On DNA testing for adoptees.

When I sent off my DNA kit to 23andMe, I had absolutely no idea that the results would be so telling. In part, this is explained by the fact that I am from the Druze community, itself extremely small and self-isolating. Beyond this, the family practices of kinship, marriage, and familial intersection in Lebanon follow particular patterns that are also self-limiting. For this reason, DNA can be “read” in a way that is much more conclusive than, say, for a domestic adoptee in the United States. All the same, the results provided me with answers along lines of ethnicity, location, community, as well as family. For many of us, this is more than we’ve ever had. I can state readily that this new-found knowledge was, by itself, quite life-changing for me. I am currently following up locally, and am hopeful for an eventual reunion.

I know many adoptees from Lebanon are now sending off their kits and awaiting their results, and I congratulate them on their decision. On many levels, this is our “empowering” end run around those who claim first, that there is no information for us, and second, that we shouldn’t be searching in the first place. But it does come, I believe, with certain responsibilities, and an awareness of what we get ourselves into by learning such information. There are, for Lebanese adoptees, things to understand not only about DNA testing as it concerns us, but also how the family and social structure works locally, much different from the places we grew up in. I think a discussion on this topic is overdue and quite healthy, and I welcome it here.

The testing companies are first and foremost private corporations. Even though many market their services to adoptees in active search, this does not readily imply that they are any more or less invested in our cases or cause beyond a financial interest. We are asked to sign (virtually) a series of documents that concern privacy and the rights to our genetic material. I admit I had many misgivings along these lines. I don’t necessarily trust the corporate realm to care about us as individual human beings with rights concerning our genetic data. There is, for example, an option when working with 23andMe concerning the storing of the saliva sample. My advice is to refuse to allow them to keep the sample. I do not necessarily wish to aid and abet a corporation in leveraging profits based on sampling or statistics that I might find dubious or even offensive.

We should realize that a sampling of our genetic code skews in very particular ways, based on the needs of the researcher. For example, my paternal and maternal haplogroups are defined as rather rare but quite local. My maternal haplogroup in particular, however, “migrated” to Europe and is, for many studies, “centered” there. So running my DNA through the ethnic filters at GEDMatch reveals me to be “European”, based purely on the bias of those creating such filters. Most disturbing along these lines is the fact that our DNA, revealing tens of thousands of years of migration and mixing, should instead be used to define concepts of being “original” to a given nation-state. This is absurd, reductive, racist, and offensive; a reverse colonialism. My advice generally speaking is to view 23andMe or any testing company as a cheap way to obtain your DNA information. I refuse to use 23andMe beyond this initial purpose.

What follows is some particular advice for Lebanese adoptees who have decided to do a DNA test. Of course, adoptees are free to follow or ignore this, as they see fit. I hope though that my 10 years here might be of some value in terms of a read on how local community works, and one way of pursuing results gleaned from our genetic code. At the very least, the information we receive “localizes” us in a very particular way. But even here, we need be aware of the quite recent establishment of Lebanon as a nation-state, the formerly open economic and political borders with the region, the fact that Lebanon is a site for migrants, refugees, and others dislocated due to wars both political and economical [link to A History of Modern Lebanon]. So the notion of being “Lebanese” becomes perhaps the first thing we need to question when examining our DNA.

I welcome additions and amendments, as well as anecdotes, links, and narratives from others who have gone the DNA route, to the following listed advice:

