Joanna Sonya Giangardella was just 10 years-old when her mother was forced to make the difficult decision of placing her in a United Nations-sponsored adoption program during the Greek Civil War. Joanna’s father had passed away and the family found themselves living in poverty in Pyrgos, so America seemed a more ideal environment for a young child to grow up in. However, no one told Joanna’s mother that she would not be able to see or hear from her child again, or that the young girl would be put in a non-Greek speaking home that shunned her from learning about her heritage.
Many years later, Joanna, who was beginning a family of her own, decided it was time to head back to Greece. The journey – from being a 10 year-old who was internationally adopted, to reconnecting with her mother as an adult – is documented in her book, The Girl From the Tower: A Journey of Lies.
Giangardella took the time out to speak with Greek Reporter about her experiences and struggles, and offers advice on what other Greeks who are searching for their families can do to find them.
When did you decide to write your book, The Girl from the Tower: A Journey of Lies?
Twenty years ago, I went back to college for my degree in Fine Arts [and] part of my curriculum was creative writing. I then wrote a short story about my journey to America as a 10 year-old. My professor suggested I move forward and continue to write the whole story and send it out for publication. I wrote a synopsis and query, sending it out to 16 publishers. I received eight responses requesting the first two chapters. I stopped there, afraid to continue.
No. I never stopped thinking about them; I was terribly homesick…not knowing how to contact them as a child. Later, when I married, I began my search, writing to Red Cross and UNICEF without a response. I decided that when I was financially able, I would travel to Greece and knock on doors.
Did you have concerns about seeing them?
The only concern came from a re-occurring dream. Upon my anxious and excited arrival, no one wanted me, no one cared. I would wake up from this dream concerned that they forgot who I was, ignoring me.
Your adopted parents were Russian and Bulgarian, and refused to let you speak Greek or associate with your culture, which is described in the book. Do you speak Greek now, or have you incorporated the culture into your life in the present day?
Yes, when reunited with my family I traveled back almost every year. I immersed myself into the culture of which I felt more at home then here in the US. Each time I returned, I learned more Greek. Reading Greek came the easiest for me.
Did you befriend any of the other children who were in the adoption program? Were their experiences similar?
Unfortunately I have met only a few recently. Their experience here in the US had been very different then mine – more loving, more accepted. Growing up, I was not allowed to visit or befriend any Greek children other then my adopted brother who was from Greece as well. He was left on the doorsteps of an orphanage.
For Greek adopted children that may be looking for their birth parents, how would you suggest they begin the process?
First, if they have any knowledge of their Greek family name and place of birth they can write to the church, they have baptismal records; someone always knows someone with that name. Second, if they have nothing to follow, there is a lawyer I know in Athens who has all archives of adoptees from that period and can help for a very small cost.
Is there anything they should prepare themselves for emotionally?
It depends of their state of mind. If it has been their passion to find where they come from and re-connect with their families without criticism of the circumstance of “why” they were adopted, then it will be a rewarding journey. They need to prepare themselves that the story behind their adoption can be heart wrenching; mothers die without knowing what happened to their babies once left on the door steps of orphanages all over Greece.
With the current economic and political upheaval in Greece, Greeks were finding themselves too poor to care for their children. What are your thoughts on that 60 years after you, and Greeks, went through a similar situation?
What I have found in Greece, as part of their culture, is that it takes “a village” to raise children in Greece; it is exactly that. Children are never alone. They have grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and [in] some cases, neighbors that look after them. Here they are disconnected with extended family, some never see each other. Only in situations of children having no one or [a] life-threatening situation would it be likely for them to be placed in a foster or adopted program. There are many loving people out there; I know that to be true, but there is nothing stronger than family.
Greece will overcome their difficult time as they have done before many times because of loyalty to their family and loyalty to their history.
What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
There is nothing stronger then the love between a mother and a child; that history repeats itself because people forget; that children are continuing to be exploited because of greed and indifference; to bring awareness to an event not found in the history books. I hope my story will be read by people in the US so that my mission of finding others will happen. Most of all I want to publish my book in Greece, written in Greek, because I think especially now it will give them “hope” to those still looking for their loved ones, but also that my experience can happen to their children if they send them away. In a time of despair, keep your family close, keep your children closer. As a mother and grandmother I understand and forgave my mother because she trusted people. She endured pain, guilt and a weeping heart but was never forgotten. Her whole life was always seeing to others needs, never her own.
For more information on Joanna and The Girl From the Tower, visit her website: http://joannasonya.com