AMBI: TIRANA CITY TRAFFIC
JENNY ROUGH, REPORTER: The country of Albania sits on the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe. It borders Greece, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. The small country has a population of about 3 million people.
Thirty-one thousand of them are orphans. Tirana is the capital and the heart of the country. On a mild day in January, I walk down the narrow streets in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
ROUGH: Where are we?
MEREDITH BARRETT: We’re kind of toward the western side. So Mount Dajti is the big mountain here.
Meredith Barrett works with Albanian children and teen ministries. Our walk ends at a towering concrete block apartment building. A relic from the country’s communist regime, but with a colorful new paint job—rust, yellow, and bright blue—to help lighten its bleak past.
BARRETT: Okay, we can come in. We’re going to take an elevator up.
A teeny tiny elevator.
BARRETT: So I wonder if we need a token. Oh, that’s not going to work.
ROUGH: Should we take the stairs?
BARRETT: I think we’re going to have to take the stairs.
On the 5th floor, a Christian foundation called Eagle’s Wings rents one of the apartments. It uses the place as a small group home for at-risk youth. The apartment is simple. Neat and clean. Zona, the house mother, sets out strawberry juice and wafer cookies.
GUEST: Thank you.
Zona rotates with three other house mothers. They each take 24-hour shifts to care for the teenage girls. Jona is one of those girls. She’s been living here for about a year. And loves the balcony outside the bedroom she shares.
JONA: The nice thing I like, it's that the balcony, it's like the mountain is in front of you.
Jona taught herself to speak English by playing video games.
JONA: Mostly games. Because in the games there’s subtitles as well.
When she first learned she’d be moving to Eagle's Wings, Jona prayed for a bedroom window. She’d never had one before. God answered her prayers … and more. A whole balcony that overlooks the Skanderbeg mountain range.
JONA: And I always get to see the moonrise. And I love the moon. Or the clouds just kind of touching the mountains.
Jona reminds me of the moon. A beautiful round face. Brilliant personality. But the moon has a side that can’t be seen by the human eye from Earth. The dark side. So does Jona. A past full of pain and neglect … hidden from plain sight. A past she’s trying to reckon with at Eagle’s Wings.
Not long ago, Jona and the other teenage girls living at Eagle’s Wings might have been candidates for international adoption. But attitudes toward taking children so far from their home countries and native cultures have shifted. Christians who once emphasized adoptions are now prioritizing in-country care. Today, we’ll find out how that happened, and what it means for vulnerable children around the world.
From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion. I’m Jenny Rough.
UNDERWRITING SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
TRADITIONAL KOREAN MUSIC
Let’s leave Albania … for a moment … and travel to Korea. 1950s Korea.
JEDD MEDEFIND: Kind of the modern concept of international adoption, many people trace that back to following the Korean War.
Jedd Medefind is president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. A coalition of over 200 Christian organizations focused on orphan care all over the world. He says people trace international adoption back to the Korean conflict because of the war orphans—babies born with a Korean mother and a Western father.
Even though their mothers were alive, the babies were ostracized. The culture in Korea emphasizes bloodlines through paternal family ties. Even today, such beliefs are still part of many cultures … and countries throughout the world.
MEDEFIND: The idea of welcoming in a child and caring for them, sacrificing your family's money and other assets for this child who's not part of your clan or tribe or racial group, that would be not just sometimes shocking but actually taboo. It would be looked down upon. And there's actually myths that are told in stories, ideas deeply embedded in cultures that really frowns upon the idea of welcoming in a child who is not of your bloodline or not of your totem as they would say in some African cultures.
In the case of the Korean war orphans—
MEDEFIND: And so Americans said, “Hey, we would be willing and even glad to receive these children into our family.” And so that's kind of when this more, you know, contemporary expression of intercountry adoption began.
Medefind says one of the reasons Americans were open to international adoption has to do with our country’s history.
MEDEFIND: America draws people from all over the world apart from adoption, right? I mean, you know, successive waves of immigration from all over the world. Adoption is just one thread in that story. I think that's part of it. But you know, of course some of it does have to do certainly too with economics, with various political systems and situations, many other things as well.
Christian organizations such as Holt International and World Vision began to champion the needs of children who might not have found a family apart from intercountry adoption. A countercultural idea.
MEDEFIND: This Christian idea that a child who is completely unrelated and in many ways has no claim on you, no blood claim, no genetic claim, could be welcomed into the family and not just welcomed in as a household slave or helper, a second class citizen to take out the trash, but welcomed in as a full child with full family name and identity rights. That is a powerful concept in any culture.
