This is my story, as an international adoptee searching for my birth mother and other family members through DNA testing. I go through the background for my search and give you a picture of the process, with the ups and downs that were involved. By sharing my path, I hope to inspire and give hope to others in the same or similar situation.
I was born in Beirut, Lebanon in the summer of 1974. I was adopted by a European couple and brought to Sweden as an infant. At a fairly young age, I was told about being adopted. My parents didn’t want to risk that I would hear it from somebody else. They explained that my biological mother must have been young and not married. In Lebanon at that time it would have been impossible to keep and raise a child without a father. My adoptive parents were told by the couple who administered the adoption that I was fully Lebanese, that my birth mother was of Christian faith, healthy and 21 years old at the time of my birth. The lady had described the process of doing extensive interviews with each birth mother before delivery. My birth certificate stated both mother and father as unknown and I was never to look for any of them. I would not have any chance of finding my birth mother in the first place, without a name or other information about her. Even if it would be possible somehow, I risked putting her in danger or at least big trouble, by causing a scandal in her family. She might have married and had other children, never telling anybody about giving birth to a child previously. I also didn’t know any of the circumstances surrounding my birth. The awful possibility that I might be the result of incest or rape was a thought that kept bothering me. As for so many adopted children, I also carried a feeling of abandonment, being unwanted and unloved. Logical reasoning could not conquer that.
For as long as I can remember, I have been longing to find out the truth about my roots. I didn’t feel that I belonged with my adoptive parents. We were so different in so many ways. Growing up as their only child was quite a challenge. My mother was almost 40 and my father turned 74 right after I was born. They both came from other European countries, so none of us was a native Swede. My father was retired and my mother a homemaker. I was bullied in school for not being Swedish and having parents who were considered odd and old-fashioned. They really longed to have a child and tried to make me feel chosen and special, but it was obvious that adopting was their “Plan B.” They wished to have biological children. Not being able to bear a child was one of my mother’s unresolved traumas. My father had lost an adult child to suicide in his previous marriage and was understandably having a very hard time coping with that loss. My mother suffered from multiple mental disorders. For the most part she refused to seek help, not trusting doctors or the Swedish system. She threatened with suicide on a daily basis at various times in my childhood and adolescence. My mother was also very moody with frequent fits of rage that used to scare me a lot. The summer when I turned eight was one of her worst periods. In a rage, she threatened to take an axe and kill my father. I remember one time when my father tried to calm her down by pleading with her to think about me and what would happen if I lost her. She instantly replied that she would make sure to take me with her, because this world was too evil for me anyway. That summer I made sure to hide our axe and other sharp tools under a shed.
From the outside, everything in our family seemed fine. My mother could put on a very likable side, both when we were alone and almost always when others were around. We had very limited contact with relatives and friends by my mother’s choice. I was overprotected from the outside world, but the biggest threat always came from within the family. As children often do, I kept quiet about what was going on, but as an adult I have felt the need to finally tell my truth. This truth, as I perceive it, has been a lot to handle for some people. They figured everything was fine since they saw my parents as interesting people and thought I still turned out okay. One way of coping as a child was by escaping into my elaborate fantasy world. I also found a lot of joy in my love for animals and reading books. When I was upset, I often had daydreams about my birth family coming to rescue me. I think this all has played a huge part in my strong urge to find them. Finally as an adult, life has become different and a lot easier in many ways. I feel very fortunate to have a stimulating job, great friends, a good husband and three children. Getting to see my firstborn was extra special, being the first relative I had ever met. Still, I had this piece missing…
Without too much hope of success, I tried to find my birth mother in different ways. Applying to a Swedish TV show that helps adopted people find their roots was one long shot. I also tried to contact the Lebanese embassy in Sweden without success. The Lebanese people I’ve met have usually been surprised when told that I was adopted from Lebanon. First they didn’t think I looked Lebanese, and second they thought it was very unusual that a Lebanese woman would put her baby up for adoption. A child born outside of wedlock would typically stay within the family and be cared for by a married couple. My husband met a man with Lebanese background through his work. The man was very touched by my story and kindly offered to help. He had a brother in a high position in the Lebanese army and a sister who was an abbess, both living in Beirut. The man was sure they could get access to the old files from the hospital I was born in and find out the name of my birth mother. I hesitated at first, but thought I would never get a chance like this again and sent him all my adoption papers. I heard from my husband that the man’s sister was also very touched by my story and wanted to help, but after that we never heard from them again.
