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A Million Children Waiting

In part one of this two-part series, we learn about the tragedy of Ethiopean children who have lost their parents to disease--and their prospects for adoption.By Melissa Fay Greene

Four years ago, a fifth grader in my children's school in Atlanta lost his father in a plane crash. Even today, there is a wisp of tragedy about the tall, blond high-school freshman--fatherless, at so young an age. I find myself thinking about him when surveying the playground of Layla House, one of the countless orphanages of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

In a hierarchy among orphans, those here at Layla House, with its shady, paved common area, baby house, schoolroom, and dining hall, are the most fortunate.  They are H.I.V.-negative and healthy, and they have landed in one of two excellent American adoption programs in this city. But they have been plucked out of immeasurable tragedy.

Virtually all of these children have lost both parents, most to AIDS. Malaria, yellow fever, and TB are fatal illnesses here, too. The children's grandparents have also died or are too poor and sick to care for the children; the same is true of their aunts and uncles, their neighbors and teachers. But no single one of these children has been isolated by tragedy: being orphaned is one of the common experiences of their generation. The number of orphans in Ethiopia is estimated at a million, most of whom end up living on the streets.

When I visit one on one with some of the children, I discover that each is more like the fatherless Atlanta boy than not. As a group, the children generate a carefree mood of ruckus and play, but a secret grief coexists with the brave frolicking. Being orphaned may be typical for their peer group, but it pierces each child in a uniquely tragic way.

Robel is a rambunctious eight-year-old of the half-baked-schoolwork type. It is easy to picture him as a bike-riding, Nintendo-loving American boy. He has surmised that hospital treatment killed his mother. "She went to hospital for injection. First injection is good; second time, she is tired; third injection, she died. Then I hear people crying about father. They said, 'Your father has died.'"

Alone, bringing out the words of the family's end, a child's eyes fill with tears. Bedtime is the worst, when all the shenanigans die down. At night, ghosts and visions and bad dreams visit the children. Through the open windows, you can hear kids crying into their pillows.

The orphans are not confined to the cities. In small farming towns hundreds of miles outside of Addis Ababa, children rush cars, offering flip-flops, bars of soap, or tree branches heavy with nuts. Some of these children are the sole wage earners for their families. Orphaned in the countryside, they have migrated to the villages and towns, trying to feed themselves and their younger siblings in alley dwellings improvised from scrap lumber or cloth or plastic.

"Almost without exception, children orphaned by AIDS are stigmatized, malnourished, uneducated, and psychologically damaged," Carol Bellamy, executive director of Unicef, said recently. "They are affected by actions over which they have no control and in which they had no part."

The Children Left Behind
Enat House in Addis Ababa is run by a husband and wife, Gezahegn Yohannes and Atsedeweyen Abraham. The children who live here are all H.I.V.-positive, the smallest victims of the continent's collision with H.I.V./AIDS: not only have they lost their mothers and fathers and siblings, but they themselves are sick. Some of them have begun to lose their hair; others are frighteningly thin.

At Enat, the first clue that the health of another child has taken a downward turn is the child's refusal to enter into the games enjoyed last week. A child sitting listlessly on the curb at this playground is an awful omen. The day I visit Enat, the teachers are mourning the death of a six-year-old boy a few days earlier.

But on the dirt playground, shaded by eucalyptus trees, the little girls weave one another's hair, and the children are awaiting a visit from their beloved guitar-playing P.E. teacher. Later, in a sunny dining hall, the children sit at long tables for an art class.

The Enat children are not in line for adoption. Though it is not explicitly U.S. policy to exclude H.I.V.-positive adopted children, the immigration paperwork is more complicated, and few families step forward for these youngsters. Nor are they receiving medical treatment. "Medication to fight AIDS is not available," says Gezahegn, who has the dark, rumpled, bloodshot look of a man who has been up all night; he has wrestled AIDS for a dozen of these small lives already and has had every one of them pulled from his arms.

In America last year, thanks to vigorous treatment of infected pregnant women, only 200 H.I.V.-infected children were born, down from 2,000 in 1994. Most of those babies will live fairly normal lives and survive to adulthood. In Africa, without medications to treat complicating infections, 75 percent of H.I.V.-positive babies will be dead by the age of two, says Dr. Mark Kline, director of the International Pediatric AIDS Initiative at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Of the remaining 25 percent, he says, very few will reach age 11.

Still, these stricken children at Enat must be counted among the relatively blessed of their generation. "The children are happy here," Atsede says. "We want them to see something of life." It has become the life mission of this couple to do more than sit by the deathbeds of small children in pain. Their question is simple: how can they get hold of the triple cocktails that in America now have reduced deaths by AIDS by 76 percent since 1996?

By American standards, the cost doesn't sound extravagant. An average figure for pediatric triple-drug therapy in Africa is now $60 to $80 per child per month, and the price is dropping. But without serious commitment of financing from the industrialized world, even these modest costs are unreachable. 

