Unsplash/Guillaume de Germain
A Facebook group has enabled a woman adopted from Chile and brought to England when she was 6 months old to reunite with her birth mother after 44 years.
Katherine Samwell-Smith, now 45, elaborated on the search for her birth mother in an interview with the Independent. Smith attributes her desire to find her birth mother to sorrow from the “devastating” death of her adoptive mother in 2010, as well as becoming a mother of two children herself.
“After becoming a mom myself, I really started to grieve for my birth mother — not knowing where she was or whether she was alive,” Smith explained. “I was missing my adoptive mom terribly and I wanted my birth mother to be in my life.”
In light of the “deep love” she had for her children when they were born, Smith recognized how difficult it must have been for her birth mother, Ximena, to choose adoption. Smith, who now works for a charity called IAC The Centre for Adoption, said adoption is a “beautiful thing, it’s so profound and wonderful, and it can work.”
In a piece published in The Telegraph in March, Smith shared her adoption story and recounted how it came to be that she was placed in an orphanage in Santiago, Chile, by her birth mother in 1977. Her mother, who was 23 at the time and already had one child who was being raised by her parents, felt she couldn’t keep Smith. At 6 months old, she was adopted by Paul and Rosie Samwell, who raised her in Hampstead, London.
Smith received her adoption records after her adoptive mother died from cancer and her adoptive father, who’s still alive, provided her with more records. While she tried searching for her birth mother online, her efforts were unsuccessful.
In 2019, she joined a Facebook group called Chile Adoption Birth Family Search, knowing only her mother’s name: Ximena. The group compiled a list of women in Chile named Ximena and contacted them until they found a match. In April 2021, a message from the Facebook group informed Smith that “we have found your b-mother!”
“Immediately, my heart started racing,” Smith recalled. “It transpired that a local police officer who was helping the group had found my mother, Ximena, and knocked on her door, asking if she was my mom. She confirmed that she was.”
Noting that her birth mother “could have easily denied it and shut the door,” Smith expressed gratitude that “my birth mother agreed to talk to me.” The administrators of the Facebook group set up a FaceTime call between the two. Though Smith experienced anxiety ahead of the conversation, her husband, Michael Gehr, convinced her to dial the number.
“Seeing her face on the screen was unbelievable,” Smith said. “She struggles with English and I’m no longer fluent in Spanish, so our phone calls are a lot of waving and smiling and I use Google Translate to talk to her.”
The pair have discussed the past, with Smith learning more about her family, including the fact that she has an older half-brother who was raised by their grandparents. She also discovered that her mother never had more children after placing her for adoption, nor did she marry.
The coronavirus pandemic has prevented the mother and daughter from meeting each other in person but that has not stopped them from building a bond online that has provided them with time to get to know each other. Smith hopes to travel to Chile to meet her birth mother in person within the “next year or so.”
“The tough questions still haven’t been asked because it’s not a conversation I want to have with her over the phone,” she added. “The bits I have told her about my adoption and life have made her cry and I know she feels terrible about giving me up.”
Smith has written her birth mother a letter explaining that she forgave her for the decision to give her up for adoption, even though she believes Ximena did not do anything that needs to be forgiven: “She gave me up out of love for me, but I knew it would mean a lot to her and hopefully give her some peace.”
As a child, Smith’s adoptive parents never hid the fact that she was adopted and she remembers them telling her around the time she was a toddler. From the time she was 5 years old, she “told everyone at school” that she was adopted, adding, “It made me feel special and I was completely obsessed with the Chilean culture. I loved the fact that I was 100 percent Chilean.”
When she was 17, Smith traveled to Chile with her adoptive mother and visited the orphanage she resided in as an infant. While she wasn’t interested in finding her birth family at the time, she did inquire about her records. The orphanage had disposed of them when she turned 16.
Smith returned to Chile two years later to work as a teacher for six months. The experience led her to feel “very reconnected” with Chile and gave her the opportunity to learn Spanish.
She also revealed that her adoptive father was “very interested” in helping her find her birth family and has been supporting her throughout the process: “When I told him about Ximena, he said, ‘You can never have too much family.'”