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.
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.
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.