The Stolen Children of Cambodia

by Elizabeth Jacobs, born in Cambodia and adopted to the USA.

Elizabeth as an infant

I would like to share with you about my project in which I will be creating a documentary that will follow my first trip back to Cambodia since my adoption which occurred in year 2000. I am now twenty one years old and I am finding out who I really am as a person and what I want to make of myself. Before I continue to grow further into the adult I wish to be, I feel the need to come to terms with my past. After revisiting some documents and photos from my adoption, I discovered some inconsistencies that raise questions about my past. I’m hoping that by returning to Cambodia I might search for my original identity to better understand my life before it was Americanised.

At first, my plan for the documentary was to show the process of finding my Cambodian family roughly twenty one years later. My intent was to focus on a possible reunion with any biological family members I may have and to retrace the steps of my adoption, such as revisiting the orphanage from which I was relinquished and possibly visiting my foster mother and nanny. However, while investigating my adoption, I uncovered much more than what was previously known.

I feel emotionally ready and curious to learn about my adoption but in doing so, I’ve sifted through all of the documents and found some new information that leaves me questioning whether I have been stolen or not from my biological parents, perhaps not legally relinquished as I previously thought.

Not having any information about my biological family, I wonder whether or not I am a victim of Lauren Galindo, the infamous baby trafficker in Cambodia, and her network of recruiters. The Galindo scheme went as follows: a recruiter would befriend and garner the trust of impoverished parents by giving them small amounts of money and promising them that they would take their children to an orphanage where they would be well cared for while the family got back on their feet. Further they would assure the parents that their children, when grown up, would support them from America. That is how the process was played out in regard to many babies and small children whose parents were too impoverished to care for them. Instead of giving these children back to their parents, the liaison offered these children up for adoption mostly to American parents in return for “bogus adoption fees” in the amount of thousands of dollars. The fees were entirely made up by Galindo as the government did not require adoption fees.

My adoption was conducted just months after the adoption ban was put in place due to the Lauren Galindo child trafficking scandal. Galindo was charged with money laundering for which she was later incarcerated for 8 months and accused of setting up a baby/child trafficking ring where children were stolen from their loving families and sold for a profit.

Twenty one years later, I am now an adult ready to make my own choices and I want to visit my past and confront any unresolved issues that have remained hidden for so many years.

I feel this topic is important because it is about my past and how my life could have been drastically different if I had never been adopted. Now that I wonder if my adoption was part of a baby trafficking scandal in Cambodia, this documentary grew to being more than just a reunion with my home country. It has become a visual diary and real time investigation on the truth about my adoption. I am displaying my journey to the public so I can share this very important story of lost identity. There are hundreds of adoptees like me and I think it is important to spread awareness about this scandal because there might be others out there who believe they are legally adopted, when in actuality, they may have family in Cambodia who have wondered all these years where their child ended up.

My arrival

I feel this topic is important and highly relevant because Cambodia still has a ban on international adoptions due to the sheer amount of corruption within the adoption industry. Today, the Cambodian government is working little by little to lift the ban, however, because the country is so poor, it could be so easy for things to go back to how they were where unscrupulous people try again to take advantage of parents who need help with their children.

I have always grown up wanting to adopt from Cambodia, but I cannot do that with this ban in place. It saddens me to know there are genuine orphans in Cambodia waiting to be adopted but cannot because there are too many who would take advantage of their abandonment in exchange for a profit.

As this documentary is very personal to me, I know I will find it challenging and it will be a very emotional but impactful journey to capture. It is also a possibility that I do not find any information on my biological parents and I end up with even more questions than I started. The goal is therefore, to get as much clarity about my past as I can. The outcome is uncertain but this only adds to the suspense that this documentary will capture.

If you would like to support me in my quest to create this documentary, please visit my fundraiser website.

When It’s Time to Go Home

In my first post, I stated my wish to share a couple of events experienced by few, if any, Greek adoptees. Finding my birthmother, Hariklea Voukelatos, when I was 30 was a gift beyond measure. Twelve years later Hariklea made a remarkable request that changed the lives of my family forever and makes my adoption story truly unique.

It was the summer of 2007, and I was glad to be back in Greece after two years away. My usual itinerary involved spending a couple of days in Athens with my cousins before I took the bus to Patras to stay with Hariklea, my birthmother. A phone call changed everything. When cousin Zoe phoned Hariklea to tell her I had arrived, I had an inkling something was up when their conversation lasted longer than what seemed necessary. Even so, I was not prepared for Zoe’s announcement: “Maria, Hariklea has made other plans for your weekend. She wants you to come to Patras today.” “Why today?” I asked. “Because Hariklea wants to go home to her village on Lefkada Island and you are going to take her there,” Zoe replied. Her comment was met with dead silence. Then everyone started talking at once and peppering Zoe with questions. She quieted everyone down and continued: “Hariklea left Nikolis 44 years ago as a frightened, pregnant, teenager. Now she is an old woman who wants to see her childhood home one last time before she dies. When you arrive in Patras, she will rent a car for the drive. You will stay with my parents, Thodoris and Marianna. Hariklea has even arranged for a translator for your visit. We sat in silence, each of us trying to get our heads around what this meant to the family when cousin Eve cut to the chase and stated, “Forty-four years ago your mother was forced to leave Nikolis because of you. Now 44 years later, she can return to Nikolis because of you.” In two short sentences, Eve had articulated the irony of Hariklea’s request. It was understandable and profound.

