Wednesday, 30 July 2014

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


A   q u i r k   o f   f a t e?

It is not entirely unique that a child adopted from the developing world is reunited with his/her biological family. I was adopted from Ethiopia to Sweden in the 1970s and reunited with my biological mother in 2004. The rare thing 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 as Yednkachew. In the mid-1970s I was at the tender age of 18 months adopted to Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden.

Throughout my childhood I was at best mildly interested in my biological background. If you are adopted from Ethiopia and your awareness of the world kicks in 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 epitomise 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 (and not least others) pursuit to extract an explanation as to why I was adopted away, this context provided me with easily graspable answers which further had a form of comforting numbing effect on me. The room for reproach was minimised, dwarfed by a pragmatic understanding. 

Stockholm airport 1975. Ethiopian children arrive.
Front right, me and my adoptive mother Solweig.

So I had a lukewarm interest in my biological background. There was, somewhere, a vague notion of a destitute peasant family or the like. Probably impossible to locate. Perhaps they had succumbed to all the misery. Any hope and consequent ambitions to one day meet them were infinitesimal. From which it follows that were we to unite, they would have to find me. An indigent Ethiopian family tracking down someone above the Arctic circle. A cold day in Hell, indeed, it would have to be a cold day in Hell for that to happen.

REDISCOVERED. 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 abated – its internal and external effects stabilised and taken stock off – which enables me to now put pen to paper to impart how it all 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 a disclosure almost obligatory as a number of in time and space separated factors converged in such a way that even a staunch agnostic like me wavered.

Paris 2005. Me with my biological mother Seble and 
my adoptive father Bo (please disregard my belly) 

2001    London                                                                                                             
Emnet, a young woman from Ethiopian upper class, moves from Addis Ababa to London. Somewhere in Sweden she has an older brother who was adopted away before she was born. That’s what her mother, Seble, has told her.

2003    Stockholm                                                                                                        
After having in my teens moved from Kiruna to Östersund – a city in the middle of Sweden where I spent my rumbustious 1990s – 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 kept that concern 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. In the letters, written in English, Solweig discloses my Swedish name. In the second letter she includes a picture of me, three years old, sitting in full winter attire, smiling excitedly, in a snow sledge.

2004    London                                                                                                          
Emnet has started to date an Ethiopian man, Fitsum. He in turn has a good friend in Stockholm, Yalem. When Emnet reveals that she has a brother in Sweden, Fitsum suggests that Yalem tries to look for him. Emnet contacts Seble – now living in Paris – who dispatches the documents she’s kept that concern the adoption. In them one finds the Swedish name of the brother 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.

London 2008. My adoptive mother Solweig, 
my biological sister Emnet, and me.

1997    Östersund                                                                                                       
One summer eve I am out in a bar where I bump into an Ethiopian man unbeknown to me. We introduce ourselves and converse briefly. His name is Sam but I do not commit him to my memory. Sam, however, deposits me and my name into his memory bank.

2004    Stockholm, July 30th                                                                                      
The day after Yalem has received the documents he is off to the Swedish HMRC/IRS with my name (slightly misspelt). But before he is just going to grab a coffee with his good friend, Sam. They meet in a café on Götgatsbacken, 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 and gasps:- I've met him in Östersund, I know what he looks like!Sam tells Yalem about that fortuitous meeting in a bar in Östersund seven years earlier, and the two friends leave the café in an exalted state. They walk up Götgatsbacken. Where I come walking down.

1983  Addis Abeba                                                                                                        
Nine years old I visit Ethiopia with my Swedish parents. Communist dictatorship and civil war mean that we cannot travel where we want, and not without so-called “guides”. We visit the orphanage whence I was officially adopted. The hope is to find out more about my background, maybe even find leads to my biological family. But we reap nothing.

2004    Stockholm, July 30th                                                                                            
As I am walking down a crowded Götgatsbacken, I note two black men ahead who seem excited and focused on me. I stop. They approach. One of them, who sports a baseball cap, points at me and shouts: - Is it Anders? Anders from Östersund!? 
I nod. Hesitate. Step back. Do not recognise him. They press up against me. The other man pulls out a photo – this I recognise: 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. Within seconds 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 (again, kindly
disregard my tummy)
Some weeks later I flew to London and Paris. Tears, joy, confusion of tongues, lots of questions, loads of Ethiopian (for a tummy raised on a Scandinavian diet much too spicy) food. But how this unfolded – and everything is unfolding – are additional chapters to this sunny story.

One can deliberate on what underlying force/s that were at play here. Chance? Fate? 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 steps apart. If that thesis is in need of empirical support, a fair share can be found here.

As for Seble, she is a devout Christian and is anything but nonplussed and fazed by the mysterious ways through which I was brought back to her.