We are more than Numbers!

by Brenna Kyeong McHugh adopted from Sth Korea to the USA

Below is the documented data and information from The Ministry of Health and Welfare in Korea.

It is inaccurate and incomplete as it states that only 156,242 infants, children and adolescents were adopted from 1953 to 2004. The actual total number of adoptees from Korea since the 1950s is estimated to be 220,000 or more.

There are an estimated 15,000 Korean adoptees in Minnesota alone, including myself. The numbers are appalling. 8,680 children were adopted in 1986, myself included. Read that number again: EIGHT THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED EIGHTY. This is just the number that is documented; it is most likely much higher. 8,680 children lost their families, names, identities, language, and culture. 8,680 families were forever altered and destroyed. 8,680 of us endured irreversible trauma that we continue to work and process through as adults, granted, those of us who did not lose our lives to suicide, abuse, addiction, and other circumstances.

According to the data in the second chart, the leading reason that was documented for adoptions was listed as Abandonment. The second documented reason was Unwed Mothers. They only listed the number of male children who were adopted but not the number of female children, which we can all assume is much, much greater.

These numbers for every year since the beginning of international adoption from Korea are astronomical. The data itself indicates the systemic issues that feed the adoption industry, making it the beast it is today, including racism, White supremacy, saviorism, capitalism, ableism, poverty, socioeconomic issues, politics, etc.

Throughout my journey as an adopted person, I have been told different accounts about the first part of my life. I was first told that my name Lee Okkyeong (pronounced Yi Oak Young), was given to me by my family. Later, I was told that it was given to me when I was being processed at Eastern Social Welfare Society, the adoption agency. I was also told my date of birth was an estimate. I was initially told my mother was single and unwed and that my father was basically a dead beat who left my mother before knowing she was pregnant with me and that he couldn’t hold down a job. When I was 24 years old, I was told by the adoption agency that my mother and father had actually been married.

The beginning of my life is full of contradictions. I still don’t know my truths and I’m going to continue to assume that I never will. Being adopted and trying to piece my past together has proven to me time and time again that people in power and the system are not to be at all trusted, and are not designed or created for the us – the marginalized, the poor, and those who seek change and truth.

The adoption industry will lie, fabricate, use, exploit and destroy families in order to make profit. The adoption industry does not care about children; it only cares about money and having control and power. I realise just how unaware I was of the inequities and inequalities in adoption when I was little and how they affected me even though I couldn’t fully understand or name them.

Korean adoptees are more than these numbers. We are more than this data, and these documented statistics. We are human beings. We have histories and families. We are more than our losses, pain, and trauma. We deserve our truths. The more we adoptees share our narratives and return to Korea to search and fight for our truths and families, the more government and adoption agencies will not have any choice but to acknowledge us and what they did to us – their children.

One More Day Without You

by Pradeep (Philippe Mignon)
Founder Empreintes Vivantes for Sri Lankan adoptees, Belgium

One more day without you.

But this day is special because if I believe my adoption papers, it’s your birthday today.

And today I don’t care if they’re wrong.

Today you would be 69 years old.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss you.

Not a day goes by never to return.

Not a day goes by without giving me hope.

But not a day goes by without taking it from me too.

Maybe one day we will meet again.

Maybe one day you will turn around.

And that day, I’ll be there too, and I won’t blame you.

May you take care of yourself while I find you.

Wherever you are, whatever you do I love you mom. 🙏🏽

Forget Your Past

by Bina Mirjam de Boer adopted from India to the Netherlands.
Originally shared at Bina Coaching.

Forget your past!

I was told this sentence 5 years ago today, when I visited one of my children’s homes for the 2nd time.

The woman who received me wasn’t interested in my questions about my past and didn’t even understand why I wanted to see my file. I had no rights, “Forget your past!”, was screamed loudly! She threw the papers I gave her with a disdainful gesture at my head. She wanted to close the visit with this. The next 2.5 hours were really awful with a lot of screaming, manipulation and arguments between myself, the wife, the interpreter and the social worker.

This visit ended up giving me more questions. Fortunately, thanks to other employees, I finally received answers after 3 years. But my identity is still unknown.

