No one grieves openly at Layla House except frightened newcomers. One day, it was 4-year-old Isak, an only child whose father died a year earlier and whose mother died just three months before. A kind neighbor walked Isak to the local authorities, who notified the Children's Commission, which placed him here. His head freshly shaved, Isak sat alone on a low curb at the far edge of the playground, mute with homesickness and embarrassment and misery. His round dark eyes looked too big for his bald head; his head looked too big for his body. Although he knew his mother was dead, he couldn't help looking up briefly at every adult, just in case, but the particle of hope in his eyes was nearly extinguished.
On his first night in the boys' dorm room, he shied back from the four sets of white metal bunk beds, but big boys were kind to him; Haptamu and Frew showed Isak that they slept within arm's reach. When he yelped in the night, one of the two sleepily murmured a word of comfort.
Within two weeks, Isak found his niche in the community of children. He made a long detour around the rough playground football game and shyly volunteered, instead, to partake in the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony arranged by little girls under the vines, with a wood plank for a table and used bottle caps as cups. His soft curly hair began to grow out; his haunted look softened; and his photograph was privately circulated by Adoption Advocates International to prospective adoptive families who had signed up with the agency.
Every child on the premises can recite which children have adoptive families waiting for them in America and which children are still hoping to be matched with a family. The assigned children have in their possession small photograph albums full of nearly unbelievable images: big grinning adults -- white or African-American -- standing on green lawns in front of pretty houses and happy children playing on swing sets, sitting astride ponies, wearing goggles and leaping off diving boards or appearing in hooded parkas and mittens pulling sleds up snowy hills. The orphans turn the plastic-covered pages of their photo albums slowly, trying to make sense of each image. These have to be fairy tales! Yet the owner of each album has been told it is his or her destiny to leap into these scenes.
''I think America has all things in her hands,'' says the boy who wants to be Jackie Chan. ''Everyone is hoping to be chosen by American parents. When the children learn that they have parents, they tell from peoples to peoples their parents' names and their city.''
Though still small, the number of Ethiopian children adopted by Americans has grown substantially in the last 10 years. ''What families consistently tell us is how happy and well adjusted the children are, that they obviously had been well nurtured and that they are extremely intelligent,'' says Carter-Shotts of Americans for African Adoptions.
Some of the children from the countryside arrive in the United States with tribal markings or accidental scars from a cook fire or a goat's horn. Asrat, who is now 20 and was one of the early Ethiopian children to be adopted in this country, killed a lion when he was very young, using a stick from the fire in defense of his family compound. He proudly wore a ritual scar across one eyebrow, bestowed by his village of Welayta, which declared him a man. Within months after his referral to an adoption program, he was a fifth grader at a Seattle-area elementary school.
Samuel, a 7-year-old whose parents died of malaria, missed sleeping on his shelflike bed high under the roof of the family's round hut and listening to the rain scatter when it hit the corrugated metal. Shortly after he was adopted, he graciously asked his suburban mom if she would like him to butcher a cow for dinner.
Abebaw, 7, missed the doro wat -- the chicken stew -- of his homeland after he was adopted by an American family in South Korea. His mother, Anna, brought home chunks of cut-up chicken from the grocery.
''No, real chicken, you need,'' he protested.
''This is real chicken,'' she said.
''No, need real chicken. Ethiopia chicken.''
''O.K., I give up. What is real chicken?''
''The kind you cut head off. Noisy one. Running around. Head off, but running. That Ethiopia chicken.''
Yilkal, 10, was adopted by an African-American family in Katy, Tex. One-quarter of Adoption Advocates International's adoptive families for Ethiopian kids are African-American or Ethiopian-American. When Yilkal's mother, Naomi Talley, flew to Addis Ababa to meet him and take him home, her hosts all praised her beauty and said that her forebears must have come from Ethiopia. Once settled with his new father, mother and younger sister into an upscale American house on a cul-de-sac, Yilkal revised his personal saga and told his new friends and teachers that the entire Talley family had just emigrated from Ethiopia. Naomi was startled when a local organization of African emigres left a welcome basket on the doorstep and an invitation to a picnic. ''They'll know,'' she told her son, laughing. ''I don't speak Amharic or any other African language.''
''They won't know, Mama,'' he pleaded, looking at her adoringly.