As one of the earliest cohorts of intercountry adoptees, the Greek intercountry adoptee community is represented by the amazing work that Linda Carrol Forrest Trotter does under her organisation The Eftychia Project. I’ve been connecting with Linda over the past 5 years and I love what she has done in advocacy to bring her community to the attention of the Greek government. It’s wonderful when adoptees advocate for themselves!
This was one of the meetings Linda had with the Greek government late last year. Apologies for posting so late but it’s helpful for other adoptee groups and leaders to see what some adoptee leaders are doing around the world to advocate for their community.
Here is Linda’s formal letter which she provided to the Greek government at her meeting. Thanks for sharing Linda!
Excellent work and let’s hope the Greek government steps up and provides much needed supports, services, and rights to the Greek adoptee community which are requested in Linda’s letter. These right and requests need to be recognised as basic essentials to be provided from every country that we are adopted from.
For more on Adoptee Advocacy, see ICAVs extensive list of blogs on some of the work we’ve done around the world.
by 백현숙 (Baek Hyun Sook) adopted from South Korea to Belgium.
11 January 1984
There we were, 38 years ago! 3 small Koreans with a backpack – where the first stone was thrown in, not yet realising that the backpack would be filled with a lot of questions, insecurities, and a mess of feelings!
Every year again, around the time of January 11, I am overcome by a lot of emotions.
I’m trying to feel what my sisters felt then, how other fellow mourners felt. As a 1 year old, I can’t remember anything of this. But I can imagine how terrifying and traumatic this must have been for other adoptees who were older.
But too often adoption is considered a beautiful thing, a happiness, new opportunities. And it’s too often forgotten what this means for the adoptees themselves. For me, this became a long hard quest for why? Who am I? And it has severely damaged my self-esteem and confidence. I can say this has made an impact on my entire life.
Finding my Korean parents 5 years ago has changed nothing. Learning that my parents didn’t know anything about our adoption and the impact it has on them for the rest of their lives, gives me an even more restless feeling. Not only in terms of my adoption story but also in terms of many of my peers who are still looking. The realisation that many of my fellow adoptees had a similar story. Realising that often we have a not-so-kosher start to adoption. However, I’m also happy and grateful that I had the opportunity to grow up with my 2 sisters who are my support!
by Sara Jones/Yoon Hyun Kyung, adopted from South Korea to the USA.
I have no photos of myself before I was 3 years old. I have a few photos after that age taken at the orphanage. Staff members took photos of children to send to sponsors or potential adoptive parents. In one of the photos, I am wearing a Korean hanbok but I am not smiling in any of the photos at the orphanage.
A few months ago, I came across a photo (not one of mine) that literally made me feel like I had been thrown back in time. The photo was taken in 1954 at a well. The well has high cement walls and a pulley system. Rusted metal drums sit nearby. Two young boys are drawing water while a little girl stands near them. The 1954 photo helped me visualize what life might have been like for me in Jeonju, South Korea.
Here’s what I see when I looked at that 1954 photo: I see an older brother, about 8 years old, a younger brother almost 6 years old, and their little sister who is 2 years old. They are poor, but don’t really know anything different. They live with their grandmother and father in a rural village in South Korea. Their father is the oldest of several children and some of their aunts and uncles are still quite young. They are all struggling through the economic disruption that has happened in their country. Their father worked in manual labor and was injured. So the boys help their father and keep watch of their little sister. The little sister is used to staying near her brothers. Sometimes the children go to day care and the boys sneak the little sister extra corn snacks. Her brothers are her protectors.
The children don’t know that their father is making an excruciating decision. Their father can no longer provide for them and thinks his only choice is to send them to the children’s welfare center. The little girl has no idea that she will be separated from her father or even from her brothers. The children also don’t know that their father will soon take them to a well and give them each a tattoo on their arm, using a needle, ink and thread. He is worried he will never see his children again. In the 1954 photo, the children are just siblings, sent to the well for the day’s water.
The children might have wondered why their father was taking them to the well the day he gave them their tattoos. The oldest son cries as his father gives him the tattoo. As the father gives his oldest son his tattoo, he says to him, “I will come back for you.” Before the father gives his little baby daughter her tattoo, he hugged her.
