Separated Siblings Share an Emotional Reunion After 34 Years
As a young child, Justin Kragt was abandoned by his parents. Renee Alanko was as well. Although they grew up in separate homes, in adulthood, that separation would come to an end.
That’s because they found out they were siblings. It took over 30 years for them to find this out, but when they did, they traveled 600 miles to meet each for a tearful reunion.
The story of this tearful reunion begins way back in March of 1984 in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. At the time, a young boy barely two years old was found wandering near a theater. No one else was nearby – not an older brother, sister, mother, or father.
He was abandoned. The unnamed person who found the abandoned boy felt saddened. In the end, they decided that the best thing to do was bring him to the local police station.
Just as the police were trying to figure out what to do with the abandoned boy, a woman walked into the police station with a girl who had also been abandoned. Where the woman found her was only a mile or so away from the theater where the boy was found.
Since she was four years old, the girl had more of an ability to speak. When asked about her parents and where she came from, the girl was able to give a few basic answers.
A Note With a Plea
The woman who found the girl stayed around the police station as well to answer some basic questions. She said she found the young girl at a local market wandering around alone. She tried to help the girl find her parents but to no avail.
Then, she found a note in the girl’s pocket. Unfolding it, the woman read someone’s plea, “Please send this child to an orphanage through [a] police station.” Furthermore, it said the girl didn’t have any parents.
Adopted in Oregon
The police found out that the two-year-old boy’s name was Hong Ki Hong. Without a family, he stayed for a while in an orphanage in South Korea. Soon, however, it was decided that Hong should be put up for adoption.
He was, and lucky for him, a family in the United States was eager to adopt and welcome him into their family. Shortly thereafter, Hong Ki Hong became Justin Kragt. The family lived in Salem, the capital city of Oregon, and had four other kids.
Cute Little Cherub of a Face
Sue Maguire, who became Justin’s adoptive mother, described the experience of his adoption to ABC News. She said that she “actually found Justin in a magazine,” and that she immediately fell in love with his “cute little cherub of a face.”
Considering he was only a few years old at the time, Justin’s memories of the magazine, life in an orphanage, and being abandoned are pretty limited. However, later on in life, he would make an incredible discovery about that formative part of his life.
Adopted in California
Shortly after being found wandering alone near a market, the abandoned four-year-old girl was handed over to police who placed her in an orphanage. The girl’s name was Jee Young Lee, and she was only put up for adoption.
Just like Hong, an American family decided to adopt Jee Young Lee. Unlike Hong, however, she didn’t end up in Salem, Oregon. Instead, she moved about 600 miles south to a town called Pleasanton in the state of California. There, she grew up.
Considering that Jee Young Lee and Hong Khi Hong were quite young when they were adopted, neither of them remembered much about their pre-adoption life while growing up. Instead, it remained a complete mystery well into their adulthoods.
When they did think about it, they didn’t have much to go on. Information was limited and they had to rely on their own memories for the most part. As you can imagine, those memories were far from complete, so huge chunks of their early life stories were missing.
Justin’s Health Issues
When Justin was very young, only four years old, he ran into a serious health issue. It turns out he was born with congenital heart failure and now needed open-heart surgery to avoid the worst. Luckily, the surgery went well.
This early medical issue was important for Justin to discover. For him, the fact that he had a congenital heart issue at birth that resulted in the need for open heart surgery a few years later suggested that his parents abandoned him due to his health issues.
Born Out of Wedlock
In September 2018, Justin Kragt sat down with reporters from The Oregonian newspaper to describe the events of his remarkable life. He said that he was, “content with what I thought was my story.”
Elaborating on it more, he said that he thought his “mother may have been a prostitute.” Furthermore, he said that it was likely she “had a baby out of wedlock.” The fear of supporting a newborn all by herself in a dangerous job was too much to handle, so she abandoned him.
Unlike Justin, who knew very little about his birth mother or the conditions of his adoption, Renee — formerly Jee Young Lee — knew quite a bit about hers. That’s because she was a bit older and could talk with the police when she was first found.
Renee told the police that her father was a heavy drinker and that when he drank too much he beat his wife. Eventually, she decided it was better to run away, so she did. Renee was left alone.
Piecing Together Family History
When Renee’s adoptive mother sat down with reporters from The Oregonian, she added some interesting details to her daughter’s account. In particular, she said that Renee used to always speak about having a baby brother.
It clearly gnawed at her while growing up. All throughout her youth and well into adulthood, she made various attempts to weave together a coherent story of her past and her family. This even included hopping on a plane to South Korea to investigate. Unfortunately, all these attempts failed.
Not being content with the scant details of his family’s past, Justin Kragt decided that he needed to try something else. So, in 2014, he decided to get a DNA test from the personal genomics company 23andMe. He wanted to know if he could find any blood relatives.
As luck would have it, in 2018, Renee ended up doing the same thing. However, her main focus wasn’t on finding blood relatives. Instead, she was thinking about being a mother and wanted to learn more about her genetics.
It’s a Match
Not too long thereafter, Renee got her results back and Justin got a surprising update. In short, a match was found. Renee found that she had a brother (namely Justin), and Justin found that he had a sister (namely Renee).
After that exciting news, they decided to call each other on the phone for the first time ever. Voice can only tell you so much about a person, however, so they decided to send each other photos as well. Finally, they decided to meet up in person.
Since Justin’s birthday was coming up, they decided to make it extra special by planning their reunion for that day. So, in September 2018, Justin drove down to Portland International Airport (PDX) and Renee boarded a flight bound for PDX.
Family and friends came along with cameras to capture the emotional reunion. For decades, both Justin and Renee were completely in the dark about their biological families. Now they would be able to shine some light on it as brother and sister finally got to meet.
As you can imagine, the airport reunion was incredibly touching and emotional. Both of them had tears flowing from their eyes. Justin said, “I always thought I was alone in the world.” Tears began to flow and he wiped some of them aside. “I was content with that,” he continued.
Renee wiped away some of her own tears before cheekily adding, “Now you’re stuck with me.” It was a sweet bit of back-and-forth banter nearly 34 years in the making.
The Perfect Birthday Gift
Not too far behind Justin was his adoptive mom Sue Maguire. As a deeply empathetic person, she was also profoundly moved by the incredible (and incredibly emotional) first-time meeting between brother and sister.
Smartphone footage of the emotional reunion shows Sue Maguire going up to Renee and giving her a big hug. Both families added a new member that day. In reflecting on the moment, Sue said that she “could not have planned a better gift to give Justin than this.”
In the same smartphone footage from the day, Renee said that she “knew about him all this time” but never thought she would actually get a chance to meet him. “This is really amazing,” she said.
Alongside being amazing, it was also mind-blowing. As Renee said that it blew her mind that they came from the same parents because she had “never known anybody related to me.” Furthermore, she never thought she would get the chance to meet a sibling related by birth.
Although the reunion answered some fundamental questions that bugged them for their entire lives, it didn’t answer everything. Sure, Justin and Renee knew they were brother and sister, but they still didn’t know much about their father or mother.
More specifically, why didn’t their father abandon them both at the same place? Why the need to separate them? These questions may remain a mystery for a long time (perhaps forever). Regardless, the two siblings are just happy that they got to meet again after all these years.
Later on, a crew from ABC News did a piece on the sibling’s journey toward finding each other. Although there are still mysteries that remain, Renee feels much better. Her brother Justin is only a phone call, text, or short flight away. Knowing that has “really changed the way that I see myself in the world,” Renee said.
Justin felt very much the same. In describing how he felt upon first seeing his long-lost sister, Justin said that his “heart absolutely melted.”