When an adoptee reunites with birth siblings abroad: 'There's no instruction....

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The Science of Siblings
When an adoptee reunites with birth siblings abroad: 'There's no instruction manual'
May 31, 20246:36 AM ET

Kamala Thiagarajan

The Science of Siblings is a new series exploring the ways our siblings can influence us, from our money and our mental health all the way down to our very molecules. We'll be sharing these stories over the next several weeks.

Honoré Prentice knew he was adopted.  When he was a kid, his Canadian parents had told him that he was a 9-month-old baby in an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, when they welcomed him into their family on March 1, 1991. Now 33, Prentice lives in Toronto and is an art instructor and mentor with the Nia Centre for the Arts, a charity that supports and nurtures emerging Black artists.  Prentice was curious about his birth family and often wondered why he had been placed for adoption. All he knew is what the orphanage in Haiti had told his adoptive parents: His birth mother had died, and his father was too poor to care for him.  He wanted to find his birth family but didn't have the resources to track down family members. He didn't even know whether he had any birth siblings. The orphanage never disclosed information about other family members. So it came as a bolt from the blue when, in March 2020, he got a LinkedIn message from a man claiming to be his brother.  "Who would think of a long-lost family reaching out to you through your social media handle? And yet, he was sending me photographs of me that I'd never put online," Prentice says.

These were pictures of him as a child that his adoptive parents had sent back to the orphanage to update it on his progress.  The brother who reached out to him is 39-year-old Eloi Ferguson, who was adopted by a family in Maine.  When he was 19, Ferguson's adoptive father was in touch with a Haitian man who spent much of each year back in Haiti. The father asked the man whether he could track down his adopted son's birth family and he did.  Ferguson learned that he had five birth siblings. It became his mission to reunite them all. He spent 15 years on the quest. Prentice was the last of the brothers he found he'd seen the name of Prentice's adopted family scribbled on the back of one of those old photos that the family had shared with the orphanage. That clue led to his search on social media.  To say that Prentice was gobsmacked is an understatement.  "I felt a range of emotions at the time," Prentice says. "There's no instruction manual for this. I didn't know how to react."

Reuniting with birth siblings: heartwarming or harrowing?

Children who have been adopted do sometimes wish to find out whether they have biological siblings. Today, there are websites that can help an adopted person track down siblings using DNA matches. And social media can make it easier to connect.  Of course, reconnecting with a birth family can be a heartwarming experience or can lead to frustration and even anguish.  When an adopted child is able to reunite with siblings, "there's so much unresolved emotional baggage on both sides," says Kumudini Perera-David, a clinical psychologist in Sri Lanka who specializes in trauma counseling.

And she believes that in cases of international adoption, the potential for a negative outcome is high a reflection of the controversial history of international adoptions.  Adoptions across national borders grew in popularity after 1940. And orphanages often rushed to capitalize on that demand, says Kristen Cheney, a professor at the University of Victoria's School of Child and Youth Care, in Canada, who has researched the subject. While some adoptions were legal, she says that poor families may have placed a child under a charity's care because they could not afford to raise the child and that at the institution's request, "they signed away their parental rights without fully knowing what it involved."

What's more, she says, children who were orphans would be placed for adoption because it brought in more revenue for the institution, rather than the institution investigating to see whether a member of the child's extended family might take the child in.  "Orphanages that deal with these adoptions don't always maintain records," says Cheney. "Some records were outright false. Even in legal adoptions, families aren't given the right picture about the adoptees' birth families. Sometimes, the children who are [placed] for adoption have parents who are alive and who aren't fully informed about the rights they're giving up," she says.

The Hague Convention in 2008 addressed many of these problems.  The story of Prentice and his birth family reflects some of these issues notably the lack of accurate information about the birth family. When he met his brothers in 2020, he learned that their mother, who his adopted family believed had died, was still alive. She passed away in December 2021 before he could speak with her.

Complicated stories from Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a country that has seen many of its children adopted by foreigners and not always with attention paid to the details. In 2017, the government admitted that 11,000 adoptions in the 1980s at the peak of Sri Lanka's civil war involved babies who were either bought or stolen from biological parents. Mala was adopted in the '80s. Her story does not involve inappropriate practices, but it shows how a determination for a reunion is a complicated urge.  When Mala met her siblings for the very first time on a warm sunny morning in Sri Lanka in December 2005, she was 21 years old. Her birth family placed her for adoption as a month-old infant before her two sisters had any contact with her.  The meeting was also the first time Mala had visited the country of her birth since being adopted by an Australian family. (She asked that NPR withhold her surname and the city where she now lives to protect the privacy of her adopted family.)  Growing up as a brown person in Australia was hard, she says. Her desire to meet her birth family came after she encountered racist remarks from people whom she'd once considered friends. At a party when she was 20 years old, a friend pulled out his speargun, an underwater fishing device, and jokingly aimed it at her. "Let's kill the Indian," she recalls him saying, while others around him laughed.

