Adoption is an Expedition

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If you are European and tend to move around within Europe, adoption can be compared to arriving in China, not speaking Cantonese and not understanding or knowing the culture. A real challenge, an expedition into an unexplored jungle where all you learn you find out for yourself.

When we decided to adopt a child, we really had to think hard about how we were going to do it: I am French and Italian, my husband is German. We lived in the UK at the time and Samuel, our son, was 2 years old. In England we were told right away that it would cost us 2000 Pounds to have a home study made in 3 months, unless we wanted to adopt a British child, in which case the home study would be free. But the fact that we had a young biological child could be a hindrance for us getting the precious passport for adoption. Shortly after this we moved to Germany and I discovered that as a French citizen residing abroad, I could have a home study organized through International Social Services by the French social services and that a home study is always free of charge. We also found out that having a home study made in Germany would also be free of charge.

My German language was poor and we are not a "conventional" family to say the least: we speak 3 languages at home. I was born in North Africa and hold 3 passports. I never grew up in one place and moved around all the time because of my father's job. I was divorced twice before marrying Joerg and he was divorced once. We wanted to have a baby and Samuel was born before we could manage to get through the necessary headache of German bureaucracy. We can conceive but chose to adopt. We wanted to adopt a child from Haiti, a black child. With all this, how were we going to be judged?

So we decided to go to France and started a process that was going to take us through 11 hours of separate interviews with a psychoanalyst, a psychologist and a social worker, spread over a period of 11 months. Normally, French law only allows 9 months maximum for the social services to complete the work but due to our special set of circumstances, namely, we lived in Germany and had a French home study, it took longer to organize. The French kept saying: get it done in Germany since your husband does not speak French and the Germans kept saying: do it in France since you do not speak German. Fancy doing a home study in a foreign language? Having experienced Japan, Saudi Arabia, England, Tunisia. We were quite ready to face the unknown but our social workers were not so adventurous and kept trying to pass the bucket. Meanwhile, time went by. Our son was growing up and our frustrations grew too.

Eleven months later, the social workers in France gave their verdict: "you are OK to adopt a child" they said, proudly delivering a beautiful healthy paper that they had managed somehow to gestate for 11 months in their files.

The adventure was only starting. France is well organized in terms of adoption: after the USA, this "tiny" country (in comparison) is the first host country of foreign adoptees (although we still have to find out what we do with our own children in care!). So the French government has created a special unit to deal only with the procedures: all must be supervised by the famous Mission pour L'Adoption Internationale which grants - or not - visas. They supervise each adoption and see that it was handled ethically and legally.

From the age of 10, I knew I wanted to adopt in Haiti where I spend the most important 3 years of my growing up. Its inhabitants had made such a strong impression on me, and what I learnt there changed forever the way I saw the world. Joerg was all for it before even Samuel was conceived. So we pushed our way through serious obstacles, knowing that in Haiti one must be married for at least 10 years and unable to conceive, one mustn't have biological children at the time, bla. bla. bla.

But we were determined and as soon as I had our papers ready, I contacted an orphanage recognized by the Haitian government and recommended to us by several families. The orphanage accepted our application immediately: so many children are waiting, I was told. We had a small preference for a girl but we were advised by the social workers that the child we would adopt had to be at least 9 months younger than Samuel. By that time Samuel was 3 years old.

One month after sending our files, we were told a little Stephania, aged 2 years and a few months, was waiting for parents. We were asked if we wanted to start the adoption process. The orphanage had always worked with the same lawyer for several years and we did not have to do anything: they handled everything. The orphanage charged us about 1600USD for medical checks and Stephania's food, clothes, etc. The lawyer charged 1800USD, including administrative, legal and other related costs. That was all there was to it. In addition we had to pay for the flight from Europe (about 1500USD for me and Stephania) and hotel. But I was lucky to have a cousin still living in Haiti who put us up for the 13 days of our stay.

I arrived in Haiti on the 24 January in the evening. My cousin was waiting for me. It all would have been so scary without my cousin waiting there : it seemed that there were thousands of groping hands, pulling, pushing my luggage in an effort to help for a few dollars. I could not get rid of them despite the fact that we spoke the same language!

