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Foreign Correspondent -

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SOPHIE ENGLISH: “I have been asked whether I’m a Red Indian, whether I’m an Eskimo, whether I’m a Maori… ‘Excuse me, are you Filipino?’ I have been asked if I am everything but Australian”.

SARA: Imagine trying to find your identity here, among the 90 million faces in bustling modern Vietnam. Sophie English was born in Saigon during the Vietnam War but was adopted and raised in Australia.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “I am Australian as they come, you know? Frickin’ I like Vegemite, meat pies, I can swear like a trooper. I feel totally privileged to be Australian. I don’t feel anything else but Australian. There’s still that part of me that is Vietnamese”.

SARA: More than 40 years later, Sophie has come back again to try to understand why her mother gave her away. The journey comes as the Australian Government looks to reopen adoptions from Vietnam. She’s estranged from her adoptive family in Australia and has virtually no information about her birth family here. She could be walking past her mother at any moment and not even know it.

Modern Vietnam is thriving and changing but at the height of the Vietnam War, there was chaos and uncertainty here. Thousands of Vietnamese children were adopted by families in Western countries around the world. One of the first to be sent to Australia was Sophie English.

Sophie was adopted by an Australian couple in 1969 when she was only 10 months old. She was the only brown face in her white family, growing up in Sydney in the 1970s. As she got older, the feelings of anger and confusion about her adoption got stronger. It pushed her to the brink of suicide.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “I started going off the rails as soon as I hit high school. I started using drugs quite early. It was fun at the beginning, but it culminated in me using heroin every single day for a few years and overdosing a couple of times”.

SARA: Now she’s a wife and mother. Her 9 year old son Lenny is the only biological relative she knows.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “I look at my son, I mean, he would hate me to say this but I go into his room sometimes at night and I sit next to him and look at him and look at the face and the fact that he looks like me and I think that is incredibly healing.... having somebody that looks like you - and I get those moments of like, oh!.. he’s got a personality like mine”.

SARA: Children like Sophie were the human cargo of the Vietnam War. Babies were flown out by the hundreds, amid fears they would be harmed by the Viet Cong when the south fell.

ARCHIVE FOOTAGE: “Most of them will never know who was their mother or their father. Most of them will never even know the date of their birth and there are half a million others, just like them. A dozen of them have been adopted and become Australians”.

SARA: Many were sent overseas without proper checks or identification. Their family history was lost in the process.
Sophie’s Australian parents opposed the war.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “I think that they feel so horrified by the war and what the Americans and the Australians were doing, they had very good hearts and they wanted to do something to be helpful”.

SARA: Forty years after the war ended, Sophie’s still coming to terms with what happened.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “No, I don’t even know where they came from so... I might have been born just there [pointing to shack by river]. My mother would now be, she was 19 when she had me and I’m… so she would be 64...65”.

SARA: “Do you ever wonder, is that her? Is that my mum?”

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “Yeah I do and sometimes I want to run up and hug them”.

SARA: Sophie’s going to the port city of Vung Tau to meet another former adoptee, Le My Huong.
My Huong was a little girl when her mother put her on a plane bound for Australia in 1975. One of the few war adoptees who has returned to live in Vietnam, she now runs an orphanage in Vung Tau.

LE MY HUONG: “When children like that are abandoned in the streets, then the police will bring them here and then as a centre, we must take them in”.

SARA: “There’s nothing else for them”.

LE MY HUONG: “No. So if they weren’t here, then nobody would care for them”.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “This is what breaks my heart, is that this child is nearly the same age as my child and he’s got no future but here”.

SARA: Some of the children are disabled, others were given up by mothers too poor to care for them.

LE MY HUONG: “One of the saddest things you know working at the orphanage, I see our children and so many of them have asked me why can’t they have a family? I mean that’s the bottom line, that’s what they want, they want a family and no matter how much love myself or our staff can provide for them, they want a family”.

SARA: The children here are very well looked after but they’re affected by some of the same problems that My Huong and Sophie endured more than 40 years ago. Breaking the bonds of attachment between parent and child can have life-long consequences for development and identity.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “It’s very confronting and it’s like what can I actually do, to make it better for these kids? But I don’t know what to do because the bottom line is they want a mum and a dad”.

SARA: Sophie and My Huong have a lot in common, but there’s one big difference - My Huong found her mother in Vietnam more than a decade ago - but Sophie is still searching.

MY HUONG: “I think it’s really wonderful that Sophie is coming because it is going to open up to a lot of new experiences and feelings that she hasn’t addressed yet because she hasn’t experienced it”.

SARA: We’re on our way to meet My Huong’s Vietnamese family. This will be the first time Sophie will come face to face with a birth mother who relinquished a child.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “I’m a bit nervous about the village because it’s going to be confronting and I think confronting to see a mother that’s found her daughter”.

SARA: Set amongst the tribute trees of the Mekong Delta, Truong Long is in many ways the real Vietnam. Two thirds of the population lives in the countryside. My Huong visits every few months from Vung Tau.

