Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Profile: Nancy Meyer & Illinois Ethiopian Kids Community

Adoption can be a lonely business in the most ordinary circumstances. Some of us Gen-Xers may still have friends without even a pet, who’s idea of “responsibility” constitutes “finding a designated driver”. Add to that the fact that, by adopting from Ethiopia, we are becoming parents to children of a different cultural heritage and, often, of a different race, well, it’s easy to feel a little isolated.

One suggestion in all those pamphlets we get from the adoption agencies is to “meet with other families like yourselves”. Point out the tree where those families grow and I’ll shake it.

Nancy Meyer couldn’t find that tree either… so she took things into her own hands. I think she’s a profound inspiration to all of us. I asked her to share her incredible journey with us, so that, at minimum, she can help her organization thrive. More importantly, I’d love for her to serve as a model for all of us, so that we can emulate her entrepreneurial spirit… er, rip off her idea and do it in our own towns.

Nancy has formed the Illinois Ethiopian Kids Community (IEKC), an adoption community that aims to provide cultural and social connections for our children/families through activities and events and to create authentic relationships/friendships with the local Ethiopian community.

Nancy built and maintains the organization’s website: www.ethiopiankids.net. You owe it to yourself to check it out, even if you can’t spell Illinois (no shame in that, it’s sort of counter-intuitive). The site is chock full’a great links, product reviews and information of value to anyone in our community. Don’t believe me? They have one of the best hair resource pages I’ve seen. The links are so valid, because each comes with a nice little explanatory profile as to why it’s relevant. That makes for some smart surfing!

If you ARE in or near Chicago, Illinois, you can take advantage of the cultural events and meetings Nancy organizes. On August 4th, 2007, IEKC is hosting the Mesgana Dancers, in Evanston, IL. Tickets will be on sale, on-line.

My hunger for connections with other families is what led my motivation to form a community, Nancy explains. I arranged an informal gathering of some local families last year that I knew had adopted from Ethiopia. We met at a local Ethiopian restaurant. Most of the families in attendance were families "in-process" and needed support from others who had walked the path.

The organization is growing quickly. From that initial gathering of seven families, the local organization now boasts a roster of fifty families. I am working to create unity, which is a long, steady process. Still, she feels an even stronger sense of community is warranted. I have found that families are very interested up until the point they bring their child(ren) home. Then the need for connection begins to wane. It seems like it should be the opposite really. I think people get busy in their lives and perhaps lose sight of the bigger picture...that our children will one day ask "who am I" and "where do I belong"?

As our children grow up, they will be caught between black and white, Ethiopia and America, first family and second family. A group like this seems to provide two indispensable functions: providing a lifeline to others JUST LIKE THEM (or at least in the same situation) and expose them and us to authentic Ethiopian-American culture. Ideally, this cross-communication with the local Ethiopian community will provide mentors and opportunities to explore and express themselves in the context of their native culture.

Right now the hardest part is laying the groundwork by making contacts and starting relationships. Nancy opened a dialog with the sizable Ethiopian community in Chicago, reaching out to the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago, as well as the local Ethiopian Orthodox and Ethiopian Evangelical churches.

She stresses that the relationship between the Ethipian-American community can be mutually beneficial, believing that her partnership with these organization will, in her words, not only bring social and cultural connections for our adopted children, but will encourage greater patronage for Ethiopian businesses. Many of the families here are immigrants trying to find their way and make a life for themselves. They support themselves by opening restaurants, driving taxis and some have enough education to get professional positions, though very few. It is my hope that our community can in turn support their businesses and create opportunities for them to offer their skills (i.e Ethiopian cooking classes, Amharic classes for the children, having ET nannies/babysitters, etc.). Through this partnership it is my hope that there will be greater visibility for the ET community here in Chicago. They have a lot to offer.

Nancy’s connection to Ethiopia deepened significantly… and unexpectantly, when Nancy traveled to receive her daughter. She was picked up at the airport by an Ethiopian man named Tesfaye, an employee at the adoption agency’s care center. I happened to be the only one there at the time. It was love at first sight for him and for me, I knew he was really special but couldn't imagine a marriage relationship would result from our meeting.

They maintained a long-distance relationship after Nancy returned to America with her new daughter. Soon, they realized that they were ready to commit to each other forever. He is an amazing man and I believe we were both ready to accept the level of love we had for each other and create a partnership. It is an amazing story and one that has blessed our lives enormously.

Tesfaye only arrived in the beginning of February, and, per our government, the couple has only three months to wed. Tesfaye is currently perfecting his English, learning the ropes of being in America, experiencing his first Chicago winter and discovering that Ethiopian food just doesn’t taste the same outside of Ethiopia… enter, nachos!

Nancy and her unique family have great hopes for the future of IEKC. My vision is much broader. I aim to make it a non-profit organization that will either adopt or build a service project that will benefit the people of Ethiopia. I hope to make this a full-circle organization.

Ethiopia has quickly emerged as one of the main programs for international adoption. In cities and towns across the country, there is an ever-growing number of American families with Ethiopian children. There are also pockets of the Ethiopian Diaspora in those same cities. Grassroots community organizations such as Nancy’s create “win-win-win” scenarios for all involved, by capitalizing on the unique relationship between International Adoptees from Ethiopia (many adopted transracially), the Ethiopian-American community and native Ethiopian society, still strong, proud and independent, despite the challenges of poverty and disease. All of these benefits – the support for us, the economic enfranchisement of the Ethiopian-American community and the aid to Ethiopia, herself, will ultimately pay dividends for the most important people in all of our lives – our children.

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