Adoption is an Expedition

Like traveling through an unexplored jungle, the adoption process is something you have to discover for yourself.

Sonia Billadeau March 29, 2014
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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 Mandarin and not understanding or knowing the culture. A real challenge– an expedition into an unexplored jungle where all you learn is what you find out for yourself.

When we decided to adopt a child, we 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 three months. If we wanted to adopt a British child, the home study would be free. We were told the fact we had a young, biological child could be a hindrance for us in getting the precious passport for adoption. Shortly after we moved to Germany, 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. That home study would 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 three languages at home. I was born in North Africa and hold three passports. I never grew up in one place; we 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 decided to adopt. We wanted to adopt a child from Haiti, a black child. With all this, how were we going to be judged?

We decided to go to France. We started a process that was going to take us through separate interviews with a psychoanalyst, a psychologist, and a social worker, spread over a period of 11 months. Normally, French law only allows nine 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. Time went by. Our son was growing up, and our frustrations were growing 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 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. The French government has created a special unit to deal with the procedures only. All must be supervised by the famous Mission pour L’Adoption Internationale which grants (or does not grant) visas. They supervise each adoption and see that it is handled ethically and legally.

From the age of 10, I knew I wanted to adopt in Haiti, where I spent the most important three years of my growing up. The Haitians had made such a strong impression on me, and what I learned there changed forever the way I saw the world. Joerg was all for it even before 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, and one mustn’t have biological children at the time.

But we were determined and as soon as I had our papers ready, I contacted an orphanage recognized by the Haitian government. It was one that had been recommended to us by several families. The orphanage accepted our application immediately. So many children were waiting, I was told. We had a small preference for a girl, and were advised by the social workers that the child we would adopt had to be at least nine 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 1600 USD for medical checks and Stephania’s food, clothes, etc. The lawyer charged 1800 USD, including administrative, legal, and other related costs. That was all there was to it. In addition to that, we had to pay for the flight from Europe (about 1500 USD for me and Stephania) and hotel. 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 January 24 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 and 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 misery in Haiti! Pollution is hell, the roads are littered with garbage, and it is a place that requires four-wheel drive– thanks to the state of roads and the reckless drivers. Too many cars, too much confusion. If I could have walked, I could have been home sooner. I choked on the polluted air. The little girls had not changed; they still carried something heavy on their heads and were still the walking princesses I so used to admire as a child. There were so many people everywhere, and they all seemed to be waiting for something. But for nothing, really, I concluded after 13 days.

The next day, even though my cousin is Haitian and had lived in Haiti all her life, we couldn’t locate the orphanage. The streets were not marked, and no one seemed to know anything! We drove around for four hours through hellish traffic jams, dust, noise, and pollution.

Finally we gave up and went home. I recognized nothing of the country; what used to be green valleys were covered by shank houses. There was not a tall tree anywhere. Fancy getting back there in 20 years in that over-populated, ever-changing capital to try and locate our child’s biological parents!

My cousin’s house was perched somewhere above the city of Port au Prince. On the way, more mountains were being eaten up by machines, leaving great chalky scars on the already eroded giants. I remembered they used to be green and wild. Trucks went up and down these mountains all day long, leaving a trail of dust that could not be removed with the simple buckets of lukewarm water I had to use to wash. Every other day on this road, we witnessed disasters: an overturned truck, a body lying underneath, people staring, some yelling. Electrical lines pulled out, the road damaged. “Same all the time,” said Arianne, laughing, but sadly. One becomes cynical in those every day situations.

My cousin was not poor. By our standards she was not rich either, but her house was nice and large. She had a maid and a man to take care of the cars and garden. There had been no electricity for 15 days while I was there, and the water company did not provide water either. We had to rely on the rainwater that filled the tank under the house, and that was running out fast. We heated water on the gas cooker that emptied sooner than it should. However, my cousin proved to be a wonderful host and was really resourceful. A spark of joy and irony spurted every five minutes. She made me laugh wholeheartedly and 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 said, flashing her white teeth once more.

The phone rang and the director of the orphanage announced that since she lived just around the corner of my cousin’s home, she would bring Stephania over after work. I was really nervous and absolutely exhausted because I had only arrived the day before and was still jet-lagged. I washed and changed into the Djellabah I had brought back from my native Tunisia, and waited.

A car sounded outside, and I started to run to the gate, but my cousin held my arms firmly and pulled me back nervously. I had forgotten that the week before she’d heard shots in the night. I had forgotten all of that and moved towards the woman holding something small in her arms. What a strange, eerie meeting. I recognized the voice of the woman I had spoken to from Germany several times, and she gently put my daughter in my arms, but it was pitch black and I smelled her before I saw her.

