Tracing her roots

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By 2017-11-12

By Shani Asokan
Ceylon Today Features

Ralph Ellison once said, "When I discover who I am, I'll be free." Culture has long been a defining feature of a person's identity. Although heavily contested, culture is often said to be the way people see themselves, and identify with the groups they associate with. Hence, culture is fluid. Identity, like culture is constantly changing. It is affected by various factors that influence us throughout our lives. Starting at birth, personal identity is something that develops over a lifetime. It is affected by various factors like media, society and social interaction, popular culture, technology, and of course, cultural background.

With the increase in globalization and migration today, cultural identity has become even more complex than before. This is due to enhanced interactions, relations and marriages between diverse social and ethnic groups. This sense of mixed identity is felt strongly by people who are bi-racial or multi-racial, but there's also something to be said for those who are a result of international adoption.
Sheree Atcheson, 26, is a Sri Lankan born IT tycoon in the UK. Having been appointed as the UK Expansion Director of Women Who Code in 2016, she went on to be listed as one of the UK's most influential women in Technology in 2017. In 1991, when she was just 15 days old, Sheree, named Nirushika by her Sri Lankan birth mother, was adopted by an Irish couple living in the UK. Having been raised and educated in Ireland, Sheree was extremely fortunate to grow up in a loving Irish family who made sure she had the best upbringing.

Sheree has always known she was adopted; her parents were proud of the fact. However, she had never visited Sri Lanka as an adult, so in June 2017 Sheree and her husband, looking for somewhere meaningful to go on their honeymoon, decided they would visit Sri Lanka. She says there were two reasons for this decision; the first being that she had not visited the island in her adulthood. The second reason was the stunning pictures of the country itself, along with its amazing food. Little did she know, this visit would lead to the long, yet immensely fulfilling search for her birth mother, and in turn contribute to her learning a little more about her culture and personal identity.

The honeymooning couple visited and travelled around Habarana, Nuwara Eliya, Negombo and Kandy. It was in Kandy that the thought first came to Sheree. She says, "On my birth certificate, it said I was from Kandy, so being back in that area was very emotional and ignited something in me to want to find out if my birth mother was still alive. This is not a reflection on my mum and dad back home, but rather a curiosity of thinking: Maybe I could walk down the street here, and end up seeing her and not realize."
She reached out to News1st soon after, and the search for her birth mother began. The feeling that piqued Sheree's interest in finding her birth mother is something that resonates with us all. No matter where you come from, or where you grow up, we all crave that feeling of belonging. Be it memories, stories told to you over time, or as in Sheree's case, a simple place of birth recorded on a birth certificate; there are places that call to us all. There are locations that seem familiar, despite the fact that you have no memory of being there. For Sheree, as quoted, it is not that she was unhappy with her parents in Ireland but rather a curiosity to know where she came from and learn more about her origins.

Having obtained a photograph taken on the date of her adoption in 1991 that included a woman Sheree believed to be her birth mother, News1st launched an investigation. The picture was posted on the internet and eventually a caller was able to help them track down a woman in Matale with a startling resemblance to the woman in the picture. Following this, a DNA test was carried out and the woman, known as Dingiri Amma was confirmed to be Sheree's birth mother. Her name also matched the one on Sheree's birth certificate which was listed as "Dingiri Menike."

Ecstatic, Sheree is now set to visit Sri Lanka this month and meet her birth mother for the first time in 26 years. Though she is Sri Lankan born, Sheree was brought up as an Irish woman. When asked about her roots and if finding her birth mother had contributed to her cultural identity, she says "I am very lucky - I am an Irish woman with Sri Lankan origin, raised by two amazing Irish people who worked tirelessly to adopt me. An identity is something that you create throughout your life, and finding my birth mother indeed adds to it now. I am proud to be an Irish woman, but I am also proud to be Sri Lankan. Finding her gives a great appreciation of the adoption system and seeing it now from both sides – from seeing the happiness it gave my family to be able to finally have kids to seeing how complicated and hard it must have been for my birth mother (but appreciating the selfless nature of her willing to give me to a couple who could provide for me and more)."

Nevertheless, Sheree is looking forward to meeting her birth mother and siblings. She says, "News1st have been amazing throughout this entire process and I cannot thank them enough. I am very excited (as is my husband). I have a sister (who is also married). I've spent 26 years of my life never seeing anyone who looks like me, so even just from that perspective it is exciting, especially as I still look so much like my birth mother, and the pictures of her when she was younger is like looking at me now. It's very exciting but also very daunting and emotional." The anticipation of meeting someone for the first time is always nerve-wracking but when it is your birth mother who you haven't seen in 26 years, it is bound to be a lot more intense. However, there is also a lot that Sheree hopes to learn.

Growing up, Sheree was only exposed to Irish culture. She says that Irish culture and traditions are very similar to that of Sri Lanka in that there is a lot of value placed on family and traditions relating to food, dance and music. While this is so, she is also intrigued by Sri Lankan traditions and heritage, and looks forward to learning more about Sri Lanka. She says "I learnt some things when on our honeymoon but to actually hear what it's like living there and growing up there from my birth mother and biological sister is very exciting and I can't wait." Indeed, learning about our culture and traditions from the perspective of a local will definitely be a unique experience.

As far as family reunions go, this seems to be one of epic proportions. Not many children who are adopted internationally get a chance to meet or find their birth mothers, especially not 26 years later. Tracing down Dingiri Amma with just an old photograph was an impressive feat, and hopefully, getting to meet her will be the piece of the puzzle Sheree is missing to complete her cultural identity.
(Pix courtesy of Sheree Atcheson,

@nirushika, and Medium)

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