Lebanon’s abandoned children are coming home
When Sammy took a DNA test, he didn’t know it would reveal he had a brother – or that he was adopted.
On the morning of June 3, 41-year-old Sammy B was mindlessly scrolling through emails at his home in Montreal, Canada, when he spotted a message that would upend life as he knew it.
“Hello Sammy, I was born in Lebanon in 1981 and I live in France. A brother!!?? I hope to read from you soon.” The sender was Laurent W, a name he recognised from the results of a genetic test he had taken a couple of weeks prior.
Like more than 26 million consumers worldwide, Sammy had turned to a commercial ancestry database to gain insight into his ethnic origins and health.
But his results appeared to be way off the mark. His geographic origins had been traced back to a largely-Shia Muslim part of Lebanon his Christian family did not hail from. Names he had never heard of were marked as relatives.
The oddest thing, however, was that the test claimed he shared more than half of his genes with Laurent – making him a fraternal twin.
The message sent Sammy into a spin. Could it be a scam, he wondered. Had the DNA sample been mismanaged – or worse, could it have been tampered with?
A lifelong secret
Sammy was born in Beirut on August 28, 1981, as Israeli warplanes bombarded targets across Lebanon and a civil war was in full swing.
His birth certificate had his mother’s name printed on it alongside the name of the hospital and the doctor who had delivered him. He grew up in Rabieh, a suburban area on the northern edge of Beirut, before relocating to Canada to attend university and later work as a computer scientist.
Yet, a few things about his family had nagged at him his entire life. He was a head taller than both his parents and did not bare a resemblance to either of them. During a biology class, he had asked for their blood types but it turned out that his own did not match.
His parents brushed off the incident and said one of them must have gotten the information wrong.
On June 6, another email landed in his inbox. “I was born on August 28, 1981,” it said. “And you?”
Sammy turned to his father – his only living parent – whose cognitive functions had declined in previous months as Alzheimer’s disease chipped away at his memory. He questioned him gently at first, then more vehemently, but the story remained unchanged.
In a daze, Sammy wrote back at 5:03pm on June 10. “How can I talk to you, I’m stuck, my father says he knows nothing,” he said.
Five minutes later, his inbox beeped. “They have kept this secret all their lives,” Laurent wrote. “I understand why your father is keeping quiet.”
Seeking the truth
Laurent cannot recall the moment his French parents told him he had been adopted from Lebanon. This fact of life has accompanied him for as long as he can remember.
At times, he imagined his biological parents had been killed in the war. At other times he pictured them out there looking for him and patiently waited to be found. But for the majority of the past four decades, he had not dwelled on the many questions surrounding his origins.
That changed in August 2020. “I don’t know what happened, it just did. Maybe the need to know came all of a sudden,” he told Al Jazeera.
A web search landed him on a blog page about adoptions from Lebanon, where dozens of users shared their experiences tracking down their biological parents.
Emboldened by the many success stories, he mustered the courage to send in a request. “I’m looking for my biological family,” he said. “Help me I beg you. I’m lost.”
On the other end, Emmanuelle Alifar knew the feeling all too well. Born in Lebanon in 1966, she was adopted in France. It was only at 47 that she felt “the need to fill a profound void.”
The quest began in 2014 and lasted four painstaking years, during which she pieced together her story with the help of a relative found through a DNA service. “I was lucky my existence had not been kept a secret,” Alifar told Al Jazeera. “One of my cousins understood my request and helped me.”
She was reunited with her biological mother in 2018 but finding the truth about her past marked the beginning of a longer journey. “Every human being has a need to know where they come from,” she said, and adoptees are confronted with one painful recurring question: “Why was I abandoned?”
Alifar, who goes by a surname that is a blend between that of her adoptive and biological families, has since helped out the many Lebanese adoptees embarking on the emotionally taxing journey. She encouraged Laurent to take DNA tests with two leading providers.
“I didn’t know what I was looking for but he who seeks shall find,” Laurent told Al Jazeera.
Almost two years later, he was notified of a new match. Someone named Sammy shared 54 percent of his DNA.
Laurent was shocked, yet elated. He had found his twin brother.
Sammy oscillated between disbelief and the nagging feeling the loose threads in his life were finally being tied up.
Alifar reached out to offer her guidance and address some of his lingering doubts. “It is likely that you were registered as the biological son of your adoptive mother,” she said. “This unfortunately is something we know all too well.”
Adoptions have long been a taboo in Lebanon but the spread of commercial DNA testing in the past decade has taken the lid off this practice.
