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Berni Slowey vividly remembers the day that her two-year-old sister, Rose, vanished. The disappearance occurred at the end of the Vietnam War, in the chaos that ensued during the fall of Saigon. After making a new life in America, Berni never stopped wondering what became of her sibling. But she would have to wait almost 44 years to get answers.

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On Berni’s own admission, she was a perfectionist from a young age. As a teenager, she embarked on a career as a banker fresh from high school and went on to juggle full-time work with her college studies, just so she could reach her dreams sooner. It was her ambition to be the youngest person of her position at work.

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For 20 years, Berni built up a successful career in the banking sector. At that point, though, the financial collapse occurred, plunging the economy into recession. The down-turn then negatively impacted the financier’s life. Indeed, she came to find that work was more hostile and the culture no longer lined up with her own values.

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With that in mind, Berni chose to leave her career in banking behind, and began looking for a new job. The recession, however, meant that she was not overwhelmed with options. She spent two years searching for an opportunity with no luck and feared she’d made a terrible mistake.

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These feelings of despair would ultimately stir up painful memories from Berni’s childhood. That’s because she’d never forgotten a tragic event that occurred during her early years. This incident would go on to affect the rest of the former banker’s life and lead her to wonder if there was something she could have done to prevent it.

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Berni was born in Vietnam in the early 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam War. She and her younger sister, Rose, were, in some ways products of the bitter conflict, as their mother was South Vietnamese and their father was an American GI. And that the tumultuous time would go on to shape much of her life.

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The Vietnam War finally drew to a conclusion after 20 years in 1975. It ended in defeat for the Americans and the Southern Vietnamese, with North Vietnamese troops seizing Saigon. To mark their victory on April 30, Viet Cong flags were raised on top of the city’s Independence Palace.

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As the Viet Cong closed in on Saigon, American helicopters began evacuating South Vietnamese and foreign nationals out of the city on April 29, 1975. In scenes that would become iconic, the last U.S. Marines then fled by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy in the early hours of April 30.

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Berni remembers the Fall of Saigon well, even though she was only four at the time. At a TED Talk in 2016, she recalled, “It was pandemonium. We would always hear the beating of helicopters, and we could hear the sirens and even the smell of war around us. But it became such second nature that we were just children in the courtyard and all we wanted to do was play kick the can.”

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Nevertheless, Berni and her family were among the crowds set to flee the city. The trio were eligible for rescue due to worries about what might happen to them at the hands of the North Vietnamese. But there was a specific reason for them to fear the conquering troops. In 2019 she told CBS Denver, “There were a lot of rumors that Vietnamese women with Amerasian babies would be tortured.”

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With that in mind, Berni, Rose and their mother were due to be airlifted out of Saigon before it fell. Before they could all reach safety, however, a heartbreaking turn of events would cause the youngest sibling to be separated from her family, just hours before they were due to leave. And the devastating events had a long-lasting effect on the former banker.

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Speaking to the Northeast Denver newspaper The Front Porch in 2019, Berni explained the circumstances around her sister’s disappearance. She said, “We kids were playing in the courtyard of our apartment complex when, suddenly, my two-year-old sister, Rose, wasn’t there. My aunt, who was watching us, was frantic. Somehow Rose had gotten out through the gate and into the street.”

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Berni’s mother began to look for Rose in a panic, but she was lost to the chaos of the city. As the frantic search for the toddler continued, her family’s flight to the U.S. drew ever closer. And in the end, the frantic mom-of-two was faced with the agonizing choice of staying in Saigon to find her missing daughter or boarding a plane to safety.

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The former banker would later tell The Front Porch, “Mom had a terrible decision to make: keep looking for her missing child, or evacuate with the daughter she still had. As a mother, I can’t imagine having to make that choice… We thought we’d never see Rose again, that she was lost forever.”

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Faced with this unimaginable decision, in the end, Berni’s mother chose to leave Saigon. She and her eldest daughter made the arduous journey to the United States, where her husband was already waiting for them. The family moved first to Grand Island, Nebraska, before making a home in Littleton, CO, in 1984.

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Berni’s parents went on to have a further three children in the U.S. However, they never mentioned the daughter they’d lost during the fall of Saigon. This silence left the couple’s oldest child with unanswered questions. As the former banker told CBS Denver, “I could never understand it entirely, and my mother never spoke of it.”

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Even worse, Berni felt in some way responsible for Rose’s disappearance. During her TED Talk, she explained, “I thought that maybe it was my fault… I had done something wrong because my aunt had looked at me and asked me, ‘Why weren’t you watching your sister?’ And I thought that maybe my mother had blamed me.”

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Over the years, Berni came to suspect that Rose’s disappearance had eaten her mother up inside. She’d had to, after all, live with the shame and guilt of leaving her daughter all alone in Saigon. But the little girl’s disappearance had an effect on her older sister as well, and eventually, she returned to Vietnam in 1995 to search for her lost sibling.

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Berni was not successful in locating Rose during that trip. And alas, her mother died in 2012 without reuniting with her long-lost daughter. The former banker, as a result, believed a broken heart partially caused her mom’s death. She told CBS Denver, “One of the last things she told me was she always wished she could find Rose to bring her here, and so I know she really wanted a reunion. […] It haunted her for the rest of her years.”

