Nostos. It harkens back to the days of Homer and Odysseus. It is about the decade long, arduous journey, a longing to return home by Odysseus to his beloved island, Ithaca.
In the same way, Greek-born adoptees are trying to get back home to Greece. What does this mean to us?
We are among the oldest people, if not the first group, who were systematically offered for adoption to points all over the world; mostly to the United States. Before the mass adoptions of Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Romanians and Guatemalans, and in huge numbers, comparatively; there was a group of 4,000 Greek babies and children who were exported from home.
Some of us were stolen. Some of us were sold; commodities brokered by government officials, priests, doctors, lawyers, other intermediaries. Most of us had parents and were not “orphans” at all. Most of us were relinquished; forced, encouraged, pressured to by our mothers, who were shamed and shunned, forced into the shadows of a society not able, at the time, to provide for them.
Twins were separated from each other. Families were broken apart. Mothers longed for their babies, a pain so deep that all these years later, they have never recovered, wondering all their lives about their offspring, praying that they are healthy and happy. They have never forgotten us and to be sure, we have never forgotten them.
The mass export of children was a phenomenon that happened after two wars; World War II and a brutal civil war in Greece. There was an abundance of children who were left and cared for by institutions in spots all over the country and there were couples from other parts of the world who wanted families of their own. It was simple question of supply and demand.
The issue is that children and babies are not commodities and were treated as such. There were insufficient social services to care for and counsel mothers, most of whom were unwed, to figure out how to keep their children if they wanted to. Instead, we, those children, were ferreted off to parts unknown, to new parents and families, our pasts erased, our papers in disorder, if there were any papers at all.
Cruelest of all is that, in most cases, our citizenship, our culture, our language, our religion, vanished. We had been born Greek, but many of us would have our connection to our country severed in so many important ways.
Every child has a right to their identity, no matter how they are conceived and by whom. Secrecy in the practice of adoption today has to stop. And for adoptions that happened years ago, governments and social service agencies need to, respectfully, get out of the way and begin to immediately help adoptees account for who they are in every way.
This is fundamental to every human being. It is a human right. And the attainment of information about our past, fully revealed to us, is not complicated.
Video recorded for Child Identity Protection (CHIP) as part of the international human rights effort on behalf of children in the fight for their identities.
One of the arguments seems to be that the biological family has rights, too. They do, but not to retain their anonymity. They can refuse to meet a child, to have any contact. That is their right, but they cannot refuse a child the right to know who their biological parents are and should also willingly provide crucial medical histories. Again, it is their prerogative not to. But to withhold that information is, in my view, is selfish. It is more than selfish. It’s, in a way, criminal.
Another argument is that the child, now a grown adult in their 70’s, 60’s and 50’s cannot handle the reality of their life. We know! We may have been “exogamo,” conceived out of marriage, we may have been products of rape or incest. Bad things may have happened to us and to our first families; traumas we cannot recall.
Trust me when I say we have dealt with these possibilities our entire lives and have long come to terms with them. We are not children. Please don’t infantilize us by “protecting” us from that which we deserve to know.
No one has the right to stand in the way of our files claiming, in their own defense, the proper handling of data, the protection of data. In reality what is happening now is the overt censorship of data, which is not theirs to negotiate, regulate, redact and control.
Social service agencies and the remnants of those orphanages in the form of small offices in parts all over the country that handle our data, are essentially voyeurs. They get to know what’s in our personal files, but we don’t? We must fight to gain access to what is ours. My information over more than 60 years has come in piecemeal while I have lost valuable time.
Of course, there should be an organized process of doling out information, but the process should not be imperious and difficult and opaque. There should be a generosity of spirit and a willingness to get this done as soon as possible with no red tape.
We adoptees can, at least, prove something about ourselves which connects us to our files and our paperwork. And there are lawyers and scholars and adoptees themselves who stand at the ready to help in any way they can to streamline this process and to begin immediately in giving adoptees their personal histories in full, whatever exists.
