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After it was reported that a French NGO named Arche de Zoé had attempted to airlift a planeload of children out of Chad for adoption in France, Ann Veneman, Executive Director of UNICEF, stated:
“This is not something that should be tolerated by the international community. It is unacceptable to see children taken out of their home countries without compliance with national and international laws.”
Her outrage unfortunately reflects a one-sided worldview concerning adoption today. It can be traced back to Pearl S. Buck and other advocates from the middle of last century who saw in international adoption a “saving grace” for children around the globe. This sentiment, echoed in Arche de Zoé’s mission statement, has always served as an excuse to use “orphans” as props, backdrops, and camera fodder. Operation Babylift, the post-Vietnam War media relations effort of the United States government, attempted to give Americans a positive spin on its role in the war. Unwitnessed, however, were distraught Vietnamese mothers, tearfully separated from their children who were forced onto waiting airplanes for transport overseas. Adoption’s current vogue due to Hollywood celebrity public relations campaigns, which date back to the days of Joan Crawford, exemplifies but one of its more cynical manifestations. More recently, an article in New York magazine basically asks parents to quantify the unquantifiable: the love they have for their adopted children. These examples, including the statement from UNICEF, likewise reflect only one side of the debate: namely that of the adoptive parent, couple, and country.
This perception focuses solely on the unique instance of adoption as beneficent act; viewed only by itself, out of context, this is perhaps an inarguable truth. Yet individual adoption is deceptively marketed and packaged around this humanistic aspect. It mistakenly presupposes a globally valid nuclear family, as well as a concept of Third-World deliverance coming in individual doses from the developed regions of the world; it extols the child as now “better off,” or “lucky,” or “chosen.” It depicts adoption as better than nothing and proclaims that little can be done on an individual level to change the global situation. Adoption can thus be seen to fulfill certain needs of dominant global culture, not just those of parents wishing to start a family, and focuses on children who are (perhaps ideally) least capable to speak for themselves.
These arguments, however, do not hold up to scrutiny and raise more questions than they answer. At the general level, the idea that nothing can be done to effect change in the world is self-deceiving and reflects a willful ignorance of the sacrifices required to make that change: the standard of living of the First World comes at the expense of the Third World; and there are things that could be done to greatly alleviate if not eliminate poverty in the world today if the collective will to do so, which would require change in the standard of living of the First World, existed. More specifically, even if we accept the premise that adopting children lifts them out of poverty or “saves” them, it is possible to argue that another First-World consumer in fact makes things worse on a global scale. To further deliberate: adoption on the international level creates a “demand” for orphans that is answered by Third-World countries and the agencies that serve them with a “supply” of children; it is problematic to bring a foreign-born child into a non-multi-cultural environment; individualistic, nuclear family-based cultures undo other more community-based cultures. Do we simply deny that baby theft and brokering exist? Is it not paradoxical that underclass children in First-World societies go unadopted, often for racist and ageist reasons? What aberrant First-Worldist rationale allows for the adoption of Third-World children, while forbidding adults from these same Third-World countries to emigrate, or while deporting those already present back to their home countries?
Extending this logically: does the Caribbean immigrant nanny in New York City (ironically perhaps tending to a Third-World adopted infant while far from her own family) not have the same rights as the mother she serves? As the Chadian village that has been convinced that there is a “better life” elsewhere for its children? As the adopted child who never asked to grow up in an alien and often alienating culture? Do they all have nothing to say because there is no equality of stature, no parity of action available to them, no ability to travel to Europe or America to select a white baby for themselves, no recognition of their way of life as valid, because they have no privilege and are exploitable? Should the world become suddenly egalitarian, all children given a place in their respective communities if not families, what would childless couples do then?
It is obvious why no one hears this side of the argument. The truth stings, and we recoil in the face of it, as when listening to news reports of the recent scandal from Chad; or when I hear a mother state of her daughter adopted from a former Soviet republic: “Of course I bought my baby!”; or when I stare at the check that my orphanage in Lebanon “accepted” as a gift from my parents; or when I realize that all of the names on my documentation that might link me to a birth family are completely falsified.
The blind eye turned to this bigger picture naturally overlooks the reality of adopted children’s lives. Those who spent years in my orphanage remember being told that some parents-cadeaux (gift-parents) were coming to “choose a lucky child.” We are chastised that we should stop searching for something that cannot be ours. For many here, we are “les enfants du peché” — the children of sin — and are not welcome, or else we are grudgingly received with grating platitudes. This article will tar me as an ungrateful adoptee, which is the furthest thing from the truth. None of the above monological attitudes take into consideration the thoughts, feelings, or needs of the very subjects of their so-called advocacy. They are meant to deflect questioning and derail criticism, while disparaging non-First-World views concerning adoption. They place adopted children in an existential limbo which is unjust, uncharitable, and ignoble.
