This is the story of Belaynesh, an Ethiopian mother and client of Beteseb Felega / Ethiopian Adoption Connection, as told to BBC Amharic’s Meheretselassie Mokonen. It has been translated by Wongel Tefera. Find the Amharic version here.
I Thought I Would Die of HIV, So I Gave My Child For Adoption
Belaynesh says, “I believe it was around 2007 EC. Around Ledeta, I saw a white man holding a boy. The man was posting family photos on wooden poles. He was talking to people on the phone. The child he was holding was light skinned. When I looked at the child, I was startled. The child looked like my son.
“I got close to them and I started crying. Both the white man and the child did not know Amharic. They must have been confused when I was crying.”
The man said, “What is this?” “What is this?”
“What do I say? I did not know what to say. I continued crying.”
A passerby came over and he asked me what happened. I quickly said, “the child the guy is holding looks like my son. Please ask them where they came from. They talked in English and then he told me that they came from England to look for his adopted son’s family.”
“I couldn’t stop crying. Then I started laughing. Like a fool, I continued staring at them. I was crying, laughing, then crying and laughing.
“This is not the only incident I encountered when I was looking for my child. I don’t know which incidents to tell you and which ones to leave out. There are many times I felt, could this be my son? But I never forget that incident in Ledeta.”
“I will raise my son even if I become a beggar.”
Belaynesh (her name is changed for this story) is one of the many Ethiopian mothers who gave their child for adoption. She has lost contact and has been searching for her son for years, since he went to Canada through adoption.
“Panicking when I see a black boy with a white person, thinking “could this be mine”, is the least of the problems I faced when searching for my son.”
The number of days she has fainted on the streets are too many to count. The number of times she cried behind closed doors, she prefers she and her small house be the only witnesses.
Her mother and father passed away a long time ago. She has one sister who lives out of town, but Belaynesh doesn’t know where she lives. They have no contact. She does not have close family or friends by her side.
She had her first child with a soldier more than twenty years ago. Not long after she gave birth, she was separated from the father. The child was given to a distant relative.
Belaynesh was in her teens when she got married to another soldier and started living in a military camp. Her second husband died in 1993 EC while she was pregnant with her second child. They say, “the person closest to the news is the last person to hear.” She did not know what her husband died of.
“I did not know my husband had HIV. He came back wounded from the war. I did not know there was such a thing as HIV. I only knew the whole thing after I gave birth. One of his friends knew that my husband had HIV, and he told me to get an abortion. I said “Why would I abort my child? He has lost his father. My husband died before he saw his son. I will raise my son, even if I have to become a beggar.”
She had the baby in April 1994 EC. Belaynesh was forced to leave the military camp she was living in. She did not have any shelter. She went to the local Kebele and started to cry. After many tries, they gave her the one room house that she lives in now.
Life was a struggle. She was getting only 100 Birr per month from her husband’s pension. Her wealth was her son, so she focused on him. She celebrated his birthday when he turned one.
They took a picture together. She was happy.
After the birthday, she started to get sick. Slowly her condition deteriorated, and she couldn’t even move around.
“I was hospitalized. I was getting glucose (IV fluid). There was no one by my side when I was ill.”
“I wonder if that scar is still there?”
“At the hospital, my son was wobbling, learning to walk. No one was watching him, so he kept falling. I didn’t have the strength to pick him up when he fell.”
One day he was hurt badly when he fell. She remembers he had a wound on his forehead. She does not know if his wound still shows on his forehead. She wonders,”Is that scar still there?”
Her son’s marker, a reminder of his previous life, could be that scar.
She did not have a chance to see her older son who was growing up in another house. He only saw his younger brother once when the younger brother was five months old.
The illness made Belaynesh weaker and weaker by the day.
“They said, ‘you are not going to survive.’ When they told me I was going to die, I was scared. Who is going to raise my child? When they said, ‘give your son for adoption,’ I hesitated, but I felt hopeless. I thought I had no other option except adoption. Since I did not have anyone who would keep my child, even until my burial, I decided to give him for adoption.”
She talked to an adoption agency based in Addis Ababa. They took her child while she was still in the hospital.
She couldn’t stand losing her child. She staggered out of the hospital bed, took a contract taxi and went to see her son at the agency for the last time. She said goodbye and came back to the hospital bed to await her death.
“I came back crying my heart out. What can I do? I did not want to be separated from my child, but I was hopeless.”
In 1996 EC, without giving her any notice, a Canadian couple took her child age at age one year and 8 months.
“You are dying, why will you make your child miss an opportunity?”
When she was in the hospital, she remembers she was overwhelmed with sickness, grief, and loneliness.
One lady from the same area hired a caretaker who would cook for her and take care of her. She started to get better.
Now and at that time, she thinks of the moment she decided to give her son for adoption. “Was I right? Did I make a mistake?” These are unanswered questions.
When Belaynesh was uncertain about giving away her child, she was told “you are dying, you will not survive, why do you limit your child’s chances?” The agency workers were trying to persuade and convince her to give him.
“I was afraid to give my child for adoption. But what can I do? Who will raise my child when I die? The doctors told me I will not survive. I was too weak to get up, I could only walk with support. After my child left, I started taking TB medication. When I finished the TB medicine, I started HIV medication. Then I started healing slowly. Beyond my expectation, I did not die. Finally, I was discharged from the hospital and went home.