Greece can lead the world in acknowledging this part of its history, opening records and connecting people to the realities of their past and then granting citizenship in a grand, magnanimous gesture. Greece would demonstrate, as a country, the meaning of philotimo and show the world that by setting one record straight, it charts its course forward to a healthier future.
Governments are waking up all over the world to the tragic ways in which they treated their children. The Irish are making reparations. So are the Australians. And in America, state by state, activists are prodding governments to open files for millions of searching adoptees.
Our request for the restoration of our citizenship also seems to be a difficult request. All of us were born in Greece. We were issued Greek passports for passage out of the country when we were adopted. We lost our Greek citizenship at that point and were naturalized as citizens of other countries later.
We are not refugees. We are not immigrants. We are born Greek and are a separate “class” of people. We are asking for this group of 4,000 people to have their citizenship restored, grandfathered, if you will, immediately.
To have our Greek citizenship, in essence to be received and welcomed home by our government, cannot be overstated. It is part of our identity. This is the first thing we are able to confirm about ourselves.
We are Greek. We are Greece’s children and what a tribute it is to our home country to want to be fully recognized by it, embraced, welcomed back. A wrong made finally right.
I wrote a story about one tragic adoption that never should have happened. It is called Ripped at the Root.
Dena Poulias was a stolen baby. She had two parents who loved and adored her. She vanished from a home for unwed mothers and was later adopted by a Greek-American family in the United States.
Dena has hardly any paperwork about her early life and her adoption. What she does have are forged, manufactured documents, we don’t know by whom.
Recently, she had to return to Greece quickly for the death and funeral of a biological relative who had been found (I won’t spoil the plot of Dena’s story if you are inclined to read the book). She could not prove who she was and lost time in getting there at the last minute, within days. She was forced to provide DNA evidence that she is who she says she is because her paperwork is deficient.
In Dena’s case, there may be very little evidence through paperwork of how she went from a home for unwed mothers and their babies, to being transported to Athens, to being carried by a woman who was noted only by her first name to the United States and her adoptive parents.
What we DO know, for certain, is that Dena was born in Greece and should be first in line for her citizenship to be restored.
It is disheartening to watch as scholars and athletes and artists and authors and actors are granted honorary citizenship, many of whom have no real connection to the country other than having written about it or studied it or owning property there.
We have no ill feelings toward these people, but what about us? What a gesture it would be for the Greek government to account for us and restore our rightful place as Greece’s children. And this is no more complicated than having the political will to decide to do it, right now, immediately, complete the task and to put this tragic history once and for all in the rearview mirror.
I know Prime Minister Mitsotakis understands this. I know President Sakellaropoulou does as well. They are good, well-intentioned people with children of their own. I appeal to them directly based on that to delay no further. We are simply running out of time.
You know, we are pleading for our lives in a way. Not to spare them, but to complete them. And this notion is difficult to understand for those who are not adopted, but we often live as if we don’t fully belong anywhere and to anyone.
One Greek-to-Dutch adoptee I know had a very happy life with her adoptive family. She married and had a child of her own, now grown. She said had she not been able to have children she never would adopt because she would want her child to know fully who they are, not always wondering and standing outside of someone else’s life looking in.
To know about your own life is essential, she said, and her daughter knows fully who she is. She would not have it any other way.
Please understand that we walk through life as a mystery to ourselves, our journeys with twisted roads, often difficult to navigate that meander, but never reach an end point, a destination. To home. It’s exhausting and we are weary. Come to think of it, we have been trying to get home far longer than beleaguered Odysessus. For some of us, our journey has spanned more than 60 years.
And still, nevertheless, we pine all our days to travel home and see the dawn of our return.
About the author
Mary Cardaras, adopted out from Greece to the USA in the 1950s, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Communication, Political Communication, Journalism and Documentary Film, California State University, East Bay. As an adoptee, scholar, and journalist Mary Cardaras is currently compiling an anthology of Greek adoptee stories. This is a pioneering initiative, given that no previous Greek collection exists in English. Mary has thirteen essayists on board, for the collection with the working title Voices of the Lost Children of Greece. Their stories, including her own, will strike home the experience of international adoption, whose impact is lifelong, but is not properly measured, let alone acknowledged.
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