New Generation of Adopted Ethiopian-Americans

Above: Tibarek’s second encounter with snow.

A New Mom Celebrates Her Ethiopian Daughter’s First Birthday in America


Barely unpacked from Addis, with Tibarek, my newly adopted, almost six year old daughter, she was invited to two birthday parties for children in our building, a boy’s eighth and twin’s sixth. Speaking minimal English, their parents and I marveled at their unique way of communicating after just a few afternoons of play. I was overjoyed.

Above: Pre-party nosh: Jill ties
an apron on Tibarek’s dress.
Photo by Jeremy Scharlack.

The first party arrived, and Tibarek went to help decorate. The party was a production. Helium balloons, magicians, balloon sculptures (her favorite), face-painting, games, gift bags, pizza, and cake. Tibarek joined in the high energy as if she had been reared on New York birthday parties. I started thinking about her fast approaching birthday. When I told her she, too, has a birthday, her expression was as if it suddenly hit her: EVERYONE has a birthday and would have a party. In my limited Amharic, I told her, her birthday was soon, “negge…negge….” (tomorrow.…tomorrow). No language gap here. Yes, friends! Yes, balloons! Yes, pizza! We listed children to invite. We knew seven kids from our building, and the Washington Square playground where I saw her gregariousness in action the first day we came.

Above: Tibarek wearing sunglasses
like those in the gift bags she gave to her
friends on her birthday.
Photo by Jeremy Scharlack.

Entertaining is my second nature, and our loft lends itself to great parties, but a child’s birthday party was daunting. I plunged into calls to other mothers, balloon artists, and magicians. I wanted a memorable party: not too indulgent, expensive, or programmed. I was petrified by the seemingly superfluous gifts other children received. The idea: “in lieu of gifts, please make a donation to Worldwide Orphans Foundation in Ethiopia,” entered my mind but felt self-righteous and pretentious. Tibarek had not been in the US two months, maybe she should plow through wrapping paper like all the other kids. Friends might give her things that would never occur to me, and they were also “Welcome to America” gifts. I still felt I had to counter-balance the possibility of a “Barbie Invasion,” with a clever, fun, homemade celebration.

Above: Tibarek opens gifts.
Photo by Jeremy Scharlack.

My anxiety reflected my self-consciousness about American abundance, and my newness as a mother, more than it did Tibarek’s possible temptation to materialism. I reflected on her kindness and generosity. I had seen her on the playground, giving her bubble wand to a little boy, caring for an infant as she went down the spiral slide, making sure everyone had a turn with the ball. She would easily incorporate this special day into the vast newness that engulfed her life. Deep down, then, it must have been my own pressure to make MY daughter’s party fun, “cool,” and approved of by parents who had already been to dozens. The individualist in me did want not a “cookie-cutter” occasion. A unique party for a unique daughter.

At fifty-seven, I had plunged into a wonderful, dramatic life change: creating a family. My world opened to new people, new culture, new worries, and new learning. My inner anthropologist loved the challenges culturally, and linguistically that a child from Ethiopia presented. I fell in love with the culture during a three week trip volunteering at the AHOPE Orphanage. I met Tibarek, and immediately set the adoption procedure in motion with the Minnesota Children’s Home and Family Service. New Ethiopian friends in Addis, and through them, others in New York, enriched the experience in ways that I never imagined. And here she is – charming, energetic and learning English at break-neck speed.

Creativity set in. I asked my cousin Jeremy, a professional photographer in New York, to set up a studio in the loft. I asked Eddie, who has framed ten exhibitions for me, to give me leftover matte board for kids to frame for Jeremy’s instant photographs. I went to the hobby store for glitter, glue, and treasures for collages on the frames. I called Peter and Diana, who have every costume under the sun, and the dress-up corner was born. The party was shaping up but not enough kids and way too many adults!

My dear Israeli friend and caterer Chava, has a daughter about Tibarek’s age. Chava offered to make cupcakes for kids to decorate. With Chava, they would squeeze bags of icing! I was excited when I realized that the party was the week-end after the Gala for Worldwide Orphans Foundation and the fabulous Dr. Sophie, the pediatrician who checked Tibarek’s health in Addis, would still be in New York with her two young nephews who live in New Jersey. Then, Tibarek’s New York pediatrician, the divine Dr. Jane and her terrific partner Diana would bring their two sons, one Ethiopian, one Vietnamese. Young twins of new Ethiopian friends in New York agreed to come, as well as Meron, an Ethiopian little girl adopted by kind Irene. A little boy from Djbouti and his sweet, supportive father, Angel from Mexico in Tibarek’s ESL class, and a cute Japanese two-year old from the playground were other guests. Tibarek’s god-mother, Terrell, would take the train from Washington. From five children, we ended up with 16, and 38 adults!

