush. What a trainwreck. But I was grateful to know the little boy’s parents well, and we navigated it together. Due to our friendship and trust in each other, we figured it out (more or less) and used village parenting to handle the situation. I go foreshadowing of many camp years to come, though… It won’t be all drumming and dancing one day.

I hope you enjoy the pictures. And if you have children of African heritage through adoption or birth, consider joking the 400 of us next year! We are all one family. Just a really big one!

Adoption post placement report delivery to Ethiopia

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With the closure of Canadian Ethiopian adoption programs, some Canadian adoptive families are lacking a viable way to get post placement reports to Ethiopia. I’m volunteering to deliver post-placement reports to the Ethiopian government from the Canadian families that don’t have another mechanism to send the reports to Ethiopia.

As an adoptive parent myself, I’m keenly aware that these reports are incredibly important: when birth families search at orphanages or the Ministry of Women, children and Youth Affairs (formerly known as MOWA for short) for information about their kids, these reports tell them how they are doing. Many other people, from social workers to orphanage caregivers to government staff, are concerned for the children’s welfare. The post placement reports give these people reassurance about the kids as well. Some adoptive families have the benefit of direct or mediated contact with their children’s birth families, but even those families still have an obligation to the Ethiopian government and other people in the chain of care who need to know about the children.

The format and frequency of reports has changed over the years, and I’m no authority on what the government expects. The last time I heard, post placement reports were due three, six and twelve months after placement, and every yearly anniversary until the children turn 18. All formats I have seen include information about how the children are doing, and photos of the kids. This is a link to one agency’s suggested format. http://www.awaa.org/forms/PostPlacementReq-Ethiopia.pdf

What format you use, who prepares the report and how often you send them is completely up to you. Not my business! I’m just the delivery service.

But whatever format of post placement report you are sending, I’m volunteering to take it to MOWA for you. I will deliver your post placement reports into the hands of government of officials, who will then distribute them to the orphanages and other offices and chains of communication, as they see fit. I will get a delivery signature, and a picture of handing over the reports.

All I ask is this.

First of all, don’t send me heavy stuff. I need to take this on a plane, and squeeze it in amongst donations and medical supplies for Vulnerable Children Society’s Love and Hope Centre, and Teenage Sex Trade Worker Retraining Program. Please send a maximum of two copies (they have photocopiers in Ethiopia,) and staple them together (no binders or duo tangs.) Please keep each report to 8 pictures maximum. Think light!

Secondly, please make a minimum $200 donation to Vulnerable Children Society. The trip I am taking these on is a volunteering trip for Vulnerable Children Society, and if I’m taking volunteering time away from the trip, I’d like this side trip to benefit our work in some way. Of course, if you are so financially strapped that you can’t donate to that amount, we will work something out. But courier costs alone would be close to this amount, so it’s a pretty good deal. https://www.canadahelps.org/dn/15435

Thirdly, you need to send the two paper copies of your post placement reports to Vulnerable Children Society’s office before Labour Day, September 7. Yes, that is just a month away. But I’m leaving shortly after that, and I need to get those reports all packed up safely. Include your return address, as well as your email, so we can stay in touch if necessary. Here is our office address:

Arnica Rowan
Vulnerable Children Society
757 Wardlaw Avenue
Kelowna, BC V1Y5B8 CANADA

Note that if for some reason I can’t deliver your package, I will send it back to you and refund your donation.

I hope this delivery service is of benefit to you and your family. I think it’s a great fundraiser for Vulnerable Children Society and a service to my fellow adoptive families, I’m certainly going to take advantage of the trip to deliver our own family’s post placement report, even though we have direct contact with our children’s Ethiopian family and the orphanage they came from. In my opinion, it’s one of those important connections between our children’s first homes and their second, between their birth country and family, and their Canadian family.

I should point out that Vulnerable Children Society has nothing to do with the process of adoption… Our organization focuses on keeping families together through community foster care and self reliance. But since many of our directors’ lives were touched by adoption, we also acknowledge the importance of the connection between birth and adoptive families.

I hope you will follow us along on our trip mid-September. I will post the pictures of delivering the reports on our blog, as well as accounts of our work at the after school centre and teenage education centre we support. We also have a new Instagram account: I hope you will follow along.

My best,
Arnica
President of Vulnerable Children Society
http://www.VulnerableChildren.ca

The end of Ethiopian adoption: how it happened

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It was almost exactly 6 years ago the Jason and I became the parents of two beautiful little Ethiopian girls. Aren’t they growing up beautifully?

This last week, we learned that there would be no more Ethiopian adoption for Canadian families.  Both programs are now closed … And no more children will find families in Canada.