TRADITIONAL CHINESE MUSIC
Over the next several decades, inter-country adoptions by Americans increased steadily, and the focus shifted to China. China had been implementing family planning policies to slow rapid population growth—including its one-child policy, introduced in 1979.
MEDEFIND: And so, you know, when you had a strict one child policy, if a family had a daughter and really wanted a son, they might just abandon that girl.
In 1992, China began to allow foreigners to adopt. Around that same time, the focus on international adoption expanded again.
To Eastern Europe. The television show 20/20 uncovered atrocious living conditions of orphans institutionalized in Romania.
20/20 NEWS SEGMENT | TOM JARRELL: [children chattering] Even after all we had seen, we were unprepared for what we found in an upstairs room. Here young girls, their heads shaven, were kept in a giant cage like animals, wild-eyed, screaming, half-naked, splashing in urine and excrement on the filthy floor.
The callous disregard for human life affected American viewers deeply. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the number of adoptions from Romania, Russia, and other former Soviet states rose significantly. Adoptions from South and Central America also saw rapid growth in the 1990s. But according to Medefind, adoptions from Africa did not top 1,000 until 2006. A major factor with that was the growing awareness of the global AIDS crisis.
So … international adoption has had its ups and downs and different focal points. But during the last several decades, it has changed drastically. Many countries restricted … or ended … intercountry adoptions. In some cases for political reasons. But also because ethical concerns rose to the forefront. Including human trafficking.
MEDEFIND: So you know, trafficking, most people would think a child is stolen from the hospital or from someone's family, or perhaps the family is coerced into yielding their child to a trafficking ring and then their child is somehow laundered and then offered to an American family under the pretense that this child needs a family, but really doesn't. And I would say that there are a number of known cases where that has happened.
But Medefind says trafficking falls on a spectrum. Many times, the circumstances aren’t so clear cut.
MEDEFIND: Where on the one hand you would say, hey, that wasn't ideal. That biological family might have been able to raise that child if some further support or money could have been provided. So then you go back later, and the paperwork shows irregularities. And there's elements in there that don't appear quite aligned with what people had assumed.
The Hague Convention on inter-country adoptions has attempted to address those concerns. That’s an agreement among nations that outlines safeguards for ethical adoptions. Medefind says the Hague Convention has helped … and hurt.
MEDEFIND: In some cases you could say the Hague is being under-applied. Meaning yes, there are some of the principles in place, maybe even in law, but they're not necessarily being followed. And then on the other hand, you could argue there's some places where it might be being overly applied. That a country is actually using the Hague standards as a pretense for not allowing children to reach families when maybe they actually do need a family.
Today, there’s a greater focus on in-country care to meet the needs of vulnerable children. Like Eagle’s Wings … the transitional group home for at-risk girls in Albania.
SOUND: MUSLIM CALL TO PRAYER
Over 80 percent of Albanians are Muslim.
ILIR LIKA: My name is Ilir. I live in Tirana. I am a Christian since 1992. I come from a Muslim family background.
Ilir Lika grew up Muslim. But as an adult, his beliefs changed.
ILIR LIKA: It was amazing how God touched my life and changed it completely.
I met Lika for coffee one morning at the Stephen Center near Tirana’s main square. He has a tightly trimmed salt and pepper beard and gentle eyes. He says his conversion happened during Ramadan, the Muslim fast.
LIKA: And actually, I was not praying to Allah. I was praying to the creator of the Earth and the universe and everything. Because I had many questions. I was reading from John's gospel. It stirred up something in my heart. I was not comfortable. And it was like this book is true. It’s powerful. But I am Muslim.
During the most holy days of Ramadan, he had a dream … of Christ on the cross.
LIKA: This was the sign I needed, and I made the decision to receive Jesus.
Lika has a heart for kids. And that grew along with his faith.
LIKA: My life was completely changed from the discovering and understanding Jesus’ heart for orphans, for widows, and girls especially, which are vulnerable in Albania. And for me, and for my wife, it was like knowing Jesus’ heart from a different perspective.
Today, Lika directs Eagle’s Wings. He says most of the girls the ministry helps are social orphans.
LIKA: They may have their mothers or fathers who are not able to help them. They neglect them. They are so poor, they live in very miserable conditions. They do not have a home. They do not have sufficient revenues to pay for their school and so on.
