By Christy Swift

Liya was 16 and Marjani was 10 when they were found living on the streets outside of Addis, Ethiopia with their eight-year-old brother Yonas and two-year-old sister Nyala. The two younger children were immediately taken to a state-run orphanage while the older girls were taken in by Retrak, an organization that seeks to reunify orphaned children with their biological families. It was the first time the siblings, already traumatized by abandonment, were separated from one another. Even Yonas and Nyala did not see each other regularly at the orphanage due to their age differences.

“Retrak determined that biological reunification wasn’t possible,” Marisa Stam, Executive Director of Selamta Family Project’s U.S. team, said from her office in Lake Placid, Florida. “They hadn’t been together in about six months. When they were reunited at Selamta’s community center, it was a moment our team will never forget.”

The children could be together again due to a unique orphan care program developed by Selamta Family Project. Called the “Forever Family Program,” this in-country, community-integrated, holistic program groups eight to ten children together with a displaced woman, who becomes Mom, to create a forever family. Liya and her siblings joined the Bale House, one of two new homes just opened in the neighborhood in northwest Addis where all the Selamta Family Project homes are located. There is a total of 10 active homes, although, if you were to wander through the coffee-scented streets for yourself, you wouldn’t be able to identify them. The houses fit right in, just like the kids inside them.

A Place to Call Home

There is no foster care system in Ethiopia. Famine in the 1980s, an HIV/AIDS crisis in the nineties, and constant political upheaval as well as extreme poverty all created a perfect storm that has wiped parents out of the picture, leaving children to fend for themselves or become victims of crime, abuse, rape, or servitude. Even today, orphanages are still the norm, and it didn’t help that international adoption was shut down in 2017. Domestic adoption is not the cultural norm, especially for children over the age of eight, and while organizations seek to either reunify children with their biological parents or settle them with blood relatives as often as possible, that leaves an estimated five million children without a place to call home.

Also, lacking in a developing nation like Ethiopia are child welfare resources like case management, social services, health services, and even identification records. “Some of our kids don’t even know their names,” Stam stated. “Two little boys came to us as Abraham and Kofi Unknown.” Children born outside of a hospital typically don’t have birth certificates. Immunization records and HIV status are also hard to come by.

Wrap-Around Care

Enter Selamta. What makes them different from other organizations, Stam explained, are their three core competities. They provide wrap-around care, which includes education (Selamta kids go to their neighborhood school, but since there are no special education programs in Ethiopia, they are provided with individual tutoring according to their needs); health and wellness (kids get a full health care workup by a nurse); psychosocial support (traumatized, displaced and often abused, these kids need help healing emotionally) and spiritual development in the form of opportunities to attend church in their community.

“Knowing that they were created with purpose and having their identity in Christ is huge for healing,” Stam said, although church attendance is not a requirement of the program.

Community Integration and Permanency

The second core competency that makes Selamta different is community integration. A community center located in the same neighborhood as the homes provides support to Selamta families as well as the larger community. In 2015, for example, they opened their English summer camp to the neighborhood families, expanding the benefits to even more children. All the Selamta staff in Ethiopia are Ethiopian nationals—members of the community helping one another.

The third core competency is permanency. “Our kids don’t age out,” Stam said. This is important because many kids in Ethiopia are age-grade mismatched, and the most recent World Bank numbers indicated that only about 30% of kids in Ethiopia will complete a grade school education. At Selamta, all children complete primary, secondary and tertiary education in the form of vocational programs or university, no matter how long it takes them. And even after they’ve started working, their family and the organization are still there for them, something that older Selamta “kids” were grateful for this past year as Covid threatened their newfound independence.

Remarkable Women

But the story wouldn’t be complete without talking about the women who lead these families. The Moms take on the responsibility of a gaggle of high- needs children, only a few of which may be theirs by blood. “Many of our moms share similar stories to our kids,” Stam explained. “They are widowed or abandoned. At the minimum, they are a single mom.”

When Stam traveled to Ethiopia for the first time in 2008, she was deeply moved by their dedication. “I have never witnessed women willing to love so unconditionally. They’re broken just like the rest of us. They’re flawed. They didn’t do it all right for the last 15 years. They brought all their baggage to the table, too. But what blows me away is their desire and willingness to acquire new tools. They want their kids to be healed, and they want healing. It changed who I wanted to be. It changed the kind of mom I wanted to be.”

These women benefit from Selamta’s wrap-around care as well, with some of them finally learning to read, and acquiring skills they can carry into the future. “The kids are going to grow up and move out,” Stam continued. “Our moms don’t need to start over again. They get to dream. They get to decide what the next season of life is going to be.”

The Future

While the “Forever Family” program is the bedrock of the organization’s work and will continue to be, Selamta continues to expand its ability to help orphaned children in Ethiopia. Recently, board member Dr. Karen Brown, a psychologist, introduced the organization to trust-based relational intervention (TBRI), an attachment- based, trauma-informed intervention designed to meet the complex needs of vulnerable children. Stam herself is now a practitioner and teaches the Ethiopia-side team how to use it to help their families. Selamta is also working with the Ethiopian government to be able to provide TBRI-guided services to kids who have been reunited with their biological parents, are in kinship placements with family members, or who have found a home through domestic adoption.

“We’re excited to have an overall effect on child welfare. We’ll be able to have our reach and healing and hope multiplied,” Stam said.

Get Involved

Want to be a part of creating forever families in unexpected places? Selamta Family Project’s newest fundraising effort is their Heart and Home partner program. They are looking for 15 Mentor Partners ($125 a month commitment) and nine Family Partners ($250 a month commitment) this summer to bring in 20 more children and create two more homes. Smaller donations are also accepted. Give at home.

Their overall goal is best summed up in Selamta’s vision statement: We want to see children knowing their God-given dignity and worth through the love of a healthy family.