His name was Sama. At three months old, he was the smallest baby at the orphanage. I picked him up, and, reflexively, broke into sobs, defying my tough exterior. He didn’t flinch or cry. Neither did he smile and coo. Already he had learned what many children in even the best orphanages learn: there isn’t someone to come all the time when they cry. And in this orphanage, he would grow up to learn that he was never going to have a mother or father come to him—because it’s not possible under the law.
A few decades ago, I was a baby in that same orphanage. Unlike Sama, I was allowed to be adopted. But cultural and political changes have made that impossible today. And what’s most poignant this story is that it takes place in a small community everyone’s talking about right now. Outside the orphanage that Sama calls home, Christians from all over the world are gathering right now, celebrating their Savior born in this same village—Bethlehem—literally 500 meters away.
Sama is one of the many orphans in La Crèche, the manger; none is eligible for adoption. I first wrote about his story for my webpage, Free the Orphans, which seeks to bring awareness to the fact that there may be room in the inn for these babies, but there is no family for them. Forever.
At age four, Same will leave for one of the children’s homes, and he will stay there until probably age 18. “Attachment is our biggest problem,” the orphanage director told me. As one who knew intimately about attachment issues, I didn’t really have to ask; nonetheless, the answer made me ache.
A Palestinian child can almost never be a legal son or daughter to anyone once he or she is orphaned, abandoned—or even born out of wedlock. La Crèche and other orphanages and children’s homes care deeply for the children, but the children can never be adopted into families because of a repressive culture and unjust laws—there, and even here in America.
Bethlehem is part of Palestine, unrecognized as a nation, which makes it problematic for adoption, as children have no national citizenship. Palestine, home to Christians and Muslims, is the birthplace of Christianity, but is suffering a loss of Christians, who have been leaving, due in part to political conditions both Islamic and Israeli.
Today when a child is brought to La Crèche or found on the streets, unless he or she has an indication of Christianity (as simple as a cross drawn on the arm or clothes), or the child is identified as coming from a Christian mother, the child must, according to the law, be deemed a Muslim. And that means the child is never allowed to be fully adopted.
According to the Qur’an, the child is not allowed to have the family name or birthright; in fact, the Qur’an says outright, “. Allah has not made your adopted sons your true sons. That is merely your saying by your mouths…” (33:4).
There is a long-term alternative, kafala care, which is actually is glorified foster care, but unlike traditional foster care, the child has no hope to either be reunited with his mother or be legally adopted by his family; he is not entitled to the family name or birthright.
One official explained to me that orphans are seen as second-class citizens in the culture, and they great difficulty when it’s time to marry because families want a “full-blooded” man or woman to marry their child. It sounds like something from an antiquated novel, but it is life today in Palestine; it is the fate for these orphans.
When I first returned from visiting my birthplace, I called the US Department of State to find out how to change this policy. The Christian court official in Palestine explained to me that the Oslo Accords (1993) not only failed to bring peace, but resulted in complications in Palestinian adoptions. The State Department official coldly told me it was technically “possible” to adopt from Palestine, but “it has only ever been done a handful of times.” She ran through a list of requirements that would have to happen. It sounded like adopting twin unicorns would be more viable.
Back in Palestine, orphanage officials informed me that most children come from Muslim homes anyway, so adoption is impossible. Despite being abandoned by those families, they have to be regarded as part of them for adoption laws. It’s the ultimate Catch-22. The lack of hope resounds louder than the church bells all over the Holy Land this week, and it’s time for that to change.
The birth of Jesus Christ, celebrated this week, made it possible for people to be adopted into the family of God. The baby born in Bethlehem in that crèche was the ultimate adoption miracle for the world.
Five-hundred meters from that first crèche lies La Crèche, where babies enter, but they are stuck in the midst of antiquated laws, legal loopholes, religious dogma, travel bans, and immigration hurdles — so each time a family comes asking to adopt them—and many do—the family is turned away. That irony may be the most tragic one of all this Christmas.
For further information on how to help lobby for change, see Live Action News’ previous piece on international adoption, and see Free the Orphans’ Take Action page.