He says foster care isn’t a common practice in Albania, even among Christians. Most of the country’s orphans live in state-run institutions. But Eagle’s Wings is different. In many ways, Lika serves as a father figure to the girls. But he doesn’t live in the home. So although it’s an incomplete picture, the home tries to model … as closely as possible … a family.
LIKA: We have four Christian women who serve now in the home. And they take care of them, even being a Christian mother. They show love and care for them and empathy.
The teenage girls follow a structured schedule. Meals, chores, school, study time, and fellowship time. Lika says Eagle's Wings uses a motivational system to implement rules and procedures and to handle behavioral issues.
LIKA: We do not punish them. If they misbehave, we say, “I'm sorry, but you earn negative points, 10,000 negative points.”
They lose privileges, not essentials.
LIKA: You do not lose food, you do not lose clothes or any of children's rights. You lose one cinema time.
Eagle’s Wings is based on a U.S. program called the Teaching-Family Model. It’s a trauma-based program designed for foster care kids and other at-risk youth. And the program has been adapted to Albanian culture.
LIKA: It’s the best. So, they are taught in the school, and they are taught in the home as well. Equipping with different life skills, which they need, when they go for independent living.
Eagle’s Wings’ adaptation also includes spiritual support.
LIKA: So you provide shelter for them, you help them, you pray for them, you share the Word of God while they are accommodated in our home. And then you encourage them to go to a church. This ministry is more holistic. So you intervene in their life 24 hours a day.
The girls generally stay until age 21. But even after they transition out, Lika says Eagle's Wings continues to provide financial support. Counseling services. Whatever they need to help them integrate into society as productive citizens. How does Eagle’s Wings find the girls who need a home? Lika says Albania’s State Social Service usually calls him. Do you have room? Can you take another?
But remember Jona? The teenager who taught herself to speak English by playing video games and loves the moon? She didn’t come to Eagle’s Wings through the state. She came another way.
BARRETT: I call her my flutura. Because flutura means butterfly. And then jonë means ours. So she’s flutura jonë.
Meredith Barrett was teaching English classes at a church in Tirana when Jona showed up. Jona already knew English so well, she could have taught the class.
BARRETT: And very quickly I realized she was coming not for English, she was coming because it was a safe place. It was a place to be that wasn't home. And years later she told me that what she loved about coming is every week I would give her a big hug because no one touched her or hugged her. And I would ask, “How are you doing? How was your week?” That was it.
Here’s how Jona tells it:
JONA: Meredith always would just hug people who would show up and ask how their week was. So one day she asked me and I was doing pretty bad. So I just told her, “I'm not doing too well.” And that's where we kind of started, like our friendship.
Then the English classes came to an end.
JONA: After the classes, I just thought I wouldn't see her again, to be honest, because I didn't have any other reason to show up.
But Barrett invited Jona to church that Sunday, and a meal afterward. Jona wasn’t interested in the church part. But she loved the gathering.
JONA: And it was like, it felt like it was just having a meal with a family. And I never knew what that felt like. So it just gave me a very warm feeling.
Barrett suggested she and Jona try a Bible study:
BARRETT: She was like, “I'm an atheist. I'm not interested.” But we did a Bible study in the book of Mark on Jesus, and just looking at the character of Jesus. And one thing that kept surprising her is like, “Oh, I thought Jesus was going to be really angry and respond with anger to these people, interrupting him or bugging him. But he responds in love.” It's so new to her.
Jona says her views about God drastically shifted about a year ago.
JONA: Well, I remember it very well because t was a Sunday. And I didn’t want to go home. I knew how it's going to be at home. Like it's going to be really bad.
Home was a dangerous place. Violent. Especially at night.
JONA: I was somewhere else, like with friends. I just made up my mind: I’ll sleep somewhere on the streets, outside.
She didn’t breathe a word of her plans to her friends.
JONA: I didn't tell them that I was planning to do what I was going to do. I just was going to leave soon.
But that group of friends … well, she had met them at church. So although they didn’t know of her fears, they prayed for Jona’s wellbeing before she left. After the prayer, she had a strong sense to go home. Not to sleep on the streets. She sensed God would take care of her.
JONA: And when I go home that was, I always say, it was the first night I ever slept peacefully.
Although she was safe that night, the violence returned. Jona again made a hard decision.
JONA: It was because my mom never really pressed charges on him because she was scared and all of that. And I just had my limit. I was like, I'll just go do it myself.
Her dad did get arrested. And went to jail … for awhile. But the more Jona opened up to Barrett about her family situation, the more Barrett became concerned.