Many of us recall being informed that we are fortunate since adoption is not allowed “among the Muslims.” To those who are raised believing in the supremacy of the couple and child(ren)-based social unit, the very idea of growing up in an orphanage, with no “family,” or otherwise under “guardianship,” is unfathomable, if not horrifying. Since moving back to Lebanon three years ago, I have realized that the Qur’anic invocation concerning adoption has everything to do with children maintaining their lineage, their name, and their place in the community. Most remarkable then is the fact that these very concepts — of lineage, name, appearance, and original community — are the issues that most plague adult adoptees. So it should come as no surprise that those who find their birth parents — for example, as documented in the film, Daughter of Danang, or the recent Reader’s Digest article entitled “The Lost Princess” — are often welcomed “home” by a village and not just a single family, in a complete reversal of their original trip to their adoptive land. This has been most astonishing for me in Lebanon, in terms of who has extended their community to me, beyond any preconceived expectations, much less familial or communal ties. There can be no feigning shock that the willful and deliberate misunderstanding of family and community should result in this most recent African scandal and the protests it begets, or that those destined for so-called salvation should be the ones who suffer most.
Many of the adoptees from my orphanage share one desire: the honest truth and an open discussion of their earliest days. This is where the original spin meets on-the-street reality, and it is a violent and unendurable encounter. Coming back to Lebanon has been nothing if not a rude awakening, and if I am no longer looking for my birth parents it is because I see in this search a selfish act, living now as I do in a place with an unimaginable poverty level and a political situation that is unstable to say the very least. Searching is thus a luxury, and I have let it go; comparatively speaking, I have nothing to complain about: what I have discovered regarding the abandonment and adoption of all of us who were processed through the orphanage in Beirut is too terrible to bear sometimes. I am loathe to hear questions from adoptees starting their search here, because I have little but heartbreak to extend to them. To continue to view adoption in its previous mythologised and romanticized manner has for many of us become insufferable, if not impossible.
At the same time, I am daily witness to endless First-World interference here on the political, cultural, and economic level and so can’t help but make the logical leap to add adoption to a long list of injustices perpetrated from without. And I add my voice to those from the other side of the adoption myth, from fellow adoptees and the communities they come from, who now demand that the chance to critique be afforded those most justified to speak, yet most silenced. To quote an African Union missive in response to the recent events in Chad, there exists a lack of “dignity and respect” on the issue that is but a continuation of how the First World has historically viewed and treated the rest of humanity. The focus concerning adoption needs to shift from parent to child, from First World to Third. It is time to discuss international adoption openly and honestly, in order to be fair to all those affected by it. It is time to speak about the trafficking of the most fragile and defenseless of humans. It is time to speak about the hypocrisy that ignores the ever-growing gap between the First and Third Worlds and the terrible abuse of the current power imbalance between them — a continuation of a sordid history in which the poor, the nether, the “uncivilized” portions of the planet serve as source material to be plundered, exported, and sold.
In naming their organization “Arche de Zoé” — a play on the French for “Noah’s Ark” — we can see this age-old romanticism and arrogant interference semantically revealed: there are children saved, and the rest — the unfortunate children of sin — damned to their fate. This NGO and by extension the First World thus play God, with disastrous results. This missionary idea condemns people to their given status without considering it a direct function of the vagaries of international economic, political, and cultural systems put in place by the First World at the expense of the Third. We must acknowledge what international adoption represents, and what its consequences are, not just locally or individually, but globally and in terms of our shared humanity. To simply accept one perspective of adoption, one that doesn’t give voice to adoptees and those of their places of origin simply because it validates our sense of self, is morally and ethically untenable.
Long after this story dies down, and Angelina Jolie and Madonna are out of the news, and the millionth casting call for Annie takes place, it is the children as well as their original communities who still have to live with and process what has happened to them. I would restate Ms. Veneman’s statement thus:
“It is unacceptable to see children taken out of their home countries.”
Period. This admission, this truly local starting point, might hopefully shift the attention of adoptive parents beyond the children they have welcomed into their families to the world far outside their homes; a shift, by extension, from the North to the South, from the First World to the Third. It might also allow us to see, acknowledge, and validate for the first time the “world family” we are thus connected to. Most telling in the Arche de Zoé affair is the difference between the protest against the actions of this NGO in terms of “international law” and the outcry of a different kind that is directed against the received wisdom, the salvationist sentiment itself: a protest that seeks to address issues of globalization, world politics, local cultures, and international economics, directly challenges the prevailing notions of presumed universalist culture, rightly puts adoption back into context, and thus requires much more of us all in terms of good will, altruism, and selflessness.
To admit this, to shift perspectives, to recognize the other’s viewpoint, would allow those of the developed world to understand what this most recent scandal represents to those they share the planet with, and would reveal that in the spectrum of adoption it is impossible to separate what deserves outrage from what does not; the application of make-up to Chadian children in an effort to literally paint them as Darfour refugees in preparation for their kidnapping from Africa is just one end of the spectrum, one manifestation of problems systemic to a First-World view of things. When voice is given to all concerned, when the discussion is finally and honestly balanced, only then will adoption no longer be tainted with the lingering remnants of an unjustly divided world.
Daniel Drennan was originally born in Beirut, and has lived most of his life in the United States. He has recently returned to Lebanon, and is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the American University of Beirut. His article entitled “Brand America: Of False Promises and Snake Oil” was published on the Electronic Intifada: Lebanon web site. He maintains a diary concerning life in Lebanon at www.inquisitor.com/.