Although it wasn’t a surprise, the email that came from the adoption agency had sad note of finality to it. When I shared the news with my almost-nine-year-old daughters, one of them commented wistfully “that makes me sad, because there are so many children in Ethiopia that really need homes. I’m not sad for us, but I’m sad for the kids who will live in orphanages and who won’t have a family.”

I have to admit I feel the same way. Since I am in Ethiopia every year, and have had an active role in this last adoption attempt, we’ve known for a while that it was highly unlikely to adopt from Ethiopia again. My sadness for those unadapted children was more nuanced though, because I see a system that has failed them. Some families will likely be much more surprised that there is no more Ethiopian adoption. What went wrong? How did adoption stop, when Ethiopia sent thousands of children to live in Canada only a few short years ago?

Here’s my take on why there won’t be any more new adoptions from Ethiopia to Canada.

First… The big picture. In the early 2000s, international adoption kicked off in earnest in Ethiopia. As has happened many times across the globe before, the demand for children catylized a system into overdrive. There was real social need for childcare and for non-institutional, long-term placement solutions, as this was the height of the HIV epidemic. Adults were disappearing, neighbours and grandparents were overrun, and domestic adoption wasn’t on the radar for the average Ethiopian.

Due to the demand, more orphanages and agencies popped up than anyone could oversee and handle.  Adoption agencies started getting competitive, and more than a few resorted to bribery, child solicitation and other horrid forms of corruption. Meanwhile, there were other agencies doing good work, checking and ensuring the authenticity of the adoptions. We can’t forgot those! And then, there was the grey area. As someone who has spent a fair amount of time in Ethiopia around child care organizations, I know there are a lot of well intentioned people who brushed aside the complicated ethical concerns of international adoption to ensure children were placed in a home. A change on the paperwork to make the children more adoptable, or easier to pass through the courts. I heard stories like this over and over, from both sides of the pond.

Of all our friends who adopted children from Ethiopia,  I would say that roughly half of those adoptions were tainted with some lies, or shortcuts along the way. Ours is one of the others… The legitimate, honest adoptions where everyone knew what was going on. Since we have an open adoption with our girls’ family, we know that the big information information we received about the girls’ background was true, and they really did need to have an adoptive family. But a complete pre-adoption story was the exception, not the norm. All those other fibs, lies and outright injustices Started to come out as children got older and could talk, and the international adoption parenting community got rightly pissed off. Many people hired investigators to find their children’s birth families and true stories… All which should have been clearly shared by adoption agencies and orphanages in the first place!

With all these pissed off parents and investigators running around, and the cracks showing in some agencies’s methods, the government started cracking down on adoption. Regions had backlogs. Judges weren’t available. The ministries issued statements. Meanwhile, the government was auditing the heck out of the agencies, and (good job Ethiopian government) managed to close down many of the more blatantly corrupt orphanage and agencies.

Back in Canada, things were going amuck for the two adoption agencies that had open Ethiopian programs.

First, the Imagine Adoption bankruptcy. If you haven’t been following my blog for six+ years, then you may not know that we were caught in the middle of that fiasco with our girls. In fact, I was the one who had to break it to the Ethiopian staff that their employer was broke. Our twins had become legally ours July 3, and then on July 13 I found out that our adoption agency was bankrupt. My mom and I flew to Ethiopia on six hours notice (not knowing how long we were staying…) and the rest is history. But that bankruptcy was due to the director of the agency spending the money, that was supposed to be feeding and caring for our children, on a new pool, horse and house renos. Oh by the way, she finally was “sentenced” this year. It’s amazing how she got away with stealing from the mouths of orphaned children in a third world country. There is a special place in hell for that kind of person. Eventually, another agency took over the Ethiopia adoption licence and the program limped along. They aren’t taking new clients for Ethiopia

The other licenced agency had financial difficulties not a few years later. We put in our oar with them for this second adoption, but heard this past week that they are closing their program. For the last couple of years, we had two organizations barely making it along. What a mess.

Back in Ethiopia, enough adoptive families had stayed at the Hilton and Sheraton where the politicians hang out to cause concern over the mass exodus of children leaving the country. Many of the families didn’t stay to learn about their children’s culture. They just flew in, ate $30 salad buffet lunches at the overpriced luxury hotels, and flew out again with their babies in tow. The wealthy Ethiopians, government officials and hotel staff were astounded.

Orphanages and agencies closed their doors, and also routinely didn’t get post-placement reports back to the people who had placed the kids for adoption in the first place. Many birth families didn’t get any information about their kids, and told their painful stories of loss to the media. Justifiably, people were outraged. Culture is so important in Ethiopia, and for children never to connect with their birth families again and to be disconnected from their culture was a loss for the families, but also for the country.

