By Christine Ieronimo
I remember the exact moment the course of my life changed forever, when I met our daughter’s birth mother in Ethiopia.
I was raised in your typical New England middle-class family with parents who instilled in me the importance of education and necessity of always being able to support myself. That is why I became a nurse.
Raising my children, I have always worked. I was fortunate that I could mold my schedule around my husband’s. He is a teacher. It was a challenge as I sacrificed many weekends and holidays to make it all work but it was worth it. Our family was everything and this is what I had to do. This worked for us. Life was good.
In 2008, we decided to add to our family of two boys and a girl with the adoption of another child, a little girl from Ethiopia. We wanted to share our good fortune. It was an exciting time. So in preparation for my trip, I bought myself a new linen J Jill skirt, a scarf, and a pair of boots.
Looking like Meryl Streep in Out Of Africa, I was ready to plant my feet on African soil and save the world. How naive I was.
Meeting my daughter’s birth mother
Everything changed the moment I met our daughter’s mother. I remember being nervous the morning of our encounter. I mean, how many times to you get to meet the mother of a child you are about to adopt and bring into your family. But it wasn’t until we actually came face to face that the whole joy and excitement of our adoption came crashing down around me.
When she walked in, she was unable to look at me. And why would she be? I was the white, privileged westerner here to take and raise her child. She was young and stunningly beautiful, but overflowing with grief and overwhelming sadness. Her wails resonated into my soul and I soon understood everything. Then I cried. All the things I had planned to say, and all of the questions I had planned to ask seemed incredibly inappropriate. The only thing I could muster up to say was “I’m sorry.”
I was sorry that her loss was my gain, that the scales were tipped way in my direction, that in the card game of life she was dealt the worst hand of all. That because of fate, she had to make the most selfless choice to give up her daughter for a better life, and to me. I was grief stricken and went home haunted by our meeting.
Drinking from puddles
A few days after our return I found our newly adopted daughter drinking from a puddle that had formed in our driveway. I knew she had come from a place where running water wasn’t available, but to see her squatting down and cupping her hands was just too much. I thought, this child had already faced challenges and overcome obstacles that I had never even known about. And at the age of 2, she was wiser than me.
I wanted to stand on a soap box and scream out all of these things that were horrendously unfair, but would anyone listen? And then there was someone else who I wanted to fight for: her older sister who remained in Ethiopia. What did her future hold? Would she grow up clawing out the most meager existence and someday have to choose to give her child away for a chance at a better life? Why was this happening?
Our daughter’s birth story is not unique. She shares it with many children who were not orphaned, but relinquished. Her birth mother was one of many that had to make that choice.
Message in a book
I decided to tell the story in the form of a children’s picture book and after five years of hard work, A Thirst For Home: A Story of Water Across the World, was published by Walker Books in May 2014. It is illustrated by Eric Velasquez.
There are many themes to the story, the most obvious being water, but that isn’t what motivated me. It was our daughter’s birth mother and sister. They needed a voice and to be heard. I wrote A Thirst For Home for them.
After five years of wondering and worrying, my husband and I returned to find them. To our sadness, they were barely surviving with no access to clean water, little food, and no chance for her sister to go to school.
The importance of educating girls
That is when it occurred to me that it was education that made all of the difference. Our daughter’s mother was illiterate, never having that opportunity. She married young and depended on her husband to support her. When she found herself alone having to support herself and her family, she couldn’t. Even working as hard as she could every day was not enough, and she knew this.
Education, and more specifically educating girls, is the difference between living and dying in places like rural Ethiopia. It is the key to ending poverty. It changes lives, lifts up families and entire communities. It is also the most foolproof way to a peaceful world.
When you educate a girl, these are the things that happen:
She becomes confidant and knows of her worth.
She marries later.
She has a smaller number of children and can provide for them.
She is respected by the community and her husband.
She is older when she has her children decreasing the chances for complications.
She knows the value of education and sends her daughters to school.
When you educate a girl you break the endless cycle of poverty.
(Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn)
Our project, The Gimbichu Project, not only sponsors our daughter’s older sister to attend school, but also several other girls from the village. It is an honor to be a part of this community and a part of the lives of all of these beautiful young ladies. We have seen them transform from shy, meek little girls who wouldn’t even make eye contact to confidant leaders who are always smiling. The difference is shocking. This is what educating girls does.
All girls around the world deserve the opportunity at an education so they can grow up to be smart, confidant woman who have the ability to support themselves and raise their own children, never having to make the unthinkable choice to give them up for a better life.
When I look back at the last eight years since that very first trip to Ethiopia, I see profound changes in myself. People always tell us that our daughter, her family and community in Gimbichu are all lucky to have us. This makes me crazy because the truth is, we are the lucky ones. They have saved us, teaching us what really matters in life. I don’t know that I would be the person I am today had it not been for my daughter, her family, and an entire community in Ethiopia.
Christine Ieronimo is passionate about sharing her story with children in the United States to help introduce global issues into classrooms at an early age. She will be a guest speaker at a conference at the United Nations in New York City on Jan. 22. A Thirst For Home was recognized as a Notable Social Studies Book for 2015 and will be available through Scholastic in soft cover in April 2016. Learn more about Christine, her book (including teaching materials for teachers and parents), and The Gimbichu Project on her website.