BEIRUT: For the first 47 years of her life, Emmanuelle had little interest in searching for her biological parents. “I already had a family,” Emmanuelle, who was adopted from Lebanon in the year after her birth, recalled. “Why would I need to find a new one?”
Growing up in France with siblings from all over the world, Emmanuelle, who asked to be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons, was fully aware that her family was not “traditional” by any means. Having siblings from diverse origins required her to think about identity from a young age.
Still, she did not feel a desire to know about her birth parents.
“I was worried about how my parents would feel. I didn’t want them to think I would abandon them,” she told The Daily Star.
Even her first trip to Lebanon, in 2003, was not made in search of her biological family. Instead, she intended to explore a heritage and culture she had missed out on during her French upbringing.
But in 2014, on her 47th birthday, Emmanuelle had an experience that set her off on a journey to uncover the full story of her life and search for her biological parents.
“I had this vision of a woman who was pregnant, and inside her womb was me,” she said.
The journey brought her back to Lebanon several times and to Australia, where her birth mother, whom she met just last year, currently lives. The identity of her father, however, remains a mystery Emmanuelle continues to pursue.
Throughout her search, the adoptee has confronted hurdles she and others in her situation often face.
In Lebanese society, where illegitimate children remain taboo, the notion of giving up a child for adoption is highly stigmatized.
Legal and systemic pathways for adoption did not exist in the past, and remain complex today.
Consequently, accurate paperwork rarely exists for children who may wish to trace their roots.
According to Zeina Allouche, director of the board of local organization Badael Alternatives, even precise facts and figures of children adopted from the country remain unknown though, she said, an estimated 10,000 children were sent abroad, most during Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War.
Founded in 2013, Badael has advocated and worked for the rights of children separated from their biological families in Lebanon.
The organization has worked in cases of separation both by force and by choice: It aids adoptees like Emmanuelle, but also focuses on cases of child trafficking.
Adoptees, Allouche said, were commonly given falsified paperwork at birth. If birth certificates were generated at hospitals for children born out of wedlock, they rarely noted their correct city of birth or accurate information of their biological parents.
If children did not have such paperwork, it was normal for informal groups organizing adoptions to falsify records themselves to facilitate the adoption process.
Without proper laws both then and now, Allouche explained, children and families seeking to reunite must overcome many hurdles.
In the first two years of Emmanuelle’s search, she sat through many meetings at various embassies and reached out to French associations involved in the adoption process of Lebanese children.
But her efforts were ultimately ineffective in advancing her cause.
Not until Emmanuelle was introduced to DNA testing services was she able to find her Lebanese relatives. Recently popularized services such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe helped her to locate biological family members who had completed the same DNA tests and linked her to relatives who had emigrated to Australia and the U.S.
Emmanuelle’s success in finding distant relatives eventually brought her to her mother in Australia last year, and transformed her into an advocate for DNA testing to reunite adoptees and their biological families. Emmanuelle’s mother likewise supports the method and her daughter’s initiative in spreading the word of DNA testing in Lebanon to reunite families.
“These DNA tests allow biological parents separated from their children to find them without involving governmental agencies, or associations. It affords us the ability to connect with family privately, which is particularly important here in Lebanon, where there is so much shame surrounding adoption,” she said, urging mothers in Lebanon looking for a child to take a test.
Emmanuelle’s reunion with her mother last July fulfilled desires shared by both sides.
But it also showed that for all the pain she had suffered, her mother had struggled even more.
“After speaking with my mother, I learned there was much suffering and grief on her part ... [and on the part] of most mothers ... searching for their child. It is rarely their choice. Everyone has the right to know their story,” Emmanuelle said.
But while she has been able to identify her mother as well as several relatives on her father’s side, the identity of her father himself remains unknown. Unlike her mother, her father did not pass down information about her to his family.
“To accept there is an illegitimate child is not easy,” she said.
“They remain defensive [about my existence], but I do not wish them any harm. I understand the situation for them is also difficult, but I believe our biological link will overcome this. Blood connection is stronger than all of this.”