BARRETT: Girls like her at a very high risk of being trafficked. Traffickers are looking for someone who knows there isn't an uncle, a dad, or someone protecting them that's going to report to the police.
Here’s what often happens in such situations:
BARRETT: They meet someone online, or sometimes there's someone physically here who becomes their boyfriend. Or, we call a loverboy who convinces them, you know, whatever, you're beautiful. I love you. And then over time grooms them to, “Oh, I can, I have a job for you in Italy.”
Or France. Nanny or au pair work.
BARRETT: And so if you have a girl who's desperate to get out of her situation, they're very easily tricked and desperate for love, attention, affection.
And desperate for money. The girls get excited for the opportunity. But it ends up being a trafficking trap. Barrett knew Jona needed a safe place to live.
BARRETT: She opened up more and more about just how desperate things were at home. … And long story short, I heard about Eagle’s Wings through a friend … and said, “Have you ever thought about Krahët e Shqiponjës?”
That’s “Eagle’s Wings” in Albanian.
BARRETT: And so I reached out to Ilir, and he said, “Well, actually we do have an opening for a girl.”
Jona was hesitant. To Barrett, the decision was obvious.
BARRETT: Choose this Jona. Like, choose. There's just two stark paths in front of you. This is the path!
But to Jona, the path wasn’t clear. She carried so much baggage … and mistrust.
BARRETT: And then she started crying and said, I'm afraid that if I say no and I don't do this, you're gonna be so disappointed in me and give up on me. But I said, I'll be disappointed in the situation. I'll wish you had, but I'm not going to give up on you. We'll find a different way. There's nothing you can do that's going to make me not love you and want to, you know, be your biggest cheerleader.
Jona decided to apply for the open spot at Eagle’s Wings. Only five girls can live in the apartment at once. Ilir Lika, the director, explains the program and the regulations during an interview process. He prays for God to give clear direction … to the girl in need of a home … and to the Eagle’s Wings ministry.
JONA: I remember after the interview, I just, prayed. It was like 30 minutes, all of this kind of talking and crying and laughing all of that.
That was over a year ago. Today, above her bed at Eagle’s Wings, she has a painting of a large herd of sheep on a hill … except for one sheep, lost and alone in a thicket of trees. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one who is lost until he finds it.”
Jona quotes another verse that also holds special meaning to her.
JONA: The one where it talks about look at the birds in the sky. God takes care of them. Are you not—
—worth much more than them.
Barrett has walked with Jona every step of the way … and has seen a beautiful transformation. Hence, her nickname.
BARRETT: So she’s flutura jonë. Our butterfly. Because it’s been one of my life’s privileges to watch her be transformed. And I love in her story God has just so clearly pursued her and worked in her life in a way, right? You can’t deny it’s God. And it’s faith-building for me and my family to watch God work in her life.
That was captured in a tangible way last Christmas when Barrett’s youngest son, Liam, taught Jona how to make cookies.
BARRETT: So she’s helping, and they're making snickerdoodles and putting all these ingredients in, and she had never seen a hand mixer. And so Liam said what every 9-year-old says: “Can I lick the beater?” So I gave him one, and then he offered the other to her. And she was like, “Ew!”
Again, it took a lot of convincing. But Jona eventually tried it.
JONA: Meredith told me to lick it. I was like, well, it looks very ugly. But it tasted so sweet. I was like, I always want to lick the batter now.
BARRETT: It was better than the cookie.
It brought to mind Psalm 34.
BARRETT: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” And that's just been our—all of us who have poured into her is like, try it Jona. Just try. Try the Lord. This has been your life, but try this, try this path. Try the Lord. He's good. He's good. And it's going to be better than anything you could ever imagine.
Jedd Medefind of the Christian Alliance for Orphans says he’s seen more and more Christian ministries involved in orphan care following the path of Eagle’s Wings. A maturing of a vision and deeper understanding of how to support vulnerable children within their country of origin.
MEDEFIND: Can we move into small group homes where they have the experience of growing up with a permanent caregiver mother and ideally father, if possible, within that group home even. Or, is it possible to go further? Can we grow a culture of adoption here in this country where families kind of would make the countercultural decision to adopt, even though it wouldn't be seen as typical within their culture? Those are things that have been growing, I would say, over the last couple decades in really vibrant and healthy ways.
Other shifts are happening, too. For example, the relaxing of the one-child policy in China.
MEDEFIND: It’s sometimes hard to know whether the data coming out of China is entirely accurate. But as best as we can tell there are some very positive things happening in China. More families are willing to keep a female child, a daughter, because if they have a daughter, they can still have the possibility of having another child, having a son.
