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A Mother, 44, Discovers She Is Vietnamese Woman’s Long-Lost Child: ‘That Was the Last Time I Saw My Daughter’

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A Mother, 44, Discovers She Is Vietnamese Woman’s Long-Lost Child: ‘That Was the Last Time I Saw My Daughter’

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A Maine woman is reconnecting with the childhood she never knew—her life before she was airlifted out of Vietnam—after learning the mother who gave her up as a child looked for her relentlessly for decades.

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Forty-four years ago Nguyen Thi Dep made the decision to give her daughter, Leigh Boughton Small, a chance at a better life. The Vietnam War had already taken an estimated 1.3 million peoples lives, Nguyen didn’t know exactly where her little girl would be taken but she knew it would be better than risking her daughter’s life by keeping her. 

At the age of 3, Small was evacuated with 3,000 other children from a war-torn Vietnam to the U.S. and other countries in Operation Babylift—a mission ordered by President Gerald Ford. The mission sought the adoption of displaced Vietnamese children in the final days of the Vietnam War.

“I recalled exactly, at 15:00 on the 26th of April 1975, flights of [Operation] Babylift took off with my 3-year-old girl along with hundreds of other children to travel half of the Earth to America,” Nguyen said in September. “This is the last time I saw my daughter. “I’m in my 70s now, [and] I just hope to see my beloved daughter once before I die. I have no time anymore as I’m getting older and older.”

Knowing that she was adopted, Small opted to submit her DNA to ancestry.com to find out more about her past. Small was not surprised to find half her DNA was Vietnamese, the other a mix of British countries.

In September, on what was seemingly an average night, Small checked her email while making dinner. To her surprise, she found an email from ancestry.com. The email was a message from a woman who turned out to be a half-sister Small never knew existed.

“My DNA says we’re half-sisters. I believe we’re sisters and your Vietnamese mother has been looking for you,” Small paraphrased.

Never having known her mother’s name, Small never knew that her biological mother was looking for her. But a man in Vietnam had found Small’s half-sister through the American soldier’s 2011 obituary—her father was an American soldier who met Small’s mother on a military base. Small and the sister share the same father.

Nguyen Thi Dep, now 70, had always regretted that day she said goodbye in April 1975. Nguyen had been searching for decades for the daughter she named Nguyen Ti Phong Mai.

That little girl—now sitting at a computer in Maine—never knew her mother had gone back to the orphanage. Nguyen had gone back for her the next day, but it was too late. 

Within 24 hours of that initial message—and after cross-checking names, birthdays and the date of arrival—Small and Nguyen spoke on the phone.

“The first thing she said was, ‘Do you have a good life? Do you have a good life?’” Small said. “And I said, ‘Yes, I have a wonderful life.”

Although the years had turned into decades, Nguyen simply wanted to know that her daughter had a good life, one worth her sacrifice.

“She’s my daughter,” Nguyen said. “I love her. I let her go because I wanted to save her life, you know? I just want to know if my daughter is alive and have a happy life,” she said.

“When you see that child you think about how hard that decision was for her,” Small said while looking at photos her mother sent her from her childhood. “I’m not sure I’ve conveyed to her enough that I don’t have any bad feelings at all, and I want to make sure that that’s what she knows first and foremost, that she should not feel that way.” 

Small is traveling to Vietnam in mid-November. She visited Vietnam for the first time nearly 20 years ago to search for her mother. She was armed with the limited information she had and was unable to make a connection then.

For the mother, this is a reunion with her child. For her daughter, it’s a connection to her past.