An adoptee reflects after Ethiopia bans international adoptions

Samra Meyer stands in front of Paccar Hall, a place where she spends most of her time as a Business student. (Photo by Dagmawit Kemal)

The horrifying story of Hana Williams, a 13-year-old adoptee from Ethiopia who died in 2011 after a long pattern of abuse at the hands of her white adoptive parents, was heartbreaking for individuals in the Ethiopian community.

International adoptions from Ethiopia have dwindled since then, and this January, the Ethiopian Parliament officially passed legislation banning foreign adoption.

As Ethiopia ends foreign adoptions, I asked Samra Meyer, an adoptee from Ethiopia, to reflect on her life in the United States.

Meyer is a 22-year-old senior at the University of Washington. Her name was legally changed from Samrawit to Samra after her adoption from Ethiopia at 18 months.

“When I was adopted, I was very sick and underweight for my age,” she recalls.

Coming to the United States gave her access to healthcare and education that she might not have received in Ethiopia.

Meyer’s family is unique. Her and her three siblings were all adopted by a single mom.

In Meyer’s early childhood, she moved a lot. Her mother became a missionary so they’d travel often. They moved to northern Idaho for about four years and then to Kampala, Uganda, for seven and a half years where her mom would adopt her three younger siblings. They finally came back and settled in Pullman, Washington.

Meyer said she couldn’t compare her family anyone else’s. But that also meant that she missed out on growing up with aspects of her Ethiopian culture.

“There is not much of an Ethiopian community in Idaho or Pullman, so that was one thing my mom couldn’t provide for me,” Meyer said. Meyer and her three siblings don’t know the native language of their countries.

Meyer believes children who are adopted at a younger age have an easier time adjusting to a new life which was the case for her.

“Heritage wise, I consider myself African because I was born in Ethiopia, but because of my actions and everyday use of language, I also consider myself American. I am African-American,” Meyer said.

At  the UW, she’s joined multiple black organizations like the Association of Black Business Students and National Association of Black Accountants, to stay connected.

“A lot of the information about the culture I’ve learned is on my own and it grew once I came to college because there is an Ethiopian community here,” Meyer said.

Samra Meyer is pictured with her family during the Cherry Blossom season at UW. Her twin sisters and brother were adopted from Uganda by her single mom. (Photo courtesy of Samra Meyer).

Changes in Ethiopian adoption

According to the US Department of State, since 1999, there have been about 15,317 adoption cases from Ethiopia. The gender of those adopted from Ethiopia are evenly split between male and female and are mostly children under the age of 1.

Before the ban, Ethiopia had been one of the largest sources of international adoptions by U.S. families, according to the BBC.

Katherine Holliday, an International Specialist from Children’s House International in Ferndale, Washington has been overseeing the adoptions programs in Ethiopia for the last seven years. Children’s House International is a non-profit adoption agency with programs in Washington, Utah, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas & Florida.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Holliday said, “mainly by our own U.S. government.”

She said there were a lot of rumors that the adoptions in process will be immediately stopped once the adoption ban came out.

“All of our families that filed referrals immediately are continuing the process of adoption from Ethiopia,” she said.

As terrible as the Hana Williams case was, Holliday doesn’t think it was the reason that the Ethiopian government banned adoptions all together.

“If that was the case, they would have stopped adoptions years ago,” she said.

“The case is a tragedy, and it is rare.” Holliday said. “That family was prosecuted.”

Holliday believes lawmakers were trying to address adoptions that weren’t being properly reported to the Ethiopian government, among other issues.

According to the Huffington Post, Mary Anne Jolly of Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that adoption agencies don’t go to orphanages to get these children but rather go to to the countryside.

She writes, “here are more than 70 private international adoption agencies operating in Ethiopia… Almost half the agencies in Ethiopia are unregistered, some doing whatever they can to find children to satisfy the foreign market.”

Shortly after their investigation, the Ethiopian-Australian adoption program was suspended.

University of Washington student Samra Meyer poses by Denny Hall. (Photo by Dagmawit Kemal)

An adoptee’s perspective

“I can definitely see why the Ethiopian government would consider and implement a ban like this. Care of the children should be paramount and the first thing to think about when adoptions are happening,” Meyer said.

Adoption is a lengthy and expensive process.

“It really comes down to the intention of the adopting parents, and that’s something that’s really hard to gauge on a lot of adoptions. Especially international adoptions because of cultural and language barriers,” Meyer said.

Although Meyers mother is a single woman and she was never married, she had experience caring for children as a foster parent before she adopted Meyer and her siblings.