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As a result, Berni kept searching for Rose in the wake of her mom’s death. She even opened up about her sister’s disappearance during her TED Talk in 2016, with the vague hope that it might somehow reach her sibling and the pair could finally reunite. But the former banker never heard from her and began to fear that she never would.

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However, little did Berni know that there would be some news of her sister in the following years. It all began with an email in December 2018, and from there, the former banker would finally start to piece together what had happened to Rose after she went missing. And she learned that her sister hadn’t been abducted, as her mother had feared.

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Berni told The Front Porch, “Everyone has their own version of what happened based on their personal perspective… My mother had thought Rose was abducted because kids were being kidnapped during that time.” However, it seems that was not what happened in Rose’s case.

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Instead, Berni discovered that Rose had been found wandering around Saigon and was subsequently taken to a nearby police station. It was here that she met the woman who would come to adopt her. She later emigrated to the U.S. with her adopted family, moving to Texas and then the West Coast.

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Berni came to learn about Rose’s fate through a woman called Vannessa Pham. She, too, had moved from South Vietnam to America in the years following the war. And like the former banker, she was also searching for long lost family members. You’re probably ahead of us here, but, as it turned out, Vanessa was, in fact, Rose, the sister Berni had always longed to find.

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Recalling what happened after being found on the streets of Saigon, Vannessa told The Front Porch, “I slept in a jail cell at night and played outside […] during the day. After about 10 days, a policeman put me on his motorcycle, bound for the Operation Babylift airplane to the U.S. But the motorcycle broke down, so we didn’t make it.”

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But the faulty motorcycle may have saved Vannessa’s life. She explained, “The plane took off and exploded over the airfield, killing everyone aboard. So, the officer asked his co-worker if she could take me, and she adopted me.” Having agreed to take the little girl in, she eventually renamed her Vannessa and raised her alongside her other children.

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Aged 11, Vannessa moved with her adopted family to America, where she had no idea her biological sister was also living. In fact, the little girl didn’t even know that she was adopted, or how she’d been found as an infant. She’s had her suspicions growing up, however, that she was somehow different.

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Vannessa revealed how her adoptive siblings would make mean comments about how she didn’t belong in their family. Furthermore, the young girl realized that she didn’t look like them or her parents. As she told CBS Denver, “It just grew more suspicious. And there were more things.”

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In May 2018 Vannessa finally learned the truth – that she’d been adopted after being found all alone in Saigon at the age of two. The revelation was an emotional one for her. She told CBS Denver, “I remember crying so much when she told me that for the first time. It was a relief.”

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One of Vannessa’s first thoughts was for her biological relatives who would have no idea what happened to her. She revealed how she’d thought, “I need to go find my own family. I need to go find my mom, she might be looking for me.” However, deep down, she had little hope of reuniting with her family.

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As a result, Vannessa had practically resigned herself to the possibility she might never reunite with her biological family. Then, she saw an advert for a DNA service on TV. The then-45-year-old figured she had nothing to lose. So she decided to buy one in the hopes it might link her to some long lost relatives.

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Vannessa bought a $99 test and returned it with her saliva swabs. And in just a few days she learned that her DNA matched with some relatives in Colorado. Revealing her reaction to this news, she told CBS Colorado, “It just made me feel so happy. Oh my God, this is confirmation!”

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First, Vannessa reached out, via email, to a distant cousin she found on the DNA database. He then told her that she might have three sisters and a brother, Berni among them. And after some cross-referencing with various ancestry websites, it was confirmed that Vannessa and Berni were indeed full sisters.

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Vannessa later described her reaction to the news that she was Berni’s long-lost sister. She told The Front Porch, “It was like a dream.” However, her joy was tinged with sorrow when she discovered that their mother had died in 2012. Which means that she would never get to meet her.

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The 45-year-old then described what it was like to hear of the death of her mother. Vannessa told CBS Denver, “It felt like a thousand heavy weights dropped. It was like a big disappointment. And I was like, ‘I am only six years late.’” However, she had Berni and her other siblings to tell her all about their mom.

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The siblings finally reunited in January 2019, when Vannessa flew from California, where she lives, to meet them in Denver. For Berni, it had been almost 44 years since she’d last seen her little sister, and they had a lot of catching up to do. So they spent a long weekend in each other’s company, just talking, laughing and crying.

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Upon their reunion, Berni told Vannessa, “I don’t know how long you have been searching, but for me, it’s been a very long time. It’s surreal that you are here sitting next to me.” During the meeting, she told her sister the name their parents had given her. As a result, she started calling herself Vannessa Rose.

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A month after their initial meeting in Denver, Berni and her family visited Vannessa in California. The two sisters remained in constant contact and even planned to return to their native Vietnam together, in an attempt to retrace their past and visit family there. This included their aunt and an older half-brother.

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Vannessa also hopes to one day build a relationship with her biological father, who has remarried and lives in Texas. However, the return of his long-lost daughter came as a major shock to him. So while they’ve been in touch through Facebook, he wants to take things slow, which she respects.

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After all, Vannessa was struggling to come to terms with the reunion herself. She told CBS Denver, “This is a dream… And I’m afraid to wake up. I have been walking for so long. I have been gone, walking and wandering for 43 years, and I just want to come home, and I found my way home.”

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