Learning how to adopt a refugee orphan essentially looks very similar to regular foster care, aside from additional paperwork and meeting at the airport...

How to Adopt a Refugee Orphan

You left your home. You have waited years for another mother or father, or perhaps you gave up on the concept of family years ago. The leading problem is not your empty belly, your displaced home and belongings, or the lack of basic hygiene available in a camp. This is the life of a refugee child. The biggest danger to your life is this: nobody knows how to adopt a refugee orphan.

According to Janet Belsky’s book, Experiencing the Lifespan, two types of experiences formulate a person: normative and non-normative experiences. A first job, creating new friendships, attending weddings, and learning to navigate the world all represent normative experiences. Non-normative experiences include adverse childhood experiences, such as the death of a close family member, eviction, abuse, or extreme physical illness. Both sets of experiences shape children in unimaginable ways. In 2019, more than twenty-five million refugees were displaced across the world. Removed from their homes due to persecution, war, hunger, and other circumstances, refugees face insurmountable numbers of adverse experiences. 

When children are inevitably displaced due to various factors, who can step in? Refugee camps are an enormous help, but they cannot possibly shelter children from all the risks of war, loneliness, improper hygiene, malnutrition, lack of supervision, and abuse. A family is the greatest hope. When a biological connection cannot be restored, here’s how you can help. 

Who Can Be Placed?

The United States and several other countries participate in the HAGUE treaty, detailing the right to safety and security as a child. Ideally, the child remains with their birth family unless their living circumstances are deemed unfit. The American foster care system also takes counsel from this model, seeking reunification with birth parents before alternative adoptive placements. 

In many cases, refugee children are separated from their families. Ensuring children are returned to nurturing and intact environments is the first priority. The second is ensuring those with unsafe or torn-apart lives are placed with wholesome adoptive families. As HAGUE states, the ultimate desire is for every child to find comfort and security. New regulations from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says a diligent search for the family must endure for two years before the child can be rehomed or placed. 

Placing children is also complicated as the flood of children into the American foster care system rarely stops. Not nearly enough families are available, so as a nation we have not yet been able to widely expand beyond national foster care into refugee adoption. The Administration of Children and Families notes more than 440,000 children are in foster care at any time, but far more cycle through the system each year. The number of foster parents and families is not readily available, but we can’t stop trying to find more homes for children without families. Such limited resources mandate absolute caution and that only those in dire need receive available care, even though every child deserves a family. 

What Is Dire Need? 

In short, children whose parents passed away, abandoned them, cannot care for them, or abused them can be placed. Evidence is hard to come by, so unless a death certificate or evidence of abuse is readily at hand, the two-year waiting period serves as a relative moratorium for reuniting biological families. My heart aches for the children who are not returned home or cannot be placed with a new family for those two years. They have to wait for their family. Worse yet, I ache for the children who no longer hope anyone comes for them. 

Placing for Foster Care Rather than Adoption

The path to adopt a refugee orphan is not necessarily clear-cut. Various circumstances can arise when trying to adopt a refugee child. Fostering a child fleeing from another country is a way to provide for them if your particular state or situation does not lend itself to adoption. While waiting for reunification or coping with the loss of their family, unaccompanied refugee minors or immigrant children within the United States need legal guardians and caregivers.

Fostering a refugee orphan is much more clear, and it gives people who pass home study requirements the opportunity to love a child into their home. In the United States of America, reunification stands as the foster care system’s primary goal, but the hope of an American foster family is simultaneously the hope for a forever family

If a child matches UNHC requirements, they can be moved to a waiting home in another country. Until a home opens, the child remains in the refugee camp. As with normal foster care, foster parents receive state benefits to help offset the monetary expenses. Once the child turns eighteen, they are released from the foster care system. Adults can opt to be adopted by their foster family, just as many stepparents and other foster families opt to. 

Essentially, a refugee orphan traveling to live with an American foster family does not follow the plan for reunification with their biological parents. Instead, they pursue the dreams of a life without religious or social persecution, and one with food security. Your home may not provide a new last name until they are eighteen, and perhaps not even then, but you can provide the love and nourishment of a warm, empowering family. 

The Steps to Provide a Safe Haven 

First, before all else, I implore you to understand that no person or couple is ever fully prepared to foster or adopt. Your heart will break under the weight of the trauma your child endured. Thinking of the nights he sat in the dark alone, the smells she knew, the grief and numbness that enveloped his soul—your heart will shatter. I cannot think of a more beautiful togetherness than hurting with a loved one instead of brushing past her pain. His heartache deserves your acknowledgment today and however many other times he asks for your attention. This blessing of adoption and foster care is also an envelope of grief for some. We cannot package the weight away and only showcase the joy. 