“The reason my mom adopted children is because she wanted a family,” Meyer said. “She’s a great parent but she didn’t have the time to expand on the cultural things.”

Meyer said that she is working on learning more about her Ethiopian background.

“There’s just the little things,” she said, “like whenever we go out to Ethiopian restaurants and I don’t know what to order.”

How does the ban affect orphanages in Ethiopia?

Those who will feel the effect of the ban the most are the children in orphanages in Ethiopia. In 2016, there was just 182 adoptions from Ethiopia.

“The orphanages did get support from the fee paid by parents when they adopted, but with the ban orphanages are closing in Ethiopia. There is no support,” Holliday said. “Children are unfortunately the ones paying for decisions of their government.”

Holliday does remain hopeful there is a chance that the Ethiopian government could change its policy.

“The law isn’t printed yet,” she said.

Samra Meyer also has some hope. She is determined to learn more about her culture. Last year, she took a class on Ge’ez, a South Semetic language offered during spring quarter at UW, without getting any credit.

“My goal before I turn 30, even though I’m only 22, is to go back to Ethiopia, and not only once, but a couple times in my lifetime,” Meyer said.


  1. As someone who goes to Ethiopia to help the orphans and orphanages, I have mixed feelings about the international closure. On one hand I think it is admirable that Ethiopia wants to keep it’s children in their birth country, but having seen the conditions in orphanages and the sheer number of orphans I don’t think it is realistic for the country to support them properly. The idea of Ethiopian people adopting the orphans in country is also not realistic. There are so many little ones that Ethiopians will not consider adopting – handicapped, mixed race and sick babies with aids and other illnesses. All children need and deserve loving families!
    The proper care is not there for the orphans! I am working with one orphanage in particular that is being run to western standards in all aspects if care. We have 5 older girls who the system has already failed once, when the orphanage they were in closed they were returned to the Government’s orphanage where horrible abuse happened to 2 of them. When other orphanages are closing and returning children to Government orphanages or refusing to take more children, we have just taken 6 more little ones. Funding is very hard, but we are committed to raising funds any way we can. Food, medicine, formula, Diapers, care givers, housing costs, school fees, books, uniforms and transportation…..the list goes on. We will make every effort to continue and as there is room for more little ones, if funds come available we will take more.

    1. Some of reality is not as you expressed.there are many country born orphanages.they did a lot of changes through our community raising hiv victim and other affected children.
      And we have a ancient tradition of giving and caring one another.we have a good history and heritage that the kids can grow up with pride. Most child care agencies showed up few decades ago but kids were growing in ethiopia the last 3000 years. If our economy continues to grow as now.we will achieve to the stage most kids grow with good conditions in thier home country.
      Most agencies and NGOs did a lot helping through Ethiopia and some are scums founded to enrich themselves in the name of kids.
      The donors must be wise to donor for such agencies. They must know who has reputation in the community and government of Ethiopia.
      Some NGOs left unforgettable legacy in our community.others enriched themselves and participate in child trafficking and trick parents and so on.

  2. I remember hearing and following the Hana Williams case, broke my heart. Interesting to see the changes being made now… Thanks Dagmawit for an informative and great read.

  3. The ban was also implemented due to child trafficking, wide-spread adoption agency fraud and lack of transparency for birth parents and adoptees. As an adoptive parent to an amazing Ethiopian daughter, I support the foreign adoption ban. Orphan care is undeniably an issue but international adoption is not the only solution. In many cases the former created the latter.

  4. Child trafficking and having ideological crises are main reasons.many parents think thier kids adopted to get education and come back.many tricked as such a way from ruler areas.the abuse is another factor most people adopt while they got kids like Williams family.
    Government decided to ban international adoption cause of all those factors and systematic racism also is a challenge to grow up as a kid in USA that out of 3 black men one is in prison.the children will face all this problems that they won’t experience growing in ethiopia.if parents want to help they must join inside country adoption through Ethiopia as the government planned to do after ban.

  5. I have mixed feeling about this ban; in one hand I agree that the ban was implemented to help child trafficking but also agree with C Gaile Jenkins above and think that than ban will hurt those far too orphans need a home than people are willing to adopt. For example I am an Ethiopian American who adopted my beautiful 6 years old daughter from there and raising her as a strong Ethiopian American. She spends her summer in Ethiopia and attends Ethiopian orthodox church every sunday but this ban won’t allow me to give her a brother or a sister from there. I also know a lot people who are not Ethiopian origin but work hard keeping their children maintain their Ethiopian heritage so I think the government should allow adoption with strong follow up.

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