My Mother Disappeared, and My Father had Died.
None of it is true.


HLN, 27 April 2019 (Google translation)

In 2009, Thereza (17) came from Ethiopia and ended up in Flanders. Her adoptive parents were told that the biological mother had disappeared and that the father had died. A lie, as it turns out. ‘’ My file is full of errors.’’ Thereza is outraged and tells her story because she wants to make sure that adoptive children are taken seriously. ‘’ We are not products with which you can do whatever you want. ‘’ JEROEN BOSSAERT & LIEVE VAN BASTELAERE.

In December 2008, the telephone was ringing in Denderleeuw. Peggy Engrie (49) picks up and sighs because of relief. An employee of adoption agency Ray of Hope confirms on the other side of the line that they finally have a baby for her. Her name is Thereza. She is seven years old and stays in an orphanage in Addis Abeba, the capital of Ethiopia. ‘’ I did not receive much more at that moment, ‘’ recalls Peggy herself today. ‘’ But for us, it was fantastic news. We had been looking forward to this for so long. ‘’ Because the legal proceedings were delayed in Ethiopia, it would finally take another six months before Peggy and her husband Paul can travel to Africa. In May 2009, they entered the Ethiopian orphanage and saw Thereza for the first time in person. Paul opens up his arms, and the little girl dashes towards him. From that moment on, Thereza carries the surname De Wannemaeker and becomes a Flemish girl.
A necessity, according to the Ethiopian authorities – because in her home country, there is no future for Thereza, which is stated in the official documents, approved by the Flemish government and Flemish adoption agency. According to the adoption file, her biological mother and father have respectively disappeared and died. ‘’ The file was confusing,’’ Says Peggy. ‘’ The official documents said that her uncle relinquished Thereza. Her mother was gone, and her father was unknown. A few lines below, it was mentioned again that the father had died. ‘’ Peggy asked questions about this information in May 2009. ‘’ I asked Mr. Bruk, the Ethiopian contact person of the Flemish adoption agency Ray of Hope, how it could be her mother was gone. ‘’ He replied dryly: ‘This is Ethiopia. People disappear here.’ I thought that this was a strange reaction. ‘’ At this moment, Peggy decides to mark Thereza’s hometown on a map. ‘’ I was determined to return later and to find her biological family. I did not believe that those people ‘just’ disappeared. ‘’ Peggy’s gut feeling will prove to be more accurate than the official documents.

Two years before the meeting with her Flemish adoptive parents, Thereza is standing in Buge, a village in the south of Ethiopia, ready to leave home. She is five years old and gets a big hug from her mother. She whispers: ‘’ Thereza, you are going to a place far away from here. But we will also come with the plane. Then we will see each other again.’’ Thereza does not understand it well, but she walks together with her uncle to a bus a little further. The bus is full of children. While the doors close, she waves to her uncle. The five-year-old doesn’t realize she’s leaving forever. „A baby was crying on the bus, ‘’ recalls Thereza today. ‘’I felt that something was wrong. ‘’ After a seven-hour bus ride, Thereza is confronted with the harsh reality in Addis Abeba. ‘’ Suddenly I was sitting there. In a big orphanage between many children that I did not know. I could barely speak with them because they spoke another language. One boy that I understood said to me: ‘Your mother is not coming anymore.’ ‘’ It is the start of two long years. Thereza was brought to a center of the Gelgela-group, a network of Ethiopian orphanages. ‘’ We went to class, and I liked that’’, she says. ‘’ However, there were also a lot of frightening moments. ‘’ Sometimes, Thereza saw priests in the children’s home. ‘’ Strange men who did devil exorcisms with children. I remember this because it scared me immensely. They also told us in Gelgela, that if we were naughty, they would lock us in a basement full of snakes. I still have a snake phobia. At a certain point, there was also one drunk guard who used to beat children. ‘’ Thereza will be moved to several different orphanages over the next two years – houses within the Gelgela network. ‘’ I do not know why they did that. Every orphanage had many children. Certainly more than that one hundred – maybe even two hundred.’’ One day, an Ethiopian man shows up to pick up Thereza. ‘’ I did not know him. He picked me up from school and put me in a car, together with two other children. I did not know what was happening. ‘’ The man is Mr. Bruk, the contact person of the Flemish adoption agency ‘Ray of Hope. ‘He takes Thereza to a ‘transit home’ where children stay before they are adopted. This means that her adoption file has been approved. It is December 2008, and in Denderleeuw a family got the good news got that Thereza, a girl of 7, is allocated to them. The girl knew at that moment nothing about her new family. „I only knew that white people would come.“ Because of the legal proceedings, Thereza stays in Bruk’s house for six months. This is unusually long and causes that she still knows well how the transit house functioned up until this day. „We did not go to school there, and we had nothing. Bruk and his wife were never kind to us, and their children broke the little number of toys we had. We had not much room to wash. There was one bathroom for twelve children. I even got a fungal infection.’’ In the house of Mr. Bruk, children came and went, but it will take until May 2009 before Thereza suddenly hears her name. ‘’I saw a white man standing with his arms open. I ran into them. I was very happy.’’