There is such a misery in Haiti! Pollution is hell, the roads are littered with garbage and that is a place where one really needs a four-wheel drive. My cousin is doing quite well with his garage. Thanks to the state of roads and the reckless drivers. Too many cars, too much confusion. If I could walk, I'd be home sooner. I choke on the polluted air. A little girl carries something heavy on her head: the little girls have not changed, they are still the walking princesses I so used to admire as a child. There are so many people everywhere and they all seem to be waiting for something. But for nothing, really, I'll conclude after 13 days.

The next day, even though my cousin is Haitian and lived here all her life, we cannot locate the orphanage: the streets are not marked and no one seems to know anything ever! We drive around for 4 hours through hellish traffic jams, dust, noise and pollution of any imaginable kind.

Finally we give up and go home. I recognize nothing of the country: what used to be green valleys is covered by shank houses today. There is not a tall tree on sight. Fancy getting back here in 20 years in this over populated, ever changing capital to try and locate our child's biological parents?

My cousin's house is perched somewhere above the city of Port au Prince. On the way, more mountains are being eaten up by machines, leaving great chalky scars on the already eroded giants. They used to be green and wild, I remember. Trucks go up and down these mountains all day long, leaving a trail of dust that cannot be removed with the simple buckets of luke-warm water I have to use to wash. Dozens of people packed behind ride behind the trucks. Every other day on this road, we witness yet another disaster: an overturned truck, a body lying under, people staring, some yelling. Electrical lines pulled out, road damaged. "Same all the time..", says Arianne, laughing but sadly. One becomes cynical.

My cousin is not poor, by our standards she is not rich either but her house is nice, large, she has a maid and a man to take care of the cars and garden. But there has been no electricity for 15 days now and the water company did not provide water either. We have to rely on the rainwater that fills the tank under the house and that is running out fast. We heat water on the gas cooker that empties sooner than it should. My cousin proves to be a wonderful host and really resourceful. A spark of joy and irony spurts every five minutes and she really makes me laugh wholeheartedly and makes me see the world from a different perspective: the perspective of people who know they are sinking but might as well laugh since that is all there is left, "no one can take that away from us", she says, flashing her white teeth once more.

At 20H, the phone rings and the director of the orphanage announces that since she lives just around the corner of my cousin's home, she will bring Stephania after her work. I am really nervous and absolutely exhausted because I only arrived the day before and I am still jet-lagged. I wash and change into the Djellabah I brought back from my native Tunisia and I wait.

A car is outside and I run to the gate but my cousin holds my arms firmly and pulls me back nervously. I forget that last week only she'd heard shots in the night. I forget all this and move towards this small woman holding something small in her arms. What a strange, eerie meeting: I recognize the voice of the woman I spoke to from Germany several times and she gently puts my daughter my arms but it is pitch black and I smell her before I can see her.

We move inside the house and I discover a tiny child smaller than her age. She is frightened. She wears a dress from another time and shoes that are too tight. Her hair is mattered and she smells of "very old and soggy Dollar bills", I will report to my husband later. Not a great romantic, I know, but this is reality. Her nails are too long and dirty. Her eyes are very sick, she has some skin problem and she looks like a pregnant woman about to give birth: her stomach is bloated. She is coughing a rough, frightening cough. She does not seem to speak nor walk. She looks depressed. She is totally irresponsive and reminds me of an autistic child. I am nervous. The worse is to come, little do I know!

As soon as the lady leaves, Stephania starts to scream her heart out. She throws herself on the floor, kicking in any direction, tearing out the skin from her face and pulling masses of hair out of her scalp. I try with great energy to stop her but she is oblivious and does not even acknowledge my presence. Not anyone's for that matter!

God help! Give me the users' guide! I am used to Samuel's terrible 2's and his tantrums but nothing prepared me for this. My heart is breaking, my nerves are raw, I am exhausted and confused. I manage to grab her and hold her very tight. I don't let go and end up crying with her. She falls asleep exhausted and so do I!