"Without therapy," Kline says, "as far as we know, all of the children will die."

Imagining a New Life
Layla House is run by Adoption Advocates International, based in Port Angeles, Washington. AFAA House, on the outskirts of town, almost buried in flower gardens, is run by Americans for African Adoptions, based in Indianapolis. These two are the only American agencies permitted by the Ethiopian government to arrange for adoption of healthy Ethiopian orphans to America. [Editor's note: Since this article was written, another agency, Wide Horizons for Children, in Waltham, Massachusetts, has begun the process of setting up a home in Ethiopia.] More than 100 children joined new families in the U.S. in 2001.

It is the first recourse of everyone ethically involved with intercountry adoption to place orphans within their home countries; no one imagines or pretends that adoption is a solution to a generation of children orphaned by disease. It is one very modest option, a case of families in industrialized nations throwing lifelines to individual children even as their governments fail to commit the money to turn back the epidemic. "Though we are looking at the deaths of millions, the saving of even one life is not trivial," says Mark Rosenberg, of the Atlanta-based Task Force for Child Survival and Development.

In the dusty schoolroom at Layla House, students face forward on wood benches and chant lessons in high voices. Their teacher, a young man who has never been to America though it is his fondest wish to go, writes American greetings on the chalkboard.

"How are you?" he taps out, while pronouncing the words.

"How are you?" the children repeat.

"I am very well," he writes.

"I am very well," they sing.

The working premise is that these children will be chosen by American families for adoption. The lessons in Americana do not cease at mealtime. At long wood tables, the children are being taught to use American forks and spoons and to maneuver foods like spaghetti and meatballs. "Please to pass the water," a boy booms. "Thank you very much."

Some of these kids once lived on the street, cried for food, tried to keep alive younger siblings, and had few prospects of surviving to adulthood without their birthparents. They now enjoy fantasies that they will wear Walkmans and ride bicycles when they live in America. "When I grow up, I want to help the elderly people," says a merry, dimpled, 13-year-old girl, Mekdes, cognizant, like many of the young teens, that she is on the receiving end of charity and eager, herself, to be of service.

"I wasn't at all sure what the response of American families would be to our opening an Ethiopian adoption program," says Merrily Ripley, director of Adoption Advocates International. "We never dreamed that Ethiopia would become our most popular program."

At Layla House, every child can recite which children have adoptive families waiting for them in America. The assigned children have in their possession small photograph albums full of nearly unbelievable images: big grinning adults--white or African-American--standing on green lawns in front of pretty houses and happy children playing on swing sets, sitting astride ponies, pulling sleds up snowy hills. These have to be fairy tales! Yet the owner of each album has been told it is his or her destiny to leap into these scenes.

While a couple of the older children have arrived with psychological challenges based on early loss of mother or other relative, the majority began their lives in families as breast-fed, tickled, treasured children. Children who have known the love of parents are eager to enjoy it again, and their adjustment to American family life has been rapid.

Millions of Children Waiting
Though still small, the number of Ethiopian children adopted by Americans has grown substantially in the last ten years. "What families consistently tell us is how happy and well adjusted the children are, that they obviously had been well nurtured and that they are extremely intelligent," says  Cheryl Carter-Shotts of Americans for African Adoptions.

Yilkal, age 10, was adopted by an African-American family in Katy, Texas. When Yilkal's mother, Naomi Talley, flew to Addis Ababa to meet him, her hosts praised her beauty and said that her forebears must have come from Ethiopia. Once settled with his new father, mother, and sister into an upscale American house, Yilkal revised his personal saga and told his new friends and teachers that the entire Talley family had just emigrated from Ethiopia. "They'll know," Naomi told her son, laughing.

"They won't know, Mama," he pleaded, looking at her adoringly.

Eight-year-old Mekdalawit and her little sister Biruktawit were adopted by Bob and Chris Little in Port Townsend, Washington. Chris, a petite blonde with a Peter Pan haircut, recently lingered at the doorway of the girls' bedroom and overheard Mekdalawit, now called Marta, loudly praying: "Thank you, God, for my mom. She's a good, good mom. Even when I mad, she love me. Even when I sad, she love me. My mom, she so cute. Even if she ugly, I love her. But she not; she cute. Thank you, thank you, God, for good and cute mom."

Meanwhile, the Children's Commission is referring orphans to the city's orphanages, foster homes, and adoption programs. The referrals come to numbers far greater than can be housed by the existing institutions. Adoptive families are desperately sought, for each international program is like a finger in the dike, beyond which brims an inconceivably rising flood of orphaned, homeless, healthy children.

Read the second article in this two-part series.

Melissa Fay Greene and her husband have four children by birth, a son from Bulgaria, and a daughter from Ethiopia. Her new book, Last Man Out, will be published in April.

James Merchant traveled to Ethiopia in November 2002. For information about his humanitarian relief organization, Precious Angel International, visit

2003 Adoptive Families Magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited.

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