The day before the party, Saturday, was Tibarek’s “real” birthday. We went apple picking with a group of kids visiting from Ethiopia, and to a surprise party for our friend George who turned 70. He and his wife Joelle had greeted Tibarek, her godmother, and me, after the flight from Ethiopia. Tibarek adores them. As George uncovered his surprised, teary eyes, he picked Tibarek up and announced, “our newest friend who just arrived in America turns six today!” Seventy-five strangers instantaneously sang “Happy Birthday” to my child. Now I was the one with tears in her eyes.

Above: Tibarek holding her
birthday cupcake.
Photo by Jeremy Scharlack.

After putting Tibarek to bed Saturday night, I decorated the hallway and blew balloons, wanting her to awaken to ambiance that said, “Today’s the day!”

The morning before the party seemed to last forever. Finally, Jeremy arrived with camera, lights and printer; friends brought food; we put music on. As each guest came, Tibarek became the hostess with the mostess- directing adults to go “down to that part of the house” and, with her arm around each child, she escorted each to the crafts and photography areas. She amazed us all as we watched her grace and ease as a social butterfly, speaking non-stop English! Over two hours later with more glitter on the Turkish rugs than on the photo frames, consuming of countless cupcakes, pizzas, juices, hummus, cheese, bread, and wine (adults only!), the party was a success. New friends, families of every imaginable configuration, had celebrated Tibarek’s first birthday in America. Generous and thoughtful gifts that honor her are treasures. She plowed through the wrapping paper like a natural.

She is already talking about her next birthday. Thank goodness it is still nine months away!

Above: Tibarek and Dr. Sophie Mengistu, the pediatrician who
checked Tibarek’s health in Addis. Photo by Jeremy Scharlack.

About the Author: Jill Vexler is a cultural anthropologist who does field work in Latin America, North Africa , Israel, Greece, Asia , Eastern Europe and New York City. She designs cultural heritage and social history exhibitions. She volunteered at the AHOPE orphanage, where she fell in love with Ethiopian culture.

9 Responses to “New Generation of Adopted Ethiopian-Americans”

  1. 1 Dawn Mar 28th, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. 2 Betty Mar 28th, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    what a woderful story. May God bless you and your family

  3. 3 From South Texas Mar 29th, 2007 at 10:29 am

    We too are expanding our family by adopting two children from Ethiopia. Your story and photographs have inspired and urged us even more! Great piece about your daughter. thanks

  4. 4 Sherry Mar 29th, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    What a wonderful story – thank you for sharing. We are also in the process of adopting from AHOPE and hope to have our new daughter home in June :)

  5. 5 Carol Mar 29th, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    How wonderful and how lucky that you have both found eachother. I have an adopted daughter and two natural daughters – and the three are wonderfully the same. There is no difference…Good luck to all who love enough to adopt……….

  6. 6 Annette Aug 17th, 2007 at 2:56 am

    Dear Jill – what joy! Your story is very moving, as is Tibarek’s. I used to live in Ethiopia where I went to school for two years: 1962-1964. Ethiopia touched me deep in my soul, as it has you.

    In March 2004, I returned to the country after forty years, in search of seven missing classmates, for my first non-fiction book “An Ethiopian Odyssey”. It was inspired by a dream I had in April 2000, to help bring permanent clean water to Ethiopia. I’m a devout Christian, and my faith is encouraged by my dreams, so I knew to follow it! I made many friends on the return, quite a few of whom I still correspond with today.

    The greatest honour comes for me on 12th September, the Ethiopian Millennium. On that morning, I will be giving a talk at the United Nations in New York, about my 25,000 mile quest. Countless men and women around the world helped me track down some of my classmates, because they too were inspired by the dream. Half of the royalties are going to charity, the majority to WaterAid Ethiopia.

    After ten months of test marketing (first-time author!), I have readers in ten countries, so I really pray and hope that its message of love, compassion and our interconnectedness reaches out across the globe one day.

    I hope you’ll look out for the book which will be on sale early September time. If all goes well, I plan to do some book signings in the US.

    Enjoy the journey of everyday, Jill!


  7. 7 Becky Arlin Jul 4th, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Thank you so much. I’m in the process of adopting from Ethiopia right now & it’s so inspiring & helpful to hear about your story.

  8. 8 Aug 29th, 2008 at 11:09 pm
  1. 1 Ethiopia @ 2000 Photography Exhibition at Tadias Magazine Pingback on Jun 26th, 2008 at 8:23 pm
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