Melkam Bal! Our wild Meskel night in Addis Ababa

There are certain places that are famous for their celebrations. Last night, my friend T and I experienced the wonderment of the crowds, blaring music and smoky pyres of Meskel in Addis Ababa.

If you aren’t aware, Meskel is the celebration of the True Cross. It’s an Orothodox Christian holiday, celebrated across Ethiopia. The holiday is named after the Meskel flower, or maybe the Meskel flower is named after the holiday. In any case, the fields of yellow flowers only bloom this time of year, at the very end of the big rains. This is a picture of Mekel flowers form my Ethiopian art collection at home.

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After a quiet morning of walking the eve of Meskel, we took a cab up to our next guest house, on the north side of Addis Ababa. Vulnerable Children Society’s Teenage Sex Trade Worker Project is located on the far north west part of Addis Ababa, an hours drive from our former guest house (which was as close as we could get to the Love and Hope Centre in Kality.) We had picked the guest house for its location and recommendations, but when we arrived, we were less than impressed. The whole little place was surrounded by Barry windows. But 5 minute later, we were off again, taxiing as close as we could to Meskel Square. We got dropped off just south of the Hilton, and joined the throngs walking down towards Meskel Square.

Pete were walking form all across the city. There were constant streams of families, young people with their friends, and couples decked out in fine clothes and nutellas, the white scarves. Rich and poor, everyone had donned their best clothes for the occasion. We reached the square, and after being frisked by the military, climbed with the throng up onto the grassy slopes of the massive amphitheater. The usually busy traffic square was full of white robed priests, with expanses of pavement I between the groups from different churches. T and I had expected more milling about in the square, not the spectator setup. After climbing up into the sloped grassy hills, we picked our way down a foot wide dirt path between sitting participate to. After many minutes of stumbling walking, we found two open spots next to the path, about a quarter of the way across the back. We sat down, much to the amusement of our fellow spectators. Amounted the thousands and thousands of people in the crowd, we only saw one ferengi family pass by, and a handful of ferengi individuals.

Our neighbours that we were squished into made us feel at home. The boy next to her kept taking cell phone pictures of the side of T’s head, and shouting the only English words he could think of. Rounds of laughter from the people nearby. The sweet older lady beside me tried to strike up a conversation about the crowds. I couldn’t understand a word, despite my limited Amharic skills. I said “tinish Amharinga” (I only speak a little Amharic) and she laughed and replied the same. I don’t know where she was from, but I’m guessing she is Gurege, the tribe that is epesically celebratory of Meskel. So we smiled and made little waving jokes with each other.

The crowds thickened and thickened. Whenever someone would stop on the little path in front of us, standing, a lady three spots down would hit them with her candle and tell them to move along. But after an hour of people filtering and filtering into the sitting crowd, the path was completely stopped up. I’ve never been so squished in my life. Even T, who lived in India, said she’d never been in such a sitting jumble. There was one man with rough curly hair and a pressed dress shirt sitting on my boot toes in front of my knees, bunched up to my chest. He was leaning against my knees. T was glued to my left side, and I was sitting on a lady’s bare toes, that she had slipped out of her flip flops. I never saw he face, but my back was parsed to her knees. There was a twenty year old boy to my back right, whose knee up against my right shoulder. He softly and kindly asked about my Ethiopian and Meskel experience, encouraging me that soon we would be listening to some of the best “church music” in the world. I asked him if there was dancing. He laughs, and other laughed around us. “Priests don’t dance!” He guffawed. The lady to me right kept shooting me sidewise smiles. Both T and I felt so welcomed and included, despite not really knowing the details of what was happening.

After several hours of sitting, but still an hour or so from the huge pyre in the middle of the Meskel Square being lit, we had had enough. People were still picking their way, step by step, in between the seated crowd. I was starting to feel claustrophobic, and the trampled crowds on Mecca last week kept creeping into the periphery of my mind. So I asked T to leave. We speculated if it was even possible, then stood with difficulty. We said goodbye, and started picking our way, step by step, through the seated spectators. Once we reached the side, there was standing room only, and people were pressed so tightly against each other, it was impossible to move. I started using my Canadian charm, and with no care for personal space, switched spots with people, thanking them profusely in Amharic. I dragged T forward. She later said the crowds reminded her indeed of India. At one point I flashed panic. We were trying to crawl uphill towards the entrance. The entire crowd was pushing and started to sway in a way, exclaiming in that communal tone “ohhh!” I flashed panic, and then saw a kind man several feet above me offering his hand. “Here sister!” He yelled. I grabbed his hand, grabbed T’s with my other hand, and hauled ourselves up towards the back wall.

It was easier after that, and we managed to break free of the throng as we hit the street. Much to our amazement, people were still flooding towards the square. We walked up and out against the crowds. Once and a while, a young man would shout exuberantly, “wrong way!” But we had had enough. We absorbed the outfits, the families, the festive mood.

We stopped for a brief bathroom break at the Hilton. Yes, we totally exercised our white privilege on that one. We wondered… Where do people pee when they are stuck like canned oysters in a tin for hours on end? There certainly are no bathrooms…

We hailed a cab up to the university area, got out at Arat kilo and looked for some supper. We ended up at a restaurant I had been to before during the day. It has two huge patios between the high rise buildings and the street. The music was blaring as we took a seat, as far as possible from the speakers. Blaring music is definitely one of those cultural things we’ve not quite gotten used to in Ethiopia. We ordered doro wat, shiro, a beer and a water, and it was less than $10. The best value meal we have had anywhere! There was an MC who was constantly shouting advertisements into the mic for this occasion and other events at the restaurant, and breaking into dancing between sets. Six young dancers came onto the open area in front of the bar, scattered with grass, and did some of the best traditional dancing I have ever seen. T and I barely talked, but enjoyed watching the other diners. The cool thing about Ethiopia is that almost any occasion is for kids. Very one was drinking and eating, but there were families with small children, who occasionally joined the MC at the front, busting a move. Grandparents, parents, young men and couples were all celebrating together. That’s an Ethiopian custom I totally love.

After the restaurant, it was 15 minute walk to our new guest house. The streets were busy, with people walking. Just as we passed a military compound, the soldiers started to light the pyre, walking around it with torches, singing and dancing about. Further down the dark steer, neighbours in white nutella were singing all together in someone’s yard, and they had laid out candles in the shape of a cross on the street. The pyre was covers in meskel flowers, waiting to be lit. We continued on, past a bar, and the streets got emptier. There were groups of young drunk men walking together, but less families, so I started to get nervous and beat a quick path for the guest house. T was non-plussed, but she has greater faith in humanity than I do.

Finally, uneventfully, we walked thought the locked gate, and up to our guest house apartment. The for was open, despite us having locked it when we left. T sat on the sofa, and looked at me. I looked at her. And within a minute, we decided to move. There was no guard, it was not a particularly fantastic neighbourhood, and we felt exposed with barred windows on all sides of our room.

So we made a late night taxi ride with a thankfully Muslim (aka sober) taxi driver back t our first guest house. After a half bottle of wine, some chocolate and deep sighs of relaxation, we fell to bed. A wonderful, eventful, exciting Meskel!

Melkam Bal!

Now we are off for a coffee ceremony… A lovely holiday to all our Orthodox and Hebesha friends!

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.