The Lost Children of Haiti through the Eyes of a Vietnamese Adoptee

By Tricia Houston

In the days following the earthquake, we see the heartbreaking images of Haitian orphans and hear the questions of whether they should be airlift and adopted by American families. The current reality of the Haitian orphans, who were waiting for final adoption approval or a Visa before the devastating earthquake, pushes feelings of my own transnational adoption to the forefront of my mind. I am a Vietnamese adoptee who was a baby on the US sponsored Operation Baby Lift in April 1975. It was a mass evacuation of approximately 3,000 orphans in fear of our well-being in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon. Some historians call it the greatest humanitarian effort in American history.

Now almost 35 years after Baby Lift, we have another potential mass evacuation of Haitian orphans. What is happening in Haiti is under different circumstances, which is a natural disaster and not war, but the images share similar desperation. In the photographs of Baby Lift, there are hundreds of babies in cardboard boxes that were lined with blankets and placed on airplanes bound for their adoptive families. Today, our TVs are filled with footage of orphans sleeping outside of their only home, which is their orphanage, in fear of it collapsing on them.

This event has produced a complex issue of what orphans do we airlift and who to leave behind. From the deepest reflection, I strongly urge for caution regarding a mass evacuation of Haitian orphans. Most importantly, the newly orphaned children should not be airlifted. Humanitarian organizations are already providing a safe haven for these children so they are not victims of child trafficking. With a secure place to stay, the children need to remain in Haiti to exhaust every effort of finding family members, which can be months or years. The search needs to be done on behalf of the child.

We might also consider how a baby lift of the newly orphaned children might be seen negatively and as unsettling to the Haitian people. Imagine two or three years from now, a Haitian mother begs for her child to be returned to her after he was adopted in America. It has happened once before of a biological mother wanting her child back. I have recently discovered a Time Magazine article written in 1976 about two Vietnamese mothers’ struggles to get their children. It was a sad legacy of Baby Lift.

I do support airlifting orphans who were in the process of a legal adoption before the earthquake. At the same time, the halt in processing the Haitian orphans to their adoptive families is caused by their missing paperwork. The paperwork is now under rubble. Such papers are of immeasurable value to an adoptee. The young Haitian orphans may not know their own birthdates without the paperwork. I treasure the few documents that I have from Vietnam, including the one that declares me an orphan. They are my baby photos, but only with words that make a picture of my history.

With missing pieces of personal history and memories of a terrible earthquake, I give advice to the American parents who were recently reunited with their Haitian children. Parents should keep the adoptees together. The children have experienced a horrible natural disaster. They have trauma psychologically and physically. It is wise to keep the adoptees in contact with each other. It could be a group that fosters a sense of belonging among the Haitian adoptees.

I know the feeling very well of finding a group that I belong. In the beginning of my new life here in America, my parents were involved with the Adoptive Parents of Asian Children Association based in Los Angeles. We attended picnics for all of the children to play together and parents to talk. Now, I am a board member of a group for first generation Vietnamese adoptees and an advisory board member for an international Vietnamese adoptee group. It has been very beneficial for me to be part of a community who knows what it is like to be a transracial and transnational adoptee. I can only hope that for the Haitian adoptees.

Thirty-five years from now we might be able to hear from the Haitian adoptees as adults. The question I would ask them would be, “Was airlifting you out the right thing to do?” This very same question was asked of me. I can say it was the right thing to do for me based on the reasons of my malnourished health and biracial status, which is Vietnamese and fathered by an American G.I. I hope we can do the right thing for the Haitian orphans who had their adoptions in progress and are now waiting to join their adoptive families in America.

Written on January 29, 2010

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