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On a journey to her adopted son’s homeland, Jamie Grumet hopes to carry the spotlight to Ethiopia’s beleaguered orphans.
Your hands are shaking. Did you eat anything today?” my friend asked, as I sat inside the gates of the Awassa Children’s Center in Ethiopia.
“No, I’m too anxious,” I replied, as I caught a glimpse of my son’s eyes peering in at me from outside the gate. My son was back in California. I started to think, “Maybe breakfast would have been a good idea. I’m starting to hallucinate from hunger….”
Right then, a small, modestly dressed woman walked through the gates of the Awassa Children’s Project and looked up at me to reveal the eyes of my child. I was looking at the face of my son’s birth mother (or more accurately, his first mother) for the first time. I ran to her, immediately knowing who she was, and she embraced me. Ethiopian culture typically does not show outward emotion like crying, so I had prepared myself to be quite stoic during the encounter. I pulled away from her with both of our eyes filled with tears and I felt a kindred spirit. She looked me in the eyes and grabbed my face to kiss my cheeks over and over. “I love you,” she said in the Sidamic language. That was one of the few phrases I knew, and it was like food for my soul to hear those as the first words coming out of her mouth during our meeting.
Just one and a half years ago, my family’s life was forever changed when we adopted our then 3-year-old son, Samuel, from Ethiopia. We started the process because we wanted to expand our family and we had a deep love and respect for Ethiopia. We did not realize at the time that we would also be adopted, into a new family and a culture we admired so much.
A fire was inside of us after Samuel came home. Clearly, we would always be connected with the country because it is the birthplace of our son and his biological family. We learned during the adoption process that there were many children in orphanages who actually should still be with their birth families. Hearing Samuel’s birth mother speak about her love for our child, and to witness her praising God in front of me for bringing updates, videos, photos and the promise of staying connected, validated the other reason we had traveled almost 10,000 miles from home to visit Awassa, Ethiopia: family preservation.
Our adoption story is not unique. Ethical American adoption agencies will agree that international adoption should be the last resort, but in reality there are not enough programs in place to help birth families keep their children after a spouse has died and they are financially destitute. Understanding that this was the reality of Samuel and his birth family, prior to our accepting his referral, left our family feeling hopeless. Should we accept the referral of a child we know has a living relative? Or should we pass on the referral, knowing another family will accept it? We decided to accept Samuel’s referral with the intention of keeping a close connection with his birth family and his region of birth.
The fire that lit inside us when Samuel came home was stoked into a deep passion that led us to create the Fayye Foundation in November of 2011. We wanted to bring financial aid to projects already in place in the Sidama region of Ethiopia and work for family preservation, whether through medical care for families, micro-loans for widows, or non-adoption orphanages. I had contacted Paul Chadha of the Awassa Children’s Project in March of 2012 about his solar-powered non-adoption orphanage and vocational school. This orphanage was created for double orphans; two background checks are conducted to confirm that both parents are deceased before children are accepted to the center. I was shocked that they were still able to work as a 100 percent volunteer organization for 10 years , with every dollar going directly to the center.
At the Awassa Children’s Center, Jamie shows Samuel’s birth mother the first image of him she has seen in almost two years.
May 2012 brought unexpected events in the life of our family as an image of me and my biological son ended up on the cover of Time magazine, which became one of the most controversial and most talked-about issues in decades. I froze at the level of attention our family was attracting; I was ready to hide until the curiosity would eventually fade away. I told this plan of action to a friend, who replied very calmly, “If you do that, all of your efforts to raise awareness for attachment parenting and for the families in Sidama will be in vain.” Feeling convicted and realizing that even if the majority of the attention was negative, the spotlight was still on our family, we decided to use every bit of residual attention to shine the spotlight where it truly belonged.
In June, I spoke with Paul, who invited me down to Ethiopia. “Okay!” I said, “Do you mind if I form a little team to bring with me?” Paul was extremely supportive of the idea. Within a week I had nine people traveling with me. Everyone brought their talents and stepped up to help bring coverage to the area. Terry Von Guilleaume from Destination Southern Africa spoke with Ethiopian Airlines about our desire to bring aid to the country. They jumped at the chance to offer us tickets for our group. Dr. Jay Gordon signed up for the trip before he even knew why we were going—I just told him we were going to Ethiopia and he was on board. We had three professional photographers, a videographer, and even a token rock star to really make our group eclectic.
When we landed in Ethiopia, everyone was affected differently by the sights they took in, though all of us worked through emotions to accomplish our purpose. On the road to Awassa, our caravan pulled over near a car accident, where Dr. Gordon saw a woman carrying a child with the worst eye infection I had ever seen. He immediately jumped out of the car to treat the baby with sight-saving eye drops from his bag of medical supplies. That was the first of many spur-of-the-moment medical treatments that Jay gave to children in rural areas— including an incident when a child who was working and severely severed his arm and finger with a machete. Jay was always the first up and ready if someone needed help.