A mum who felt orphaned when her adoptive mother died in 2010 has finally been reunited via video call with her birth mum in Chile more than 7,000 miles away thanks to a Facebook group.
When Katherine Samwell-Smith, 45, who first met her adoptive parents when she was six months old on a luggage trolley at Gatwick Airport in 1977, became a mum herself her yearning to find the woman who handed her over to an orphanage in Santiago, Chile, as a baby gathered pace.
Knowing only her mother’s name, in 2019 Katherine – who is a project worker for the charity IAC The Centre for Adoption – joined a Facebook group that reconnects adoptees from Chile with their birth families, although she knew her chances of being reunited were extremely slim.
But one morning in April 2021, she woke up at the house she shares with her employment coach husband Michael Gehr, 49, and their children, Benji, nine, and Sophie, six, in High Barnet, north London, to positive news, saying: “A message from one of the group administrators read, ‘Katherine we have found your b-mother!’
“Immediately, my heart started racing. 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 mum. She confirmed that she was.
“I was stunned, she could have easily denied it and shut the door, but my birth mother agreed to talk to me.”
She added: “Finally, the pieces were falling into place.”
Katherine had been devastated when her adoptive mum, Rosie, died aged 64 from cancer in 2010 and, when she became a mum herself, her need to find out more about her own birth family grew ever stronger.
She said: “I didn’t have much hope of finding my mother when I joined the Facebook group in 2019.”
She added: “I just hoped that someone might be able to point me in the right direction and, for a while, it didn’t lead to much.”
The group compiled a list of women in Chile who had the same name as Katherine’s birth mother and, one by one, they contacted them – with their diligence paying off.
So, Katherine was reunited with her birth mother, Ximena, 68, after 44 years apart, on FaceTime.
She said: “When I set out to find Ximena I knew it was a near-impossible task. I had very little to go on and I didn’t know where to begin.
“The Facebook group had connections with Chile which was pivotal in finding her.
“And I am so glad they did, as I feel like I finally know who I am and I’m hoping I can meet her in person in the next year.”
Katherine’s desire to meet her birth mother was not because of any reluctance on behalf of the family who brought her up to tell her about her origins.
Instead, the topic of her adoption was an open and frequent discussion in her household growing up.
She said: “My mum and dad hid nothing from me. I don’t remember the first time we actually talked about it, but I guess I was around three or four years old.”
She added: “I remember being very proud of the fact that I was adopted and, at around five years old, I told everyone at school.
“It made me feel special and I was completely obsessed with the Chilean culture. I loved the fact that I was 100 per cent Chilean.”
Katherine recalls focussing her school assignments and projects on Chile.
She said: “I knew a lot of facts about the country earlier on, simply because I was always doing my school projects on Chile.
“I had a very happy childhood. Mum and my dad, who is now 78, told me anything I wanted to know about how I joined the family.”
Back in 1977, Katherine’s parents, Paul and Rosie, had found the orphanage in Santiago, Chile, knowing they wanted to adopt and chose her from a selection of photos.
She said: “It was chance that I was fortunate enough to be the baby they picked and I do often wonder about what happened to the other babies in my orphanage.
“My birth mother was only 23 and she hadn’t been able to keep me.”
At six months old, Katherine was flown across the world to Gatwick Airport just outside London, where she was met by her adoptive family.
She said: “I had a very happy childhood and I’m a big advocate for adoption.
“But, when I was around 17, I started wanting to know more about the place I was from so my mum and I went on a trip to Chile.
“During that time, we visited my orphanage. My mum was very emotional and it’s only now, as a mother myself, that I understand why.”
She added: “It must have been heart wrenching to know I had started my life off there, waiting for a family to bring me home.
“At the time, I wasn’t too interested in finding my birth family, but I asked about my records and the orphanage told me that they had got rid of them after I turned 16.”
Katherine spent a month in Chile before returning two years later to spend six months working as a teacher in her birth country.
She said: “I felt very reconnected with the place and was practically fluent in Spanish by the time I left.”
Returning to the UK, Katherine started a family of her own with her husband, Michael, although it was not until 2019 that she started to consider looking for her birth family.
She said: “My adoptive mum had sadly passed away in 2010, which was devastating.”
She added: “A thought crossed my mind at the time as to whether my birth mother was still alive.
“After becoming a mum myself, I really started to grieve for my birth mother – not knowing where she was or whether she was alive.
“I was missing my adoptive mum terribly and I wanted my birth mother to be in my life.”
She added: “It was like a piece in the puzzle of my life was missing.
“I felt such a deep love for my children the second they were born and I thought about how agonising it must have been for my birth mother to give me up.
“It felt utterly devastating to me.”
When her mum passed away, Katherine was given her adoption records and started feeling a pull to find out where she came from.
She said: “When I received all my adoption records from my mum’s house, I put them in a drawer under my bed.
“When I mentioned this in passing to my dad, he remembered he also had some records and gave them to me.”
She added: “So, I started searching for answers online, but was often met with a dead end.”
Finding the Facebook group, Chile Adoption Birth Family Search, finally gave her the breakthrough she needed.
And, after finding her birth mother, the administrators helped to set up a FaceTime call with her in August 2021.
She said: “My husband had to convince me to dial the number as I was so nervous.
“Seeing her face on the screen was unbelievable.
“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.”
She added: “We talked a lot about the past. I learned that I have a half brother who is 18 months older than me and was raised by our grandparents and, after me, my mother never had any more children and she never married.
“The tough questions still haven’t been asked because it’s not a conversation I want to have with her over the phone.
“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.”
She added: “I wrote her a letter in which I told her that I forgive her. I don’t think that she has done something that needs to be forgiven, though. 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.”
Now, Katherine is looking forward to getting to know her birth family better.
She said: “I still don’t know when I’ll be able to see my birth mother in person.”
She added: “In a way, the pandemic lockdowns helped us slow things down and we have been working on building a bond before travelling to Chile to meet her.
“Still, it is something I hope to do in the next year or so.
“I think adoption is a beautiful thing, it’s so profound and wonderful, and it can work.”
She added: “There are those times when things break down and people need support but that’s why I went into the line of work that I have done.
“I became a trustee for IAC The Centre for Adoption, because they wanted to have an adoptee voice on the board, so I did that for over 20 years.
“Then a couple of years ago, I gave that up so that I could actually work as a project worker, which means that I’m able to talk to young adoptees to enable them to feel that they’re not alone, that they have a voice and help them to deal with some of the situations that I had seen.”
She added: “My adoptive dad has been very interested in the process of me finding my birth family.
“He’s been so supportive and loves to hear about them. When I told him about Ximena, he said, ‘You can never have too much family.’
“For me, finding my birth mother has helped my life come full circle. No matter what happens now, I know who I am.”
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