For Lebanese adopted abroad, a new hope to find their biological parents
A Lebanese woman abandoned at birth and then adopted by a French family wants to use her own success story to help other adoptees and their mothers find each other using DNA tests.
Emmanuelle*, a 52-year-old woman with French adoptive parents, is a success story. Last year, she managed to find her Lebanese, biological mother, and she’s continuing her search, hoping to find her biological father as well. Along the way, she is wants to inspire other Lebanese adoptees scattered around the world and give them hope that, they too, may be able to find their biological parents. She also has a message for women who, for various reasons at different points in Lebanon’s history, were forced to abandon their children: “Mothers, we are looking for you!” Emmanuelle says. “We do not hold grudges! You have the right to look for us.”
False names & new hope
There is no official record of how many Lebanese children were adopted outside the country. But according to estimates, the number is probably around several hundred. Most of them were adopted by European, American and Australian families and are now between 30 and 55 years old. After being abandoned by their biological mothers, they were placed in orphanages, primarily St. Vincent of Paul in Ashrafieh and Good Shepherd Sisters in Mansourieh, before being taken in by foreign families. The adoptions began in the 1960s, well before the Lebanese Civil War, and continued during, and even after, the conflict.
Emmanuelle began searching for her biological parents three years ago, initially focusing on her mother. "Compared to others who have not had results after ten years, three years is not much [time]," she says.
The first steps in Emmanuelle’s search were contacting the Lebanese embassy in Switzerland, where she now lives, and then reaching out to orphanages and organizations that work with adoptees in Lebanon. Eventually, she was able to connect directly with other Lebanese adoptees around the world through social networking sites.
She soon figured out that she had been registered under a false name in official records in Lebanon. This is the process that was used to get the adoptees out of the country. “It was this name that allowed me... to obtain a passport to leave the country with my adoptive parents when I was only a few months old,” she says. Emmanuelle’s false name is still on Lebanese electoral rolls.
Even decades later, talking about the adoptions is a taboo subject in Lebanon, and the only records that exist are often the ones that contain the false names children were given after they were abandoned, making it hard for people to trace their origins.
Like many adoptees, Emmanuelle traveled to Beirut to try to find information about her biological family. The quest took her to the orphanage in Ashrafieh that she had been in before she was adopted. Despite the reluctance of many orphanages to help adoptees find their biological parents, the nuns at the facility let Emmanuelle look at her file. Inside she found her biological mother’s full name.
Around the same time, Emmanuelle met an adoptee living in the United States who had taken a DNA test as part of his search. “Because Americans are passionate about genealogy, many of them have done DNA tests just for the fun of it or to detect any genetic diseases,” Emmanuelle says. As a result, there’s a big database that makes it easier for adoptees to find their biological families. Interest in these kinds of tests is starting to grow in Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and elsewhere.
The idea of using a DNA test in her search was a breakthrough for Emmanuelle. The test confirmed that 80 percent of her genealogy can be traced back to Lebanon and Syria. When she compared her results on international databases, she soon started finding relatives she never knew she had. One was a maternal cousin in Australia that she was able to connect with through social networking sites. "Facebook is a gold mine for adoptees," she says.
Emmanuelle also found a cousin who is a priest and actually lives close to her in Switzerland. He started helping her with her search.
A reunion in... Australia
As she made progress, Emmanuelle worried that actually finding her mother could have unintended consequences. What if she had a family? And what if that family didn’t know that Emmanuelle existed? Would Emmanuelle finding her mother tear that other family apart?
Soon, these questions stopped being hypothetical. “Six weeks after my test, I found Maryam, my biological mother, living in Australia,” Emmanuelle says.
Maryam did have a family, including two other children. But she hadn’t hidden Emmanuelle’s existence from her husband.
Emmanuelle booked a flight and headed towards a reunion with her biological mother, and the answers to questions she’d been asking her entire life. "I've always been aware that, behind abandoning a child, there was a dramatic story. I now know that my mother did not have a choice; That she was forced by her parents to abandon me because she was pregnant at 17 without being married; That she did not even have the right to see me at birth. She was not even told if I was a girl or a boy.”
Emmanuelle didn’t find quite all of the answers she was looking for. Her biological mother doesn’t remember some of the details, or has buried them deep inside because they are too painful to recall. All she will say is that she was working as a servant for a family and had to spend her time trying to avoid the men of the house so as not to be sexually abused.
Emmanuelle has developed a strong relationship with her recently discovered family. She looks a lot like her biological mother and has grown close to her half-siblings and cousins. "I already know a big part of my family tree. I'm no longer without ties,” she says, growing emotional.
She’s continuing to look for her biological father and says the search is “well advanced”. But discovering her biological relatives hasn’t changed her relationship with her adoptive parents. “[They] are, and will always be, Mom and Dad,” she says.
Emmanuelle has also connected with another Lebanese adoptee, Laurencia Goasdoué, who was adopted from the same orphanage in Ashrafieh and lives in France. Together, they are helping others like them and biological mothers to reconnect, partially by spreading the word that DNA tests, costing only around $100, can help.
Emmanuelle knows she was fortunate and wants to help others navigate the often tricky process of reconnecting with their biological relatives. Leaving Lebanon, she’s carrying a DNA test with her that belongs to a mother who was forced to abandon her child.
For more information, send an email to Emmanuelle and Laurencia at: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Emmanuelle asked not to reveal the name of her adoptive family or the name of the orphanage that helped her in her search.
(The original French version of this article was published on the 3rd of December)