It’s been a long 3 years since I met my Korean birth family. The distance from the U.S. to South Korea feels longer and harder with the pandemic. The language barrier weighs on me constantly. How will I ever communicate with them?
Some things need no words. Like this moment 3 years ago of my Korean family and I at the well in Jeonju, where my father gave us our tattoos. Watch the video here.
by Andrea Pelaez Castro adopted from Colombia to Spain. Andrea has written a masters thesis that investigates adoptions in Spain with a focus on how to prevent adoption rupture/breakdowns. You can follow her blogspot Adoption Deconstruction.
INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION IN SPAIN: DECONSTRUCTION OF AN ANACHRONISM
Some might think how lucky I am because I didn’t lose my mother tongue, nor my biological sisters and the fact that we blended in with our parents. Along these years, a lot of people dared to tell me we should thank whoever is in charge of this world that we weren’t on the streets drugging or prostituting ourselves. It was my parents who put that idea in our soft brains in the first place. Those words marked my entire childhood, but I’ve always felt something was wrong. I didn’t felt grateful for all those things I was supposed to be. On the contrary, I kept asking myself why we were in country that wasn’t our own, why we were treated so different from others kids, and why we couldn’t claim our mother (something we stopped doing because of the punishment we received). This constant fight between what I was supposed to feel and what I felt turned out to be, was the longest period of hatred and low self-esteem that I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t bear the anger and loneliness that comes with what I was told: my mother abandoned us because she didn’t love us. Repeated word after word like a mantra, I embraced that idea in order to survive and be accepted. However, being conscious of the situation I was living, I eventually reached the turning point when I left the nest.
My life was about to change again thanks to my determination to know the truth, frightening as it might be. In 2015, I lived in London for a year, my first independent experience which allowed me to think about my origins and my mother. When I came back to Spain, my adoptive country, I decided to start my journey along with my professional career as a lawyer. As a way to understand why I hold myself back for so many years and why my parents didn’t want to speak about adoption, I began my studies on Family and Children Law in Barcelona. I devoured every book and article about adoption, emotional regulation, relinquishment, trauma, ADHD, attachment disorder and first families that landed on my hands. I became a sponge absorbing every bit of knowledge that could help me to comprehend this exchange of children happening all over the world. I named my final thesis “Adoption in Spain: assessment and support to prevent disruption”. Finally, a critical thinking about adoption emerged to answer all my questions related to my parents and the way I was educated.
When we arrived to Madrid, Spain, after the long trip from Colombia, I marvelled at the big city, our new home and the kindness of those strangers. What I never could have imagined was the solitude and lack of acceptance of the people that were supposed to care about us. What I am about to tell I’ve never shared before (besides my chosen family). Our first ten years with our parents can be summed up with one word: isolation. We only knew physical and emotional pain, treated as if we were savages or from ‘la guerrilla’ (FARC members), insults they used to call us. With constant threats of being relinquished again and reminding us about their regrets for adoption. The entire building heard our crying and screams. We told some adults, but everyone looked the other way. This abuse upon our bodies and minds left us hopeless and developed into an attachment disorder, afraid of physical contact but longing for any kind of sign of love.
We could only understand what was happening being young adults. We aimed for their recognition of the trauma they caused, trying to comprehend why they didn’t reach for help or psychological aid. Still, I made an effort after I finished and shared my thesis with them so they could understand about international adoption and the effects of the affective bond broken in the first place. But every attempt was in vain. In that moment I perceived the causes of their own distress and grief, such as their unfinished mourning of infertility or the absence of care and attachment from their own families. They were raised under violence and depriving circumstances, therefore that’s the only kind of love we knew from them. However, even being aware of this, I didn’t quite accept the current situation and I persisted in fixing my family, longing for a tie that never existed.