The answers I received brought pain and sadness, but eventually also acceptance and resignation over that part. In my opinion, not knowing is ultimately a heavier fate to carry!

If you are going to search for your identity as an adoptee, it is important that you prepare yourself well. Understand it is almost impossible to know how things will turn out! You can’t imagine how the visit will go beforehand and how you will react if you receive information or not. In India we notice that obtaining information very much depends on whom you speak to.

In addition, there is the difference in culture. We are so devastated that we often view our native country with western glasses. We are not aware that our practices and thoughts are often so different to that of our native country. Sometimes that means that we don’t have compassion and can sometimes even feel disgust for the traditions of our native country.

Root trips often give you the illusion that you can find your roots on one trip or visit. The reality is that you have to go back to your native country and your home several times to get answers.

I myself notice that every time I visit India, I feel more at home and that it’s healing to be able to visit my past. Each piece of puzzle creates more resignation.

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.

I Want My Brothers Back

by Erika Fonticoli, born in Colombia adopted to Italy.

What are brothers and sisters? For me, they are small or big allies of all or no battle. In the course of my life I realised that a brother or a sister can be the winning weapon against every obstacle that presents itself and, at the same time, that comforting closeness that we feel even when there is no battle to fight. A parent can do a lot for their children: give love, support, protection, but there are things we would never tell a parent. And… what about a brother? There are things in my life I’ve never been able to tell anyone, and although I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my sister since childhood, there’s nothing of me that she doesn’t know about.

At the worst moment of my life, when I was so hurt and I started to be afraid to trust the world, she was the hand I grabbed among a thousand others. We are two totally different people, maybe we have only playfulness and DNA in common, but she still remains the person from whom I feel more understood and supported. I love my adoptive parents, I love my friends, but she, she’s the other part of me. Sometimes we are convinced that the power of a relationship depends on the duration of it or the amount of experiences lived together. Yeah, well.. I did not share many moments with my sister, it was not an easy relationship ours, but every time I needed it she was always at my side. I didn’t have to say anything or ask for help, she heard it and ran to me.

And the brothers found as adults? Can we say that they are worth less? I was adopted at the age of 5, with my sister who was 7 yo. For 24 years I believed I had only one other version of myself, her. Then, during the search of my origins, I discovered that I had two other brothers, little younger than me. My first reaction was shock, confusion, denial. Emotion, surprise and joy followed. Finally, to these emotions were added bewilderment and fear of being rejected by them. After all, they didn’t even know we existed, my big sister and I were strangers for them. So… how could I possibly introduce myself? I asked myself that question at least a hundred times until, immersed in a rich soup of emotions, I decided to jump. I felt within myself the irrepressible need to know them, to see them, to speak to them. It was perhaps the most absurd thing I’ve ever experienced. “Hello, nice to meet you, I’m your sister!”, I wrote to them.

Thinking about it now makes me laugh, and yet at the time I thought it was such a nice way to know each other. My younger sister, just as I feared, rejected me, or perhaps rejected the idea of having two more sisters that she had never heard of. The first few months with her were terrible, hard and full of swinging emotions, driven both by her desire to have other sisters and by her distrust of believing that it was real. It wasn’t easy, for her I was a complete stranger and yet she had the inexplicable feeling of being tied to me, the feeling of wanting me in her life without even knowing who I was. She was rejecting me and yet she wasn’t be able to not look for me, she’d look at me like I was something to study, because she was shocked that she looked so much like someone else she had never seen for 23 years.

With my brother it was totally different, he called me “sister” right away. We talked incessantly from the start, sleepless nights to tell each other, discovering little by little to be two drops of water. He was my brother from the first moment. But how is possible? I don’t know. When I set off to meet them, headed to the other side of the world, it all seemed so crazy to me. I kept telling myself: “What if they don’t like me?”, and I wondered what it would feel like to find myself face to face with them. The answer? For me, it was not a knowing each other for the first time, it was a seeing them again. Like when you move away and you don’t see your family for a long time, then when you come home to see them again
you feel moved and run to hug them. This was my first moment with them! A moment of tears, an endless embrace, followed by a quick return playful and affectionate as if life had never separated us even for a day.