Just before that, Bruk had told her that her Ethiopian life had to be forgotten. ‘’That became very clear to me: ‘you are now starting a new life, forget everything that was here. ‘In her official documents that Bruk provides the Thereza’s new parents with, the past is already wiped. Mother disappeared, father died. Done. Or not?

Flemish people who want to adopt a child abroad only have one official basis when it comes to the biological origins of their son or daughter: the adoption file. In this, they find among other things where and when their child was born and in what circumstances he or she is relinquished. The local government prepares those files and it is checked by Flemish adoption services in collaboration with the Flemish government. Waterproof, you might think. Nothing is less true. Stories are popping up all over the world about adoptive children who have to determine afterward, that their files are full of errors. Date of birth that appears to be made up, names of parents which are wrong or the family is declared dead while they are still alive and kicking. It gives adoptive parents and children all kinds of questions. ‘’Why did people lie? Has everything occurred correctly? Did the biological parents know what they were doing? ‘’ In Australia, the United States, the Netherlands, and Denmark, adoptive children testified that over the past years, there had been several forms of fraud and negligence when it comes to the preparation of their adoption file. Up until now, in Flanders, nobody has shared their story publicly. Thereza and Peggy break this silence because they want people to wake up. ‘’ In Flanders, much attention is always paid to the adoptive parents and the long process they have to go through, but there is never a conversation about the long way adoptive children have to travel themselves,‘’ says Peggy. If errors occur in a file, then that way becomes extra-long and hard.’’ Thereza is now 17 years old and feels angry about what happened. „I am happy in Flanders and feel good with my new family, but I’m angry as well about the way one treats my biological family and how my file is set up.’’ Peggy and Thereza went to search the family in Ethiopia fairly quickly. „We did not believe the official documents,“ says Peggy.“Thereza still had memories from her time in Buge. I didn’t believe that her mother was truly gone.’’

In a short time, Peggy manages to locate the ‘disappeared’ mother. ‘’ We found someone with a good network in Ethiopia, and they traced the mother in Buge. It had cost us 50 euros. ‘’ Without any help from the Flemish adoption agency Ray of Hope or the Flemish government, because they had not been able to solve the fraud. Peggy did it on her own. For 50 euros. ‘’ I am surprised about that,’’ sighs Peggy. ‘’ But it never occurred to me to file a complaint. I was already glad that we found the mother and that I was able to get her into contact with Thereza again. That was the most important thing for me. ‘’ In 2012, they traveled to Buge for the first time to meet Thereza’s mother. Only then, Thereza heard the real story. ‘’ My mother was single and had to move to the city in order to work. She often had to leave me with my uncle. At a certain point, she decided that it was better to give me up. I understand why she did that. We were very poor. But still, I wonder whether it was really necessary to transport met all the way to Flanders. ‘’ Perhaps, this is the reason why people in Ethiopia have registered the mother as ‘disappeared’. When the biological parents are no longer in the picture, this greatly simplifies a foreign adoption. In 2012, Thereza soon noticed that her family might not have fully realized what they were doing when they put her on the bus to Addis Abeba. ‘’ We have spoken with many people in Buge,’’ says Thereza. ‘’ And guess what? Everybody believes that adopted children will return. They assume that ‘white people’ raise their children and provide them with food for some years. But afterward, they expect that children return to the village and help the family out. They do not realize that adoption is final. I feel very sorry about that. ‘’ In recent years, Thereza and Peggy have returned to Ethiopia several times. ‘’ How more they trusted us, the more we got to know. ‘’ sighs Peggy. It appears on a certain moment that the father did not die at all. ‘’ It was yet more proof that the file did not make any sense. ‘’ They also discover that Thereza has three different birth dates. They noted in the Gelgela orphanage that it is October 23, 2001. However, in the adoption file that was approved by Flanders, it states that she was born on February 20, 2002. She is suddenly four months younger. This could have happened to speed up the adoption process. Younger children are preferred when it comes to adoption.

