Civil war leaves Liberian orphans in limbo
Los Angeles Times
It is a wretched existence for Nymah Sumo, 7, and Doretha Rubben, 6, who live at a squalid children's home in the battle-scarred capital of Monrovia. But it is an existence they hope to soon escape.
Thousands of miles across the Atlantic, in Arizona, a new life awaits them: an American mother, two Chinese-born sisters, matching sheets and down quilts, Brownie uniforms, new names.
"You tell them their beds are ready for them, their teddy bears are ready, their sisters are ready," said Barbara Taylor, 57, a retired Air Force colonel who lives in Phoenix and won adoptive custody of the Liberian girls this year. "We've got a whole community here waiting for them to come home."
But the savage 14-year-old civil war in the West African nation, which was settled in the 19th century by freed American slaves, has delayed the departure of Taylor's girls and nine other children who live at the Hannah B. Williams orphanage and welfare center in Monrovia.
In all, about 40 Liberian youngsters have been adopted by U.S. families and are awaiting visas, according to U.S. Embassy statistics. The turmoil has prevented embassy officials from conducting investigations necessary to complete the visa-application process.
The delays come amid a worsening plight for children in Liberia. War and other ills are swelling the ranks of orphans, who number at least 10,000, although an exact figure is impossible to obtain, local aid officials said.
Liberia is one of the world's most dangerous conflict zones for women and children, along with such countries as Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Angola and Congo, according to a report by the Save the Children relief organization.
Children in Liberia become orphaned or separated from their parents as families caught in the war's cross-fire flee their homes. Many women and children face harassment, violence, rape or indiscriminate killing, aid officials said.
Some impoverished parents abandon their children. And Liberian youngsters face such hazards as malnourishment, disease, psychological trauma and the possibility of being conscripted as child soldiers, officials said.
The recent arrival of the first wave of West African peacekeepers and U.S. military advisers has buoyed hopes that a cease-fire will hold, a new interim government will soon step in and life will return to some semblance of normality.
While the White House deliberates any further action in Liberia, adoptive U.S. parents ponder the fate of their children.
Most of the parents learned of the children on the Internet, many through a Santa Clarita, Calif.-based agency called Angels' Haven Outreach that arranges adoptions around the world. Liberian welfare officials have given the procedure the green light, and adoption papers have been filed with the Liberian courts.
Liberian law does not require prospective parents to visit the country or meet the child before they adopt. But they must file a petition for adoption and get written consent from the biological parents, if alive. Any adult is eligible to adopt, and there is no marriage or age requirement. Additional paperwork required by the United States includes an immigrant visa for each child.
But an upsurge in fighting in June, as rebel soldiers made a heavy push on Monrovia, has left many children in limbo.
"The war has stopped everything," said Hannah B. Williams, who opened the children's home bearing her name in 1972. The facility, housed in a dilapidated former church, accommodates 155 children ages 1 to 18. Some are orphans, others wards of the state.
Nymah's parents died during the 1998 escalation of the civil war. Doretha became a ward of the state after her parents said they could no longer care for her.
Taylor, a single mother who adopted two other girls, Samantha Su, 8, and Amanda Lin, 10, from China in the 1990s, said the Liberian youngsters would make her family complete.
"I have only seen a picture of them that was on the Web, but I fell in love with them right away," said Taylor, a medical-programs coordinator in the Homeland Security Office for the state of Arizona, and a volunteer Girl Scout leader. "I said, 'These are my daughters.' "
Adoption agents in the United States and many parents think U.S. bureaucracy, as well as the Liberian crisis, is hindering the children's departure.
Although the U.S. State Department has approved the adoption petitions, embassy officials in Monrovia have been unable to prove that the children are orphans or that they were legitimately given up by their parents.
In an age of child-trafficking and abuse, the prospect of fraudulent adoptions has raised concerns.
Sometimes, cash-strapped guardians try to give children to foreigners because they are convinced a better life awaits them abroad.
"While we remain concerned for these children, the ongoing violence makes conducting investigations impossible," said a U.S. official in Monrovia. "The embassy is aware of these cases and, when it becomes possible to process them, will do so as quickly as possible."
Life is hard at Hannah B's, as the orphanage and the owner are affectionately known. The closure of Monrovia's port, which has been in rebel hands, delayed food distribution to the city.
In good times, dinner for the children at Hannah B's is a small bowl of rice and boiled greens. In bad times, there is often no meal at all. Sometimes, small snails gathered from a nearby swamp must suffice.
These are bad times. Many children pick through the sand hoping to find a few fallen grains of rice.
Others weave their way between rickety houses, along trails of mud and garbage, to reach the swamp. Here, they typically wade for hours in search of edible leaves.
Some of the children's hair is wilted and yellow from malnutrition. Scabies is rampant, and many youngsters smear ash on their face in an effort to stop the itching. Diarrhea is a common malady.
Nymah and Doretha are frail for girls their age. Lack of food in recent weeks has contributed to their weight loss, Williams said. Their thin arms and legs are flaky from skin rashes.
"Most of the children are traumatized because of the war," said Arthur Tucker, who helps at the orphanage. "Recreation is a problem. They have to have play therapy. They are missing that sense of belonging."
Armie Williams, a 13-year-old who has lived at Hannah B's all her life, said she couldn't wait to meet her adoptive parents, Charles and Elaine Deprince of Cherry Hill, N.J.
She's eager to continue school and hopes to become a nurse. And although the United States remains for her a far-off land, she imagines little could be worse than her present predicament. "It will be good," said Armie, a bright smile filling her face, "because I will leave from here."
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company