by Joy Casey
A note popped up in my inbox today telling me that a baby has been added to our Joyful Place orphanage. I opened the email and read the details of this baby girl’s hard beginning. I noticed her weight is low and she is noticeably weak.
Attached to the email are pictures of the police bringing her to the orphanage and handing her to our nurse. One especially dear picture is of her right after bath and bottle all snuggy in soft blankets. My heart breaks. Another one found abandoned?
All stories are unique, but they have a sameness to them at the same time. One baby might be left in a hospital, another by a school, a few are left close to our orphanage door, alongside churches or just found crying on the ground almost anywhere. Their mothers have left them. They have no one to care for them. Most are underweight. Every one of them are helpless facing certain death unless there is an intervention. None of them have known families.
Our orphanage is testimony that we live in a very broken world. I am grateful that these babies are given life even though their parents cannot parent them themselves. Millions of babies are not given the chance to live, so I am grateful that we are entrusted with these few that are found and that they will eventually be enveloped by a family through adoption.
For forty years I have been involved in sheltering pregnant women both in the U.S. and in Ethiopia, so I have some insight into the emotions involved in unplanned pregnancies — many circumstances that easily segue into possible reasons why a mother would abandon a helpless baby. This act is beyond our sensibilities. Here in the U.S. where there are many resources for single mothers, society barely blinks an eye about unmarried women giving birth (4 out of 10 births are to unwed mothers) and adoption is honorable and easily accessible.
None of this is the norm for unmarried pregnant women in Ethiopia. Societal and familial expectations for marriage prior to pregnancy are firm. A daughter brings shame on her family if she shows up pregnant and the chances of any man marrying her diminish drastically. Some families and villages will ostracize a young girl should she give birth outside of marriage, and adoption is completely out of the question. What to do?
If the babies are a reflection of the physical state of their mothers, we know that the women giving birth are underfed and unhealthy. Several babies are found with evidence that their mothers are HIV+. Another disturbing reality is that rape is prevalent in Ethiopia. In this patriarchal society, especially in rural areas, women are at-risk, more so if they are poor and uneducated. They are left bearing the consequences of this traumatic violation with no resources and no support system.
I have heard comments that Ethiopians must not love children since there are so many abandoned. This is simply not true. Children are adored and bring much joy and comfort to families and society as a whole. No one should presume to judge what a young mother will do when every door leads to shame, when there is not enough food to eat, no family support and no work to be found.
There are no “Safe Places” in Ethiopia, so a desperate mother leaves her baby where she hopes someone will find him, take pity and provide care. The care center for these babies in Shashemene is Joyful Place (Mana Gammachuu).
God has asked us to care for these precious lives and work tirelessly to find stable, Christian families for them so they will grow up strong and healthy, learning about Jesus at an early age.
Our orphanage staff is fantastic. Ephrem is a wonderful leader doing his utmost to find adoptive families for each child. Yerusalem is our nurse that oversees their care and wellbeing, taking them for well-baby checks, immunizations and to the clinic at any sign of illness. Our nannies are the best! They are mother substitutes until a child is adopted and are next to miracle workers with malnourished babies. I know the little baby girl brought to us today will receive round the clock nurturing from women who take these fragile little ones into their hearts. The two guards, the ladies cleaning the facility and washing the clothes, the cook and the bookkeeper/purchaser all work seamlessly to make sure that these babies are happy, healthy individuals ready to be loved by some family who is lucky enough to say yes to adoption.