[greeting My Huong’s mother]

LE THI CAN: [to Sophie] “You don’t know where mum live?

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “I just know I was born in Saigon. But I’m very happy to meet you. I meet one mum”.

LE THI CAN: “And now you know what? [points at heart and then at Sophie] Mum”.


LE MY HUONG: “She can be your mum too”.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “That’s right. You’re a nice lady”.

SARA: A singer during the Vietnam War, Le Thi Can conceived My Huong with an Australian soldier. Fearing retribution from an advancing Viet Cong, at the age of 5, My Huong and her younger brother were given away.

LE MY HUONG: “I was in a white car and my mother was outside the car hysterically crying and I looked out the back window and that’s the last face of her that I saw”.

SARA: “How strong are those memories for you still now?”

LE MY HUONG: “Oh very strong. So it’s like it happened yesterday really, I mean that picture’s really etched in my mind”.

SARA: Her mother spent almost three decades wondering if her daughter would come home. She did. Because My Huong was adopted as a 5 year old, she was able to remember the exact location of her childhood home.

LE THI CAN: “Now I feel happy. I don’t want to die anymore. I want to live with my daughter forever. I was overjoyed to see my daughter coming back to me. I never thought she’d come back to me. Now I’m older, I get to cherish the love between a mother and daughter. Before I wanted to die, but I don’t want to anymore. I want to live with my daughter until I’m 100 years old”.

[sitting with Sophie] “Now I have two daughters - you are the eldest and My Huong is the youngest”.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: (to My Huong) “Yeah I’m the big sister. [laughing] You have to do what I say”.

SARA: Beyond the small talk, Sophie wants to hear a birth mother’s perspective.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “How was it for you to give away your daughter?”

LE THI CAN: “At that time I did not want my daughter to be separated from me but because of the war, and the fear of losing my daughter I thought it was better for her to lose a mother than to lose her life. I thought, if my daughter lives she’ll have a bright future. If I live, I’ll just get older and older. So I sacrificed my happiness, to let my daughter go. I stayed - always feeling sad and missing my daughter. I prayed that when she matured she’d have a talent and a professional skill and that one day if she thinks of me, she’ll return to Vietnam to find me. That was my desire, my dream”.

SARA: Sophie has been saving these words for a long time, if not for her own mother, then for another.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “I hope you understand that as adoptees, we really do understand [very upset] and I hope you understand that it’s not your fault or all the mothers’ and fathers’ faults and we understand that it was the war and that you did your best. And we hope that we’ve done something good in our lives so that our mothers would feel proud of us. And I just want you to understand not to feel guilty anymore because there isn’t any point because it wasn’t our fault”.

[outside of house] “The toughest part of today was… I’ve never had the opportunity to ask a Vietnamese mother how they actually felt and how it felt like to be in a war and that sort of trauma and I think that was the most difficult part. And to say I think in some ways, this might sound strange, but I’m sorry too. I’m sorry for the whole situation, you know? And that was a really hard part”.

LE MY HUONG: “I knew it would be difficult for her because this is the first birth mother that she’s ever seen and now my mother is able to explain to her why her mother would have given her away, and I think for Sophie hearing that from an actual birth mother, meant a lot to her”.

SARA: It’s hard not to get swept up in the beauty and simplicity of Vietnam. My Huong has brought us up river to the famous floating market at Can Tho. Every morning at dawn, tourists and locals jostle for position in the crowded waters. Beyond the exotic veneer, this is a serious trade. The Mekong Delta keeps Vietnam alive. More than half of the nation’s produce is grown here.

LE MY HUONG: “They work very, very hard. I mean most Vietnamese I know work 7 days a week. Some may work 6 but it’s not uncommon to work 7 days a week. For people like this, they will work every day”.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “How important is family here?”

LE MY HUONG: “Oh, extremely important. Everything, our whole life here revolves around family - and there’s no concept of privacy. I mean, your family surrounds you all the time. You work with your family, you live with your family, you’ve got relatives all around you”.

SARA: The average income in Vietnam is just over five dollars a day. It’s a long way short of romantic visions of a simple life. This is the life that Sophie and My Huong might have had if they weren’t adopted to Australia.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “If there hadn’t been a war, if I hadn’t been adopted, if I had stayed with my birth mother that would have been me. I mean I might have been on the boats fishing and I would be working really hard like them, but I would have that sense of family. I would probably have grandchildren by now and I would have that deep need in me fulfilled”.

SARA: Now a new generation of Vietnamese children are hoping for a better life. International adoption laws have been tightened so children who may have been sent overseas in the past, are now staying in Vietnam.

My Huong deals with the reality every day at the children’s centre she runs at Long Hai, near Vung Tau. The free education on offer to poor children here is a life line. Without it, many would be on the streets.

LE MY HUONG: “Some of our children are orphans living with grandparents or aunts or uncles and then others have parents and some just have a mother. Their parents are very poor. They work here mostly selling lottery tickets or in the fishing industry of sorts”.