It was a horrifying and humiliating moment, yet another reminder that she didn't quite belong in the only country she'd ever known. She yearned to meet her birth family and to find out more about the country she had left behind as an infant.  Her mother and father had meticulous records about her birth family and shared some details when she was a child. She knew that her birth father had died after her adoption and that the rest of her family lived in Horana, a small town nestled in the hilly regions of Sri Lanka.  After enlisting the help of a local whom her mother knew, she found her birth family in 2005 and traveled to meet them. But that first encounter on a warm muggy morning in December made her realize something: They'd been separated not only by continents but by a gaping chasm of culture and language.  She learned that she had two older sisters who were in their late 20s and that her mother had remarried, so she had a younger half brother as well.  Mala admits that while she felt happy to meet her siblings, she didn't feel the immediate connection or bond she'd been hoping for.  "Honestly, it felt weird. I clearly resembled one of my older sisters but of course, we didn't have any of those close ties that siblings often do when they grow up together," she says. "They were very formal with me."

It can be very awkward for adoptees when birth families ask for money and favors shortly after meeting for the first time and many do because they may still be battling poverty, says Cheney, the adoption researcher. "To the birth family, giving a child up for adoption is a sacrifice they made," she says. "Often, asking for monetary help is a way a birth family shows you love. They accept the adoptee back into their fold by allowing them to care for them, but it may not be seen that way by the adoptee."

It's also hard when children have anger and unresolved feelings about being adopted in the first place. Culture and language barriers can make these exchanges seem worse, she says.  Mala says that some conversations with her half brother ended with a request for money. As a single mother with two young kids, Mala says it has been hard to say yes to every request, but she has tried her best, giving him some money and footing the bill for her birth mother's medical fees when she fell sick last year. "I want to help my siblings. I'm drawn to them but also very conscious of our differences. I don't know if I feel I entirely belong, in spite of our blood connection," Mala says.

While these issues are complex enough, there's another challenge for female adoptees. Women may find themselves confronting gender discrimination in their birth family, says Sherani Princy, a 54-year-old homemaker living in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital. Princy is the eldest of three girls.  Growing up in an impoverished home, she recalls having a loving relationship with her sisters and feeling protective toward them. All that changed when she was 8 years old. Her mother took her to Welcome House, a convent run by missionaries. There, her mother arranged for the adoption of her two younger sisters, then ages 7 and 5, says Princy. "I was heartbroken and terrified, but I couldn't stop my mother," she says.

Her mother passed away a few years afterward. As the years went by, Princy began searching for her siblings.  She learned that a family in Australia adopted her middle sister, Pearl. A couple in Germany adopted the youngest. There was little in the way of paperwork to help her find them. Yet for years she persisted, asking other missionaries to help her locate her sisters.  Princy recalls how she almost made contact with Pearl a few years ago. A missionary told Princy that she had been in contact with Pearl. However, when Pearl heard that their mother had remarried and had another child, a boy, whom she kept, she felt abandoned and decided not to make contact with her birth family.  Princy's sister's reaction isn't unusual. When Mala first met her half brother, she says she felt a moment of intense anger too why did her mother decide to keep him after giving her away for adoption?

"A boy is always viewed as social capital in Asia, because boys can provide for a parent's future, whereas a girl child who must be given a dowry is considered a burden," says Perera-David, the psychologist in Sri Lanka. These can be hard feelings for many to resolve.

Yet Princy longs to see her siblings. "I understand her pain and her decision, but I was devastated," says Princy.

"All I want is to have a meal with [my sisters]. I want to hug them and love them," she says. "I remember our early years together so clearly, and I miss them so much. If you're fortunate enough to have siblings, keep them close."

But in spite of the challenges, birth-family reunions can be meaningful, says Ryan Hanlon, president of the National Council for Adoption.  In recent years, "adoptive parents have gotten significantly better at talking about issues of race and culture with adoptees," he says.

This can make it easier for adoptees to reconnect to their birth families, he believes.

