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A two-day-old baby girl at the Edhi Centre in Mithadar. - Dawn Photo.

KARACHI: Arif Zaman is a British-Pakistani who works as a financial consultant in the United Kingdom. He married his wife, Alison, in 1997, and the mixed-race couple looked forward to having their own children. However, they were unable to conceive and eventually adopted two Pakistani girls, Amna and Aneesa.

“Once we realised that biological children weren’t a possibility, we looked into adoption. Just because we cannot have children does not mean we can’t become parents. This world has so many children who can benefit from a better, nurturing environment,” said Mr Zaman while speaking to Dawn at his apartment in Karachi, which often serves as a second home for the family.

He added: “Amna and Aneesa have brightened up our world, and we feel privileged to be able to provide for their needs.”

As for their family, it required convincing for acceptance.

“The idea was met with resistance, particularly my mother-in-law as she was vehemently opposed to adoption,” said Ms Alison, who has since started an online portal called www.pakistanadoption.com to assist families based in the United States and the United Kingdom to adopt children from Pakistan.

After going through the rigorous adoption home study, where a detailed report on the family was compiled by social workers in the UK, the couple formally set out for adoption.

In Karachi alone, every day a newborn child’s body is found in one part of the town or another. According to a report by Population Council, 890,000 abortions are performed annually, while data lying with the Edhi Foundation states that over 10,000 bodies of newborns are found in dumpsters across the country. The ones who die are buried in unmarked graves and those who survive are rejected by society. Saving these unwanted babies and providing them with safe homes is no mean feat, but a number of nongovernmental organisations in the city have stepped up their efforts and a healthy interest is being shown by expatriates.

Currently, there is no law for adoption in Pakistan but the family court can grant guardianship to a citizen seeking to adopt orphans, or in this case abandoned newborns under The Guardians and Wards Act, 1890. Furthermore, the applicants (in case of overseas Pakistanis) must complete the legal requirements in their home countries. Monetary donations/ benefits are strictly prohibited.

Mr Zaman and Ms Alison were handed over Amna on Dec 12, 2007 by the Edhi Foundation.

“We call her the miracle baby as she has been through a lot. We survived a blast in our neighbourhood, the target being the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. Then there was Benazir Bhutto’s death on Dec 27 the same year and the subsequent riots and this was followed by the bombing of a market in Islamabad,” said Ms Alison as she stroked Amna’s hair.

At their home in Karachi, a cheerful four-year-old Amna confidently introduces herself: “My name is Amna and I came from Edhi. We encourage being open about adoption although Pakistani society stigmatises the whole thing which isn’t fair,” said Mr Zaman.Ms Alison quickly interjected here: “Now my mother-in-law is absolutely in love with Amna and can’t seem to get enough of her. It took some time but they have bonded well.”

In 2011, the couple came back to Pakistan to adopt their second child from the Hope Foundation, another Karachi NGO.

“When we got Aneesa, she was barely a day old and weighed 5.5 pounds. All we know about her past is that she was born in Lyari. Perhaps someday with DNA testing, we can trace Amna’s family too,” said Ms Alison.

Asked why they chose to adopt from Pakistan rather than from the UK, Mr Zaman replied: “It was part of staying in touch with my roots. I visited Pakistan 15 times between 2004 and 2007 and I felt strongly about the plight of women here. They are denied opportunities and their options are limited so if we can make a difference in one person’s life that’s a big accomplishment for us.”

Another reason was the age of the adopted children. “In the UK by the time you get a child he or she has been through quite a few foster families and has often faced abused. The bonding just isn’t possible at that stage and can be traumatising for all parties,” explained Ms Alison.

Hope shines through

Saira (not hear real name), a woman in her mid-30s, is another expatriate who has adopted two children from Pakistan. “Adoption was not about feeling the need to have a large brood – rather it was about giving hope and a better future to a young life,” she told Dawn on the telephone.

She and her husband, Hasan, are settled in Canada and were devastated when doctors told them that the chances of them becoming parents were low.

“My parents were travelling to Pakistan at that point so I had asked them to inquire about the adoption process. I got my first daughter from the Edhi Foundation. Later I fell pregnant in 2006 and gave birth to a son,” she said.

Just when she thought her family was complete with her two children, she heard back from her parents again around 2008. “Mrs Edhi was looking for a potential caregiver in the US or Canada for a child who was ‘severely ill’ and needed quality medical care, and was with her at the maternity home.” Neither Saira nor her parents were clear about what ailed the child at that time.

To find more details, Dawn met Bilquees Edhi at the Edhi Home in Mithadar, where her tiny bedroom also functions as an office. “The little girl needed extensive facial surgery as she had been mauled and disfigured by animals,” she said.

“According to a first information report that the police gave us, a man had found the baby being mauled by dogs in a small town of Dera Ghazi Khan. She was hardly a day old then and was transferred to a local hospital, and later the local police shifted her to us,” she added.

“What future did that child have in this country? Who would have accepted her when potential parents here ask us to give them children with fair complexion and nice features?”

Ms Saira said she felt blessed to have the child, Nida. “When I adopted her my biggest concern was how my children would react. But I am happy to say that her brother and sister adore her and she is the cutest child in the world. To me, she is no less than any of my children and I feel blessed.”

Saving the ‘unwanted’

Ms Edhi over the years has received a lot of flak for giving children to expatriates, and “sending Muslim children abroad into an alien and un-Islamic culture”, but she has stood to her ground.

“Some 20,000 babies have been adopted through us, a few by expatriates. At least when they are abroad I know that the social welfare department will step in if there is any sort of abuse or wrong-doing — something which is not possible here at the moment,” she reasoned. “Also, people abroad are more open-minded and willing to accept these children. Here they are obsessed with legitimacy.”

While the Edhi Foundation has installed cradles at a number of places across Pakistan to receive such babies, yet a number of newborns are found at garbage dumps by passers-by or police who then leave them at Edhi centres.

Poor families abandon babies due to financial problems though many of them are assumed to be illegitimate.

“No parent would give up a child due to hunger. They will beg, borrow or steal to try to feed their children,” said Ms Edhi .

“Sometimes poor mothers come back to visit their children they’ve left at the orphanage and we don’t put them up for adoption. But that’s not the case with unwanted pregnancies involving unwed mothers or children whose parents could never be traced.”

Testing times

“I gave away my baby so that he will do well. I wish I could keep him but I know I can’t,” said Zohra (not her real name), barely out of her teens. After befriending a man over cellphone text messages, she went on to have a physical relationship with him.

“I had no clue what was wrong with me till my belly started swelling. The minute he found out I was pregnant, he just disappeared into thin air,” she said.

A housemaid, she did not have enough money to get an abortion. However, her family made it clear that she must give away the child.

A woman, who runs a maternity home, requesting anonymity said: “I have had girls come in who had been raped by their close relatives. They deliver babies and go back. This is not the fault of the children or the women.”

And so questioned Ms Edhi while cradling a day-old baby girl: “In a country where people have a twisted concept of honour, an ‘illegitimate’ child means shame. But is that the child’s fault? I’d rather have these children adopted where they’d be safe.”