SARA: 14 year old Trang and her 8 year old twin siblings are growing up caught in that dilemma. They live in one of the poorest parts of Long Hai, with their single mother, Hoang Thi Nam. She can barely afford to keep them.

HOANG THI NAM: “I go to work to bring food home for the children. The money I earn is all for them. It’s so hard, so tough”.

SARA: She has already given Trang away to an orphanage once before, because she was unable to care for her. If she could send her overseas to be adopted, she would.

HOANG THI NAM: “I wanted to give her away to any lady or gentleman, to take anywhere so life is easier and I don’t have to worry about her”.

SARA: This is the brutal reality for the poorest of the poor in Vietnam. Some parents are so desperate they would rather give up their child because the future at home seems so bleak.

HOANG THI NAM: “If she goes away she will be happy but if she stays she will have a hard life, and might turn bad - become good for nothing”.

LE MY HUONG: “Ultimately that is an ideal situation that a birth mother can keep her child, but unfortunately that’s not reality because there’s nothing in place for a birth mother here. The birth mother has no support. Where does she turn to?”

SARA: Oversees adoptions have almost come to a halt in Vietnam because of past problems with trafficking and corruption. The government has now signed up to an international agreement known as the Hague Convention to protect children’s rights. That’s good in the long term, but in the short term, some children have nowhere to go.

It really brings home the situation at the moment. For children like these, in years gone by, may have been adopted internationally but at the moment the whole situation is in limbo and it’s unclear what the future will be for children at centres like this one.

International adoption is also back on the political agenda in Australia. Deborra-lee Furness is an adoptive mother and a high profile advocate for adoption reform.

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS: [Adopt Change] “Of course it has to be regulated. This is why so many programs like Vietnam... Guatemala... have been shut down, because there was abuse within the system with child trafficking, with promoting you know impoverished people to give up their child and be given money and told lies”.

SARA: The large fees paid by prospective overseas parents created a market for children. As the demand for babies increased, so did the numbers of supposedly abandoned infants. Now the Australian Government wants to reopen adoptions from Vietnam and six other countries.

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS: “We have to change a whole culture and we have to make people step up and go okay let’s do this and you know when we need to do it by? Yesterday - because every minute that that child is institutionalised or without a forever family they are being damaged. We’re not just neglecting them, they are being damaged. There are statistics that say for every three months a child is institutionalised they lose a month of development”.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “A lot of adoption is about the parent, what the parent wants -¬ they can’t conceive, IVF didn’t work, they’re too old to adopt in Australia - whatever the scenario is, it’s always about the parent and this is... one of my areas of concern is that it’s got to be about the child”.

SARA: International adoptions to Australia are at their lowest levels on record. There’s been a 76% decline in the past 25 years. And for those that do go ahead, the average waiting time is 5 years.

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS: “It is huge but it’s not a reason to just stop. I don’t think any parent if they had a child that was challenging would just give up and we’ve got to think, I think everyone has to think they’re all our kids and we’re all... we’re the grown-ups”.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “Parents who are going to adopt a child from another culture, or just Vietnam, need to love that child. Do not adopt a child if you are not going to treat it right and you are not going to understand that it is a work in progress. An adopted child is not a clean slate whether they’re one or five, they are coming to you from a different culture that needs to be addressed”.

SARA: My Huong has lived through the cycle of adoption as a child and now as a mother. She has adopted sons 12 year old Daniel and 4 year old Sam.

LE MY HUONG: “I guess for them, being adopted they have a mother that can fully understand their needs as adopted children. I talk to them, you know when I took both my boys I created really loving stories around how they came to be with me and often you know when they go to bed, Daniel will say, mum can you tell us our stories? Can you tell us our stories? So it’s very special to them”.

SARA: Home is here in Vung Tau. My Huong has no plans to live back in Australia. Both her adoptive parents have died. She wants to spend her life in Vietnam raising her sons. She’s found her family and her identity.

LE MY HUONG: “Children need a family, they need love, they need to belong and the way it is now, you can’t keep children remaining in an orphanage forever. So adoption to me is ah … even though my own adoption wasn’t positive, but I know though there’s many, many families out there that will provide the love and the need, all the needs that children require”.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: “I really wish I could just stay here, but I have my husband and child - and as a mother my most responsibility is to raise my child myself. If I could move here tomorrow, I would move here tomorrow”.

SARA: Sophie’s journey is coming to an end. More than four decades after she was adopted to Australia, she still hasn’t found her mother but she has found a new connection with her mother land.

SOPHIE ENGLISH: I’ve had to dig really deep into myself to see things as an adult. I really feel like I’ve matured. I feel like I’ve done ten years of therapy in two weeks and I feel like I’ve actually dealt with the issue of identity that I have pushed aside for 46 years. It’s really sad there are so many traumatised adoptees who have no identity, who have been pulled out of the war, who have nothing, and this is for them. We all collectively understand the trauma that we go through. But the whole experience has been something that I will actually treasure for my whole life because it’s given me the ability to see things that I don’t think I would have had the chance to”.