While I specialised in children, family law and adoption, I started to peel the first layer: looking for my origins and my mother. For this purpose, the main step was to educate myself and deconstruct why I ended up here. I was adopted in Spain where adoption is a legal construct that is meant to protect children who have no families or when their relatives cannot provide for them, but I figured out that instead, adoption is preserving others’ privileges and interests, inherited from favoured families thanks to colonialism and Catholicism. The first stirrings of adoption occurred after the civil war in 1936-1939, leaving the defeated side subjugated under a dictatorship, which ruled the country until 1975. We all know this period as the time of ‘bebes robados’ (stolen babies). The opposing families were diminished and punished by the government, sending men and women to prison and taking every child they could to place them in ‘suitable’ homes. This undertaking was possible due to the collaboration between the dictatorship itself and the Catholic Church. Hospital personnel and maternity residences (run by nuns) were connected and instructed to register and hand over the babies, previous payments were made by the priest of the village or the district.This vast network kept going until the 90s. Associations estimate 300,000 babies were abducted in 1940-1990 in Spain after Justice was served for the first time in 2018. Most of those adults and their mothers who claimed their rights weren’t able to know the truth considering those crimeswere historic and there was no one alive to take responsibility nor documents to prove it.
From this perspective and the generalised conception of nuclear family (one mother-one father), but also a restricted moral view that encourages sexism and undermines single motherhood, the adoption was and has been assimilated as the biological filiation. I’ve heard so many times one phrase from people who want to adopt: ‘Why must we get an assessment of our abilities as parents and yet a 17 year old girl doesn’t need it in order to be pregnant?’ There is another one that arises: ‘What if the child comes with issues?’ And the gold mine: ‘Shouldn’t international adoption be permitted without restrictions? Those children need to be saved’. These statements are from common people, well-educated, with economic and even emotional resources. Despite these sentiments, there is so much to be taught and learnt about adoption and adoptees. Our voices and stories must be heard so we are no longer represented as ‘forever a child’, which prevents us from acknowledging our experience as a life long journey.
I would like to address and comment on those phrases:
First of all, privileges from prosperous countries and poverty or lack of resources from first families are the reason why someone can afford to raise an adopted child. Therefore, if impoverished countries could receive those funds set aside for an adoption, children could be raised by their parents and would stay in their communities. In addition, when a child is born from others parents the affective bond doesn’t grow magically or in the same conditions as a biological one because his/her roots are stated, so prospective parents will always need to learn from scratch what is to grow without knowing our beginning.
Adoption comes from trauma, considering the emotional wound left and carried within ourselves, caused by deprivation from the primal protection, nourishment and affection of our mother and sometimes caretakers in orphanages/institutions or foster homes. Mainly, the issue is not the child, but the adult that wants to adopt thinking about himself, concerning how things or events would effect on one when the purpose is no other but the person separated from their origin. We are not meant to be suitable for adoptive families, it is meant to be the other way around.
Finally, but not less important, international adoption is a veiled and corrupt purchase and we do not need to be rescued from our birthplace. Our families could have less or be in a temporary crisis, but it shouldn’t mean these circumstances may be used as an advantage by privileged families. It is a widely-known vicious circle, where a child can be taken by authorities or abducted by organisations. There are stories where even a poor family could have received threats and/or money in order to give up their child so others can be fed. I insist, those resources could be exactly the required aid, but still white saviours and the colonialist debt find their way out. It is a burden our countries keep suffering. As well, international adoption creates a psychological shock and sorrow. It means our pain and grief are only moved to another place, which are not accepted because those feelings have been denied in our adoptive countries since ‘we have been saved and thus we must be eternally grateful’.
In Spain, and other countries, sometimes people who approach adoption as a way to form a family do not realise and/or aren’t even interested in deconstructing their own desires and the consequences. Yes, here we speak about adoption, there is news about it on TV, there are associations from adoptive parents and adoptees, but it is not enough. What needs to be care about is the critical view on this matter. We can no longer ignore that this system doesn’t protect children nor save them. Especially plenary adoption, which is the most outdated contract to ever exist. Yes, it is a contract where one signs and pays to give their name to a child and gain rights over another person so he or she can be raised by someone else and in another country. That being said:
WHY DO WE HAVE TO LOSE OUR FIRST FAMILY TO BE PROTECTED OR RAISED BY OTHERS? WHY MUST THE AFFECTIVE BOND BE BROKEN? WHAT IS THAT FEAR THAT PREVENTS US FROM BEING ABLE TO STAY CONNECTED WITH OUR ORIGINS?
