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Who am I? The question that haunts Vietnam orphan adopted by Ulster couple

One of two babies adopted by Ulster couples after a controversial airlift, Vance McElhinney, from Lurgan, is on a difficult journey of discovery

By Stephanie Bell

Vance McElhinney has been haunted all his life by what he describes as his "ghosts". Rescued as a baby from a Vietnamese orphanage and brought to the UK at the end of the war in 1975, he has spent his life questioning who he is and what could have been.

A tormented soul, he has struggled to reconcile deep issues of abandonment with his immense gratitude to his adoptive parents in Lurgan who have always been there for him.

Racism has also overshadowed his life and he yearns to walk down the street among his own people and for the first time know what it feels like not to be different.

Now 40, Vance plans to visit his homeland of Vietnam for the first time next year in a journey which he hopes will finally bring him some peace of mind.

"I need to lay the ghosts to rest," he says. "Everything I have tried to do so far in my life has been a disaster because of the way I feel inside.

"I need to go home and know what it is like to walk among people who look like me and I hope for the first time in my life to feel like I fit in and that I don't stick out like a sore thumb. Just once I need to be in the majority, not the minority."

Vance has found some healing in writing a book about his life which he is currently working on. He believes everything he has tried to do in his life so far has been overshadowed by hisdeep insecurity - he lost a promising career in social work, battled a gambling addiction and has had two failed marriages. Today, though, he feels like he has reached a crossroads where the path to inner peace is clearly signposted and that his visit to Vietnam will end his torment.

His mum has offered many times over the years to accompany him to Vietnam in the hope that he will find some comfort there but he hasn't felt ready until now.

He looks younger than his age and has a youthful, upbeat demeanour which belies the terrible conflict which is going on inside him. He is aware of this himself and explains it almost straightaway, putting the depths of his despair into immediate context: "I know I come across as confident and can talk to anyone but it's when I am by myself I get frustrated.

"Even in my darkest moments, however, I think there is something keeping me here and that is my faith which I got from my parents."

Vance was adopted by Cyril McElhinney MBE and his wife, Canon Elizabeth McElhinney, and he has two older brothers, Rev Stephen McElhinney (44) and David McElhinney (42).

He knows nothing about his birth parents, only that he was among the 100 orphans airlifted to the UK just a couple of weeks before the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

The Boeing 747 which brought the orphans to England was chartered by the Daily Mail newspaper under editor David English, and was inspired by the American-led Operation Babylift. Most of the children had been in orphanages run by a charity, Ockenden Venture, in Saigon.

He was one of two children brought to Northern Ireland. The other was Tanya Mai Johnston, now an artist living in Belfast, who was interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph last month.

Their care in the UK was co-ordinated by the British Council for Aid for Refugees, which received calls from all over the UK from people wishing to adopt one of the orphans.

Fears were expressed at the time about legal problems such as making sure the children were genuine orphans and that it might have been in the best interests of some children to return to Saigon if the situation stabilised. The war ended just a couple of weeks later.

Vance, who was one-year-old, was brought to an orphanage in West Sussex, where he was among the last of the babies to be adopted six months later.

His dad, who served for many years as national secretary of the YMCA in Northern Ireland, was honoured by the Queen for his work with young people.

He and his wife had seen the story of the orphans being brought to the UK on the news and had prayed about adopting a baby.

"My mum said she came into the room and I was on my own in a big cot by the window and she said she fell in love with me straightaway," says Vance.

"I was brought up in a Christian family, going to church and Sunday school, and the early years of my life were not too bad, apart from school.

"My family has always been there for me, through my many ups and downs.

"No matter how many times I have fallen down they've picked me up and although they haven't always agreed with the decisions I have made they love me enough to overlook them and help me.

"I have them to thank for the good life I wouldn't have had if they hadn't adopted me."

Vance has also struggled with racist abuse all of his life, starting in primary school. Constant taunts and bullying cast a shadow over his childhood and left their mark.

Also, in his adult years he says he has been made to feel self-conscious about looking different from everyone else.

The scars run so deep that he can't wait to walk among his own race in Vietnam next year and know what it is like not to feel different from everyone else.

"I knew I was a different colour to everyone else but school was the first time I really became aware of it and I became even more aware of it as I got older," he recalls.