So… are they worth less? Is my relationship with them less intense and authentic than that with my sister, with whom I grew up? No. I thought I had another half of me, now I feel like I have three. I see one of them every day, I constantly hear the other two for messages or video calls. There are things in my life that I can’t tell anyone, things that only my three brothers know, and in the hardest moments of my life now I have three hands that I would grab without thinking about it. I love my family, my adoptive parents and my biological mom, but my siblings are the part of my heart I couldn’t live without. Having them in my life fills me with joy, but having two of them so far from me digs a chasm inside me that often turns into a cry of lack and nostalgia. Tears behind which lie the desire to share with them all the years that have been taken from us, experiences and fraternal moments that I have lived with them for only twenty days in Colombia.

As I said earlier, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter the duration of a relationship nor the amount of experiences lived together but the quality… that said, even those rare moments to us seem a dream still unrealisable. In the most important and delicate periods of our lives we often feel overwhelmed by helplessness and the impossibility of supporting each other, because unfortunately a word of comfort is not always enough. We can write to each other, call each other, but nothing will ever replace the warmth of a hug when you feel that your heart is suffering.

In the most painful and traumatic phase of my younger sister’s life, when she started to be afraid of the world, when she thought she deserved only kicks and insults, when she thought she had no one, I wrote to her. I wrote to her every day, worried and sorrowful, and as much as I tried to pass on my love and closeness to her, I felt I couldn’t do enough. I felt helpless and useless, I felt that there was nothing I could do for her, because when I felt crushed by life it was my older sister’s embrace that made me feel protected. And that’s what my little sister wanted at that moment, a hug from me, something so small and
simple that I couldn’t give it to her because the distance prevented me from do it. And neither could our brother because he also grew up far away, in another family. I didn’t know what to do, how I could help her, she was scared and hurt. I wanted her to come live with me, her and my little nephew, so I could take care of them and help them in the most difficult moment of their lives. I’ve been looking into it for months, search after search, and then finding out that despite the DNA test recognised that we’re sisters, the world didn’t.

Legally, we were still a complete strangers, just like when we first spoke.

I would like the law to give the possibility to siblings separated from adoption to be reunited if this is the desire of both, that the law allows us to enjoy those rights that only a familial bond offers. We didn’t decide to split up, it was chosen for us, but we don’t want to blame anyone for it. We just wish we had a chance to spend the rest of our lives as a family, a sentimental and legal family for all intents and purposes. It must not be an obligation for everyone, but an opportunity for those biological brothers whose bond has survived. A chance for us perfect strangers who, in spite of everything, call ourselves family. Maybe someone will find themselves in what I felt and I’m still feeling, maybe someone else won’t, but precisely because every story is different I think there should be a chance of a happy ending for everyone. Mine would be to have my brothers back.

Bolivian Family Searching

by Atamhi Cawayu, doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and the Bolivian Catholic University ‘San Pablo’ (Bolivia). Together with Vicente Mollestad and Teresa Norman, they run Network of Bolivian Adoptees.

This blogpost was initially posted on Atamhi’s Facebook profile and Instagram-account @displaced.alteño

Searching for first family and adoptee activism: Some reflections

In 1993 I got displaced/adopted to Belgium when I was six-month-old. According to my papers, I was found as a new-born in the city of El Alto in Bolivia. Since my twenties, I started to return and reconnect with Bolivia. In the past two years I live more in Bolivia than in Belgium and I consider myself ‘based in Bolivia’. In all these years, I have attempted to search for information about my pre-adoptive past. Since June, together with a fellow Bolivian adoptee friend, we started our search here in Bolivia by starting a big campaign to make ourselves visible.

Reflection 1: Putting up posters in the city

In June 2020, my friend and I started to prepare our searches for our Bolivian relatives by designing posters and putting them in various streets and neighbourhoods in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. It’s not the first time I engage in searching for first families, in the past years I have completed searches for other Bolivian adoptees, which sometimes led to reunions. However, searching is challenging, especially when you don’t have names, places or anything that might lead to our families. 