  • If you are outside of the United States, you will need someone within the U.S. to act as a go-between in terms of receiving and returning the DNA kit. In Europe, this might be DHL; in Lebanon, I used Aramex which provides a forwarding address in the States. I highly recommend using a trackable shipping service for this.
  • After returning the kit, there will be a wait. You will need to register the kit before you send it. Take advantage of this time to make a profile that describes you and what you are hoping to find out. Give the month and year of your adoption (avoid any idea of “birthday”) as well as the adoptive agent.
  • I spent two weeks trying to decide how much information to put here in terms of being an adoptee. Some advised a more “stealthy” approach. In the end, I opted for the whole truth. Our adoptions are shrouded in secrecy and deception; and so I recommend that we be truthful and open in this regard.
  • Limit access to this information to those who match you. Set your privacy settings rather conservatively, and consider not using your real name. Allow those who match to see your profile, but don’t set anything public. Be aware that your real name can be searched online to find more particular contact information.
  • First you will receive ethnic identifying information, and later, a list of cousins in order of percentage DNA matched. Once you receive this initial data set, make sure to check “on” the “Relative Finder” option in your preferences.
  • Many of these matches will be outside of the country; some of them might be in Lebanon. My advice is to NOT contact those in Lebanon; save this for later. Such communication is received differently here culturally speaking than in the countries of our adoption.
  • Examine your list of cousins. See who is the greatest percentage match, and send them a message introducing yourself. I asked simply for a “hello back”—an acknowledgment—and nothing more. Then be very patient and wait for a reply. Make sure you set the email option “on”, so that you will be contacted if anyone sends you a message.
  • I have found that my cousins in North America are willing to engage, but there is a certain naivete to the situation that is not helpful. By this I mean to say that the full implications of what it implies to be contacted by someone genetically “of” and yet “outside of” the family is lost here. Again, patience is a virtue, as is respect for privacy.
  • Along these lines, our stories will likely come as a surprise to extended family. I still have not contacted the Lebanese cousin matches on my list. Instead I am waiting for my story to “make its way” up to the village I think I’m from. I’m giving the family time to react, and perhaps contact me.
  • This is very frustrating, especially when I know in a half hour I could be up there actively looking. But for me, it’s a question of respect of everyone involved. I have had a lot of arguments about this with friends and adoptees, but so far this course of action has been fruitful for me, although quite slow. I think too it is a good idea to give ourselves time to process our genetic information and what it tells us.
  • As you wait for replies, go through your matches, and note the names of those who match you in the highest percentage. Note what village names they put down as being where they are from. This will give you an idea of villages and local region.
  • For the male adoptees, go through those who match your “paternal haplogroup”, which is handed down father/son. Since family names are also patrilineal, this will give you a better sense of possible family names. Note these family names down, and contact these cousins. To be so connected means you share a paternal ancestor. It could be a grandfather, or a great-great-great-great-grandfather.
  • Download your DNA as “raw data”. This raw data can then be run anonymously through the Lebanese Genome Project, which (sadly) will establish rather readily your sect. This can also be learned from the family names in cousin matches; for me it was quite obvious. Contact me at my email above for more info on proceeding with the LGP.
  • Some will recommend uploading the raw data to the GEDMatch public service. I find the tools there to be extremely difficult to use. They are also Anglo- and Euro-centric. My closest matches there were five (or more) generations back, and I’ve since deleted my account.
  • If you do not hear back from your top matches, start sending out messages to lesser matches. Use any information you’ve managed to put together, such as possible village and family name. At a certain point, my outgoing message changed to include this information: “I believe my village to be X and my family name to be Y”.
  • Ironically, there is more local awareness of these two markers than any connection DNA might afford us. This reflects the cultural importance of genealogy and lineage, as well as Hasab, or “[the value of] the family name”. This has, of course, been corrupted by sectarianism over the years.
  • Because of endogamous marriage in Lebanon, this will often reveal the maternal reflection of the paternal line. Meaning, the matches here might be of women who are themselves related to the paternal line. For example, many of these lesser matches informed me that “my grandmother’s maiden name is X, and she is from Y”.
  • If anything is forthcoming from these messages, consider going back and contacting the Lebanese cousin matches. I still have not done this, because I live locally. Someone living in Europe or North America might view this contact option differently.
  • Consider very carefully requests to share DNA. I’m still not quite sure what the value is here, and it has not been useful to me. I admit to being a flunky in terms of understanding the science of all of this, and the heavy-duty genealogist types online kind of freak me out.
  • Examine your list of cousins for anyone else who is also an adoptee. I have one such cousin listed. To understand is that especially from impoverished families, or in cases where the mother passed away during childbirth, sibling pairs were often given over to the orphanages.
  • Do not be disheartened by loss of contact with cousins. At first I felt a particular kind of euphoria that came from seeing the word “cousin” next to the name of a distant relative. Think of our adoptive families, and how little contact we might have with far-flung relatives. Many of my original exchanges have since ceased; I try not to give this too much importance.
  • This brings up the other reason I’ve put off contacting my Lebanese matches: This notion of extended family has much greater value locally speaking. Again, to me it comes with certain responsibilities in terms of respecting local mores. And again, I know many will argue with me on this, in terms of our “right” as adoptees to know our information. But this is my gut instinct as far as this goes.
  • Understand that contact with family might come with the other remnant of local sectarianism, which is questions concerning our faith. I have not experienced this yet, but I know it has happened to Lebanese adoptees in reunion. Especially when our familial faith, our adoptive faith, and any further converted faith might not match (Druze, Roman Catholic, and Muslim, in my case), this poses a particular issue for us; I steel myself to its eventuality. I think we need be respectful of such faith markers in any case.

I know there are many adoptees from Lebanon who are critical of such efforts. I’m not exactly sure why; I am also not sure why no one seems to be willing to debate or discuss this in an open and engaged manner. I have a feeling it might have to do with protecting the institutions of power that were in fact responsible for our trafficking and adoption. Whereas I find this rather repugnant, I do not begrudge other adoptees their worldview, though, like I said, I find it to be debatable. I only ask in return an equal understanding, especially for those of us who find ourselves outside of the “good graces” and “favored status” provided by these institutions.

