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Flight from Freetown leaves kids in immigration limbo

June 19, 1997

CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) _ When an American woman rescued 18 African children from the killing and looting of Sierra Leone, she never imagined the nightmares still ahead.

Nearly three weeks after Pinkie McCann-Willis’ seemingly incontestable good deed, she, the children, and families from the United States to New Zealand are caught in a web of red tape and questions that threaten to stall or possibly kill plans for adoption of some of the children.

Six of the 18 have been granted permission to come to the United States, where adoptive families are waiting. The other 12 are in limbo in Conakry, Guinea, while the governments of Canada and New Zealand, homes of the other prospective families, decide whether to allow the children in.

On the surface, the answer would appear obvious: Give these children, ranging in age from 21 months to 14 years, a chance to leave their warring homeland and start new lives with prosperous families in peaceful countries.

``You know what it’s like in Africa. Life is very fragile,″ said Karen Vander of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, who is slated to adopt an infant girl.

Below the surface, though, lie issues often raised by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Social Services, a Geneva-based organization, which caution against rushing international adoptions in times of crisis.

In chaotic countries where governments are collapsing, they note, it’s easy to fake documents and even easier to convince desperate families that they’d be better off without an extra hungry child.

``It’s always difficult to know all the facts during an emergency situation,″ said ISS spokeswoman Chantal Saclier. ``Families get dispersed, parents are separated from their children. We saw it in Vietnam, in Central America.″

In the case of the children in Guinea, she said, ``We want to be certain that these kids are genuinely available for adoption.″

Saclier said the children should remain in Guinea until the paperwork lost in Freetown, the capital, can either be retrieved or re-created.

Nobody would dispute that McCann-Willis and her Nigerian fiance, Biodun Ade Adeyemi, performed a heroic deed saving the children from the bloodshed that engulfed Freetown after a May 25 army coup.

As U.S. military helicopters airlifted hundreds of foreigners to safety from a beachfront hotel, McCann-Willis and Adeyemi took cover with the children in a Freetown compound while gunfire and mortars blasted the street outside.

All were finally flown out a week later after McCann-Willis spent hours persuading the U.S. government to let the children _ Sierra Leone nationals _ board helicopters, and after Adeyemi made three trips under fire between the compound and the hotel to get them to the evacuation point.

The difficulties began in Conakry, where the group was left stranded while the governments involved were asked to issue visas.

Americans for African Adoptions, Inc., a licensed agency based in Indianapolis, says the children had all been paired with adoptive families months earlier. All that remained was a final court hearing in Freetown to formalize the adoption decrees, said McCann-Willis of Palo Alto, Calif., who was running the agency’s Freetown branch.

The hearing was scheduled June 9, eight days after she fled with the children. Technically, therefore, the children were not formally released by the Sierra Leone government _ a government that no longer exists. That meant getting special permission from the countries of their adoptive parents for them to immigrate, despite a lack of documentation.

The U.S. permission came through Tuesday, but approval from the other countries was in question.

``The children are in a limbo state. It’s very scary just waiting, waiting, waiting,″ said McCann-Willis, who has found a vacant three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Conakry for herself, Adeyemi, the children and two nannies. There is no electricity or furniture.

ISS, an international social services aid organization, notified UNHCR of the impasse after being asked by Canada and New Zealand to look into the adoption agency’s background.

ISS’ concerns aren’t with the adoption agency, which has arranged more than 120 international adoptions and which Saclier said has an excellent reputation. The concern is that without the proper paperwork _ paperwork lost in the chaos of Freetown _ some of the adoptions might be pushed through too hastily by governments.

Ten years down the road, said Saclier, the children and their biological families might begin searching for each other and questioning the legitimacy of the adoptions.

Not all the 18 children are orphans. Several have living relatives, including a mother or father. Americans for African Adoptions says all the children were given up for adoption and that it went through exhaustive checks and cross-checks before accepting them.

Without the supporting paperwork and the final adoption decree from Freetown, however, the UNHCR says there is no proof the children are anything other than refugees who should be sent home when possible.

Monika Brulhart, the UNHCR’s social services officer in Conakry, said rushing visas for the children could send a signal to wealthy Western families that it’s OK to poach Africa’s most valuable resource _ its young people.

Such attitudes are difficult for people like Vander, who lost an infant son to heart disease 29 years ago, to comprehend.

``There’s a window of opportunity to get them out before they get sick,″ the Maine woman said in a telephone interview. ``I want her to have all the nice things in life, and why shouldn’t she? She didn’t choose where she was born.″

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