‘I Had Ethiopia Stolen from Me’—Adoptions of African Children Are Often a Cruel Money-Making Scam

Adoption agencies paint international adoptions through rose-colored glasses: A child from an impoverished home in a Third World country gets the opportunity to become a part of a more well-off family and all is well.

At least that’s what’s on the brochure.

For Tarikuwa Lemma, like so many other African children, the story is drastically different. Lemma grew up in Ethiopia and was 13 when she was, as she puts it, “sold.” Her adoptive parents had been told that Lemma’s parents died of AIDS.

“The truth was that our mother had died as a result of complications during childbirth, and our father was alive and well,” said Lemma in an interview with CNN.com.

Lemma’s father was tricked into believing that his daughters were being sent to the United States on a study program. Shortly after they arrived, the girls realized they had been deceived.

“I wanted to escape from the people I felt had kidnapped us from our homeland, our culture and our family,” said Lemma. “My sisters and I had a father, a brother and older sisters, plus a large extended family that cared for us and loved us. We were middle class by Ethiopian standards, not poor.”

In many cases, the poor, foreign child that parents think they are getting is not poor or orphaned at all, just a child who fell victim to a scam.

To combat this, huge organizations like UNICEF and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption are saying that people should adopt children from abroad as a last option and try to focus on keeping children in their home countries with domestic adoptions.

In an effort to completely stop the abuse of its children, Guatemala shut down its US adoption programs in 2007. This may have been good for the Guatemalan children but as fewer adoptions were possible from Guatemala, adoptions of Ethiopian children to American families exploded. The number of Ethiopian adoptions went from less than 900 in 2003 to 4,564 in 2009, according to CNN.

“Adoption is a business, there is no question, sadly,” Susan Soonkeum Cox, vice president of policy and external affairs at Holt International, a nonprofit Christian adoption agency based in the US, told CNN. “Many people got into this because it’s an opportunity to help (orphans), but for other people it was a lucrative business opportunity. You could see this in the explosion of adoption agencies and practitioners.”

And it seems that African children are on the losing end of this business.

“Adoption didn’t help me; it helped the adoption business,” Lemma said. “Adoption didn’t ‘save’ me; it served the American view of adoption. Adoption didn’t find families for me; it found me for families that wanted to look like heroes in their community and their churches. I wasn’t saved from Ethiopia; I had Ethiopia stolen from me.”

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