BEIRUT: When it comes to children who have been separated from their biological families, adoption is often seen as the automatic care solution. In Lebanon, where adoption is complicated by multiple issues – among them social stigma, a system that does not allow adoptees to trace their birth parents, frequent illegal trafficking of babies and the religious laws governing adoption – there is a growing movement calling for the system to change.
Badael (Alternatives), a nonprofit NGO launched earlier this year by childhood-care expert Zeina Allouche, aims to tackle some of the problems related to the complex issue of adoption in Lebanon and to give a voice to minority groups who struggle to make themselves heard amid a complex and unyielding system.
“I’ve been working in the field of childhood since forever,” Allouche says. “This is my 25th year. I was working with UNICEF for 10 years here and in Yemen and then I headed SOS Children’s Villages in Lebanon for a while. Then I got engaged in drafting international guidelines on alternative care, [which were] ratified by the U.N. in 2009. Since then I’ve been working closely with children and youth who are deprived of the care of their biological families.”
Working with Allouche is Dida Guigan, who was adopted by a Swiss family during the Civil War. She spent 10 years looking for her biological mother and eventually tracked her down with the help of a television production team. Allouche was struck by Guigan’s rare success story and invited her to work with Badael, where she is now in charge of helping others who want to track down their biological families.
“During these 10 years I got to understand how it works and all the circumstances,” Guigan explains. “In the end, because I was so lucky to find my family, I was very motivated to do this for other cases.”
There are currently around 300 Lebanese adoptees on Badael’s list, the pair explains, but the total number of people adopted overseas from Lebanon since the 1960s is estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000.
The primary aims of Badael are to help to provide practical and psychological support to adoptees in search of their biological families, to help mothers at risk of being separated from a child, to promote alternatives to adoption where appropriate, and to campaign for a civil law governing adoption. Adoption – like marriage and inheritance – currently falls under the personal status code and is governed by religious institutions, rather than the state.
Muslim children in Lebanon cannot legally be adopted. Instead, children separated from their biological families are usually raised in orphanages or fostered by a family who provides financial and emotional support.
Christian babies can be adopted via the church, a process that varies according to sect.
The only secular organization in Lebanon that supports children whose parents are temporarily or permanently unable to provide care is the charity organization SOS Children’s Villages. Here children are placed together in houses with a “mother,” who looks after them until their families are able to reclaim them or they reach majority age.
“Our work will focus mainly on having a civil law governing ... all placements in alternative care,” says Allouche, “adoption being one option. The option, or alternative, should be based on the specific needs of the specific child. Maybe for some children the best solution is adoption, but when adoption occurs there should be ethical rules that maintain ... the right of the child to trace the biological mother, because now the law is established on a very basic condition that ... the child will have no access to information.”
Guigan explains that children who grow up cut off from their biological families often suffer from an identity crisis during their teenage years. An inability to establish contact with their biological families and lack of access to basic information, such as ethnic and religious background, age and medical history, can leave some adoptees with psychological problems, she says.
Badael will also provide legal advice and counseling for single mothers. Social pressures in Lebanon often push unwed mothers into giving up a baby, Allouche explains, even when it is against the best interests of mother and child.
“We have prejudices against the biological mother,” she explains, “who most of the time is a victim. ... She’s left with no other alternative. ... There is a system that pushes her toward leaving the child.”
Another problem the team aims to tackle is the stigma surrounding adoptive parents and adoptees, which can lead to a lack of transparency.
“Adoption is very widespread but you don’t hear about it,” Allouche explains. “It’s a taboo. The adoptive family does not want to admit that they can’t have children, so there is this image of fertility. This is a tragedy because most adoptive parents get stuck with telling the truth. People are coming to Dida to ask her for assistance on how to tell the child the truth and when, and how it will affect them.”
“The other taboo in Lebanon ... is how the child is seen when he’s from unknown parents,” Guigan adds. “A child from unknown parents is called a bastard. The adoptive family tries to protect [them] from that image, but in the wrong way, because ... they are not changing it, they are just hiding it. It’s counterproductive.”
With a plethora of complex issues revolving around child care and adoption, Badael has its work cut out for it, but Allouche and Guigan hope that over time attitudes may begin to change.
“We want to address this subject as a national cause,” Allouche says. “The time is not right but we really need to work on that.”