I Used DNA Analysis To Find My Birth Family And It Sent Me To Three Continents
(CNN) — When I sent DNA samples to genetic testing services last year in search of my birth family, I had no idea it would set me on an adventure across three continents.
In 1961, I was adopted at birth in California. Over the years, I have searched for my biological family from time to time, but I have always been blocked by sealed files and discreet officials. Over the past decade, however, home DNA testing and easy online access to official documents have changed the game.
I spat into plastic tubes (one for each of the two big players in this industry in the United States: 23andMe and Ancestry.com), dropped them in the mail, and waited anxiously for the results. When the email arrived, I was stunned.
After believing for a lifetime that I was a basic white American, I learned that was only half true. My biological mother was born in Iowa. But it turned out that my father was North African.
I contacted anonymous DNA Matches through the 23andMe and Ancestry messaging systems, but no one responded. Then came weeks of research using Ancestry.com and various databases of public records until I was able to identify both of my parents and find contact information for a handful of their relatives. relatives.
I discovered that my biological father was born in the mid-1930s in Casablanca. Romantic visions of Bogart and Bergman (fictionally) escaping the Nazis swam in my head.
Records showed he emigrated to the United States in 1959 and ended up in San Francisco. My mother had been raised in San Diego and had also moved to San Francisco right after high school. But why had he left Morocco? What brought her to San Francisco? I had to know more.
The author, center, with new family ties at a July 2022 party in Paris in his honor.
Courtesy of Tim Curran
After days of imagining the best and the worst, I scripted out what to say to genetically close family members who probably had no idea I existed. Then I held out my hand apprehensively.
To my relief, my mother’s and father’s families welcomed me with open arms, despite their shock at discovering that I existed.
I quickly learned that both of my biological parents had passed away and I was deeply disappointed to have forever missed my chance to meet them. Would things have been different if I had searched harder sooner?
But I was glad that all of their siblings were still alive.
From my new family, I pieced together a sketch of my parents’ stories: from opposite sides of the world, they both stood up to difficult parents and left home at the first opportunity. They both ended up in one of the most free-spirited places on the planet: San Francisco.
He worked as a floor installer in the North Beach neighborhood, where she was a cocktail waitress and a dancer. I imagined them meeting while he was installing floors at a nightclub where she worked.
By all accounts, it must have been a very brief affair. My dad lived with a girlfriend, and my mom’s sister says she never heard my mom talk about my dad in any way. Other than the sister and her mother, no one else in her family was informed that she was pregnant. My dad’s family say they’re 100% certain they’ve never been told either.
There were other big surprises: I was told that my mother never had another child – or even a serious boyfriend – for the rest of her life. From my father’s side, I was shocked to learn that I had a half-brother and a half-sister and dozens of cousins in France and Morocco.
They invited me to visit. I booked a trip to meet my dad’s huge, welcoming family.
The author’s extended family owns property on a rocky promontory in Dar Bouazza, a coastal community just west of Casablanca.
“I was warmly welcomed”
In Paris, a cousin threw me an exuberant party at her sunny suburban home, where I was warmly welcomed by the entire French branch of the family. They gave me insider tips tailored to my interests on where to go and what to see off the beaten path.
On their recommendation, I spent an afternoon in a huge and beautiful city park in eastern Paris called Buttes-Chaumont. I dined in the French equivalent of a workers’ restaurant (a broth, from the name of the broth) says Julien. It was my third time in Paris – but now I saw it with new eyes, imagining myself as some sort of honorary son of the city.
Morocco was a whole other world. I had never traveled to a Muslim country, or anywhere outside of Europe or the Americas. The experience was a strange and magical combination of overseas adventure and comfortable travel, buffered by the family caring for me.
I spent the first six days in the seaside resort of Dar Bouazza, about 45 minutes from Casablanca, where my large Moroccan family owns a set of neighboring summer residences a few meters from the beach. The houses are built on property that my grandfather bought nearly a century ago (when the land was considered worthless) as a place to escape Casablanca’s summer heat.
A photo of Fez at sunset, taken from the roof of a riad in the Moroccan city.