We move inside the house, and I discovered a tiny child smaller than her age. She was frightened. She wore a dress from another time and shoes that were too tight. Her hair was matted and she smelled of “very old and soggy dollar bills,” I would report to my husband later. Her nails were too long and dirty. Her eyes were very sick, she had some skin problems, and she looked like a pregnant woman about to give birth– her stomach was that bloated. She was coughing a rough, frightening cough. She did not seem to speak or walk. She looked depressed. She was totally unresponsive and reminded me of an autistic child. I was nervous. Little did I know that the worse was yet to come!

As soon as the lady left, Stephania started to scream her heart out. She threw 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 tried with great energy to stop her, but she was oblivious and didn’t even acknowledge my presence.

God help! Give me the users’ guide! I was used to Samuel’s terrible twos and his tantrums, but nothing had prepared me for this. My heart was breaking, my nerves were raw. I was exhausted and confused. I managed to grab her and hold her very tight. I didn’t let go and ended up crying with her. She fell asleep exhausted, and so did I!

The next day she was crying and exploding in fits at least three times a day and I had to guess, amongst other things, that she wanted to eat and drink every hour because she did not speak. She had diarrhea, and that was really difficult to cope with when water was so scarce. We needed buckets to flush the mess. I was alarmed by the state of her health, and soon we visited a pediatrician. I also contacted the director of the orphanage and explained the situation. I wanted to meet my daughter’s other parents. I needed to know more about her background. I read the psychological reports. They spoke about a child “6 months behind” for her age but did not mention anything alarming.

Further medical examination revealed that Stephania was infested with two types of worms. I went home carrying half the pharmacy with me and feeling my wallet very thin in my pocket.

On day four, I met up with Stephania’s parents against all the advice of my French friends. When I saw them, it was love at first sight. I thanked them for having agreed to see me, and the father was moved to tears. He thanked me for caring about their feelings. A world separated us; they lived in a shank house and we lived in a beautiful house. Yet a world of humanity united us. I was so very moved. I placed Stephania in her father’s lap, and we talked, talked, and talked. Stephania looked so much like her other mother. Mother Yvenie sang a song for Stephania in front of my video camera. “For when she is far,” she explained. I saw that they treated their children with great affection and understanding. Stephania had an 11-year-old brother who was also there and looked at me with kind and intelligent eyes that went straight to my soul. They just had a little baby girl who looked so much like Stephania! After this visit, once we were in the car, Stephania, for the first time, called me “Mama” and smiled at me.

On day six, we managed to locate the orphanage. We visited it with Stephania. It was really important for her to say goodbye to her friends. Stephania was changing dramatically. After the visit, she was not only walking, but hopping like a happy child. She tickled me and was very playful in the car.

We met Stephania’s parents on two more occasions. I had spontaneously felt that we had to help them, so I opened an account in Stephania’s name, with the intention to send enough money for her brother to attend school.  We gave money to her family so they wouldn’t have to part with their children anymore.

Days passed by in a twirl of dust, heat, frustrating complications with documents, and Stephania’s fits of despair.

On the day of our departure Stephania was in a trance. She escaped onto the airport tarmac, leaving me running after her. My luggage was in tow and I had tears in my eyes from leaving her parents and so much behind. But Stephania was very excited at the idea of taking a plane. I thought of Samuel, the brother she did not know yet, who was waiting at the other end of this journey home. He was totally blasé about flying and couldn’t care less about seeing a plane!

I was really moved as the plane took off, and I cried for her parents and for the people who had to live in those despicable conditions. I prayed. Stephania fell asleep. She slept for 15 hours straight. At the airport, people I didn’t know offered blessings. An old woman I did not know–learning that we had adopted Stephania–laid hands on her and prayed and then hugged me. I kissed her hands.

I had a daughter! A beautiful, affectionate, smart, caring, mischievous, intelligent daughter!

The moment we set foot in Germany, Stephania was a different child. She realized she was here to stay and that she was here to be loved by us. It was an incredible fairytale for us.

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

Stephania’s health has improved dramatically, and she has grown and put on some weight. She is the sweetest girl 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 since Joerg had 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?” She answered, “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), 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 the 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, theatrically, I shout my famous Italian expression, gesticulating, with a desolated look on my face: “But where would I get (a brother) from?!” And he asks genuinely, “Don’t they also have boys in Haiti?”

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

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Sonia Billadeau


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