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Lurgan man Vance McElhinney's emotional journey of discovery to find his birth parents... and himself

By Ivan Little

Published 27/02/2016

Vance McElhinney on a beach in Vietnam
Vance McElhinney on a beach in Vietnam
The hustle and bustle of the streets of Vietnam
Vance McElhinney back in Vietnam
Vance McElhinney a young boy growing up in Lurgan
With his adoptive parents Liz and Cyril McElhinney
Vance with the picture of himself as a baby
Vance McElhinney in Lurgan town centre

Armed only with a treasured but crumpled dog-eared photograph of himself as a bewildered baby in war-ravaged Vietnam more than 40 years ago, Vance McElhinney set off five months ago on what he hoped would be a voyage of discovery from his adopted home in Lurgan to the land of his birth with the dream of finding his parents - and himself.

He had no papers and no real clues as he said farewell in Co Armagh to the only family he'd ever known to travel thousands of miles to search for his real mother and father and his identity in a country from which he'd been rescued by an English newspaper along with 99 other babies in a highly publicised mercy mission in 1975.

Many of the other abandoned children have been back to Vietnam to hunt for their parents, but many had the advantage of having documents which they were able to use to fit together the missing pieces in the jigsaw of their fractured lives.

Not so for Vance. The only thing that he had to hold on to from his past was the black and white photograph that has a large letter 'M' on it, together with the scrawled Vietnamese name Van Tan Nguyen, which Vance has always believed was what his mother called him when he was born.

His adopted parents in Lurgan, Cyril and Liz McElhinney, who opened up their home and their hearts to him in 1975 after seeing him in an English orphanage, called him Vance and raised him as one of their own along with their two sons David and Stephen, who were - and still are - protective of their "ready-made" brother.

And the McElhinneys fully supported Vance's journey into the unknown last year, which was filmed by documentary-makers from the Belfast-based

Below The Radar firm, who captured the highs and the heartbreaks along the way for the programme A Place To Call Home for the BBC Northern Ireland series True North.

Vance, who doesn't know his exact age - "I'm 41 or 42" - because there's no birth certificate, admitted that going to Vietnam was a shot in the dark.

And, indeed, the trip finished with little light at the end of Vance's turbulent tunnel, with many of his most pressing questions about his past remaining unanswered.

Vance spoke candidly to the Belfast Telegraph in December 2014 about the problems he encountered growing up in Lurgan in the Seventies and Eighties, when he not only had to contend with life in a town divided by sectarianism, but also found himself verbally abused and bullied by sickening racists because he didn't look like anyone else.

He also talked about how a promising career in social work fell apart, about how he fought a gambling addiction, and the break-up of two marriages.

And all the while he said he had been persistently haunted by the ghosts of his past and by his insecurities over his abandonment in Vietnam. In the documentary, Vance, who now works in a shop in Lurgan and who is writing a book about his life in Northern Ireland, said it was important for him to return to Asia to look for his roots.

"I know it's a long shot, but I feel I have to try," he added. "I feel that I'm not 100% myself here.

"I need to go back to Vietnam for the first time to know what it's like to be Vietnamese, to be a proper Vietnamese. I'm looking for a connection over there."

Vance didn't want his desire to establish the truth about his background in Vietnam to impact on the relationship with Cyril and Liz, whom he calls mum and dad and whom he conceded he had "put through the mill".

He also said that his mother's illness - she suffers from motor neurone disease - played on his mind, but he didn't feel any guilt because she was encouraging him to go to Vietnam where, he told his brothers, the best possible outcome would be to find any relatives.

He did, however, vow that he would enjoy the visit whatever happened.

In London, Vance met another of the child evacuees, Victoria Cowley, who said she felt like a foreigner in her own country when she went back to Vietnam for the first time. She also introduced Vance to Brian Freemantle, the former foreign editor of the Daily Mail, who helped organise the emergency airlift for the 100 babies.

He told Vance: "The children could not be cared for properly, and there was fear that some would die.

"All of you were malnourished, some had open operational wounds which hadn't been properly sutured. All of you in some way looked as if you were suffering."

Four of the orphans died before they could reach the sanctuary of the UK, and Freemantle recalled that an American plane flying other children out of Vietnam had crashed, and no one knew if it had been an accident or a case of sabotage.

Vance thanked the newspaper man for his sacrifices to save him and the other orphans.

And 40 years after he left in pandemonium, Vance returned to Vietnam in calmer times and immediately felt at ease.

"I feel really comfortable," he said as he surveyed the land he had been born in. "And it's great that I'm not sticking out like a sore thumb."

But after meeting a Vietnamese researcher, Vance was confronted with the stark reality that, with the absence of any paperwork, his hope of securing a family reunion was all but impossible. And the bad news didn't stop there.

The researcher said it was likely that the Vietnamese name on Vance's photograph had probably been given to him by staff in the orphanage, and was not the one with which he had been born.

Vance also travelled to the village of Quy Nhon, to the orphanage where it was understood he had been brought by his parents as a child.

But an elderly nun told him she didn't remember him and couldn't help him with his quest for information.

"That hit me for six" said Vance.

"It was crushing, to say the least."

But before leaving the orphanage a disappointed Vance still took time to thank the nuns for caring for him.

Back home in Lurgan, he told me this week that despite the lack of success in finding his birth family, he was glad that he had gone to Vietnam, and that he would be going back, possibly to live and work there.

"I haven't ruled that out," he said.

"My mother has given me her blessing about any move, but my immediate priority is her health and to be there for her.

"However, I am hoping to return to Vietnam later this year, and one day I might even settle down there. I have a number of exciting business initiatives in the pipeline in Northern Ireland, and if they take off I may expand to Vietnam, too. I have made a number of important contacts over there."

Vance said that he planned to learn the Vietnamese language, though he'd been able to make himself understood last year through a mixture of French and English.

In the meantime, as he pondered his future this week, Vance still only had that photograph of himself as an orphan to remember his past life.

It's clearly an invaluable possession for Vance who takes comfort in the fact that he is smiling in the picture.

"There must have been some kind of happiness there," he said. "It might as well be a £20,000 Rolex watch, because it is very important to me"

True North: A Place To Call Home, Monday, BBC NI, 10.45pm

Belfast Telegraph

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