In Bolivia there is a central authority responsible for international adoption, yet there is no support from organisations or institutions who can really help us. In our cases, we have limited information, but other adoptees have the full name of their mother, or names of family members. Even in their cases it’s often a bureaucratic journey to obtain more information. In addition, most of us don’t know the language, are not familiar with the system, and do not always have the time to search. 

When I started to do my PhD on this topic, my goal has always been to have not only a better insight into the adoption system in Bolivia but also to ‘crack’ the system and understand which clues are necessary in finding one’s family. Besides I think it’s important to document the stories of the first parents and take their experiences into account if we really want to make an honest evaluation of the system of adoption. 

When preparing the posters, making the design, paying the prints, I could only think of one thing: we as adult adoptees have the resources to start this search and do it in an almost professional way. Our parents probably didn’t have the same amount of resources, and even if they did, their stories were regarded as less interesting than ours right now.

Reflection 2: Engaging with TV media

After our first round of posters, we received a message from a journalist from a Bolivian TV channel who was interested in our stories. A few days later they interviewed us, and it was broadcasted one day later. Since then our story was covered by national TV media in Bolivia and it received lots of attention. The media is a necessary evil. It helped a lot in having our cases visible, yet it’s hard to control the questions. They also have their own narrative they want to show.

These experiences made me reflect about several things. Our stories were largely framed as ‘abandoned babies’ returning to Bolivia, after being adopted internationally, however this narrative already makes a lot of assumptions of our mothers abandoning us. When reading the comment section (I know I should not do this) a big part of the viewers didn’t understand why we would search for someone ‘that doesn’t look for us’. However, it’s so much more complex… 

In my case I was found, but I don’t know what really happened. It’s easy to assume I was ‘abandoned’ by one of my parents, but I don’t know. In my research on first parents, I have encountered several parents who never gave up their child to adoption, did it in vulnerable circumstances, or were even pressured by intermediaries (and I’m not even talking about kidnap and illegal adoption). Yet, in many cases they were interested to know what happened to their children, if they were still alive, if they ended up well, etc. Part of our activism is also to speak about this other side of adoption. It’s not always a fairy-tale as many people think. We are part of system that exploits global inequalities, displaces poor brown/indigenous bodies from South to North, and prefers parenthood from the Global North over parenthood of the Global South. 

It is irritating people don’t understand the complexity and violence relinquishment and adoption can entail. Even if our parents wanted to look for us, they wouldn’t be able to find us as we have been relocated and displaced to other continents. When I search for my ‘family’, it is to make myself findable, so they know I am here in Bolivia and willing to be in touch with them. 

Reflection 3: The violence of international adoption

In the days after our first interview, various Bolivian TV channels called us for an interview. Our story was spread nationwide by radio, TV, newspaper. We tried to take advantage of this moment to open the discussion on transnational adoption.

During the interviews we tried to mention that for us adoptees there is no assistance for adoptees to search. Not in our adoptive countries, nor in Bolivia. We have to do almost everything by ourselves, and then I am not even talking about learning the language, understanding the documents, being familiar with the city. As my friend mentioned in several interviews, “searching is something political”. For me searching is doing something you were not supposed to do. It’s opening up histories that were meant to be hidden, it’s doing something within a system that tried to erase everything of your being.

Moreover, another dominant idea is to be lucky and fortunate when being adopted transnationally. One of the journalists said to me “you must be very fortunate”, “many people here would love to be in your shoes”. Throughout the years I have met many people, especially here in Bolivia, who told me I must have been lucky to be have been saved from my ‘miserable future’ in Bolivia and to have a ‘wealthy’ life in Europe. It’s like people think we only ‘won’ by being adopted internationally, but they often forget we have lost many things. I consider all the opportunities I have because of growing up in Europe as compensation for everything I have lost, and I have lost everything.