Some criticism also comes from those who have availed themselves of much more spectacular searches, in terms of media interventions and the like. Personally, I refuse to go on television to mediate my story, but I do not have an issue with adoptees who do. Other adoptees have written books on the subject of their return, and this is their right. Frankly, I support anything that gets our stories out, but I stop personally at a certain sensationalism. I do feel that there is a disconnect between a kind of “individualized” sense of search (that comes from our class acculturation) and one that I feel is much more communal and of the places of our origin. By this I mean to say that I hope to not be concerned with only my story, at the expense of others searching. I do worry that a focus on the personal obfuscates the bigger economic and political picture.

Some argue that we should not search because we don’t “understand” the plight of the average Lebanese family. I would only point out that those who take this line of thinking very much maintain the bourgeois acculturation of their adoption, and in fact evoke a particularly paternalistic denial of agency to our families. Who is to say what these families remember, whom they wish to search for, what pressures they were under, whether we will be welcomed back or not? I think of the “abuelas” in Argentina who silently protest in the plaza the disappearance of their children [link to “History of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo”]. I can imagine activism from such women here in Lebanon, who likewise demonstrate on behalf of family members imprisoned or disappeared. I can without problem visualize them going up against the given power structures in this country. It saddens me that I can’t necessarily say the same for the children they were dispossessed of via adoption.

Especially given the violence of day-to-day life in this place—which I refer to as a constant state of “disaster preparedness” in terms of electricity, water, food, shelter, and work—those who share equally in this meager state of existence are likely to find a different reception to their search. I have often advised those returning to attempt to “de-acculturate” themselves; to cast off the baggage that comes from their bourgeois adoptive society. It is true that things don’t necessarily reflect locally how we were brought up, but I do maintain that it is possible to “come closer” to our origins than we might imagine possible. And so I have shifted my own sense of searching to that of “empowering” the family to claim me back.

I know that many don’t agree with this. But this is the understanding I have of the social fabric here, and of maintaining a sense of familial honor as well as dignity for all involved. The stories of our disappearance are well known; they have become folkloric and legendary, if hidden and hushed up. To listen to those who are in leagues with the powers that be here, or who have worked through private and for-profit media channels, criticizing others for searching for family in a different manner is a bit beyond the pale. I am confident that my efforts will be fruitful, inch’allah, and I recommend this as a course of action to others.

I would advise, then, in terms of found family, not judging the reaction to our search, and not projecting our acculturated expectations on those who do not share our upbringing. In many of the adoptee reunion movies I am aware of, there is that painful moment when the subjects of the documentary find themselves faced with their source. The reaction I see is, it pains me to say it, often a class-based disdain, or distance, the same ones that were likely responsible for our adoptions in the first place. The relief of knowing the “who” and “whence” and perhaps “why” might, we must admit, also come with additional knowledge even more painful than the “not knowing”. I have steeled myself for these possibilities.

To expand further, I see myself beholden to a list of guiding principles:

  • Our adoption is the function of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism, which condemn people to their class status and thus to their destiny. I refuse categorically to engage in anything regarding my search that adheres to or abides by such class distinction.
  • I will not avail myself of the media that peddles this on a mass level. I will not engage in media that treats us as trifling entertainment, to be forgotten once aired. I will not engage in mediated discussions that foreground my personal story above and beyond the political and economic aspects of adoption as a practice and industry.
  • I will as much as is possible avoid any contact with any institution responsible for my trafficking. I will not avail myself of wasta, or connections, or my class privilege as concerns obtaining information that is rightfully due me without cost and without political favors. I will not be beholden to any pyromaniac firefighters.
  • I will not jeopardize the ability of other adoptees to obtain information because of my own actions. I will refrain from putting my need to know my own story above that of other adoptees. I will consider other adoptees to be my allies in search, despite any disagreements we might have concerning approach, method, or means.
  • I will consider my story to be a narrative of many. I will attempt to be respectful of all those who are connected to me via this narrative, no matter their actions or even their willful disinheritance of me. I will consider my sense of “belonging” to thus be a mutual decision of all those involved. I will try to obtain consensus in this regard first, and if not successful, will then pursue such “belonging” on an individual basis.

I am beginning to see the psychology of the returned adoptee, or the adoptee in reunion, as having many layers or facets. First is a core almost primal need to re-establish contact with originating place, family, and community, and this whether admitted or avowed by the adoptee or not. This is wholly separate from the psychological effects of being in reunion, in terms of familial relationships and the like. Also on a different layer or facet would be concerns of integration into originating community, society, and culture. Finally, we need acknowledge the moral, ethical, and philosophical coming to terms with being a person displaced, dispossessed, and/or disinherited, and the inherent inversion of this found in our adoptive class acculturation and upbringing.

