BERLIN — Decades after being abandoned at a train station in South Korea as a toddler, Christine Pennell’s search for her parents led to the discovery of an unknown sister.
A couple weeks later in February, the Berlin resident was reunited with younger sister Kim Haelen at the train station where they were left in Daegu, South Korea. The pair has already made plans for Haelen to visit Berlin in August.
Pennell said she was welcomed into Haelen’s family during a visit to her home in Oud-Turnhout, Belgium on the way back from South Korea.
"It's like the life that I was supposed to have with my sister. To see somebody that is just like me — we have the same eyes, we have the same sense of humor," Pennell said. “It was more than I could ever ask for. I've never had anyone that I knew of that was actually related to me by blood or looking like she's Korean. Because I was adopted into a white family. I have redhead brothers and blonde sisters.”
After eight months in foster care in South Korea, Pennell, now 50, was adopted by a Southington family and later moved to Berlin. Haelen, 47, was adopted by a family in Belgium. Neither knew they had siblings when they took a DNA test through MyHeritage.
Haelen thought it was a mistake when she received an email from the company Jan. 25 informing her of the match. Any doubts were erased when she had a video call with Pennell that night that lasted until morning.
Despite being raised over 3,000 miles apart, Pennell said they quickly discovered a number of similarities.
“It's crazy the things we have in common … we both have 26-year-old girls, we both have 23-year-old boys,” Pennell said. “We both grew up in strong Christian households, we both have a lot of siblings. We both laugh a whole lot and are very silly.”
During their 10 days in Daegu, they were also able to bond over a connection Pennell felt to a particular market just outside the city.
"I have this funny feeling that I am somewhere from that area really," Pennell said.
For Haelen the discovery was the boost she needed to recover from medical difficulties and the loss of loved ones.
“It was too much to handle,” she said during a recent text interview from Belgium. “I had no energy for a few years. And then Christine came in my life! And I was thinking: ‘This is a miracle!’”
The growing accessibility of DNA testing made the connection possible, Pennell said.
“It opens up the opportunity to find relatives you didn't know about,” she said.“I didn't know about Kim, I wasn't even looking for Kim, I was really looking for my mother.”
Rafi Mendelsohn, a spokesperson for MyHeritage, said Pennell and Haelen’s story is one of the most exceptional the company has seen since it launched its DNA testing service in 2017.
“ … we've seen many reunions of adoptees meeting each other,” he said.
Adoptees can apply to receive a free testing kit to help them find lost relatives. It was meant to be a one-time offer, but after 17,000 people expressed interest the company decided to accept more applications, Mendelsohn said.
While Pennell still hasn’t found any matches to relatives in South Korea, she hasn’t given up hope. During their time in Daegu, she and Haelen put up signs around the city and left their DNA with the local police in the hope that their parents might seek them out some day.
"I'd like to know what my real name is. I'd like to know my real birthday," Pennell said. "As someone who's adopted, you always wonder you're whole life, ‘who's out there; who do you look like? Are you like anyone who's related to you, do they even care?’"