Sisters Separated By 44 Years, 8,000 Miles & War, Finally Reunited
DENVER (CBS4) - A Denver woman, separated from her sister nearly 44 years ago during the chaos of the Vietnam war, has been reunited with her younger sibling through a $99 DNA test, perseverance and luck.
"I never thought we were going to find my sister," said Berni Slowey, a mother, businesswoman and documentary film producer in Denver.
It's easy to see why Slowey thought her younger sister, Rose, was lost forever. The two were born in Vietnam in the 70s, their father an American GI, their mother, a South Vietnamese woman.
Berni was 4 years old, and Rose was 2 when Saigon was falling in April 1975. Chaos abounded. As the offspring of an American serviceman, the sisters and their mother were in grave danger as rumors abounded of what the North Vietnamese would do to anyone associated with the U.S. military.
"There were a lot of rumors that Vietnamese women with Amerasian babies would be tortured," said Slowey.
The mother and daughters were eligible to be airlifted out of Saigon before it was overrun by the North Vietnamese. As their time to evacuate approached, and their flight out was being readied, Rose somehow wandered off and disappeared in the pandemonium. Berni says her mother looked frantically for Rose, but couldn't find her.
With time running out, the mother faced a terrible choice: stay and search for Rose, miss her flight out and risk the wrath of the North Vietnamese, or leave with the one daughter she still had.
"I can't even imagine making that choice," said Slowey. "I have two sons, and I can't imagine being in that position my mother was in."
Unable to find Rose, the mother gathered up Berni and left as Saigon was falling. They first settled in Grand Island, Nebraska and later moved to Littleton in 1984. Her mother and father had three other children in the United States, but never spoke of the sister who had been left behind in Saigon.
"I could never understand it entirely, and my mother never spoke of it," said Slowey. She said her mother carried guilt and shame for years at having left her youngest daughter behind.
Slowey became a successful banker, got married and had two sons. In 1995, she and her mother traveled back to Vietnam looking for her long lost sister, but came back empty-handed.
In 2012, her mother died from complications from diabetes.
"One of the last things she told me," said Slowey, "was she always wished she could find Rose to bring her here, and so I know she really wanted a reunion, and I know it haunted her for the rest of her years."
Slowey believes her mother partly died from "a broken heart."
As she grew older, Berni tried to get the word out about her lost sister. In a 2016 TED Talk in Denver, she emotionally brought up the subject of her lost sister Rose, hoping in the back of her mind that somehow, word might spread. But she never heard anything and said a hold remained in her heart.
Unknown to Berni, her sister Rose had been adopted by a South Vietnamese woman and integrated into the woman's family. But when Rose was 11, her mother emigrated from Vietnam to the United States with Rose, living first in Dallas and then in various cities on the West Coast.
The two sisters had no clue that the other sibling was now living in the same country. Rose's name was changed to Vannessa after she arrived in the U.S., and her adoptive mother never told her she had been adopted or about how she had been found.
But Vannessa said there were clues as she grew up. Siblings in her adopted family would make snide comments about how she wasn't really part of the family. She knew she looked different.
"And it just grew more suspicious," she said. "And there were more things."
Finally, in May 2018, her adoptive mother told her the truth: that she had been found wandering the streets of Saigon when she was 2 years old, and that she was really adopted.
"I remember crying so much when she told me that for the first time. It was a relief." Vannessa's first thought was, "I need to go find my own family. I need to go find my mom, she might be looking for me."
But she didn't hold out much hope for reconnecting with her family. "I thought, 'Just accept it, it's been all your life.'"
One evening, Vannessa, now 45 years old and with her own husband and three grown children, saw a TV commercial for a DNA service and decided to try it, on the off chance it could connect her with her long lost family.
"I was like, I'll order that."
She paid $99 for the test, submitted saliva swabs, and in a matter of days, the database told her that she had relatives in Colorado who had also submitted their DNA to the same database.
"It just made me feel so happy. Oh my God, this is confirmation!" said Vannessa.
She emailed a distant cousin in Colorado who had put his DNA into the database, and who told her he thought she might have a sister here. Within days, Berni and Vannessa were on the phone, comparing notes from what they recalled of Vietnam and their separation.
The DNA testing -- and a second, more precise test -- showed they were full sisters.
But the joy of finding her sister and her family was tinged with sadness. For the first time, Vannessa learned her mother had died six years earlier.
"It felt like a thousand heavy weights dropped. It was like a big disappointment. And I was like, 'I am only six years late.'"
The sisters quickly arranged a face-to-face meeting that took place in Denver last month. On Jan. 4, Vannessa flew from her home in Orange County, California, to meet her sister and other siblings for the first time in nearly 44 years.
They spent a long weekend together, crying, laughing and talking.
"I don't know how long you have been searching," Berni told her sister, "but for me it's been a very long time. It's surreal that you are here sitting next to me."
Until reuniting with her sister, Vannessa never knew her name as a toddler was Rose. She now calls herself Vannessa Rose.
Following her sister's trip to Denver in January, Berni traveled to Orange County in February to visit with Vannessa and her family. They are now in constant communication and are planning to return to Vietnam together to see where they were born, where they lost each other, and try to sort out what happened.
Their father has since remarried and lives in Dallas. Vannessa has been in touch with him and says she hopes to meet him face-to-face one day, but she realizes he is still processing this dramatic turn of events.
The sisters now hope their unlikely story inspires others -- especially adopted children -- to continue searching for their families and not give up.
"It's that simple and available at our fingertips", said Berni.
Vannessa said her story has already inspired Amerasian friends of hers in Southern California who were adopted to buy DNA test kits and seek out their birth families.
"This is a dream," said Vannessa, "and I'm afraid to wake up. I have been walking for so long. I have been gone walking and wandering for 43 years, and I just want to come home, and I found my way home."
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