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 identity?
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 as 2004.
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 orphanages.
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 this.
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 Ethiopian members.
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 own.
"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 home country.
"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 identity.
"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 celebrated."
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, too.
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 States.
Most parents who have adopted from the country say it is important to return to Ethiopia when their children are older.
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 ones."
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 come."
Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who adopted his youngest son from Ethiopia.