"On my first day in high school I got in a fight when someone bullied me. I'm the type of person who was not just going to take it. I've always felt that I've a right to be in the world every bit as much as the next person.

"I have suffered racism on and off all of my life. I think people don't even realise they are doing it sometimes.

"Living in Northern Ireland has been very tough and you have to be thick-skinned. Racism is part of my life and I think it will be until the day that I die.

"I wonder sometimes why some people just can't let others live in peace, the colour of your skin shouldn't be an issue.

"I'm looking forward to being able to walk down the street and know there are other people the same colour as me. I've never felt that before. Everywhere I've gone I've always felt in the minority.

"I believe I will feel at home in Vietnam and that I will fit in. I need to do that just to know what it feels like. I want to walk down the street and not have people shouting racist names or go into a restaurant and not have people staring at me."

Despite his difficult years at school, when he left in his teens he says he felt such gratitude to the McElhinneys for giving him a chance in life that he wanted to give something back.

He decided to go to England, where he got a job as a care worker in a home in Hatfield, and trained and studied until he qualified as a social worker.

He also volunteered with the Youth With a Mission organisation and led teams of young people on trips to Paris, Portugal, Germany, Australia and Scotland.

After three years, though, his insecurities rose to the fore and interfered with his ability to enjoy his work.

"It wasn't until I left home and went to England that I started to really think about my roots and sometimes I got very angry with God and also my parents," he says.

"My faith got shaken and I became cynical and felt that I had to leave my job. I was struggling with the fact that I had been adopted and it has continued to affect everything I have done in the past 20 years.

"I fought with my mum quite a bit and I didn't know why because I couldn't have asked for better parents and I had the best mum in the world.

"She had so much love to give me and I rejected it; to this day I know I have been distant with my parents and I know I do hurt them even though they have been the best to me, always supporting me."

When he was 26 he met and married his first wife in England but the marriage broke down just 18 months later. He then got a job managing a pub in England and was earning a lot of money, which he started to gamble.

"I made and lost a fortune in those years," he says. "I was still trying to find out what life was all about and I couldn't believe the buzz I got from a wee white ball spinning around in a circle and landing on a number.

"Everybody in the casino knew my name and they had my seat for me and my favourite croupier when I went in. I was treated like a king and it made me feel special. 'Vinnie' was my nickname in England and it was like I was a different person as him than I am as Vance.

"I just went downhill from that point. I gambled thousands and would have left the casino so skint that I didn't even have enough money to get a taxi or bus home."

Eventually his parents persuaded him to come home and helped set him up in a new house in Lurgan where he has attempted ever since to rebuild his life, and today is enjoying a simpler lifestyle, happily working as a retail assistant.

And while he married again and split from his second wife, he now feels that he has got his life back on track and hopes that writing his book and finally going to Vietnam will help heal the pain he continues to carry inside.

Although he believes it would be the answer to his prayers to find relatives in Vietnam, he is not going there with high hopes that he will.

"I think I just need to know what lifestyle I would have had there," he says. "The orphanage I was in was knocked down years ago.

"I didn't get any paperwork or anything to do with my parents. I just want to go there and walk in their shoes.

"I've had recurring dreams about my real mum for 35 years. I dream that she is wearing a fur coat with brown mink and she has long dark hair down the side of her face and she is cuddling me, but when she turns her head to look at me I can't see her face. I've never seen her face.

"In the other dream we are fleeing from the Americans and crossing a big ravine. I jump over it but my sister misses. I never can save her.

"I may have brothers and sisters, I don't know. I live in reality. I don't think I will find my family but if I do it would be amazing."

Vance is on the lookout for a publisher for his life story and anyone interested can contact him at kelticmcelhinney@gmail.com

Mission of mercy ...

  • Carried out during the month of April 1975, Operation Babylift was the name given to the mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam to the United States and other countries at the end of the Vietnam War
  • Over 3,300 infants and children were evacuated and adopted by families around the world
  • The operation was announced by then US President Gerald Ford as the devastating war entered its closing stages after over a decade of fighting
  • Flights continued until artillery attacks by North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong military units made further lifts impossible
  • Tragically one of the flights crashed shortly after take-off, killing 138 people, including 78 children

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