The next day she is crying and exploding in fits at least 3 times a day and I have to guess, amongst other things, that she wants to eat and drink every hour because she does not speak. She has diarrhea and that is really difficult to cope with when water is so scarce and you need buckets to flush the mess. I am alarmed by the state of her health and soon we visit a pediatrician. I also contact the director of the orphanage and explain the situation: I want to meet my daughter's other parents. I need to know more about her background. I read the psychological reports: it speaks about a child "6 months behind" for her age but does not mention anything alarming.

Further medical examination will reveal that Stephania is infested with 2 types of worms. I go home carrying half the pharmacy with me and feel my wallet very thin in my pocket.

On day 4 I meet up with Stephania's parents with her, against all the advice of my French friends (not a done thing, here!). When I see them, it is love at first sight. I thank them for having accepted to see me and the father is moved to tears and he thanks me for caring about their feelings. A world separates us: they live in a shank house and we live in a beautiful house. Yet a world of humanity unites us. I am so very moved. I place Stephania in her father's lap and we talk, talk and talk. Stephania looks so much like her other mother. Mother Yvenie sings a song for Stephania in front of my video camera: "for when she is far", she said. I see they treat their children with great affection and understanding. Stephania has an 11-year-old brother who is also here and looks at me with kind and intelligent eyes that go straight to my soul. They just had a little baby girl who looks so much like Stephania! After this visit, once we are in the car, Stephania will, for the first time, call me "mama" and smile at me.

On day 6 we manage to locate the orphanage and we visit it with Stephania: it was really important for her to say goodbye to her friends. Stephania is changing dramatically: after the visit she is not only walking but hopping like a happy child and she tickles me and is very playful in the car.

We meet Stephania's parents on 2 more occasions. I have spontaneously felt that we had to help them and I opened an account on Stephania's name on which we will send enough money for her brother to attend school and her family not to have to part with their children anymore.

Days pass by in a twirl of dust, heat, little frustrating complications with documents and still Stephania's fits of despair.

On the day of our departure Stephania is in a trance: she escapes onto the airport tarmac leaving me running after her, my luggage in tow and in tears after leaving her parents and so much behind. But Stephania is so very exited at the idea of taking a plane and here I am, thinking of Samuel, the brother she does not yet know, who is waiting at the other end of this journey home, and who is totally blasť about flying and could not care less about seeing a plane!

I am really moved as the plane takes off and I cry for her parents, for the people who have to live in these despicable conditions here. I pray. Stephania has fallen asleep. She will sleep 15 hours in a row. At the airport people I don't know have offered blessings. An old woman I did not know, learning that we had adopted Stephania, laid hands on Stephania and prayed and then she hugged me. I kissed her hands.

Who could think one instant today that I have lived all this 2 months ago with our daughter. Our daughter! Our beautiful, affectionate, smart, caring, mischievous, intelligent daughter!

The moment we set a foot in Germany Stephania was another child. She realized she was here to stay, she realized she was here to be loved by us. It is an incredible fairy tale for us.

The first 20 days were a little difficult because both children were jealous of one another but after a very short period of adjustment, the children realized that together they really had a lot of fun and they soon became inseparable. They are very affectionate towards one another.

Stephania's health has improved dramatically and she has grown and put some weight on. She is the sweetest girl one can have and she gives us so much joy. More is just unimaginable!

Sometimes she speaks to me (and only to me) about papa Vilver and maman Yvenie. She does not really talk to Joerg about them because Joerg stayed in Germany and did not meet them. This is something really special between us, it seems.

Sometimes she says very sweet things, like the day I asked her "where does that beauty spot come from" and she answers "Maman Yvenie gave it to me". And then sometimes she says the saddest things: "Papa Vilver only gave me a little (she was watching me cook chicken) and so I don't want to say bye-bye to mama (me) and I want to keep my nice red shoes and my barrettes forever"

Yes, my daughter, you deserve nicest barrettes and red shoes and enough food every day of your life. You are so beautiful, so clever. And all the children in your country deserve what they wish to have too!

Samuel tells me "I love Stephania bigger than the world" and then "mummy, can I have a brother too?" and then, theatrical, I shout my famous Italian expression gesticulating, with a desolated look on my face: "But where do I get (a brother) from!?" and he asks genuinely: "But don't they have also boys in Haiti?"

I think of her family all the time. We will make a good job of raising our children, I know it. I just know it.

Credits: Danielle Huber

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