‘Doctors told my mum I was dead but I’d actually been sold'
It's been just over a year since Belle Barbu, 26, from Utah, found out she was taken from Romania as a baby and sold to an American family.
She is on a mission to share her heartbreaking story and raise awareness on trafficking with the help of the charity Operation Underground Railroad. Here, she shares her devastating story, as told to The Sun.
"Walking into the hotel courtyard in Rome, 5000 miles from home in the US, I was terrified. What if it was all a mistake? Then, there they were - my real family, who I was snatched from at birth.
Growing up in America, I didn't look anything like my blonde parents. But when I was eight and they explained they'd adopted me as a toddler, it was a huge shock.
They said my surname had been Barbu, and that I'd been born in Romania to parents who didn't want me. Confused and ashamed, I kept it secret from everyone, but the hurt never went away.
My relationship with my adoptive parents broke down by the time I enrolled at Brigham Young University in Idaho to study public health in 2013, and we've been completely estranged ever since. But I never stopped wondering about where I came from."
"Then, in July 2019, I came across a Facebook group helping adopted Romanians find their families.
Nervously, I posted my age and my surname, and was stunned to receive some replies almost immediately.
Sarah*, the woman running the group, recognised my rare family name, and just 48 hours later, she had reached my brother Moise, 20, on social media. Sarah translated messages between us and soon I learned that I had two more siblings - a sister, Simona, 33, and a brother, Florian, 29.
Then I learned that my biological mother Margari and father Zambila were now living near Rome. It was so much information, so fast, that it made my head spin.
After three weeks of speaking via Sarah, I finally had a phone call with my family. As my mum came on the line, via a translator, I started to cry, and soon everyone was in tears."
"She kept saying she was sorry, and that they'd tried to find me, praying every day. It was only afterwards, when the translators sent me the transcript, that I understood.
My family had been extremely poor when my mum was pregnant with me. They lived in tents and made bricks for money, which was incredibly hard work.
When I was born in October 1994, doctors told them I was ill, though didn't specify with what, and I was kept in hospital while they went home. A few days later when they came back, they were told that I had died. Devastated, my parents broke down.
As they left, a nurse ran after them to tell them the truth - that I'd been taken and sold. My parents used the last bit of money they had for petrol and drove to every orphanage they could to try to find me. But the money ran out, and after a year they had nowhere to turn."
"As I processed what had happened, I could barely breathe - my parents' pain was unimaginable. When I told my friends, they were completely shocked, as I'd always been so quiet about my private life.
I went on to learn more about trafficking from a charity called Operation Underground Railroad. They told me that newborns are worth tens of thousands of pounds to trafficking gangs, who fake birth certificates and sell babies to adoption agencies to be taken in by adoptive parents.
The charity arranged DNA tests for us, which proved we are family, and in November last year I flew to Rome, where my parents had been living for 19 years, working as labourers.
As I stepped inside the courtyard and fell into my mother's arms, it was the most euphoric feeling. I knew I was home. Via the translator, my mum told me that she'd never stopped hoping she'd see me again."
"That evening I sobbed for hours, and I spent four days hugging my father and clutching my mother's hand.
Their love for me was so strong, and I felt such a bond with them. Saying goodbye was horrible.
COVID and limited funds have meant I've not been able to make another trip to Italy yet, but I want to as soon as I'm able.
I may never know exactly what happened to me as a baby, but I'm focusing on the things I can do. I now work with organisations including Operation Underground Railroad, speaking about my experience.
I tell everyone who hears my story that you can help human trafficking survivors by donating to charities and by believing their stories."
This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission
Originally published as Woman finds out she was stolen as a baby