Seoul, South Korea
The first photo Joo-Rei Mathieson has of herself was taken when she was around 4 years old. His head is shaved, his eyes downcast. She just arrived at the worst place a child could be sent to in South Korea.
The black-and-white photo is from a November 1982 Brothers Home admissions document that describes Mathieson as a lost street kid brought in by the police. He notes that she is “able to work” – chilling for a government-sponsored vagrant facility that survivors told The Associated Press often labored children to death.
She said no words for days, according to the document, after entering Brothers, a now-destroyed facility in the southern port city of Busan where thousands of children and adults – most of whom were abducted in the streets – were enslaved and often killed, raped and beaten in the 1970s and 1980s.
“She was so scared and traumatized,” Mathieson said of herself, as she imagined in an AP interview the feelings of the girl in the photo who was given the name Hwang Joo Rei, because of the neighborhood of Jurye-dong where Brothers once stood.
Mathieson was one of the lucky ones. In August 1983, she and 21 other young Brothers children were moved to an orphanage in another part of town. His escape may have been made possible due to overcrowding in the sprawling Brethren compound.
Mathieson then slipped into an international adoption system that separated thousands of Korean children from their families in a lucrative business under the military governments that ruled South Korea from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s.
He was given an approximate date of birth and other arbitrary details to account for a random immigration process designed to send more children overseas as quickly as possible. Mathieson was then flown to meet her Canadian adoptive parents in November 1984, part of a child export frenzy that created the largest diaspora of adoptees in the world.
Mathieson said she spent most of her adult life in “tunnel vision to move on”, never questioning her past and living as a Canadian while traveling across the world, before moving to Hong Kong to work in the hospitality industry.
But her Korean past has “rebounded” on her in recent months as she began to feel she was “on a mission” to uncover her roots and locate her Korean parents if they are alive.
Due to privacy concerns, she used the name on her adoption paperwork in a 2019 AP report that announced Brothers was in the adoption business. Mathieson, however, is now willing to speak publicly for the first time to improve her chances of reuniting with her Korean parents, including a possible sibling named Lee Chang-keun.
That name appears on the adoption papers of another Korean adoptee who, along with his younger brother, was sent to a family in Belgium in 1986. Mathieson contacted him in October last year after commercial DNA testing – increasingly used by Korean adoptees seeking reunions – found that they were most likely siblings.
Mathieson said it was “exhilarating” to discover a blood relative and gain a tangible connection to their biological roots despite not knowing their real name, date of birth or hometown.
“I don’t think any other human being on this earth except adoptees will understand what it’s like to go through life unconnected to one’s origins. It’s something that normal people will take for granted. “Mathieson said in a Zoom interview, using quotes for the word ‘normal.'” Seeing someone who looked so much like me was so exciting.
The discovery also raised worrying questions about the circumstances of his adoption and that of his new parents, who did not respond to AP’s requests for comment.
His papers indicate that he and his younger brother were adopted from an orphanage in Anyang, a city near the capital, Seoul, about 300 km from Busan. He says the boys were found abandoned in August 1982, months before Mathieson arrived at Brothers, and had another brother, Lee Chang-keun, who was at another orphanage in Anyang.
There is no mention if Lee was adopted. Mathieson hopes Lee stayed in Korea and now she can find him. She desperately searches for information about her Korean parents and how they were separated from their children.
Neither Mathieson’s adoption papers nor those of the brothers in Belgium describe any significant effort to locate their original families despite the years they spent in the orphanage system.
Mathieson says she is full of questions: Did her parents leave her with a relative in Busan as they scrambled to search for their missing sons? Was she kidnapped by the police, like many other inmates at Brothers?
“A lot of adoptions were instead from new parents who had to give up their child right after birth,” Mathieson said. “For a family to abandon, voluntarily abandon, three children between the ages of four and six? It just didn’t fit me… I knew (the) real story was so deep.
Through documents obtained from officials, lawmakers, or Freedom of Information requests, the AP found direct evidence that 19 children were adopted by Brothers between 1979 and 1986, and circumstantial evidence suggesting the minus 51 other adoptions.
Mathieson’s memories from before she left Korea — of watching children playing in a nearly empty outdoor swimming pool, towering black iron gates, of flowers in a garden yard where she was pressed for a photo — were all vague and benign before the AP first said she had been at Brothers in 2016.
She now links those memories with photos of the Brothers showing children playing in the low water of a concrete pit behind huge barred doors that confined thousands of people – including the homeless and disabled as well as pedestrians at random that had been snatched from the streets – before a prosecutor was exposed. the horrors of the establishment in 1987.
Brothers was the largest of the nationwide facilities that hosted aggressive roundups ordered by military leaders eager to clean up the nation’s streets. Adoptions were another way to ward off social undesirables, including children of single mothers or poor families, and to reduce the number of mouths to feed.
About 200,000 Korean children have been adopted by Western families over the past six decades, including 7,924 in 1984, the year Mathieson was adopted. Roots are often untraceable as most children were listed as abandoned, even when they had known parents, making them easily adoptable.
Mathieson plans to take his case to the Seoul Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has interviewed hundreds of surviving Brothers or their families, but so far none adopted. Although she is still determined to get information about her biological parents, Mathieson cherishes the bits and pieces of her past that have emerged as she continues her search.
“It was nice to have some extra photos,” Mathieson said of the images recently sent in by the Korea Welfare Service, her adoption agency. “I will cherish them.”