French is the main family language, and my aunts and uncles don’t speak English. A younger cousin was usually available to translate, but group conversations at the table or on the back deck were always in French, leaving me no way to participate. I decided to learn conversational French on my next visit.
Despite the language gap, I got to know them all – the stern uncle, the maternal aunts, the prankish cousin – and recognized many of their personality traits and quirks – how loud they are , curious and sly – in me.
I spent nearly a week gobbling up delicious authentic Moroccan dishes like lamb tagine (steam roasted with vegetables in a ceramic dish of the same name) and pastilla (spicy, shredded chicken or game birds wrapped in filo pastry) cooked and served on seaside terraces by the small house staff common in bourgeois Moroccan homes.
Explore a new homeland
Still, I wanted to see more of my father’s homeland, so I set off on a tour of Fes and Marrakech organized by a cousin and her husband, who own a luxury travel agency.
These two cities were beautiful and impressive, foreign but strangely familiar. I experienced them in a unique and very personal way thanks to my DNA journey: as a one-generation son close to his father’s homeland.
Professional guides created personalized tours based on my interests and my newly discovered family’s culture and history – including a detour to my family’s ancestral mausoleum in Fez.
I saw the things my father might have seen while visiting the colorful medinas of the towns (markets) where the guides introduced me to shopkeepers by my new surname. I saw magnificent mosques and unexpected side lights such as the largest Jewish temple in Marrakech, the Lazama Synagogue. I watched artisans at work, making pottery, leather goods and fabric as they have done for centuries.
The Roman ruins of Volubilis are remarkably pristine due to their isolation and the fact that they have been unoccupied for almost a thousand years.
The highlight of the visit was a trip to the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, between Fez and Rabat, the Moroccan capital. The city was abandoned by Rome around the 3rd century and was not excavated until the beginning of the 20th century. Seeing well-preserved walls, foundations, and floor mosaics on site – something that simply cannot be seen in the Americas – was a superb experience for a history buff like me.
The tour ended with a hike in the High Atlas Mountains to spend an afternoon with a local family who gave me a Berber-style cooking class, teaching me how to stew lamb and vegetables in a traditional Moroccan tagine.
The patriarch even lent me one jellabaa traditional Moroccan outer dress, to wear for a photo, which was both eerie and oddly comforting – a perfect synthesis of the whole trip.
The author and his host taste the results of his Berber cooking class.
Courtesy of Tim Curran
DNA traveler beware
Getting an at-home DNA test can start you on your own grand adventure, intentional or unintentional.
Former CNN correspondent Samuel Burke has created an entire podcast series in partnership with CNN Philippines, “Suddenly Family,” around the surprises — pleasant or not — that can come from DNA analysis.
“DNA testing can open this Pandora’s box that no one in the DNA industry talks about,” he said.
Burke said some people just want to know about genetic health issues they may have. Many others are simply looking to learn more about their ethnicity, “how Irish, Jewish, Native American”. But he said few people realize testing services will put them in touch with other people, sometimes in unexpected ways.
In Fez, Curran visited several workshops where fabrics, leather goods and ceramics are handcrafted using ancient techniques and tools.
Whether you know nothing about your family history or think you know it all, there are likely to be surprises. Among them, Burke lists discovering that a parent has been unfaithful or that you are the product of artificial insemination. Or you might discover that you are not biologically related to either of your parents.
Burke said being prepared is key to avoiding some of the pitfalls.
“Expect to discover something unexpected.” And it says if you suspect anything wrong, you can refuse to share your results. Burke added that the best advice he’s heard while reporting on DNA is to “slow down.” Don’t become “committed to solving mysteries” and share your results as quickly as possible.
Whether or not your DNA tests yield unexpected results, they can inspire fascinating journeys across the country or, as in my case, around the world.
What I’ve learned on my adventure, however, is that the best part – even more than the places you visit – is the people you bond with, your new family that looks like you, but also very different.
Top image: Tim Curran visited the Hassan II Mosque on a day trip to Casablanca (Photo courtesy of Tim Curran)