November is National Adoption Month, a time to raise
awareness about the need for adoptive families for children and
youth in foster care. This year, the Children's Bureau initiative
focuses on adoption in the digital age and the role of social media
in recruiting parents. To learn more, visit the Children's Bureau
website and, in the spirit of the initiative, follow them on your
preferred social media site.
When my wife, Lynn, and I adopted Yonatan-Yonny for
short, Yonnybird when he's being especially cute-from Ethiopia
nearly four and a half years ago, we both knew we'd eventually face
tough questions. But we didn't know we'd be asking the questions
long before our son did.
The big one: We're white. Our older son-13 this year-is
white, too. Even our dog is white. Yonny, obviously, has black
skin. This means that Yonny needs to see as many darker faces as
possible. Can we really do this if our family lives in the western
suburbs in a community that is heavily, heavily white?
And a second question: Do we owe it to our son to move to
a more diverse neighborhood, especially as he gets older and begins
asking more questions about his skin color and his
These are questions that every parent who has adopted a
child who looks so different from them has to ask. And a growing
number of parents are asking this question specifically about
children adopted from Ethiopia.
The Wall Street Journal earlier this year reported that in
2010 about 4,400 children were adopted from Ethiopia. That is three
times more children than were adopted from the country as recently
Parents have many reasons for adopting from Ethiopia, some
deeply personal, others more pragmatic. The country, until
recently, had one of the easier adoption processes to navigate. An
adoption from Ethiopia could be completed in about 12 months, a
blip when compared to the long waits parents faced when adopting
from other countries.
This has changed recently. Ethiopia has slowed its
adoption process amid charges of corruption and has closed several
But even with the slowdown, there are plenty of Ethiopian
children now living in Chicago, just as there are plenty of
Ethiopian immigrants living across the United States.
The families that have adopted these children face an
obvious challenge: The majority of these children are living with
white parents. Parents must do everything they can to make sure
their children play and interact with others who look like them.
And they must take steps to ensure that their adopted children
don't lose touch with their Ethiopian heritage.
Fortunately, there are organizations that help parents do
Each July, Carol and Brendan Deely bring their five
children-including the two they adopted from Ethiopia-to the Wesley
Woods campground in Williams Bay, Wis., about a two-hour drive from
their home in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.
They play volleyball, cook s'mores, swim and sing campfire
songs with about 300 mostly Chicago-area residents who look just
like them: multi-cultural families made up of a mix of U.S. and
The Ethiopian American Kids Community-a group Carol Deely
runs-holds this Heritage Camp for one reason: It's a place where
Ethiopian children adopted by parents in the United States can
gather with others who are part of families that look like their
"As our children get older, we want them to have Ethiopian
friends," Carol Deely says. "We don't want them to feel as if
they are odd because their parents are white. The more people they
know from Ethiopia, the more children they know who are in the same
situation, the more normal they'll feel."
The Deelys adopted 6-year-old Gabriel from Ethiopia five and a
half years ago and 5-year-old Isaiah three years ago. Their three
daughters, all older than their Ethiopian siblings, immediately
took to their new brothers. And the family has worked hard to make
sure their adopted children never feel out of place in their new
"It isn't fair to immerse your adopted children in a
situation in which no one else looks like them," Deely says.
"That's why it's so important to bring them to Ethiopian events and
to introduce them to people who come from the country."
This includes bringing her children to such events as the
Timkat celebration held in January at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church
of Medhane-Alem in Chicago. Timkat celebrates the baptism of Jesus
in the Jordan River.
For Deely, it's important for her Ethiopian children to
understand the rituals and heritage of their birth country, even if
they don't appreciate it at the time.
Dori Fujii, adoptive parent counselor with The Cradle, an
Evanston-based adoption agency, says parents need to consider this
and to otherwise address the racial differences between themselves
and their children at a young age. She says they need to provide a
solid foundation of trust before their children grow old enough to
ask the tough questions about adoption, race and
"Most of the families who adopt from Ethiopia become a
multicultural family," Fujii says. "It's important for them to
come into regular contact with other families of color and other
adoptive families. They need to show their children that adoption
is a reasonable way of building a family and that multicultural
families are not that rare."
The key, Fujii says, is for families to live in areas that
are diverse, where their children will be more likely to attend
school and events with kids that look like them. Living in a
diverse neighborhood means that children adopted from Ethiopia will
see other African-American faces.
This was important to Orla and Steven Castanien. The
Portage Park residents adopted their daughter, 4-year-old Tarikua,
from Ethiopia in 2008. Today, they take advantage of the many
resources for Ethiopians living in Chicago provided by the
Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago.
"When we adopted Tarikua, she was only 4 months old.
Living in the United States is all that she knows," Orla
Castanien says. "But she is obviously very aware of the difference
in skin color in our family. We talk openly about it. We talk
openly about the fact that she was adopted."
Support is key
The Castaniens are frequent visitors to the Ethiopian
Community Association of Chicago's home at 1730 W. Greenleaf Ave.
where Tarikua learns Ethiopian dances, celebrates Ethiopian New
Year and is taking Amharic classes.
"We don't want her to feel like she is the only girl here
adopted from Ethiopia," Castanien says. "We want her to feel
connected to her Ethiopian heritage while remaining at the same
time a little American girl. ...I want her growing up knowing that
there are differences, but that these differences are to be
Maintaining the connection to Ethiopia is important. It's
why many families who adopt from the country regularly serve
Ethiopian food at home, including injera, the flatbread that is a
staple of the Ethiopian diet, and dishes flavored with berbere, a
heady combination of chili powder and other spices that adds flavor
to Ethiopian meals.
It's a step my wife and I have taken. Unfortunately, Yonny
prefers chicken nuggets, pizza and candy to anything from Ethiopia.
We've taken Yonny to Timkat celebrations, Ethiopian heritage camps
and playgroups for families who've adopted from Ethiopia,
He's more interested in eating the marshmallows from the
s'more cookouts when at Ethiopian camp than he is with connecting
with his Ethiopian heritage.
Because he just turned 5, that's to be expected. But like
others who've adopted a child of a different skin color, we hope
that these experiences will help Yonny as he grows older and
wonders more about his birth and his life in the United
Most parents who have adopted from the country say it is
important to return to Ethiopia when their children are
The Deely family is leaving for Ethiopia on Christmas Day
this year. The family has kept in contact with their sons' birth
families and plan on visiting them.
For the Castaniens, adopting a child from Ethiopia has
been a remarkable experience.
"Going to Ethiopia to pick up our daughter was tough in
many ways," she says. "Meeting the birth family was amazing,
but it was also heartbreaking. It was wonderful to have met them.
We took pictures and asked questions that we hope we can use when
Tarikua has questions for us. At the same time, it was
heartbreaking knowing that there were so many families that were
losing their children. It was very humbling. They kept saying
`thank you' to us, but we felt like we were the lucky
So far, Tarikua's questions about adoption and race are
relatively simple ones. But as she grows older, they'll certainly
become more challenging.
"It's been a great experience so far,∫ Castanien says.
"But we are aware of the fact that she is only 4. The real
questions and real tough times will come later when she is working
out who she is and battling with her identity and the fact that we
are different from her. So far, so good. But we are preparing her
and ourselves for the more challenging questions to
Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who adopted his youngest son from Ethiopia.
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