From my personal perspective, the violence implicit in transnational adoption is to be involuntary transcontinentally displaced, completely severed from our genetic ancestors, disconnected from our community, culture, language, nation, continent, and without any possibility to find our families ever again. For most of us Bolivia will become a country we once lived in. In addition, all our former identities are erased so we can be reborn, renamed, Christianised and assimilated with our adoptive countries. We grow up with complete strangers we are expected to love and call family. We are being brought into a society that doesn’t want us, that racialises us and discriminates us, without any community that provides shelter or understanding. This so-called child protection system – mostly in the benefit of well-off Western adoptive parents who wants to fulfil their heteronormative parental dream – erases everything from us. It is not the first time in colonial history child welfare systems are used to shape, control and erase indigenous children’s identities, and most children adopted from Bolivia have an indigenous background, be it Aymara or Quechua. Transnational adoption is for me an ongoing colonial project of civilising, controlling and managing children from the Global South, transforming them from ‘savages’ to ’civilised’ citizens in the benefit of the capitalist machine of the North. Transnational adoption would not have been possible without a history of colonialism and its ongoing colonial gaze towards countries in the South such as Bolivia.

The adoptee experience is something very diverse. I know some adoptees might disagree on this and that’s fine. I also know other adoptees might recognise themselves in what I write. Every experience is valid. However, my fight and activism are structural against a system that has caused a lot of injustices and is not in the benefit of first parents and adult adoptees. As another adoptee once told me: our parents maybe didn’t have the resources to fight for their rights, but we have, and we will fight for them.

Further Reading

Atamhi’s latest research paper: From Primal to Colonial Wound – Bolivian adoptees reclaiming the narrative of healing

when mothers and fathers run like water, cuando madres y padres corre como el agua

SickNotWeak on Twitter: "Hopelessness and loneliness are two ...

back and forth she runs
calls
day in, day out
though raggedly now
the months
have come and gone
her little one
has not returned

fretting the cobbles
disquieting the village
she calls out once more
my precious one!
mi vida!
hear me!
my little one
oh how i wish
everything impossible

how i wish
for mercy
in a world
with four seasons
sad new moons
dry leaves
winter songs

my life!
these breasts
they hardened
they pained me
for days
and weeks
in protest
as i searched
throughout the land
for you

now they hang
they mock me
in empty reproach
lines like grimaces
coursing purple and angry
run down
pointing to my uselessness

of if there
is a goodness remaining
in the wretchedness
of my ruin
where oh where
is my little one?

to all things holy
hear me
oh may providence protect
what i
could not

mi vida!
within the sound
of my voice
and the cry
of my soul
a small soul
hear me
precious one
where can you be
under this sky?

o mi vida
i am here!

when mothers and fathers run like water
(to the faithful mother cat in our village)
cuandro madres y padres corre como el agua
j.alonso
el pocico, easpaña

Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.

staring at your stone, mirando fijamente a su piedra

seven years too late
but i came anyway
to stare at your stone
beneath my feet
it was all
i knew to do

i primped your dead flowers
saw my reflection
on your polished slate
the shadow of a name
cold
scrolled
i never knew

this stranger before me
whose blood
fills my feet
wordless
faceless
more consistent in death
than ever in life

yes
yes i am here
to curse you
and thank you
for the void
and for this life 

staring at your stone, mirando fijamente a su piedra
mi boreal interior collection
(c) j.alonso 2019
madrid, españa

Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.