The Lebanese NGO Badael estimates more than 10,000 Lebanese children have been adopted into foreign families since 1960. The real number is likely to be significantly higher, while the number of children adopted within the country remains unknown.
Those who are coming back “represent the first generation of adoptees to have acted on the fundamental need to know the truth and understand how they were separated from their biological families,” the NGO Legal Agenda wrote in a 2015 briefing.
Such a trend coincides with a “worldwide movement challenging the notion that adoption represents the best solution for children in need of alternative family care,” the legal non-profit added.
According to Legal Agenda, the groundwork in the field of adoption was laid during the French Mandate period (1923−1946), when missionaries and their Lebanese counterparts facilitated the transfer of children to families abroad, especially towards the colonial power.
In the 1960s, Christian missionary orphanages in collaboration with affiliated religious courts took charge of the procedures of adoption in Lebanon based on the written consent of the biological mother, who renounced her rights and pledged not to ask about the fate of the child.
At times, the mother would receive a small amount of money to provide for herself for a short while. Adoptive families would pay anything from small sums of money to cover the cost of issuing identification documents to sums of up to $75,000 to their facilitators.
Some hospitals illegally registered newborns under the name of the adoptive mother, with the name of the biological parent being kept out of the records. Additional amounts would be paid to ensure the secrecy of the procedure and to quickly obtain identification documents.
But the legality of registered adoptions has also been called into question.
In 1993, the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption stressed the conditions and ethics of adoption, especially across national borders, due to the tendency towards legal violations that resembled that of child trafficking.
In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child noted in a report that the lack of a secular legal framework for adoptions in Lebanon – as well as irregularities in the adoption procedures followed by religious courts and the fact the best interest of the child was not always at the forefront – made the process illegal.
According to Legal Agenda, “the ease with which children are separated from their biological families by illegal adoption, in and through Lebanon, is leading to problems that can no longer be ignored.”
“Such methods leave the biological mother in a state of frightful anxiety and in a constant shame-tainted search for a piece of her womb and a shared memory of pregnancy. They also implicate adoptive families in legal violations that prevent them from telling their adoptive child the truth.”
On December 18, Sammy landed in France. Waiting for him at the arrivals gate of Lyon’s Saint Exupéry was Laurent, who he had come to know over countless emails and video call as his long-lost sibling.
“I just run over to him and we gave each other a big hug,” Sammy told Al Jazeera.
Both men have asked for their surnames to be withheld to protect their adoptive families.
Sammy’s father eventually relented and let the long-hidden truth resurface: He and his wife had turned to adoption after being unable to conceive.
He maintains, however, that the hospital did not inform them of a twin brother.
As the days turned into years, he never found the right words to breach the delicate subject. “How was I supposed to open the conversation?,” he asked Sammy.
Now, Sammy believes the elderly man is afraid he is “going to replace him”. “But I told him he’s always my father,” Sammy said.
Through a distant cousin, the brothers were able to know that their biological mother had fallen pregnant with them after an affair with a married man who refused to take responsibility.
Extramarital affairs are a common reason for a woman giving a child up for adoption in Lebanon. “It’s about protecting the family honour,” Alifar said. “She has committed an honour crime – all by herself of course.”
As in many parts of the Middle East, pre-marital sex is often considered taboo. The deeply sectarian country has no civil personal status law. Personal matters such as marriage, divorce and death are regulated by some 15 religious personal status laws that forbid interfaith unions and often fail to place women on equal footing as men.
“Perhaps some would want to keep their children but in a country where women do not pass on their nationality, their offspring are condemned to being paperless and with no state recognition,” Alifar said.
While Sammy and Laurent were adopted by loving families, being separated from biological parents and siblings often cause what psychotherapists call a “primal wound”, or the trauma of severing the connection between the infant and biological mother.
“If you know you have been adopted, you’re always asking yourself the question: Where do I come from?,” Laurent told Al Jazeera. “I’ve been lucky to get to know my story but others don’t get the chance to know and in their head, they’re not well.”
Sammy and Laurent are now planning a trip to their native Lebanon but first, the siblings will gently approach their mother through a relative. “We just want to let her know we exist,” Laurent said.
If given the chance, there are many questions they would like answers to. “Part of me is upset, how can you get rid of your children? I don’t know how someone can just give up a person and give up on them forever”, Sammy said.
“Did you ever try looking? Was that something that was ever on your mind? That’s what I would ask. I think everyone deserves to know.”