Searching for my family in the Philippines

The following blog series will be dedicated to our Searching in Intercountry Adoption series. These individual stories are being shared from our Perspective Paper that was also shared with our Webinar, Searching in Intercountry Adoption by Adoptee Experts..

by Desiree Maru, born in the Philippines, raised in the USA

I was born in destitute poverty in the Philippines in 1985 and hence relinquished to an adoption agency on the day that I was born. I was taken care of at Asilo de la Milagrosa, in the care of Catholic nuns who were social workers at the time, and adopted via Holt International to the USA when I was about two years old. I did not know my adoptive parents, nor did they come out to the Philippines to get to know me. My name legally changed, and I was flown from an airplane and delivered to Caucasian strangers that were my legally binding family.

I grew up in Wisconsin, in the Midwest, and had an adopted brother, who was two years older than me, who was also adopted from the Philippines, from a different orphanage. We grew up not being taught about the Philippines. We grew up with a lack of pride or understanding of our home culture, heritage, customs and language. Instead we were heavily assimilated into the Western culture; we were asked a few times about our culture from our adoptive parents but it wasn’t enough support to keep us connected to our home traditions. 

Barriers included a lack of being informed from our adoptive parents about our homeland, ancestry and we also lacked emotional-psychological support for intercountry adoptees in the Midwest at the time. I vaguely remember a time when my adoptive mother sat me down in the living room, back in Wisconsin, she told me I was adopted, and I said, “I know,” and walked out of the living room. I went back to my bedroom to be by myself. That’s the tone of my childhood, where I was showing like I didn’t care when in fact, the whole experience was difficult for me. But I didn’t know how to reach out or talk about it to anybody.

My brother had a lot of issues and we moved to Arizona in high school to try to start over as a family. This is a time when my adoptive mother came into my bedroom and showed me my biological papers. She said she had to wait until I was 18 to give these to me, but I was close enough to the age, or something along those lines. She left, and I looked at them and I cried. I saw the name of my birth mother, and I longed to know more about her. 

I imagined my birth mother a lot in those days. I wrote poetry, and it was never enough to fill the gap and missing pieces of my heart. 

Obstacles in searching at the time was that my biological papers, which had been established by social workers in the Philippines, didn’t preserve much of any functional information for independently searching for family members or family history. These biological papers lacked any kind of suitable, identifiable information that preserved in any way my heritage and family tree information, which would be necessary to piece together my past without needing the very individuals to re-establish the knowledge of my heritage. 

My biological papers revealed next to nothing about my father, which later on, I would find that the information that was volunteered by my birth mother was also false. But as a teenager, when all I have are these old, governmentally-certified papers from my home country, that’s all that I had. So these old-fashioned, brittle documents were my only hope, which were papers that scarcely were able to certify my birth on thin, fragile paper. I had a feeding schedule from my orphanage and a mighty, descriptive report of what I looked like and acted like as a vulnerable baby in the orphanage. And that was all I had of my entire past. These artefacts showed I was just a product of the adoption process. 

I finally decided to pursue a reunion when I was in my mid-twenties. I discovered that Holt International actually had a search and reunion department, so I emailed them, and started the process. They reached out to my old orphanage, Asilo de la Milagrosa, and the kind social workers there had found my files. They also went themselves to the address of my birth mother, and thankfully, she still lived there. From that point, they coordinated with her.

I planned a trip to the Philippines with barely enough funds to cover this at the time. It was difficult because my adoptive mother wasn’t supportive at all, and nobody from my adoptive family supported me either. But in a few months, I was able to create an itinerary. I was to leave Seattle, to the Philippines, and I was given a place to stay with the Intercountry Adoption Board of the Philippines, and later, Asilo de la Milegrosa had guest quarters too. 

The cost of a reunion is plenty. The cost of travel is hefty. But the main cost to consider is the toll of what you’re undergoing psychologically and emotionally. You’ve spent all your life fabricating an identity away from this place, and now you’re returning, and you’re having to break out of that safety net to acknowledge and face parts of your past that had been concealed all this time. So it is disruptive to the security in our lives. It is a risk one takes as well, because you don’t know the results, and how you’ll process the experience post-reunion either. 

The outcome of this search was that I was unknowingly able to have a reunion granted for me, with my birth mother and half-birth brother, due to all of these circumstances leading up to this being uniquely favourable and available to me at the time. 

My reunion was in 2012, and it is now 2023 and I’m living on my own in Indiana. My adopted brother recently passed away last year, homeless on the streets of the Philippines, in 2022. He lacked much needed support throughout his whole life, which will always weigh on me, and I miss him everyday. I don’t talk with my adoptive family anymore, although I had kept in touch with my adoptive parents and grandparents mainly. I just have one surviving adoptive grandfather now as well, so life has changed even in their circumstances. 

After experiencing the whole search and reunion process, I do have my own perspectives to share. I think what is needed is that every adoption company and governmental organisation should have a search and reunion department for all adoptees to utilise.

Every adoption agency and birth country of an orphaned or vulnerable child should be collecting all of their biographical information including family trees and family members, so that they can have the knowledge of their past to utilise for their own personal purposes. Adoptees should have a right to have their family history preserved and safeguarded, administratively. Their biographical information, including birth information and birth records, needs to be preserved as best as possible, and social workers should make sure that all information is accurate and not in fact made up. 

This biographical information is what holds the last of an adoptee’s own cultural identity and historical background, and even medically, this is paramount. This information could give a sense of security and psychological support if anything, which could save society a lot of issues in the long run. It would hold well in the search and reunion process because the more information adoptees are given, the more options adoptees have for meeting or getting to know their home countries in ways that are comfortable for them.

Supportive resources include the adoption agencies free search and reunion administrative support, biological paper filing and holding for the adoptee; it is giving an adoptee full access to their records at any time as well. Intercountry adoption boards or agencies of the home country, and the orphanage that the adoptee was cared for at, all need to be officially accountable. They all need to have proper records of the vulnerable child, and proper process and procedures for the search and reunion. Support should be accessible on a regular basis. 

There should be rapid communication readily available for adoptees today such as having proper email addresses, current phone numbers and customer service at hand. Support should be granted such as places to stay when the adoptee visits the home country and on a reunion; they should be informed of the reunion process, given counselling support, translator support, and if someone can document the reunion for the adoptee, that could help too. 

Now in 2023, after all these years of living life, pursuing therapies, working and becoming the owner of my own life, I’ve decided to start a new chapter of my search and reunion by requesting a MyHeritage DNA Kit for starting an initial search for biological relatives, and to also learn about my DNA heritage, and where I come from. This DNA kit was free due to the program in place recently, which was why I’d participated in requesting this kit. 

The difference in this is that before, I would say, I experienced more of a direct line to my poverty-stricken past at Asilo de la Milagrosa, where in my mid-twenties, I met my birth mother and half birth-brother in 2012. Now, it is simply nice to search in a more discovery-toned, self-paced way, versus having to respond to a critical need to grasp the truth of what happened to me as a vulnerable baby and understand why my mother gave me up when I was born.

In this DNA search, I don’t have to ask too many hard questions, although even to this day, some questions can still linger in my mind from time to time: Why didn’t my biological family contact me all this time? Why wasn’t I able to mend the fabric of my biological family history at a certain point in my life? And, why did my past have to be such a void? 

Coming Next: Searching for my family in Sri Lanka

Resources

Search and Reunion in Intercountry Adoption

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