I separate them, because solving one aspect (say, originating information) does not readily mean that there will not be trauma suffered in terms of the other layers or facets. This is not of the adoptee, but is of all concerned, both locally and in the bigger picture. For example, I know that the basic information I have obtained through DNA testing has alleviated in no small way a catalogue of stress symptoms that I have been suffering from for an extremely long time. All the same, I still must come to terms with an eventual reunion and its aftermath, as well as the bigger picture issue of placing my particular case among the 10,000+ cases of adoption from Lebanon, and beyond that the greater history of trafficking human beings that we are a minor part of. We cannot imagine that any single point or accomplishment in our return will “solve” our issues as adoptees.

Some local organizations, such as Bada’el/Alternatives [link] and Legal Agenda [link] have recently joined together in an effort to help support emotionally, politically, and legally those who seek to “know their origins”, including adoptees. I believe that our unity as adoptees, coupled with an understanding of how our stories map onto others who have been likewise displaced, dispossessed, and disinherited, will go far to prevent the agony of this “not knowing” from adversely affecting future generations. I think that a DNA search goes far to place us in the bigger picture I am talking about, while simultaneously placing us locally speaking. The activism that comes from the desire to bring justice to all who have been negatively affected by any practice that deprives anyone of their rightful place and/or family is perhaps the “balm” we seek [link to “On Radical Psychology”]. I’ve had my moments these past months, to be sure, and I’m sure there will be many more. But this is what has worked for me.


About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
This entry was posted in DNA and Adoption and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to On DNA testing for adoptees.

  1. LaraHentz says:

    I am beginning to see the psychology of the returned adoptee, or the adoptee in reunion, as having many layers or facets. Me, too.

    • We’ve talked about this before, the physical symptoms of the stress of it. The visceral/bodily response is quite astounding; and then to have this “clear up” simply upon knowing a few particulars of original place and community. I know I’m not the first to talk about it this way; I also know I’m not doing justice to what I’m trying to say…

  2. ZB says:

    Very interesting and well-explained. Sending you warm thoughts and prayers, Daniel!

  3. Arlette Assenberg says:

    I read DNA R Us on the day you met some of my friends at the Seminar in November. When they returned to the Netherlands we decided we would order the kits.
    I remember wanting to grab the kit back from the DHL courier when he walked away with it.
    It was out of my hands.. Ancestry info had a reassuring effect. I really do come from somewhere .. ! Watching an IPAD screen filled with my DNA relative matches on a Sunday morning 2 weeks ago completely blew me away.. Your words so resonate. Carefully crafted a message to the 2 closest matches.
    And now I wait. And sometimes forget. And then it feels like Christmas cause it feels like I may get the best present ever.. and at the same time I steel myself for the scenarios you mention above.
    I can’t help but search, it’s a reflex.
    Thanks for what you share, what you write. I’ve followed your blogs off and on since you moved to Lebanon. Next time I will join the trip to Lebanon and hope to meet you.

    • Thank you Arlette for sharing here! inch’allah we all will resolve our questions, or at least be more on the path to doing so. I went ahead and contacted a “second round” of cousins, and heard back from one. I did not hear back from the one in Lebanon. But I am in contact with the family and the town that seems most likely a match, and I patiently wait for that to percolate around up in the jebel. I look forward to meeting you the next time you all visit here!

  4. John Zaia says:

    It’s amazing to find your ideas brilliantly crystallized and your efforts at finding the truth paying off at long last.

  5. yussef961 says:

    I know Manu from Switzerland, friend of Dida and Sebastien, I found my lebanese biological mother thanx to family finder in ftdna. I think you’re confused about some aspects and I’d be delighted to talk about it with you in private if you wish.
    best regards…

    • Hi Yusef! Congratulations on your reunion. I think the point you are referring to is that of DNA reflecting the distant past, not the immediate past. My understanding now is that there are markers that “diffuse out” quite quickly, and there are others that mutate rather slowly. I also understand that this diffusion is more readily apparent in, say, an Anglo-Saxon society than locally. Given the closed, endogamous, and marrying-within-sect communities/families many of us come from, I think we can, like I said, read our DNA results in a different way than many others.

  6. Thank God for your experience and insight…not sure I would have ever imagined the complexity and so appreciate, that much more, your lessons learned. Thank you. Daphne

    • I’m glad this is helpful. The hard part I think is realizing that we often seek some kind of solace from adoptive trauma and mythology in rosy imaginings of our origins. I know that I did this. So I hope that my rude awakenings in terms of Lebanon might help others avoid that secondary letdown….

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