After learning about the possibility to search for relatives through DNA testing, I thought that was well worth a try. In 2014 I got my results from one of the big DNA matching sites. I only had 13 matches to start out with and no close ones at all. It was still very special for me to see the names of people with whom I share common ancestors. Every now and then new matches were added to the list. It surprised me to see so many names that ended with -ian or -yan. Many had listed that they had ancestors from places in Turkey. Later I found out that the names were Armenian which led me to understand that I wasn’t fully Lebanese after all. I tried to contact my closest matches with hopes to find out more. Did they know of relatives in Lebanon? I received some answers, but nobody knew how we could be related or of any family who lived in Lebanon at the time of my birth.
About two years ago, I got a message on my phone while at work that I had a close match. My heart was beating so fast. Now it is really happening, I thought, and of course had to check right away. A man who didn’t have an Armenian, but rather a Muslim name as I perceived, matched me as first cousin, uncle or nephew. His name was Murat and the e-mail address gave away that we were born in the same year. I came to the conclusion that Murat was most likely my cousin. He was also my X-match, which was perfect. I then felt certain that we were closely related on my mother’s side. It was primarily my mother I was searching for, since my father might not even know about me. I sent Murat a message right away. A week after I received a nice reply telling me how to find him on Facebook. I was told about his background, but he didn’t think we were as closely related as the test said. I have to admit, I snooped around a lot on Murat’s Facebook page and came to the conclusion that we must be related on his mother’s side. I could see similarities between both his mother, him and me. When asked if his mother had any sisters that could possibly have given birth to a child in Beirut in 1974, he answered no and that they were all married at the time. I asked if I could possibly talk to his mother. He answered that he would check and get back to me. I reminded Murat about my question again after some weeks, but didn’t get any answer. This gave me the impression that he either really didn’t know, or this was a sensitive question he couldn’t get involved in further. I had to try to accept that possibility, but it was very hard. I was probably as close as I would ever have a chance of getting, and yet so far away. Time passed and no new close matches came along. I tried other ways to find out more, including contacting a journalist in Beirut who had previously worked on reunions and was offering help to other adoptees. Late in the fall of last year, I came to the decision that I should also test at other sites. I have always been afraid to get my hopes up, since this process has proven to be so hard. Realizing the risk of running out on time with aging parents overcame that fear.
One of my very nice distant relatives, Loussin Gueriguian, kept telling me to join an Armenian DNA project and to contact a certain lady named Janet Achoukian Andreopoulos. She had previously succeeded in helping adoptees to find their birth families. I appreciated Loussin’s good intentions, but really didn’t have the energy to bother somebody with what I perceived as a hopelessly hard case. If I couldn’t manage to get more information from my only close match Murat, what difference could it make contacting somebody else about it? Finding family was something that only happened to others, I thought. Loussin persistently asked if I had contacted this lady yet, insisting that I do so, and I finally decided to at least give it a try.
This is when the magic started to happen. I was really humbled by the commitment, time, skill and energy Janet put into trying to help me find my roots. I felt instant trust in her because of the person she was. Her good knowledge of the Armenian culture and approach towards sensitive issues like children born out of wedlock added to that. When telling her about the close match with Murat, she immediately asked why I thought we must be related on my mother’s side. As a girl, I also have an X-chromosome from my father. I was dumbfounded. Why didn’t that cross my mind before? I had it all mixed up with mtDNA, following a straight maternal line. Murat could well be related to me on my father’s side. This was kind of a game changer, since I primarily wanted to find my mother. Now I felt much further away because my father might not know about me, and even less so his relatives. I still took the chance of contacting Murat once more to ask for the maiden names of his mother and possibly also his maternal grandmother if he knew. This time I got an answer, and he told me his mother’s maiden name. Janet and I tried to search Facebook for possible maternal uncles for my cousin. We found one in a picture, but the Facebook profile belonged to his wife. I then had a picture of a man who might actually be my father, or at least a paternal uncle. However, we had no knowledge of his first name, and there could also be other brothers. I didn’t dare to push my luck with Murat by asking more questions at this point. The fact that Armenians have had to change their last names due to persecution really complicated this process.
Janet’s great skill at interpreting DNA results, as well as searching on Facebook and other places to find out information about my matches, came to good use. She could tell that my parents were not related. Without knowing the identity of my father, we could tell he had roots in Mardin. My maternal side originated from the completely different regions of Marash and Akbez. Janet advised me which of my matches to contact and what to ask in order to get more pieces of the puzzle. Several times in the process she texted me starting with the sentence, ”You are not going to believe this…” One time, Janet found her best friend’s first cousin sitting next to one of my matches in a Facebook picture. Another time, one of her more distant matches told her that his sisters used to go to school with two sisters that I am related to. Once when Janet was chatting with one of the other administrators of the Armenian DNA Project who now lives in Switzerland, it turned out he used to be neighbors with one of my closest matches when living in California. On top of that, he was also related to another of my matches. The Armenian world might be smaller, but still this was mind boggling. I joked with Janet that she somehow knew the whole world!