Secondly, begin by researching the rules of foster care and how to adopt a refugee orphan within your individual state. I write this in the throes of COVID-19, so borders and the Department of Social Services are operating differently during this season. There are still children languishing in the system, waiting for you. Each state has regulations and guidelines to follow in the certification process. The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides individual state listings with mandatory guidelines for hopeful foster parents, check out their information here

Rules vary, but the subsequent steps for foster care always involve paperwork and a home study. A social worker comes into your home and asks questions revolving around your personal life, the neighborhood, and the available social circle. The home study also involves safety checks to ensure the child is still safe and healthy after being placed in your home. Learning how to adopt a refugee orphan essentially looks very similar to regular foster care, aside from additional paperwork and meeting at the airport rather than a preliminary visit at a park or at home. 

What Will It Be Like?

The Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program serves many different demographics of children. They could be survivors of human trafficking, children seeking asylum, children who are not yet citizens but need homes after domestic abuse situations, or countless other scenarios. No two stories are alike. It will be difficult and new, no matter the situation. It will be messy and odd as multiple cultures join together and people learn about different ways of life. As a parent, you will learn new techniques to meet the niche needs of your foster child. As a child, he or she will be learning about a new culture and exploring a new safety net. 

According to Belsky’s book, children are malleable, and some are more resilient than others. Faith, a warm relationship, personal purpose, believing themselves to be capable, all contribute to the makeup of resilient children. Any one or combination of these traits can result in an easier adjustment period. Not every child is resilient to the trauma he or she has previously faced. However, trauma is not necessarily faced once or merely at the event itself. The incident or incidents occurred, and the fallout can be every day. 

Foster care and adoption are new trauma. The finality of adoption and the change of foster care pose reasons for joy and for grief. Your child will need resilience during the healing he or she works through. No, you cannot fix it all and must not assume the position of a savior. You can provide a loving attachment, a social outlet, and teach him or her how capable he or she truly is, all of which help the healing process. Resilience is learned and oftentimes taught by the teacher’s example. 

How to Adopt a Refugee Orphan? 

We have addressed the practical steps of adopting a refugee orphan thus far, providing background information to help you start your journey. Resources are readily available on the Internet, although refugee adoption is a little more esoteric. Yet nearly every adoptive or foster family hears the question, “How do you do it?” and the ones posing the question are not usually looking for a step-by-step recap on the paper trail.

People want to know and understand how one emotionally comes to terms with the suffering their child endured? Secondhand post-traumatic stress can affect families in their daily lives to the point that the idea stops most prospective parents in their tracks. You see, we like the idea of helping those who suffer as long as it does not affect us. I had a professor in college who talked about the kinds of people I should not interact with for the sake of my image. My response got me released from class early. 

I said, “When someone is suffering, sitting with dirt and blood on their hands, who am I to not do anything about it? I want to be holding those hands and apologizing for whatever caused that blood, helping them wash the dirt away. Why does my comfort take precedence over their hurt then? Who am I to care so much about my image that I won’t get dirty for the sake of how it might disrupt my life?” 

All things considered, that was the second day of classes and it was a very long semester. In no way am I telling you, “Throw caution to the wayside.” Nevertheless, you may have been born for this option. Blood, dirt, and all. 

Writing adoption articles sometimes feels like trying to walk a line between two downfalls. The thin strip down the center is boldly proclaiming truth leading to action. Falling to one side leaves me passive and avoidant, whereas falling to the other makes the truth ring akin to a guilt trip. The quiet cry here is nothing more or less than, “Take life with open hands as it comes.” 

We shy away from the things that might break us, but humans were designed to wholeheartedly embrace this lifestyle, whether it molds or breaks, and help care for the human family. If you still do not understand the legal ins and outs of how to adopt a refugee child, neither does anyone else. This journey is most importantly a walk where you learn the resilience and fragility of human nature. The politically correct statement is “people are not broken,” but at the same time, none of us are truly whole. Your shattered ideals, mismatched steps, and struggle to love might be the concoction that makes your family whole through refugee foster care. 

The question is not necessarily one of desire; it is a question of belief. Whether or not you want to adopt is not necessarily the issue at hand. Do you believe the child placed into the arms of a waiting mother is just as much the child of the waiting mother as the birth mother? And if so, do you also believe that a woman somewhere in the world could have birthed one of your children? What if your child currently bears the label of “refugee orphan?” That child is yours, their own, and their birth mother’s all at once. How do you adopt a child? Like any difficult, worthwhile task, it requires pushing forward with great courage, great humility, and great endurance. How do you adopt a refugee orphan? The exact same way.

Katala Peterson

Katala Peterson

Katala Peterson is pursuing a career as a psychologist and has a passion for family of all kinds. She comes from a large adoptive family and has years of foster care experience. In her spare time, Katala enjoys hiking with her dog and experimenting with new recipes.