In the span of her 16-year-old life, Bethlehem Shah has lived in more homes than some adults late in their years.
She’s lived on-again-off-again with her biological parents, in orphanages in Ethiopia and with an adoptive family in Canada, where she has been for eight years.
When she first arrived, Shah did not speak English well and she says she worried if she did anything wrong in Canadian culture, which she was not familiar with, she would be sent back to her old life.
CBC Manitoba’s Ismaila Alfa spoke to Shah on Up to Speed, where she told him about her life and the story of cross-continent adoption through the eyes of the child involved.
Before Shah entered an orphanage for the first time, she was living with her father’s sister.
“He just didn’t feel like it was right, I guess, you know, so he said, 'I want to send her somewhere better,'” Shah said.
Her father put her in an orphanage where he knew one of the workers. Shortly thereafter, she was moved to another one, and then another one.
“It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t safe, either. For my first one, one of the ladies that took care of us, she got fired. I still remember that, because she beat a kid.
So I was like ‘oh my gosh, I could be next,’ you know, whatever,” she said. “I never felt comfortable there. Never.”
A new life
Shah’s adoptive mother sent her a photograph of herself; her adoptive grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins; her new home and school-to-be.
“So when I saw that I was... I was so excited. You know, everything. I was just imagining things and you know, at first I thought my school was my house, too,” she said, laughing.
Even with the prospect of a new life in Canada, Shah still worried about what she would have to leave behind.
“I was worried but none of [my family] came to visit me,” Shah said, referring to her time in various Ethiopian orphanages.
Her father had told her birth mother that he was sending Shah to a boarding school. Meanwhile, Shah was preparing to meet her adoptive mother and fly back to Canada with her.
“And then one day [my birth mother] came to visit me at this boarding school I was supposed to be at, and I wasn’t there."
By the time Shah’s mother found out her biological daughter had been adopted, Shah was already in Canada. She had a new family and a new life. Amharic, her first language, was becoming a thing of the past.
“I was like no, I don’t want to have anything to do with Ethiopians, even though I was one. I was like no, I’m Canadian now. I don’t want to have anything to do with Amharic,” she said, noting that abandoning the language is one of her regrets.
Instead, Shah was learning English. She was going to school, too, but not in the correct grade.
“I didn’t know if I could get in trouble if I told [my adoptive mother] the things that happened, or you know, whatever. Even about my age. So she thought I was six until a few years later. I was like I’m not six, I’m eight-years-old.”
Life goes on in Ethiopia
Over time, Shah learned that back home, her father died.
“That really hurt, you know. Finding that out. Also not being able to be there. And also forgiving him. Or like, I already forgave him but like, you know, talking to him about it. But I wish I could have told him,” she said.
When Shah left her first home in Ethiopia, she says she did not even know that she would have to forgive her father.
“It hit me when I came to Canada and then I had to think about it more, what really happened,” she said.
“And then as I got older I was like ‘he left me.’”
Shah has not returned to Ethiopia since she came to Canada eight years ago. She had the opportunity to go around one year ago, but she said she was not ready to return to the place where she lived a different life.
“I was nervous, scared, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to react about it. I was told it’s going to be so different,” she said. “In a way I kind of regret that, due to my father, but, you know, I can’t really do much about it.”
As for her birth mother, she’s still alive in Ethiopia, as far as Shah knows. She can never be sure, though. She hasn’t seen her in eight years. Her brothers, step-mother and aunt and uncle on her father’s side, all back in Ethiopia, do not know where she is either.
“We’ve looked for her, but there’s nothing,” Shah said. “But if I see her I wouldn’t say too much, you know. It’d be more of a sobbing and crying moment so I don’t really know. But it would just be nice to say hello again.”
Today, Shah is a high school student. She says her relationship with her adoptive mother is “like most mothers and daughters,” and that they fight but at the end of the day, Shah can count on her.
Her experience coming across the world to build a future for herself continues to affect her as she grows out of adolescence and into young adulthood.
“I’m good here. It’s just that feeling of like, I don’t really know what I feel still,” she said. “It still hurts.”