“I was received by an empty house. I could not sleep. When I felt my bed, I couldn’t accept that my son was not by my side.” At that time, she never thought, “I will survive and I will search for my son.”
Even though she felt better after the HIV treatment, her mind was not at peace. “I cried day and night for two years.”
“I felt more sadness when I left the hospital and went home. I gave up my child and now I am feeling better and I am at home. I did not nurse him because I was told not to breastfeed him because of the virus. I feel sad when I realize he grew up with milk and oatmeal.”
“I went to the adoption agency that gave my child for adoption and asked, ‘Can I have my son’s address?’” The same people who seemed to care for her when they took her child became completely different and rude.
One agency worker directs her to another. Every time she goes there, they express their refusal to talk to her in various ways.
“Why don’t you leave it alone? He will come when he turns 18.”
“You gave you child willingly, why are you asking to get him back now?”
“You gave him up, he has another family now.”
“They gave me many wicked answers. I’ll never forget what one of the adoption agency workers said when I called her, she said ‘you must be hallucinating because of your illness.’ Every day they made me cry. They insulted me. When they told me the agency in Canada is closed, I cried, I felt dizzy, and fainted. For years I kept going there over and over again. Finally, I gave up and stopped.”
A nurse Belaynesh met at the time was telling her not to regret giving her son for adoption. She was trying to explain to her that he will get better education and better life overseas.
Both of us searching for our children
Belaynesh works as a janitor in the court house. Even though she was very lonely, she continued taking anti-HIV medication and she was taking good care of herself.
The question, “where is my child?” always troubled her. She worries her son will say, “why did she give me up?” and he will hate her for that. Sometimes she wonders, “Why did they not keep my child until they knew if I would live or die?”
When she gave up on the adoption agency, she started going to the Canadian Embassy. They told her to go ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When she went there, they told her, “Go ask Ministry of Women and Children Affairs.” None of the three agencies were helpful.
“One agency asked me to get a letter from the other agency. The next one tells me “go ask this other one.”
“Each of them were mistreating me. I was fed up. I was tired. I get dizzy when I stayed in the sun. My feet hurt when I walked. One day I just sat alone on the street and started crying.”
Even though she was told birth families do not get addresses of the children adopted overseas so that the children do not get home sick, she got a post placement report with a picture of her child with his Canadian family.
Other than that, she did not know anything about her child.
Two years ago at her work in the court house, she started talking to one lady.
That lady told her that just like Belaynesh, she lost her child since he went to Canada through adoption. It was the same agency that gave this lady’s child. The child was given as if both parents were dead. When the mother started looking for her child, the agency told her, “We can’t connect you because we have told them his parents are deceased.”
The same lady told Belaynesh an organization called “Beteseb Felega,” Ethiopian Adoption Connection, is helping her search for her child.
“Beteseb Felega” is an organization that connects internationally adopted Ethiopian children to their birth parents. Families that are looking for their child will provide all the information they have related to the adoption.
The name of the child, any photos, the adoption agency, the country where the child was taken, any information that can help in searching for the child is recorded. The founder of Beteseb Felega, Andrea Kelley, will post the information on social media and will search for the child or the adoptive family.
Belaynesh saw a glimmer of hope, and she shared all the information she had about her son to Andrea.
She had a picture of her son with his adoptive parents and their name that she obtained from the adoption agency, the picture she took with her son, and a court letter that said, “The mother is willing to give her child for adoption because of illness.”
The evidence was posted in social media and as Belaynesh was waiting in apprehension, she received good news from Toronto.
Her son’s adoptive parents were found.
“I saw the picture, when will we meet in person?”
Belaynesh’s son adoptive parents were found on Facebook. They live in Toronto, Canada. When they were told their son’s birth mother is looking for her child, the adoptive father said that he would like to send her son’s photo.
“One day a lady, young woman, who works with Andrea came to my house. She brought a picture sent by my child’s adoptive father through the app Viber. I can’t explain how happy I was when I saw him. He finished his 17th year and going to his 18th year. Even though they changed the name I gave him, his new name is similar to the one I gave him. His family said, “Don’t worry, he is a good kid, he excels at his school work.” They told me they love him very much and they take very good care of him.”
The family was willing to send her son’s picture and to tell her about him. But she does not know if they are open to a face-to-face meeting between her and her son. She is not sure if they told him his birth mother is looking for him.
Even though seeing her son’s photo gives her comfort, it brought a question in her mind of “when am I going to see him in person?”
“I am happy they are taking good care of my son. He looks good for his age. Even though I did not meet them, they seem to be good people. Even knowing this much gives me a glimmer of hope. In God’s will, I will be very happy if we see each other. I wish I see him, hug him, kiss him.
“I did not think my son was alive. I never thought I would see him. But now once I saw his photo, I start hoping one day we will meet. My inside hurts badly because of him. I just want to hug him at least once, what else do I say? I am taking my medicine properly, eating well as much as I can afford. Thanks to God, I am fine.
“But my life is miserable, I am lonely. It is very tough to live in this small house that the local Kebele gave me. Cold, muddy, how much can I say? Cost of living is very high. Sometimes I say, “it is better not to live.” But why would I die before I see my child?”