“ But look at those numbers, ‘’ smiles Thereza. ‘’ 20/02/2002. Nicely made up, right?’’ In 2012, Thereza found out via her mother that she was really born on the 23rd of December in 2001. The fraud with her birth date still bothers Thereza today. ‘’ That really cracked me. ‘’ It contributes to her anger about how our authorities and Flemish adoption agencies deal with adoptive children. ‘’ That carelessness with the file is proof of the fact that there is lack of concern when it comes to an adopted child. The mentality is one of the reasons why: ‘We provide you with a better life, so you should be grateful. ‘And then, we must be silent. While for us, it is usually not obvious. You are coming to Flanders, and you are alone. You do not see other Ethiopians; you do not know where you are, and there is nobody to guide you. It is hard to find your identity in a place where you do not even recognize yourself. I did not see any effort from neither authorities nor adoption agencies to reunite adoptive children with their biological parents or other adoptive children. We are not being brought together so we can speak in our language, for example. The result? Today I have lost my mother tongue. That hurts a lot. If they had cared about us, they would have offered more guidance. ‘’ Peggy and Thereza are not looking for legal retribution. In recent years, they have never officially filed a complaint. ‘’ In 2012, I did let the adoption agency know that we had met the mother, ‘’ says Peggy. ‘’ I thought, that then maybe it would remind them. But it remained silent. ‘’ In February of this year, Peggy finally spoke out. ‘’ At the end of 2018, we returned to Buge and then there were at least ten people with pictures of their children who came to us. We want to help those people to find these children. We suspect that most are adopted in the United States, but we do not know for sure. ‘’ These other stories motivated Peggy to contact adoption agency Ray of Hope and the Flemish adoption officer. ‘’ I want them to realize that they made mistakes and that their work is not ‘finished’ after the adoption. They carry a responsibility for the hundreds of children who now walk around in Flanders. ‘’

For Peggy, the mistakes that have been swallowed are a tough pill to swallow. ‘’ I feel lied to. You pay a lot of money for an adoption agency to ensure that the procedures went smoothly and you did not engage in child trafficking in doing so. If you find out afterward that so many mistakes have been made, you are disappointed. ‘’ For Thereza, it is important that more attention is paid to the biological parents. ‘’ I am glad that I was adopted. However, I am not happy with the way everything went and how we have left with the result afterward. We are not products. You cannot do whatever you want with us. We are human beings. Many adopted children are adults nowadays, and they have questions. It is time that someone listens to us. ‘’

Flemish Adoption Official and Adoption Agency Respond:
Both adoption agency Ray of Hope and the cabinet of the Flemish adoption official regret the mistakes that were discovered in Thereza’s file.

‘’ I understand that such a thing is very bad, ‘’ says Erika van Beek, coordinator at Ray of Hope. ‘’ But I emphasize that we always research our records the best we can. We try to bring children safely and correctly to Flanders. ‘’ At Ray of Hope, they do not have an explanation for the mistakes that have been made in 2009. ‘’ It is hard to find out after all this time. Very often, it has to do with the specific circumstances in that country. In Ethiopia, for example, there is no mandatory declaration of birth. If children are given up by adoption years later, then it is not clear what the exact date of birth actually is. The same counts for the biological parents. This is in certain countries also challenging to check. However, checks do occur. It is done by the local governments and us.’’ Ray of Hope also states that the trust between them and their contact person in Ethiopia of 20 years remains to arrange the files. ‘’ We have not received any formal complaint during this time about errors in Ethiopian files.“ The Flemish adoption officer Ariane Van Den Berghe says that much has changed since 2009. ‘’We have a lot of new control mechanisms. These will make sure that adoption files contain the right information. When we received some complaints about Ethiopian adoptions in 2015 that were not approved yet, we even quit procedures for a while. We research all files individually. In two of those files, we found out that the cases were not right, but all other files were completed after the investigation. In 2017, we decided to stop with all adoptions from Ethiopia. We could not offer the certainty that nothing would go wrong. ‘’ Van Den Berghe regrets the situation of Thereza. ‘’ It is too bad that we cannot straighten this out anymore. We already have many measures to avoid that something like that could happen in the future again. ‘’