And cultural norms are changing.
MEDEFIND: Where there's at least a greater openness to adoption. Whereas in the past, that was heavily frowned upon in terms of the local cultures view of welcoming a child that was not from your bloodlines.
Even so, the global debate about international adoption continues. One one side:
MEDEFIND: A child's country of origin is so much more important than them finding a family, even if they have to grow up in their country of origin without a safe or permanent family.
On the other side: Find a loving, safe, stable, permanent family even if it means removing them from their country of origin.
MEDEFIND: You'll actually see tribes forming around those ideas globally. Some people really emphasize only in-country solutions, and others would say in-country solutions are good, but we really need to just prioritize getting a child to a safe permanent family.
Medefind stresses there is still a need for intercountry adoption.
MEDEFIND: There are even today, millions of children growing up apart from families in orphanages, there certainly are many orphanages that are very low on nurture and touch.
Shelley and Shawn Mansfield have seen such orphanages firsthand. The Mansfields live in Annandale, Virginia, and decided to adopt from China after watching friends from church go through the process. Shelley says her numerous visits have stayed with her.
SHELLEY MANSFIELD: The truth is when you go into an orphanage, and you see all these children, and they're just clamoring for attention, and they just want you to love them. And then you leave, and you take that one, and you leave all those others. And it's very difficult. You don't ever walk away from that, and not still see their faces.
She recalls bringing Matthew … her soon-to-be son … to a playground, and noticed he began to sniffle. With the help of an interpreter, Shelley contacted a staff member at the orphanage to ask if Matthew had allergies. The answer: We don’t know. Matthew has never been outside.
MANSFIELD: Can you clarify? Do they mean like he didn't go out on a regular basis? Or do they mean, he's never been outside? And so she asked again, and they said he's never been outside. So he was 4 years and 11 months and had never been outside.
In the end, the Mansfields adopted four kids from China. All of them had special needs, ranging from cleft lip and palate to arthrogryposis to Down syndrome. Jedd Medefind says there’s still a need for adoption of special needs children, where a strong stigma persists.
MEDEFIND: Sometimes it's seen as a curse and that if you keep this child, your family will be cursed or other families will not want to be around you. And then there’s the real challenge of caring for children with special needs. That where there's those wonderful situations where there's a parent who says this child may be lacking arms and legs, or they may have this or that situation, but they're my child and I love them and I wanna care for them.
You’ll hear more on adoption of special needs children in an upcoming episode. And again, Medefind emphasizes that Christians should be passionate advocates for both intercountry adoption and strengthening local solutions.
MEDEFIND: You know, we can say if there is any way for a child to grow up within their family of origin, or at least within their country of origin, we're all there. We're gonna support those families. We're going to encourage a vision for adoption within these countries. We're all there. And yet at the same time, when we know that it's gonna be very hard for a child to be welcomed into a family that is not of their tribe or bloodline in many parts of the world. We recognize that intercountry adoption may be the only hope of them ever knowing the safety and belonging that a family uniquely provides.
The symbol of Albania is the eagle. It’s on the country’s red flag. Ilir Lika of Eagle’s Wings likes that the name of the ministry ties into that.
LIKA: We wanted it to sound Albanian. Even in the name.
But the true meaning behind the name is rooted in Isaiah 40. A passage that reminds us that our broken world isn’t healed by men alone … or even big ministries or rulers of nations. True healing for those who are weary comes from the great God who sustains us all.
Here it is in English:
NARRATOR: Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard? That the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the Earth, fainteth not? Neither is weary. He giveth power to the faint. And to them that have no strength. He increaseth might. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles.
Next week, we’ll talk about foster care and what it means to take on that very difficult assignment from a Christian perspective.
SCOTT: It’s holistic. It's fostering health. It's fostering healing. It's fostering potential…It's fostering the ability to talk about your journey and your trauma that brings in a way that brings healing and wholeness. That it's fostering peace in a child's heart. It's fostering discipline and rules and guidelines and boundaries and have-toos, and structure…
BRANDI: Fostering the beginning of a spiritual journey. And so, you know, seeing our kids learn about Jesus for the first time…
Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Jenny Rough. Leigh Jones is our producer. Paul Butler is our executive producer. Technical assistance from Rich Roszel and Creative Genius Productions.
UNDERWRITER SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of people in impoverished communities around the world. Help for today, hope for tomorrow. Right now, World Help has a window of opportunity to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a Christian living in this hostile country. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
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