And then the horror stories started filtering in. I was in Ethiopia when the story of Hannah Williams broke. I was sitting in a cafe, meeting with some of our partners for the NGO I run. One man mentioned in grief about “all the kids that were dying that had been adopted.” I was confused, and didn’t know what they were talking about, until I managed to get wifi the next day and learned about the tragic death of that poor little girl. It was horrible. And it forever changed the way the average Ethiopian saw adoption.

Thousands of Ethiopian children found loving homes overseas. Many of those adoption were honest, and good solutions for children that needed homes. But there was also corruption, financial mismanagement, lies and deceit, pissed-off parents, concerned government and judiciary systems, grieving birth families, a horror story of one beautiful little girl, and a proud Ethiopian people wondering why their children weren’t being raised as Ethiopians. So bit by bit, the house of international adoption in Ethiopia came falling down. And now, in Canada and many other receiving countries, it’s gone.

International adoption doesn’t solve orphan crises. It can be a good solution for some children that need a home, and don’t have other options. however, adoption never does address the root issues that lead the children to need homes in the first place. Now, more than ever, we need to help our Ethiopian friends fight poverty, foster social equality, spread education and keep families together. If you were considering adopting from Ethiopia, or had children from Ethiopia touch your life in some way, I hope you’ll consider helping one of the many organizations take care of the country’s children. They need your support more than ever.

We appreciate your donations for our charity, Vulnerable Children Society‘s work on behalf of children and families.

On a personal note, I am so grateful the people who safeguarded our children, and enabled them to find a home with us. I am thankful for the girls’ family, who saw a way when there was no way to care for the girls. I’m grateful to the orphanage that shared everything they knew about the girls’ family with us. I am grateful to the judge who gave me a complete heart attack as we went through seven court dates, just to ensure that the reason for adoption was actually true. (It was.) And I’m grateful that our first adoption agency, in the throes of bankruptcy, didn’t have the capacity to intervene in our relationship with the girls’ family. Lastly, we are grateful to our girls, who have enriched our lives in countless ways, and who we love more than anyone in the world.

Melkam Fasika

Two weekends ago we had the pleasure of going for an Easter celebration at my Eritrean friend Aster’s house. It was a joyous, relaxed occasional, with a plethora of food and good company.

Melkam Fasika

We had a dazzling array of food. It’s neat to talk with Aster and the other Eritrean women about the differences and similarities between Eritrean and Ethiopian food. There are more similarities than differences, of course. That’s the way we feel about each other. One of my two besties is Menbi, who is Ethiopian. And the other of her two besties (one is me!) is Aster. I remind myself on occasions like that that not everywhere would gatherings of Ethiopians and Eritreans take place. To add to that, there were Orthodox, Evangel Christians, Muslims and Buddhists at this Easter celebration. Both Jason and I felt blessed my our community and the acceptance of Habesha friends. We love it that 1/2 of the conversation is in Amharic (with side conversations of Tigrayan and Oromiffa) and 1/2 in English. It helps my brush up on my Amharic understanding when the conversation is mixed, too.

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One of the other gems of the day was when I was talking to the Jordanian woman who lives in Aster’s basement with her family. We had met before, but didn’t know each other’s families. “Which one is your husband?” She asked. There were two white women , including me, at the celebration, so she didn’t know if we were the interracial couple. “The white one, I chipped back with a smile.” As a mom of two daughters who live as minorities in a majority white culture, I relish those few moments when my us and I are the ones in the minority.

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The last highlight of the day was the honour Aster bestowed on me when she asked me to make coffee for everyone. Granted, she was using my jebuna (Ethiopian coffee pot,) since I have the biggest one in our group. But instead of just using it, she asked me to prepare the coffee. For those of you that don’t know, in Ethiopian culture, the woman of the house prepares the coffee. If she has a daughter that is old enough (her daughter is getting there, but was playing with the other kids,) she can do it, or a younger relative. Anyway, my punchline was that I was enlisted as a younger cousin or member of the extended family would be, and it tickled me pink.

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I hope you all had lovely Easter celebrations as well, and enjoyed the peace and friendship of your communities.

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Love has no labels

I remember, before we adopted the girls, people asking me if we could possibly love “someone else’s children as much as we would love our own.” The simple answer is that we couldn’t love them more. Not possible. It doesn’t matter that we share parenthood with others. The funny thing about love, is that it is endless… through loving, you only open your heart more, and make more room for love. It opens you up to share with others, and not to be threatened by others’ love.

Sometimes we get too hung up on externalities, like where a child is born, or what religion we believe in. Love doesn’t see externalities. There is a fundamental need that we have to love, and to share that love with others. As the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying: “The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another.”

We can’t be colour-blind or ignore the society that we live in around us. But only through loving unabashedly, regardless of colour, religion, gender, age or ability, can we change that society to be more just, and more compassionate.