Show Love

It’s been a long-running inner debate since the time I was born. Abandonment will do that to a child. It’s been my sickening suspicion that my life has been a waste. This suspicion was probably implanted in me as soon as my birth parents scattered from my presence. The fact that I was left in the care of strangers who couldn’t quite get past the impression that I was a stranger in their midst was never lost on me. With my identity as an adoptee not yet fully realised or solidified so early in life, there were days when I felt unmoored. Not knowing what it truly felt to be loved by my own blood, I would wish only to be expelled from the love and care that had been handed down to me by those who tried to convince me they only had my best interests at heart. The residual resentment of not knowing whether my father and mother loved me and wanted me with them has coloured the way in which I distrust myself with the feeling and act of loving someone. I remain convinced that there is something wrong with the way I love and how I have sought love from others. Even allowing love for myself was never an expectation. Love is a thing that people always said they had for me but could neither show nor explain to me because how can you describe something that seems to be only pulled out of thin air at one’s own convenience. As a youngster I grew up with the nagging feeling that I was thrown in with a lot of people to live in a random place that I didn’t share a history with, but was coaxed each and every day to respect and appreciate by saying “I love you” whenever it was my turn to speak. Affection and companionship were thrown at my feet with the admonition to take them or leave them. I mirrored customs, expectations, and incentives to love, but what was missing was a genuine and clear-headed comprehension of what it means to love and what happens to your mind when you decide to show love and receive love. Absent any key discussions and explanations, my young mind could only play along and follow the unwritten rules when it came to familial bonding, early crushes, and soul-mating. Because of my pretend existence and ignorance of my innate truths, I conducted myself like a laboratory technician whenever the atmosphere softened around me and I started to tingle all over when my eyes settled on a girl at school or in casual passing. In my head, I had all the flasks, tubes and chemicals available to concoct a love potion that I could sprinkle over the brow of the one who had caught my eye at the time. The sad, self-defeating thing was, though, my feelings, thoughts, words, and so much of my personality resided solely in my head. This self-imposed silence, masquerading as humility and reservedness, had the effect of extracting sympathy from a potential lover. I then used this sympathy to position myself as the man who could rescue them from pain that others had inflicted, from histories of spouse/partner abuse and from their own self-destructive habits. My ego always got a kick out of playing savior, exalted as it always was by any reciprocal affection. Selfish were these gambits, nay, habits of involving myself in a person’s life so as to ostensibly use them to help me remind myself that I am a good person, even though I feel myself drifting out of humanity’s fold as each year passes.

About Kev Minh

Telling My Mother

Maria Heckinger today

I am Maria Heckinger and at age 66, I am one of the older adoptees posting on this site. I am honoured to be asked by Lynelle to share a couple of stories unique to my adoption.

First, a little history about the Greek adoptions. It was the early 1950’s and WWII had taken a huge toll on Europe, leaving no country unscathed. During the war, Greece was occupied by armies from three countries; Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. The Nazi Occupation was followed by a protracted Civil War, which left the Greek economy and infrastructure in ruins. Mass adoptions from Greece to the United States started as early as 1950. Then, in a humanitarian gesture, the United States passed more broadly conceived refugee relief legislation in 1953, allowing the immigration of European refugees and foreign adoptions to proceed. It is a little-known fact that Greece was the first nation in modern times to open its borders and allow intercountry adoptions.[1] And proceed they did, in remarkably large numbers.

Hariklea Voukelatos, my birth mother

In 1984, I was 30 and back in Greece for the first time since my 1956 adoption. While on that trip I found the orphanage where I spent my earliest years. Overlooking the coastal city of Patras, it was a massive building. Sitting in the director’s office, I did not expect to find such detailed records—or the director’s willingness to show them to me. All the notes, religious charms, and legal or informal documents left with babies were saved and were kept in big ledgers. When the director showed me the note written by my mother, and the declaration she filed at the local City Hall asking the orphanage to take over my care, I was left stunned. After the tour, I returned to Patras and, within two days, I found my birthmother, Hariklea Voukelatos. At 30 years of age, my life changed in an instant. I spent a joyous week with Hariklea and my half-sister, Katina. It was the beginning of a 36-year relationship that led to meeting uncles, aunts, and cousins. My elation at finding my birth family was tempered, however, by anxious thoughts of how to tell Ellen Pace, the only mother I knew and loved.

The following excerpt is from my book, Beyond the Third Door Based on a True Story. Vancouver, WA (2019).

I was happy my story had touched people so profoundly, but there was one person I worried about telling, Mom. Dad had passed away the year before, and she was alone after 43 years of marriage. I did not want to add to her pain. Having to tell Ellen about finding Hariklea was a scenario I never dreamed I would face. Ellen had wanted a child so badly I didn’t want her to think I was ungrateful, disloyal, or she was losing me to my real Mom. Ellen was the most selfless person I knew, and I loved her more than anyone in the world. She had adopted and loved me unconditionally, and I would take this secret to my grave rather than hurt her.

