My husband and I have always longed to adopt. In fact, our second date included a trip to our local Wal-Mart where we purchased food and clothing for the children orphaned by the earthquake in Haiti. I was a single mom at the time with a budget so tight circus performers could have walked it as part of one of their nightly acts. So when I carefully pulled three worn twenty-dollar bills from my pocket as we neared the checkout that night, my now husband pleaded with tears in his eyes for me to put them back. He knew what a contribution like that would cost me. “No,” I told him. “Take the money. I want to feel the hurt on their behalf.”
We held hands for the first time that night. We also talked about adopting together for the first time that night. I truly believed we were the kind of Americans who understood the plight of orphans.
Not long ago, my husband and our three children sat around our dinner table. My health issues have prevented us from adopting, but we’ve done all we’ve known to do to support orphans and adoptive families. That night, my oldest mentioned a friend of our family. She was adopted from Ukraine and spends a good deal of time snapchatting with my kids. Somewhere over the course of our conversation, I made a comment about Cassandra’s life in the orphanage before she came to America. My kids sat stunned. More questions followed. Tears flowed and a sobering understanding filled the room. However, our conversation left me with more questions. How could my teenagers, who lived in a home where we discussed things like adoption and the vulnerability of orphans to trafficking, poverty, and social justice not have any clue what it was like to live in an orphanage on the other side of the world? Are Americans blind to the plight of orphans?
With her parents’ permission, I invited Cassandra over. I asked her to tell me about her life in Ukraine. You should know that when I first met Cassandra three years ago she seemed perpetually afraid, small, timid––as though she were attempting to withdraw further and further inside of herself until she was invisible. Her eyes darted about, and although her name was one of the few words she spoke in English, she always looked down as she spoke it. Today, as Cassandra takes her seat on my red couch, she is unmistakably her. Her beauty stops you in your tracks. Confidence in her own skin radiates from her being. She laughs. She smiles. She chides you as needed. She is a joy to encounter and a woman transformed. I notice as she speaks that she no longer looks like a girl who has known unspeakable pain. But she has.
Cassandra’s biological mom took more interest in drinking than in caring for her and her two younger sisters. Since her father was long since gone, she was sent to live with grandparents who often starved her because “Mom should feed her.” When they decided they could “care” for her no longer, they asked her if she would like to go to camp. Delighted, she said yes. Except the camp was an orphanage where she and her sisters would spend the next four years of their lives (barring, of course, the eight months she spent alone in the hospital with TB so severe she could have died).
When I ask Cassandra about how she’s changed since being adopted she cries and says simply, “Jesus.”
I was outraged after Cassandra and her parents left. How could anyone treat children so poorly? I thought about how Cassandra said she felt loved, special, and safe now. I want that for all orphans. It scares me to consider what might have happened to Cassandra had Ralph and Kelly not adopted her. Knowing that sixty percent of the children who age out of orphanages in Ukraine will be trafficked and that Cassandra had compared her first orphanage to a prison intake facility, I couldn’t help but feel like Americans really might be blind to the plight of orphans like Cassandra.
Later, I sat down with Axel, president of Global Commission Partners, a non-profit organization with five orphanages across the globe. It is here, sitting in a black folding chair across from this peaceful man with broken English as he tells me the stories that “aren’t the bad ones,” I realize I have been blind to the plight of the orphan.
Axel starts by telling me what has become familiar to me in my research over the last few years in resources like Half the Sky and Nafarious: Merchant of Souls. He says that often in places like India, where 1.2 billion people reside and words like poverty are an unspeakable understatement, children often start “working” as young as seven or eight. For boys this may mean manual labor or being a messenger, and for girls it almost always means prostitution. Sometimes a family may sell off a few of their children to traffickers to survive.
In some of the villages of Thailand, he says it’s common for traffickers to come in and offer to find work for the children. Once taken into the larger cities, they’ll be trafficked and never seen or heard from again. Other times the traffickers are more forthcoming about their intentions, and the children are sold just the same.
Axel tells me about a friend of his who built an orphanage in India. Within a month the building was bursting at the seams. A thousand children slept on the floor, and there was never enough rice to be found. And yet, for three days and nights four children stood outside the gates begging to come in, wailing and crying because they hadn’t eaten. They knew what their fate would be if they didn’t make it in. The orphanage director said no, they could barely take care of the thousand children they already had, but his wife said she couldn’t bear to watch them die and took them in.
At this same orphanage, a woman arrived one night, beating the gate with her fists, screaming for someone to come and take her infant son. She knew he would surely die otherwise. But the orphanage was overflowing and ill-equipped to care for infants, so no one came. All night she screamed, she begged, knowing the orphanage was her son’s only chance. Finally, in protest, she dug a hole in the sand and buried her baby boy in the ground in front of the orphanage gate.
I need to stop here for a moment and be honest with you all. I just bought my kid a hoodie from American Eagle for forty dollars. Do you know how much it would have cost to sustain that buried infant’s life for a single month within the orphanage gates? Twenty-five dollars.
Axel tells me that a Burmese missionary sometimes rents a two-bedroom hut with his wife and children and takes in seven to eight orphans. The orphans love this because it’s like having their own family. The cost to sustain them per month? Two hundred dollars. Oh, and they’ll run a church congregation of forty to fifty people from that same hut. Do you know I sometimes spend one hundred and twenty-five dollars to have my hair cut and colored?
Are Americans blind to the plight of orphans? I can only answer for this one. And the answer is yes.
* The names of some individuals have been changed for their protection and privacy in this article.