Saartje Verhoest (38) was born in Chile and after her adoption she grew up in a warm nest in rural Dadizele. It was only a few years ago that she discovered she had come to Belgium illegally. “I was kidnapped from my biological mother’s house”, she says. Today, with her NGO Chilean Adoptees Worldwide, she helps fellow-sufferers and fights for recognition.
Federal Member of Parliament Michel De Maegd (MR) will soon submit a proposal for a resolution to recognise the existence of illegal adoptions in our country. He wants to grant the persons involved the status of victim and start an investigation on the subject. Since 1950, hundreds of children have been the victims of illegal adoption and have thus ended up in our country.
Especially babies from Sri Lanka, India, Guatemala and Chile ended up in this situation, something that also happened to Saartje Verhoest (38). She was born as Jessica Karina Pincheira in the Chilean city of Concepción, but grew up 12,235 kilometres further east in the Moorsleed district of Dadizele. “I was adopted by Gaston Verhoest and Veerle Van Damme, two lovely people who also took my brother Jan (39) – also from Chile – under their wings. I arrived in Belgium on 3 November, eight months after my birth”, Saartje, who is a teacher with De Lovie and still lives in Daisel with her partner Jonathan Allaert (42) and their two children Elena (12) and Elias (6), opens her story.
When mum came to get me at the maternity ward, I had disappeared
It was only a few years ago that she discovered the true facts of her adoption. “My parents gave me every opportunity here,” Saartje emphasises. “I could study, was given the right values and norms and could blossom. I am thankful from the bottom of my heart for that. They always spoke very openly about the fact that I was adopted. As a little girl, I was told that my biological mother in Chile could not take good care of me and that I had therefore come to Belgium by plane. I didn’t ask myself many questions about that and it was only in my teens that an identity issue first surfaced. But it wasn’t until after my mum died in 2016 that I also started actively looking for my Chilean past.”
Through social media and groups specialised in adoption, she made an appeal to see if anyone knew her biological mum Julia Patricia Pincheira. “At the end of 2017, someone suddenly turned up claiming to be her son. There I was, sitting at my kitchen table. From pure emotion, I then screamed out loud, because out of nowhere I had found my brother. But I was also a bit suspicious. It could just as easily be someone who wanted to swindle me. But the more details he could give, the more convinced I became. Henry Sanchez was actually my brother.
The months that followed saw intensive contact via WhatsApp and in one of those conversations Saartje learned that she was kidnapped in 1983. “I didn’t know what I was hearing. The story I had believed all those years turned out not to be true. Don’t get me wrong: my Belgian parents worked through a private adoption agency at the time and did everything in complete confidence. I cannot and will not blame them. But when I told my father the full story, he was just as shocked as I was. In the meantime, dad Gaston has also died, just like mum Veerle, of cancer.
How Saartje eventually ended up in our country is hallucinatory, to say the least. “When my mother gave birth to me, she immediately gave me her name. But in the early eighties, women had to go back to work only three days after giving birth. Her employer’s wife wanted to take care of me, but a document had to be filled in on the spot. This could not be done immediately, so my mother had to leave me behind in the hospital. When she wanted to pick me up that evening, together with my little brother, I had disappeared. A social worker had passed me on to an illegal organisation that offered Chilean babies for adoption. Mum was away for a while and I was just sold. Pure human trafficking. How much was paid for her, Saartje does not know. “And I don’t want to know. What is certain is that the money never reached my mother, but disappeared into the pockets of dishonest people. We estimate that per adopted child they earned between 7,000 and 15,000 dollars.”
It is estimated that over 20,000 Chilean babies were stolen between 1960 and 2004 and adopted illegally mainly from Western Europe. “Downright scandalous and that pus-pile is becoming more and more exposed. Together with two Chileans who were adopted as babies by Dutch people, I have in the meantime founded the NGO Chilean Adoptees Worldwide. We want to create a platform to help fellow-sufferers. We have collected a wealth of information, built up a solid network in Chile and are also fighting for recognition. In Chile, a criminal investigation was launched into the baby theft in 2018. We have to get rid of such illegal practices. In far too many countries babies are still offered as merchandise.”
Reunion in August
Saartje herself met her Chilean family for the first time in March 2019. “One of the most emotional events of my life,” she says. “Since then, we’ve been sending each other weekly messages, calling to wish happy birthday and I’ve also been following Spanish for three years. In August, my biological mother, my brother, his wife and two children will even travel to Dadizele, which I am really looking forward to.”
Saartje does not wonder what her life would have been like if she had grown up in Chile. “That wouldn’t do any good. In any case, I would also have grown up with a loving family and would have had every opportunity to do so. But my life is here, in Belgium and West Flanders. Although my Chilean family is deep in my heart.”