THE AFFECTIVE BOND
International adoption is a success precisely because of this reason: people being afraid of losing someone that is not theirs to begin with. What an archaic concept! Back to the assimilation of adoption as a natural filiation. The affective bond cannot grow if our roots and our past are rejected. Still there exist a type of movie within the terror genre which speaks about this fear, where adoptive children rebel against their family or the first mother comes back to claim what is her own. Fear and rejection cannot be the seed of any family. This is the reason my thesis wasn’t quite appreciated at that time, because I addressed an important subject and pointed out a fear we were born with (not being accepted). This clean break concept within plenary adoption is outdated and must be removed from our communities. Society might not be ready to abolish this figure due to economic, fertility and mental health problems, but adoptees should not be the ones to suffer others’ choices. Adoption must come from a place of stability and acceptance of our own limitations, otherwise generations are wounded and anguish created over issues that are not our duty to fix or responsible for.
Now that I’ve found my family and I understand the circumstances that led me here, I can start my healing process, which doesn’t mean being static, but moving forward through sorrow and all kinds of grief. The next layer I’m trying to live with and didn’t accept at the end of my research is that there is no affective bond or a concept of family in my adoption. At some point I had to endure the pain that comes with it, but finally it set me free. In the words of Lynelle Long, my contract with them is over. Reading those words and relating to them at this time, is the beginning of a crucial period of my life. I highly recommend others to initiate the search of our origins, only new wisdom can be spread into ourselves, and also do not be afraid of sharing your story. Don’t deny yourself or your wounds. They are just a reminder that we are still alive and we can heal together.
THIS IS MY STORY
I’m 32 and I was adopted at age 7 years old, along my two little sisters (5 and 3 years old) by Spanish parents in 1995 in Colombia. Our Colombian mom was 20 when our Colombian father died in 1993. His death was related to a drug/paramilitary organisation. This event changed our whole life. I’ve been in these stages of grief, negation and hatred, but now I think I’m in the negotiation phase of the loss of my family, my mother and this whole different life I could have lived if things would have been distinct, even just one thing. Due to this violence, the male members of my father’s family were wiped out in case of a possible revenge. This way, my mother lost contact with his family, therefore she couldn’t take care of us while trying to provide for us. The ICBF (Colombian Central authority that protects children) found out about this situation and intervened. My Colombian mother didn’t have any economic or emotional support (at least, nobody cared enough to look for the rest of our family), so she had to make a decision with both hands tied.
Two years later, we were moved to Madrid, Spain. Our adoptive parents were old-fashioned not only in their thinking about education, but also in their emotional intelligence. They didn’t really empathise with us or accept our past and origins. As a result they wouldn’t speak about adoption. Until I flew the nest, I wasn’t able to think about my first mother or family. It was too painful and I wanted to be accepted by any means. I never felt close to my adoptive parents, but they took care of us three children and we never knew what is to be separated from each other. In 2016, I decided it was enough and I started this scary journey. My sisters never felt prepared to do it with me, but they have been by my side looking over my shoulder, and as they like to say: this is like a telenovela (soap show). However, I did my own research and became my own private investigator. I only needed our adoption file to get her ID number, and with a little help from contacts in Colombia, I found her in 2018. I wasn’t ready to make contact at the beginning, but I overcame this difficulty by writing a letter with my sisters. Then in December 2020, I got to find my father’s family on Facebook. One name was missing that my mother told me about, but it was the key to unlock what was holding me back from truly knowing my family.
I realize, especially reading other adoptees’ experiences, how lucky I am. I’m aware of the consequences of adoption, its trauma and wounds, the scars we have to learn to live with; the deconstruction of my origins and my own personality, the necessities and defences required in order to survive. This whole process has taught me something more valuable that I’ve could never imagine: accept myself and others. I have always had my sisters with me, who are learning from this growth with open minds, knowing it is not easy and they are not ready to go through the same phases as I am, but they are willing to listen and walk with me as far as they can. Recognising and understanding that this was not possible with our parents has been the most painful step, but we’ve managed to take control of our lives and choices. Now I’m preparing myself for this trip, physically and emotionally. At this moment I’m reading ‘Colombia: a concise contemporary history’ to finally know my country, which I ignored for so many years. Thanks to my Colombian mom, I’ve discovered that I was really born in Muzo, Boyaca.
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.
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.
by Elizabeth Jacobs, born in Cambodia and adopted to the USA.
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.
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.
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.
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.