Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A quirk of fate? How an Ethiopian mum was reunited with her adopted-away son in Sweden

A   q u i r k   o f   f a t e?

It is not entirely unique that children adopted from the developing world to Europe are reunited with their biological families. I was adopted from Ethiopia to Sweden in the 1970s and reunited with my biological mother in 2004. What is unique about my case is that it was the mother from the developing world who searched for and found her child in the rich world – and this via such a wondrous sequence of events that I feel obliged to share the story. 


My name is Anders but was born “Yednkachew”. In the mid-1970s I was adopted to the northernmost city in Sweden, Kiruna, 18 months old.

Stockholm airport 1975. Ethiopian children arrive.
Front right, me and my adoptive mother Solweig.
Throughout my childhood I was only mildly interested in my biological background. If you are adopted from Ethiopia and your awareness of the world is sparked in the 1980s, it is not hard to reconcile yourself in your adopted fate. During the decade of Thatcher and mullets and Rubik’s cube, Ethiopia was to epitomize that cliché that was (is?) Africa: starvation, immiseration, war. As the Ethiopian famine disasters struck on to our TV screens, Bob Geldof organized Band/Live Aid, Michael Jackson did his USA for Africa, the Swedes gave generously – including yours truly with some hard-earned pocket money – and the schoolyards were abound with gags about emaciated Ethiopians. 

In my pursuit  (and others) to answer the question “Why was I adopted away?”, this context provided me with a simplistic and welcome explanation which had a comforting anaesthetic effect. The room for reproach was minimized. A pragmatic understanding reigned. Simples!

So I had a lukewarm interest in my biological background. Somewhere there was a vague notion of a destitute peasant family or the like. Probably impossible to locate. Maybe they had succumbed to all the misery that befell Ethiopia. Any hope and consequent ambitions to one day meet them were virtually nonexistent. So be it.

From this lack of ambition followed that if we were to unite it would be up to them to find me. An indigent Ethiopian family tracking down someone above the Arctic circle. A cold day in hell, forsooth, it would have to be a cold day in hell for that to happen. 

But on this day ten years ago, hell froze over as my biological family found me in Sweden. The storm that the event triggered has now abated, its internal and external effects having stabilized and become tangible. This enables me to now put pen to paper to impart how it unfolded. That it happened is in itself quite (completely?) unique, probably worth disclosing for a wider audience regardless of how it happened. But the course of events in my case makes such a disclosure almost obligatory as a number of spatially and temporally separated links converged in such a way that even a staunch agnostic can waver. This is how it unfolded.  

Paris 2005. Me with my biological mother Seble and my adoptive father Bo

2001    London                                                                                                             
A young woman from Ethiopian upper class moves from Addis Ababa to London. Her name is Emnet. Somewhere in Sweden she has an older brother who was adopted away before she was born. This is what her mother, Seble, has told her.

2003    Stockholm                                                                                                        

After having in my teens moved to Östersund, a city in the middle of Sweden – where my rumbustious 1990s were spent – I have settled in Stockholm. That lukewarm interest in my biological background has thawed sufficiently to make me ask my Swedish mother, Solweig, for the documents she has that are relevant to my adoption. Among these I find copies of two letters that Solweig had, via the adoption agency, sent to Ethiopia during my first years in Kiruna. The letters were in English and included inter alia my Swedish name. In the second letter Solweig had included a picture of me as a three year old, sitting in a snow sledge in full winter attire, smiling excitedly.

2004    London                                                                                                        
London 2008. My adoptive mother Solweig, 
my biological sister Emnet, and me.
Emnet has started to date an Ethiopian man, Fitsum. She tells him that she has a brother in Sweden. Fitsum says that he happens to have a good friend in Stockholm, Yalem, who might be able to try to find her brother. Emnet contacts Seble – now living in Paris – who relays to London the documents she has that are relevant to the adoption. This includes the brother’s Swedish name and a picture of him as a three year old, sitting in a snow sledge. Emnet and Fitsum forward the documents to Yalem in Stockholm. Yalem has promised to do his best.

1997    Östersund                                              
One summer eve in Östersund I am in a bar where I have a brief conversation with an Ethiopian man unbeknown to me. His name is Sam. I do not commit him to my memory. Sam, however, memorizes me and my name

2004    Stockholm, July 30th                                                                                            
The day after Yalem receives the documents he is off to the Swedish HMRC/IRS in the hope of finding information on “Anders”. Before that he is just going to grab a coffee with his good friend, Sam. They meet in a café on a hilly street in the centre of Stockholm. Sam is wearing a baseball cap. Yalem tells Sam what he is about to do and shows him the documents. Sam gasps when he sees the name on the documents. “I've met him in Östersund,” he exclaims, “I know what he looks like!” Sam tells Yalem about that fortuitous meeting in a bar in Östersund, seven years earlier. 

Yalem and Sam leave the café in an exalted state and walk up the hilly street. Where I happen to come walking down.

1983    Addis Abeba                                                                                                         
Nine years old I visit Ethiopia with my Swedish parents. Communist dictatorship and civil war mean that we are not free to travel where we want, and not without government minders. We visit the orphanage from where I was adopted. The hope is to find out more about my background, maybe even find leads to my biological family. But we find nothing.

2004    Stockholm, July 30th                                                                                            
As I am walking down the crowded hilly street, I note two black men who seem excited and focused on me. I stop. They approach. One of them, who wears a baseball cap, points at me and shouts: “Is it Anders? Anders from Östersund!?” I nod. I hesitate and step back. I do not recognize them. They press up against me. The other man pulls out a photo – this I recognize: me, three years old in a snow sledge – as he screams: “Your sister is looking for you!”

He dials a number on his mobile and hands it to me. Everything goes so fast. Seconds later I am speaking in broken English with my biological sister Emnet. And shortly thereafter I have Seble on the line.

The. Circle. Turned. Full. 

Paris 2004.  Reunited.

Some weeks later I flew to London and Paris. Tears, joy, confusion, lots of questions, lots of Ethiopian (for a tummy raised on a Scandinavian diet much too spicy) food. But how everything unfolded and is unfolding are supplementary  chapters of this sunny story.

What underlying force that might have been at play is a matter of debate. Chance? Providence? There is at least that hypothesis, Six degrees of separation, which postulates that all individuals in the world stand a maximum of six interpersonal stages apart. If that thesis is in need of empirical evidence, it has hereby been provided.

For Seble’s part, she is a devout Christian and is anything but at a loss for answers as to what brought me back in her life and the mysterious ways through which it happened.