“It’s not safe.” That is what I would tell you if you were looking to foster or adopt. I’m not sure that this would be a good slogan for an adoption agency, but after walking this path, this warning is in order. I would want to tell you that if you choose this path, you will never be the same. You will no longer look at the orphan crisis as a statistic; you will suddenly look at it as a thumb-sucking 1-year-old in a diaper and onesie plopped into your lap at 11 p.m. at night. Eyes wide and filled with fear, you and this tiny “orphan crisis” will face this storm together. And suddenly it all takes on a name and a dirt-smudged face.
You will no longer look at the orphan crisis as millions; you will see it as an 8-year-old who is filled with so much fear that it manifests itself in behaviors you don’t know how to handle, and you might find yourself searching for answers at 1:00 in the morning, desperate to heal wounds that require more than a Band-Aid. And you won’t find the answers on the internet, and it will bring you to your knees because you so desperately love this child. You might come to realize that time does not heal all wounds and sometimes love — real love — is a day-to-day choice and mostly you are not alone on this journey.
You will no longer look at the orphan crisis as a large number, you will see it as “one,” and you will realize that this path you have chosen is not safe, it is not easy, and you will probably cry a lot. This path will make you question your abilities in parenting and quite possibly your sanity. But at the end of the day, you will find that you don’t want the old path. You don’t want to go back to your old and predictable life, and you simply settle in and know that even if it breaks your heart, you are glad that life isn’t so safe anymore.
It’s problematic when we see orphans as a collective group. It’s so much easier to look away when we see a systemic problem instead of an individual need. I know that not a single one of you reading this could easily walk away from an orphan knocking at the door of your house tonight. You would not look at the malnourished wisp of a child and tell them to go ask someone else for a meal, a bed, a warm coat. But when we think about these children as a group, as the millions, it makes the pill of indifference an easy swallow.
It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that we don’t truly take the time to see. I say this knowing that I sat in this place for many years. I would hear about the crisis, and I could easily sleep at night. I could go about my day because it wasn’t in my neighborhood or knocking at my front door. I could hear the foster care statistics, and I could say, “I could never do that. It would break my heart,” “It would kill me to give a child back,” or “I’m too old/too young/too tired, too….”
So I’m going to be a bit blunt: Yes, you could. Yes, you could foster, adopt, support adoptions, support foster care, but collectively it’s an overwhelming need, and it’s far easier to say, “Wow, that’s bad,” and then go about our day because the honest truth is this: If you open your eyes to the individual story — the child with a name, the child with a history — it’s going to change you.
I will always remember the day the orphan became an individual. The day that I realized each child who is a statistic has an individual story. Each child is unrealized potential, hopes, and dreams. I still remember the day I lost my ability to turn the volume of my life up, so I could drown out the quiet cry of the orphan. The day I realized that some choices in life would never make sense on paper, and some choices might look foolish to the world. That was the day I stopped being able to see “them” as a collective whole; instead, “they” became the “one” child knocking at my front door.
It was July. I remember the smell and the silence — bleach and urine and an unusual quietness for a place filled with children. I remember the white chipped cribs lining the walls. I remember the 3-year-old girl who sat slumped in the center of the floor; she was blind and remained motionless for two hours. I remember when she did move, it was to only to raise her head toward the window that allowed filtered light to fall across her face. She was sitting right in front of a crib that held a 1-year-old who repeatedly beat her head on the crib bars. The thumping matched the rhythm of my heartbeat, and I looked at my gaunt son and began to piece together his story. I began to see that I was not unlike the blind child who has known only filtered light, and my light, my truth, had been filtered by indifference and naiveté.
He was 4 and knew nothing beyond the walls of his section of the orphanage. He was changed maybe twice a day and fed a convenient liquid diet. There’s a very real possibility he was drugged, many of the children from his section were, and it kept them more manageable. He sat for hours in a crib because he could not walk. He played with his fingers and rocked back and forth, while the baby thumped and the light traced its way across the floor. The boy sat alone in a building filled with children. His story was loneliness.
After he was born, I imagine the sadness his parents felt. Their child was deformed, and they were encouraged to allow the government to take over his care. To take him home would be a burden to a family. He was taken at birth to the orphanage, a newborn raised by an ever-changing staff of workers. He slept in a metal crib and learned to be silent. The boy sat and learned not to cry, not to laugh, not to need. His story was neglect.
I remember asking to take the boy to the playground and was told they did not take him outside. I pressed the staff to be allowed to take him out, and they said, “Do not let him near the other children. They will be scared.” They pointed at him and said, “People don’t want to see that.” My eyes welled with angry tears. I took him out to the playground, and he was enamored by the leaves and the trees and the dirt. “Don’t let him get dirty. They won’t be happy,” warned my translator. My son had never been outside, and in his excitement, he called out to the other children, and they turned and looked at him before being moved away by other caregivers. His story was rejection.
And when we returned to his section, the “Section of Malformations,” he screamed and he raged. He fought to remain in the rickety umbrella stroller and became feral in his attempt to escape. And I walked out the doors listening to him shriek and call for me, “Mama,” as they told him to hush and put him back into his crib. His story had become my heartbeat. His story became my desperate pursuit to bring him home and provide for “one” knowing that this was everything.
When we walked him out of the orphanage, he was given nothing to mark the four years he lived there — not a photo, a toy, or a stitch of clothing. It was as if he never existed. His story was nameless. And I found myself seeing the orphan crisis through the eyes of a 4-year-old boy.
His story was that of a boy with unrealized potential, deferred hopes and dreams, swallowed by a collective reality of 143 million orphans. His reality was a small boy in a sea of abandoned children — a reality these kids live and we fail to see. What had this 4-year-old boy ever done to deserve this? I was lost and angry and hurt so deeply. And I found myself flailing in my leap of faith.
I had failed to see the importance of “one.” This small boy amazed us daily as he wrote a new story. His narrative was worthy, pursued, chosen. I was so lucky to witness a boy transformed, and my eyes were opened to the difference made for “one.”