After receiving the results from the last test, I got a match that could possibly be a second cousin. Her name sounded familiar to Janet, who then realized that this match must be the daughter of one of her own matches. Since Janet and I are not related, we concluded that I was related to this lady on her father’s side. Janet found the father, named John, on Facebook. I realize that this sounds fictitious, but it turns out that Janet’s first cousin living in Boston is a Facebook friend with John’s wife, and they are also next door neighbors! We decided the best way forward from this was for Janet to ask her first cousin if she could introduce them, so Janet could ask some questions about possible relatives. The call happened and John was very forthcoming. He said that his 92-year-old mother would know more and promised to get back to Janet after talking to her. After that we had a setback. John was still very friendly, but told Janet he couldn’t go further into this out of respect for his extended family. Surprisingly he still said some words of encouragement. We were on the right track, but the answer was with Murat’s mother. We were both puzzled by this. Why would he think that my father’s sister would know who my mother was if it was a family secret? However, it was time to back off. A short time later, we still decided to give it a try and ask John about some other, more distant family names and relations.
Shortly after that I got a call from Janet. We have an eight-hour time difference between us and usually just communicated by texting. If we needed to talk we would set up a time for a phone call, so this was unusual. I had just arrived home from running errands after work, so I had missed her previous calls. Janet sounded different. Somebody wanted to talk to me, she said. I could hear her asking John something on another line. At this point I almost lost it with excitement and anticipation. Who? Was I finally closing in at last?
Soon after we hung up I received a friend request on Facebook from a male with an unfamiliar Armenian last name. I accepted the request and went to look at his profile. A childhood picture of him showed me a male version of myself at that age! I then knew that from this point my life would never be the same again. Right after that I received a message from him starting, ”Hello sister!” I could hardly even read the rest. This message didn’t only mean I had a brother. It also meant that he knew about me. I wasn’t a big secret after all. This was a huge relief, since I had been worried about my mother and how she would feel about me trying to find her. Soon thereafter I received the most wonderful video call from my mother and this younger brother! It was instant love, excitement and happiness! The array of emotions that went through me at that time are hard to explain. It felt so unreal, and at the same time more real than anything I can refer to. They told me I also have another brother. Strangely, I have always pictured my mother having two sons after me. One of the first things I asked her is if she had thought of a name for me. ”Yes, Victoria Elizabeth,” she told me. Elisabeth is actually my second name. I have always loved the name Tilda. My daughter ended up being named Tilde as her second name. Tilda, however, is my mother’s first name (Clotilde). My only daughter, strangely enough, carries her grandmother’s name which we all feel is really special.
It turns out that my mother and John are first cousins. John and his mother finally figured out that this would be the only way I could be related both to them and to my father. I was such a well-kept secret. John’s mother had never heard of my existence, despite being very close to her only sister, who is my maternal grandmother. One of the big surprises to me was that my parents are married. My brothers and I share both parents. My father is the maternal uncle of my cousin Murat.
I gradually have come to understand that almost everything I was told about my pre-adoption background was false and fabricated. I was born at a midwife’s house in Zahle, not a private hospital in Beirut as my birth certificate states. A few hours after my birth, I was taken away by the midwife to be put into a baby trafficking system. My mother never signed any adoption papers. I was never born in the hospital stated in my papers, and the background story I had been told about my mother being a single 21-year-old fully Lebanese woman was also made up. However, my father signed adoption papers behind my mother’s back. She was led to believe they would keep me and get married when possible and never suspected my father had another plan. That this could happen was the result of my parents not being married and a very corrupt system in Lebanon. My mother didn’t have citizenship, money or power to alarm the authorities. My father went to Canada on his own shortly after my birth. The year after I was born, he came back to Lebanon and married my mother. Then my father managed to help my mother, her parents and younger brother to escape the civil war and immigrate to Canada.
My feeling about my life never being the same again turned out to be right. All new relatives have been so welcoming to me, my husband and three children. My birth parents and brothers still live in Canada, so we are eagerly waiting for the pandemic to be over, so safe traveling is possible. I now also have contact with extended family in Turkey, France, Canada and the US. I never would have dared to expect anything like this, being so welcomed with open arms. Every story is different and there is, of course, also more to this story that I am gradually exploring. However, I still would have preferred to know as much as possible about my background, even if no further contact was desired. Now I feel that finding my family was at least equally important for my mother, who has carried this unresolved trauma for all these years.