What a crazy morning! In two hours, I had gone from sipping coffee on the beach to a hard, wooden bench at a bus station. I had no idea what to expect, but the abrupt changes in my plans were small compared to the total transformation of my Greek family’s life. All these changes only heightened my anticipation of the upcoming trip.

I boarded the bus for Patras and settled into my seat. Looking out the window at the familiar countryside, memories of my first visit to Lefkada in 1996 returned. With God’s grace, a fork in the road and the letter “N,” Bev and I had found tiny Nikolis clinging to a steep mountainside on our first day of looking. My uncles were more than a little shocked to meet the child Hariklea was carrying when she left the island. Hearing the grown woman standing in front of them was their niece must have been like seeing a ghost from the past. We shared a meal that started with a bit of tension but ended with Thodoris welcoming me to the family.

Three hours later I arrived in Patras and took a taxi to Hariklea’s home. Parked out front was a funny, little, purple car with an anemic three-cylinder engine. Perfect for our trip, it suited the narrow roads and got good gas mileage. We stowed our bags and climbed in the car. Settled in, Hariklea looked at me and said, “Pame” (“Let’s go”).

Driving together for hours with an unavoidable language barrier made for a challenging trip. We managed to converse about simple things, and while there was not much said, a lot was communicated. Barreling down the road, I wondered what could be more reasonable than a mother and daughter driving home to visit the relatives. Nothing, except we were no ordinary mother and daughter, and the home had remained unseen for four decades. The significance of what we were doing was not lost on us at all.

Five hours and 15 hairpin-turns later we pulled into Uncle Thodoris’ driveway. There were hugs and kisses all around as he and Marianna came out to greet us. Once inside, we were introduced to our translator, Kalliopy, a friend of Thodoris. Hariklea and I got settled in our room before joining the others at the kitchen table. We stayed up for hours talking, laughing, and drinking Thodoris’ homemade krasi (wine). Around midnight Kalliopy returned home and we went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.

We were up the next morning sipping coffee when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find a tiny, senior, man with his hands in his pockets, watery eyes, and trembling lips. He was shaking as he asked to come in. The minute he saw Hariklea, he shuffled to her as fast as he could, embraced her and sobbed. Kalliopi explained his name was Andreas Adipas, a childhood friend from Nikolis. They sat close together on kitchen chairs, holding one another like old friends do and sharing their news. The tender scene unfolding in front of us brought everyone to tears. How sad these two friends had lost out on a lifetime of friendship. Andreas was the first villager to welcome Hariklea home, and that meant the news had spread: Hariklea Voukelatos was back on Lefkada.

The excitement in the house was palpable as we changed clothes and prepared to leave for Nikolis. We were all expected for lunch with Nikos and Zahareena. There were five of us, so Thodoris and Marianna led the way in his truck with Hariklea, Kalliopi, and me following behind. The drive was short, but no one spoke along the way. I wanted Hariklea to have time to prepare herself as we drove over the steep, windy, roads she had not seen since she was a teenager. We passed the field where her mother’s dowry of nine olive trees still grew as well as the olive press our fathers had shared. I turned right at the sign that led travelers to Nikolis and within minutes parked in front of Hariklea’s old home.

Details about Hariklea’s return home after 44 years, can be found in my recently published book: Beyond the Third Door: Based on a True Story (Vancouver, WA, 2019)

About Maria

Returning to Vietnam

Kate Vietnam1.png

Returning to Vietnam in April this year was partly to do some searching but what I’ve realised since being back, is that it actually had more to do with my inner healing. What I didn’t realise until now, was the after-effect and impact that would continue strongly, three months since returning to Australia.

I was blessed to be able to make my fourth trip back to Vietnam with my adoptive parents and my youngest biological daughter. The trip was a three-generation shared story.

Kate Vietnam2

It’s been 25 years since my Aussie mum, dad and I made our first trip back. I recall on that first trip, declaring that I’d changed my mind about returning and mum had to physically support me off the plane as I wept at the enormity of the situation. This time, I looked lovingly out the plane window at the lights of Ho Chi Minh city and felt genuine happiness to be back. 

We had a plan to meet with a priest who was in the same order as the priest, Father Oliver, was who ran my orphanage when I had been here as an infant before my adoption. This priest still works at the same church where Father Olivier had been head priest. The most amazing thing was, we got to see where I was born!

Throughout this trip, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the people I met who have invested in helping me search for my family. I also got to meet the investigator who was working with ISS Australia before they lost their funding. This investigator has been the only person able to locate a document that had my Vietnamese mother’s name on it. The investigator is herself a fellow Vietnamese Australian adoptee, so she completely understands my story and the feelings associated with my search. 

Kate Vietnam3.png

Whilst in Vietnam, I enjoyed eating as much like a local as possible and I made sure I had a Vietnamese coffee every day. But the real surprise has been what’s happened for me since returning from Vietnam this time. I am filled with a genuine sense of peace about my search. I’m truly okay with not being any further along with finding blood relatives. The connections I have made with people who are still searching for me has been amazing. Just knowing there are people who care enough to help is very humbling.

Since being home in Australia, I have a real sense of being more present in my life and I have more space within, to just be me. I can’t explain the feeling but I’ll try. I feel content and no longer have the need to operate from a place where I’m trying to impress people or get them to like me. I don’t care if they do now or not. I’m filling myself with more self worth and know that I can trust myself to be my own keeper i.e., take care of myself. This  return trip has been a real growth journey for me.

I’m also excited knowing that I will return again next year. I left not needing to be sad or wondering when I’ll be back. I’ve decided I need to make a trip back at least once every two years to stay connected to my homeland, where my soul feels at peace.

About Kate