‘The relief and joy were palpable.’: Daughter reunites with birth mom after agency tells adoptive mom to ‘say she is dead’

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The Search For My Daughter’s Birth Mom

“In 2013, on a dusty, deserted road in Southern Ethiopia, four of us headed deep into a village in search of my daughter’s birthmother. Navigating the bumps and dodging an occasional goat, Asfaw drove us to where it all began.

As luck would have it, my driver spoke the language of the region as well as Amharic and English, and the older gentleman in the passenger seat beside him held in his lap a large book with the details of hundreds of adoptions. Just a few hours earlier, seated in the garden of the Abebe Zeleke Hotel, he had opened that book and confirmed the information I had been given on my daughter years ago—the name of her mother and the region where she was from. And he knew how to find her. I looked out the window. Despite the aridity, the landscape was lush; replete with the large leaves of the false banana trees. The anticipation was indescribable.

Image of the exterior of the Abebe Zeleke Hotel in Ethiopia from across the street
Courtesy of Laura Howard

The search for my daughter’s birth mother was more than twice as long as the lengthy process of international adoption (which for me was two years, five months—plus an additional 4 months, 2 weeks, and 3 days waiting for a referral—according to my blog). After not finding success in adopting through the DC foster care system and being dissuaded from pursuing domestic adoption from the agencies themselves, I landed on international adoption, hopeful that I could have an open relationship with my daughter’s Ethiopian family. When I submitted my paperwork to the agency in June 2009, there were a handful of countries open. I chose Ethiopia because I had read the children were well taken care of and the country didn’t appear to be engaging in unethical practices.

I had also spent a month volunteering at an orphanage in Addis Ababa the year before and the experience had been nothing but positive. I loved the country and its people and was beyond excited to have it inextricably woven into my own family fabric. I was aware that some countries had been exposed for coercing or paying birthmothers to give up their children; others flat-out abducting and trafficking kids to meet the demand of families wanting to adopt. But in my research, I hadn’t heard of such things happening in Ethiopia. In addition, the agency I chose was recommended to me by an adoptive mom who said they facilitated birth mother introductions and she believed them to be above board. Satisfied, I forged ahead, open to a boy or a girl from birth to age 3.

Group of women feeding orphan children at a Ethiopian orphanage
Courtesy of Laura Howard

Life As A Mother

My daughter’s adoption was completed in March 2010. Standing in a cold stairwell, they handed me a beautiful, curly-haired girl dressed in a flowered lime green dress with a matching scarf. Naomi Winter Almaz burst into tears when placed in my arms but quickly quieted. And like that, I was a mother. The ten days spent in-country were a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration. Adoption is trauma and toddler adoption is especially hard. As we worked on bonding, thoughts of her birth mother filled my mind. I had so many questions. Meeting her was the final piece of the process I needed. So I inquired. And I will never forget what I heard: ‘No, you won’t meet her. And if anyone asks, say she is dead.’ What did this mean? I was stunned, confused. I wasn’t expecting for them to be unscrupulous and I didn’t know what to say or what to do, and we were leaving the next day.

Adoptive mother holding a picture of her Ethiopian daughter and smiling
Courtesy of Laura Howard

As we settled into our new lives as mother and daughter, I couldn’t get her birth mother and the puzzling circumstances of her adoption out of my mind, so I hired the first of many birth family searchers. I gave him the very few details I had—her mother’s name and the fact she was from Wolayta. Wolayta is located in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), a rural and densely populated area of Ethiopia of over 5 million people. Tefera was confident it was enough information. As luck would have it, a few months later I had a handful of photos of a large house and some of her family members, but not her mother. Apparently she had left home in search of work, but at least they had confirmed she was alive! There was hope, and finding her felt closer than ever when I accepted a job to teach at an international school in Addis Ababa.

Adoptive mother holding her toddler daughter in her arms
Courtesy of Laura Howard

Moving To Ethiopia

We moved to Ethiopia in 2017, and I hired a second searcher to see if he came up with the same results as Tefera. I gave him the information and a couple of weeks later he called. His response was disheartening. ‘All you have is her name and the Wolayta region? There is no way I can find her. Millions of people live there; it’s impossible,’ and he hung up the phone. I sat there in the silence of my darkening room, the words bouncing around in my head. Impossible? I felt my chest tighten and my heart pounding in my chest. It didn’t make sense. Were these really pictures of her grandmother and uncle? Whose house was that? The chanting of the priests and the barking of street dogs in the distance broke into my thoughts. Dismayed, I pushed his words out of my mind.