A Swedish singer gives it one last try

Linn Sjöbäck, 40, is a music teacher, singer and songwriter. Now a mother of three, she was born in Sri Lanka in April 1984 and was adopted by a Swedish family about a year later. At the time of her adoption, she was tiny and weak weighing only 13 pounds as a 14-month-old toddler. She was adopted because her birth parents didn't have the means to care for her. With better nutrition, she grew stronger.  She had a happy childhood in Sweden, but something always felt missing. Over the years, she tried to track down her birth family but without success. Then two years ago, when she found her original birth certificate, she wanted to give it one last try.  "Something inside me told me I couldn't give up," she says.

Using the surname on the birth certificate, she tracked down her older brother online. "I never knew that I had siblings in Sri Lanka," she says. "But he knew about me and said he'd always wanted to see me again. He was heartbroken after I'd just disappeared when he was 4 years old."

Sjöbäck describes their first meeting on a video call in 2022 as emotional and somehow unreal. She believes, however, that regular contact through WhatsApp calls and messages helped her build a rapport before they met in person. She learned that her brother works for the navy and that she has a niece and nephew. When COVID-19 travel restrictions were eased later that year, she traveled to Sri Lanka and met her mother and brother in person.  Sjöbäck says she felt welcomed by her birth family. "They have never asked me for anything, and they seem to really care about me," she says. "I've never had any hard feelings against my mother. It was really important for me to tell her that I've never felt abandoned or been upset by her giving me up."

Joyful endings

And for Honoré Prentice of Canada, who was so overwhelmed when his brother first reached out, the ultimate reunion has been joyful and powerful.  When he finally spoke with his brother, who now lives in Baltimore, he says, "I remember that my brother was so full of empathy for my uncertainty over how to respond to him. He was so patient. We stayed up very late that night, just talking and talking. The more we spoke, the more comfortable I felt, but I also remember thinking, if this is for some twisted reason, a kind of scam, then I'd be devastated. At that point I was 100% vulnerable."

The six biological brothers had an interesting journey.  The oldest three had grown up in Haiti with their own relatives and extended family. Etienne Amilcar lived with his grandmother and Joseph Amilcar with an aunt in Haiti. Ezequayace Amilcar was later sent to work on a farm in the Dominican Republic.  As adults, they emigrated. Etienne now lives in Chile, Ezequayace is in Brazil and Joseph moved to Florida.  The three younger brothers Honoré, Joshua Axelson and Eloi Ferguson were adopted from the orphanage in Haiti at the same time, but they went to different homes. Prentice went to Canada and the other two to the United States.  Eventually the six brothers got in touch. Their first video call uniting all six of them, thanks to Eloi's efforts, came during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. Joseph, who grew up in Haiti and moved to Florida, knows both Haitian Creole (which the brothers in Latin America speak too) and English, so he translates for the group.  While his other birth brothers expressed their love and gratitude at having reconnected, Honoré admits that he still felt a little nervous about opening up, "because this family connection these are such fresh feelings," he says.

Getting to know these brothers was a gradual process, he says.  Language barriers in such close relationships are hard, Prentice says.  And while technology can unite to a certain degree, there's nothing like meeting in person. Prentice has met his three brothers who live in the U.S., but the in-person reunion for all six siblings hasn't happened yet. Financial constraints and visa regulations are part of the reason.  "Meeting in person is a priority for us, but it's not been easy. It's been four years, and we've only connected to my brothers from Chile and Brazil online," Prentice says.

There's a lot of shared wisdom in these meetings. Prentice learned that Joshua, his brother who is an accountant in Minnesota, faced racism, but instead of feeling cowed, he would challenge racists and bullies. "I wish I'd stood up for myself more like Josh had all those years ago. But I'm learning new things about my brothers, my family and my culture every single day. I feel so enriched and emotionally fulfilled."

Sjöbäck, the songwriter who lives in Sweden, agrees that reaching out to find her siblings was worth the leap. She's still in touch with her brother in Sri Lanka, and last year she met her half sister in the Netherlands.  "It feels like I've been through a lot, but after finding my family, I've grown. I feel complete now," she says.

She even wrote a song about it, for YouTube: "I'm watching the sky / I'm counting the stars / I'm wondering why / I can't heal my scars. For so many years / That we've been apart, I'm walking with fears / So deep in my heart. I feel so alone, yeah, while holding on / On something that's gone / I've got to have faith / But what if it's too late? ... No matter where you are / Doesn't matter who you are / 'Cause I've come this far to find you."

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, South India. She reports on global health, science and development and has been published in The New York Times, The British Medical Journal, the BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on X: @Kamal_t.