“Babylift” woman finds her Vietnamese mother after 44-year separation

Leigh Boughton Small was airlifted to the US when she was over 3 years old unknowing her biological mother had been searching for her for decades.
November 12, 2019 | 15:35

Leigh Boughton Small, 47, of Scarborough, was one of more than 3,000 children evacuated as part of Operation Babylift. The monthlong removal of children from Vietnam to Western countries in April 1975 came before the Fall of Saigon.

"I had never seen a picture of myself before the age of 3-and-a-half," Small said while sitting in her living room, with photos of her husband and three high school-age children surrounding her.

For Small, memories begin at age 3, when she arrived to a welcoming American family in New Jersey. Small's biological mother had dropped Small off at an orphanage. Small's biological father was an American soldier who met Small's mother on a military base.

"I knew that I came from another mother," Small said. "I knew that I came from a woman who gave me up out of love."

The DNA test

In September, Small was getting dinner ready when she checked her email. There was a new message from Ancestry.com, the genealogy and family research website.

That routine turned into the start of a family reunion. Several years ago, Small had ordered a home DNA kit to find out more about her past. No surprise to her, it showed half her DNA was Vietnamese, the other a mix of British countries.

Then a complete stranger sent an important message. That stranger turned out to be a half-sister Small never knew existed.

babylift woman finds her vietnamese mother after 44 year separation

Leigh Small, seen here in Vietnam before Operation Babylift, was born to a Vietnamese mother and American father.

According to Small, the message said something along the lines of, "My DNA says we're half-sisters. I believe we're sisters and your Vietnamese mother has been looking for you."

While Small knew she was Vietnamese, she never knew her biological mother, Nguyen Thi Dep, was looking for her. She did not even know her name. But a man in Vietnam had found Small's half-sister through that American soldier's 2011 obituary. Small and the sister share the same American father.

The sister agreed to an Ancestry test – and it was then confirmed she was, in fact, the soldier's daughter. It was this clue, and then the match with Small, that confirmed the woman living in Maine was, in fact, Nguyen's child.

Nguyen Thi Dep, now 70, had regretted that day in April 1975 when they both said goodbye. Nguyen had been searching for decades for the daughter she named Nguyen Thi Phuong Mai.

"She came back, and the next day, it was already too late," Small said.

Nguyen never knew where in America her daughter had landed. She did not even know if her child had survived the journey. One plane carrying children the same week crashed, killing dozens of children headed for new homes.

44 years of waiting

Within 24 hours of that initial message – and after cross-checking names, birth days 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.'"

With the help of an interpreter, Small and Nguyen video chatted ahead of a planned trip for Small and her family next week

"She's my daughter," Nguyen told WMTW News 8's David Charns. "I love her"

babylift woman finds her vietnamese mother after 44 year separation

Leigh Small video chats with her biological mother halfway across the world.

Once the plane left with her daughter in 1975, there was no turning back. The years turned into decades, and all Nguyen wanted to know was that her daughter was OK, she said.

"I just want to know if my daughter is alive and have a happy life," she said.

For the mother, this is a reunion with her child. For her daughter, it's a connection to her past, a connection to Thi Phuong Mai.

Relearning a forgotten identity

"There was a life there. There was a family there," Small said. Her family is now reunited – forgotten by one, but so treasured by another.

"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. "She's told me, 'I want you to know one thing -- that I always loved you and I don't want anything from you but to know you and know and love you.'

"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 said.

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.

Forty-four years later and thousands of miles apart, the mother and daughter are finally reunited.


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