Picture, for a moment, a rundown structure, single-story, with crumbling walls and chipped paint. It’s huddled in on itself, standing against the swell of a mountainside scattered with trees. Twisted railings, collapsing roof, weather-beaten doors hanging onto hinges but only just. Rusted bars covering windows. Inside live countless needy children, abandoned at a young age, growing up without the love, attention and resources that so many of us recognize as necessary for a healthy, happy life. Outside, running along the length of a cracked concrete patio, a clothesline droops under the weight of hundreds of tattered and torn shirts and pants.
Imagine, if you can, what it must be like to live with no room to call your own, to never know the warmth of a mother or father’s hug, the sense of togetherness found at the family dinner table, or the comfort and safety conveyed in the reading of a bedtime story, a story chosen just for you.
For over 4.5 million Ethiopian children, this is reality: life in overcrowded, ill-equipped orphanages.
In January of 2018, the Ethiopian Parliament banned the adoption of Ethiopian children by foreign families. They did so ostensibly out of concern for the children’s safety after several tragic stories emerged of Ethiopian children suffering abuse or neglect at the hands of their adopted parents. While the parliament made this decision in an effort to accomplish a noble goal—protecting the country’s children and giving them the chance to grow up with the culture, customs and practices of their birthplace—there are several reasons to question whether or not the international ban will prove effective.
Domestic adoption in Ethiopia is nearly non-existent. This isn’t surprising considering that nearly five percent of the population are orphaned at a young age, and the very same conditions that contribute to this orphan crisis—namely AIDS, draught, hunger, war, and untreated illnesses—are serious obstacles for families considering caring for additional children. Unfortunately, when children are adopted domestically, it’s often for the wrong reasons—they are brought into wealthy families looking for cheap labor. Instead of joining a family that loves and cherishes them, they are expected to act as servants or maids.
Consequently, with international adoption no longer an option, many children in Ethiopia are left to experience one of two fates: they either remain in orphanages until they age out, or are taken into the wrong family for all the wrong reasons—which is the very problem the Ethiopian parliament wanted to prevent in the first place.
If the orphanages in Ethiopia possessed the requisite resources to provide adequate care for all of their children, this situation might not seem so dire. But the fact of the matter is that many of these orphanages do not possess the necessary resources, which is understandable, considering the number of orphans they house. Nearly all of these orphanages are overcrowded; most are severely lacking in beds; some are without running water. It is a tragic fact that the children living in these orphanages often do not receive the care they need and deserve.
Which is why it is more important than ever to find ways to help. Changing the Ethiopian Parliament’s mind about international adoption is a task beyond any one individual, as is improving adoption processes and the laws that govern them to ensure that children are loved and cherished. But anyone can find ways, however small, to contribute. And the best way to help orphaned children in Ethiopia is to tackle the root of the problem: the breakdown of families.
The orphaned children in Ethiopia are not so different from children here in the states: they need access to clean water, a roof over their head and enough food to nourish their growing bodies. But when it comes to helping orphaned children live full, healthy lives, clean water, shelter and food are necessary but not sufficient. Children also need love and attention and education—the kind of support that a family can provide. By empowering families across Ethiopia to create sustainable futures for themselves, we can end the orphan crisis where it begins.
Empowering families isn’t easy. We can donate money, and even time, but without connections in Ethiopia—people who understand the nuances of the orphan crisis and have a proven commitment to ending it—our efforts provide brief relief at best and fail to make any sort of difference at worst. That’s why it’s so important, as Hannah Edington notes in Conscious Magazine, to work with organizations in Ethiopia that are “loyally run”, which means organized and operated primarily by Ethiopians.
There are plenty of non-profits in Ethiopia and across the world that claim to do good work for people in need. And many of these non-profits do—or at least try to do—what they promise. But Ethiopia has seen plenty of these organizations take advantage of the very people they aim, to help. It’s time to address the problem seriously, which means not only providing support but listening—listening to people who have lived through the orphan crisis, who have insight into its causes and effects, who know what it will take to keep children in families and find homes for those who have none.
Addis-Jemari and A Glimmer of Hope, both partner organizations of the Charlie’s Heart Foundation, employ Ethiopian citizens who are largely responsible for operations within the country. Doing so allows these organizations to leverage existing relationships and a genuine understanding of Ethiopian culture, customs and values, to enact real change. And by offering support, the Charlie’s Heart Foundation can contribute to a cause that matters—that of providing support for families and ending the orphan crisis—in a way that works.
The challenge of solving the orphan crisis in Ethiopia is daunting but not insurmountable. If we focus on the root of the problem—keeping families together—we can changes children’s lives.
Aaron is a guest-blogger for the Charlie’s Heart Foundation. He loves writing about the important things in life: family, friends and how to make the world a better place. Aaron is a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in English and Philosophy.