Adoptive mother standing next to her daughter with tall palms in the back
Courtesy of Laura Howard

About a year later, I fortuitously hired Asfaw as a driver, who happened to be from Wolayta. When Asfaw learned of her story, he wanted to help. He knew the area and the language and offered to do some digging for us. As our time in Ethiopia was running out, I made the decision to also hire another searcher on my own. I was thrilled when my searcher said he could locate her birth family, and Asfaw found someone as well so we decided to meet all in the garden of the Abebe Zeleke Hotel, three months before we were to move back to the States. We sat down and ordered mango smoothies. It had been a long drive and our adrenaline was in overdrive. Asfaw left to take a call from his contact and I sat down with my searcher as he was the first to arrive.

Patio dinning tables at a hotel in Ethiophia
Courtesy of Laura Howard

He informed us he had made contact with the family and could take me there. He shared accurate information and I was ecstatic! The price for the information was then laid on the table. There would be a payment for himself and several other people who he claimed were involved in the searching process. It seemed high but it was information we needed, and so having left my wallet in the car, I texted Asfaw and asked him to bring me the specific amount to our table. ‘For what?,’ he responded incredulously. And with a simple ‘no’ he hung up on me. Enraged, Asfaw approached our table with a look I had never seen. Normally very even-tempered and pleasant, he at once started screaming at the searcher in Amharic.

As their altercation escalated, Asfaw’s contact approached the table and joined in. Not understanding a word, I sat there speechless and bewildered for what seemed like an eternity, and then abruptly my searcher pushed his chair back from the table and stormed off. Asfaw and his contact continued to argue for another ten minutes and then all was silent. Taking a sip of his smoothie and switching to English, Asfaw turned to me and relayed the most abhorrent part of the conversation. In essence, my searcher had located the information quickly and effortlessly (from Asfaw’s contact) but figured they could all take advantage of my desperation. He tried to convince Asfaw that he could also profit from this and that he was foolish to not take part in the deceit. In the end, Asfaw prevailed and the man agreed to give me the information free of charge.

With this, he brought out a large notebook with the details of many children who had been adopted over the years. He turned to a page with my daughter’s picture at the top and confirmed all the details I had been given in her original paperwork. And then he said he knew where her mother lived. And this is how I found myself driving deep into the village, pulling up in front of the exact house  Tefera had photographed years before. We were surrounded by many curious villagers and we met her grandmother and uncle. We had an impromptu celebration with kolo (a popular roasted barley snack) and coffee, but one person was missing. Naomi’s birth mother. After a few hours later we piled into the car for the drive back to the hotel, planning to return to Addis the next day.

Mud house in Ethiopia with adults and children walking in from the main entrance
Courtesy of Laura Howard

Finding Naomi’s Birth Mother

About an hour into our drive, the gentleman with the book uttered the most unexpected words. He said Naomi’s mother’s name sounded familiar and he believed she might be his sister-in-law’s maid. Silently, my daughter and I looked at each other in disbelief. Minutes later we pulled into his sister’s village, where she confirmed Naomi’s mother was indeed her maid, but at the time she wasn’t sure where she was. Disappointed, we left our contact information and started to head back to the car, but in the most amazing of moments of stars aligning in the universe, someone had overheard our conversation and said they believed she was staying across the street in the hair salon. She went to check and a few minutes later, out of the door of the salon walked my daughter’s birth mother!

Adoptee meeting her biological mom in Ethiopia for the first time
Courtesy of Laura Howard

The precise details of this moment and the words exchanged were special and private, but as you can imagine, her relief and joy were palpable. Nearly everyone was in tears. In the moment, my daughter was more overwhelmed than anything, but since the meeting she has shared that it made her feel ‘at peace and at home.’ She continued, ‘My main word for meeting her is comfort. I felt comfort and safe. I felt so happy.’ The next day, after sharing a final meal together, I presented Naomi and her mother each a matching cross to wear close to their hearts.

Adoptee and birth mom holding a matching cross-necklaces
Courtesy of Laura Howard

Adoption is beautiful and painful at the same time. There is grief and there is joy, but the way Naomi expressed it, I believe was true for all of us, ‘The thing that was missing was finally there.'”

Adoptive mother holding her daughter's hand wearing traditional Ethiopian clothes in the streets of Ethiopia
Courtesy of Laura Howard
Courtesy of Laura Howard

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Laura Howard. You can follow her journey on Instagram.  Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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