None of this would have been possible without the wonderful encouragement, help and guidance I have received along the way. I’m eternally grateful to Janet Achoukian Andreopoulos for all the time, skill and effort she has put into helping me. The world is a much better place because of people like her. In addition, I want to extend a very special thank you to Loussin Gueriguian, who kept encouraging me to get in touch with Janet. Also, a big thank you to my cousin Murat and my mother’s cousin John with family – without whom this puzzle would not have been solved. I would love for this story to give hope to others in a similar situation and wish you the best of luck in your process of finding lost family members!
By Janet Achoukian Andreopoulos
I connected with Charlotte on January 2, 2021. She had autosomal DNA test results from Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), MyHeritage and 23andMe, some of the most popular DNA testing companies. Autosomal DNA tests are best for close genealogy, which reveal cousin matches within five to six generations. As a co-administrator of the Armenian DNA Project, I had her join the project so that I could view her results at FTDNA. I was pleased to see a close match named Murat, who shared enough DNA to be a first cousin. The DNA tests reveal predicted relationships, but the actual relationships must be resolved through traditional genealogy and DNA analysis. Unfortunately, Murat had not posted a family tree, and since he lived in Turkey it was difficult to obtain any records on his background.
By looking at the matches in common with Murat, I noticed that the match names mostly sounded Turkish. Either this meant that Charlotte was partially Turkish or that her relatives lived in Turkey and changed their last names to avoid persecution. The family trees of her matches revealed that this side of her family, whether it was paternal or maternal which was unknown, had roots in Mardin.
Charlotte shared X DNA with Murat, which meant that he was related to her from HIS maternal side. A male inherits an X chromosome from his mother and a Y chromosome from his father. Charlotte could have been related to Murat from either her father or mother as she inherits an X chromosome from each parent.
I was pleased to find that Charlotte had also taken an mtDNA test where you are assigned a haplogroup that follows the path of your direct maternal (female to female to female, etc.) ancestry from centuries ago. This test is available to male and female test takers. She only had two matches, and they were not on her autosomal test results which meant they were related to her beyond a close cousin match. Fortunately, her matches noted that they had roots in Aintab and Aleppo. I was convinced that her maternal line was not from Mardin and that her cousin Murat was most likely from HER paternal side. Most likely, Murat was her father’s sister’s son.
I also analyzed her test results at 23andMe and found that her direct maternal line had roots in Akbez. 23andMe lists the maternal and paternal (males only) haplogroups of your matches and several of her closer matches who shared her maternal haplogroup had roots in Akbez. There was a definite split in her matches across all testing companies: one group with Turkish-sounding names and another with Armenian-sounding names.
I encouraged Charlotte to upload her results for free to Gedmatch which is a DNA database where people upload from the various testing companies to compare their results to others. Since the databases of the testing companies do not “communicate” with each other, this is a good way to compare people across different platforms. Gedmatch has a helpful tool called “Are Your Parents Related?” This tool provided reassurance to Charlotte that her parents were not related to each other.
When looking for genealogical answers, it is best to have your DNA in all databases. A close match may have tested in another database, and you would not realize it unless your DNA was in the same database. Each testing company attracts a different group of test takers. In late January, Charlotte tested at Ancestry DNA with the hopes of finding answers about her biological mother. When her results posted on February 23rd, she stated that she was disappointed that she did not have any “close” matches. On the contrary, I was pleased to find four matches who seemed to be solid second cousins, which meant that they should share the same set of great grandparents.
I plunged into researching and building out the family trees of those matches and quickly realized that two were sisters to each other and the other two were first cousins to the sisters, but they all shared the same grandparents. Luckily, these matches were in the USA, and so it was easier to find information on their backgrounds through Google, Newspapers.com, etc. I realized that the mother of the sisters was known to me as a personal match to my father whose roots were from a completely different region. I knew to follow the path of the sisters’ paternal grandparents. I identified the father of the sisters as John and through Facebook realized that he was the neighbor of my first cousin in Boston! After an introduction, I was able to gather more background and tried to figure out if Charlotte was related to John from his maternal grandparents or his paternal grandparents. It was very likely that one of John’s first cousins was Charlotte’s mother. With more research on Facebook, we noticed that John’s cousin Clotilde with roots in Lebanon had quite a few Facebook friends from Turkey and then realized she was friends with Murat’s mother! We still needed to know with 100-percent certainty that this was not a coincidence.
Finally, on March 2nd, I received the phone call from John requesting Charlotte’s phone number. Her mother Clotilde finally realized why John had asked her genealogy questions and she wanted to reach out to her daughter. DNA testing, along with genealogical research and some detective work had solved a 46-year-old mystery for Charlotte, and I was honored to be a part of her journey.