Ellen Pace, my mom as a young woman

With my San Diego plans complete, the only thing left was to put my photographs into an album. Unlike Mom, who was motivated by love when she selected my album years before, my motivation was fear as I chose one with easily removable pages. I was still undecided on what to tell Mom, so it gave me options. Upon arrival, I picked up my car and headed to Mom’s home in San Diego’s backcountry. The baseball-sized knot in my stomach was a constant reminder of what lay ahead. I tried to ease my apprehension with thoughts of how receptive Mom had been about adoption – not just mine, but my three siblings as well. She had spent countless hours making scrapbooks filled with their adoption artifacts too. Richard Jr. and Deirdre’s albums even included their mother’s name. In the past month, I had found a mother and a sister, discoveries I was still processing. I was excited to know my new family, but I wanted to protect the one I had. It was a delicate balance I struggled to maintain. My fears of hurting Mom took on a life of their own and nearly blinded me from believing she could accept such a truth. With her house in sight, the knot in my stomach was now the size of a basketball. I pulled off the road and gathered myself before I continued. Mom knew I was on the way, so there was no turning back. With no guidebook on how to handle this type of situation, I had only one choice. Face the music and trust the Mother who loved and raised me. Pulling into her driveway, Mom came outside to greet me, and I hugged her a little longer than usual. Her arms around me felt like home; safe and familiar.

I was putting my luggage in the spare room when Mom came to the door and asked a question that stopped me cold. “So, did you meet any relatives while you were over there?” I busied myself with my suitcase, and after a long pause, I managed a weak, “Yes.” Her next question was the one I dreaded: “Who did you find?” My throat constricted and I could barely speak, so I deflected with a question of my own. “Mom, guess — the most unbelievable relative you can imagine?” “You found your mother, didn’t you?” I mumbled, “Yes.” “Oh my God, you found your mother? I want to hear all about it,” Mom proclaimed. Stunned, I stood there like a statue, unable to move or speak. The weeks of angst had been for naught, and my fear of hurting Ellen had consumed me unnecessarily. Mom’s questions made this more comfortable than I could have dreamed. Relaxing a bit, I wondered what had prompted her initial question. Had Mom suspected I was hiding something during our telephone conversations? Could she sense I was carrying an emotional burden? I knew it was now or never, so I went to the bedroom, grabbed the album, and set it on the kitchen table. I patted the chair next to me, invited Mom to sit, and began. The photos were invaluable as I led Mom through my two months in Greece. I moved through them at a deliberate pace, hoping we wouldn’t spend too much time on the pictures of Hariklea. As we neared the photographs of her, my fears returned, and I was overwhelmed by feelings of betrayal. I looked away and questioned my decision as Mom examined the woman who had given birth to “her” child. I hope Mom doesn’t think I look like Hariklea. Should I have included the photos with my arm around her? What about the pictures of Hariklea, Katina and me, arm in arm at the taverna? “She looks like a nice woman. What’s her name?” was all Mom asked. “Her name is Hariklea, and she is nice. The young woman is her daughter, Katina.” Mom was surprised Patras still had an orphanage with such good records, but she was bowled over when I described how we found Hariklea. I didn’t know much yet, but I shared what she had told me about her life. When I told Mom about my week in Hariklea’s home with Katina, she was happy for me and wanted details of our time together. Mom couldn’t imagine dining by the sea with your feet in the sand, but she laughed when I shared stories of Hariklea’s bossy personality. I concluded with a comment about her generosity but did not mention the soul-crushing guilt she still felt over losing me. Mom didn’t need to hear that. We finished looking at the album and enjoyed the meal she had prepared. After we washed the dishes, I went for a walk along the stream running by her house. I knew Mom needed some private time with her thoughts and the photo album. I was gone for a half-hour but returned to the back of the house so I could peek through a window and see if she was finished. There she was sitting at the table, hunched over the album and staring at the page. I knew which photos Mom was glued to, and I couldn’t imagine how she felt right now. Did she feel threatened by my birth mother? Was this the day Mom feared might come? Would she worry I loved her any less? I felt happy, sad, and vulnerable as I watched her study the photographs of Hariklea. Tears sprung from my eyes and ran down my cheeks as I quietly watched her. I wanted to give Mom all the time she needed, so I went for another walk. The second time around, I made a noisy entrance via the front door to announce my arrival.


[1] For more information on these early waves of international adoptions from Greece, see Van Steen, Gonda (2019). Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo? (U of Michigan Press), 77-78.

Orphanage photo of Maria Heckinger

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