Imagine losing all connection with the people you love, with your family. No ability to use text, social media, email – it probably feels inconceivable to most people in the Western world.
Yet that’s often the experience of refugees displaced from their homes, and it was the experience for a young Afghan refugee, Mansour, who got separated from his family in 2000. Mansour made his way over time to Denmark, where he met David and Christopher Mikkelsen in 2005. The Mikkelsen brothers offered to help Mansour find his family, eventually helping him reunite with a younger brother in Moscow. The experience was fraught with difficulties – trying to coordinate with all the different authorities and organizations that theoretically should have been able to help – and it led the Mikkelsens to create Refunite. Refunite is a non-profit that relies on refugees’ now-ubiquitous access to mobile technology to register with a shared database for families to reconnect, and has now helped more than 42,000 families get back in touch.
This story of family connections lost and found opens the second episode of YOU, a podcast about the intersection of technology, humanity and identity.
In this episode, “Family: Where YOU Come From,” host Claire Evans dives into the connections with the family we have and the families we make, and how those connections have been influenced by technology. Claire explores how the purpose of family mirrors the ideals of the early Internet: connecting meaningfully with others, sharing vital information and resources, bringing people together, and empowering them as part of a community.
Claire also talks with Wendy Kramer and Ryan Kramer, a mother and son who founded the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) in 2000. Ryan was conceived with donor sperm, and as he grew older, he got more curious about his extended family and where he came from. Ryan did extensive detective work, eventually getting into touch with his biological father – and along the way, Ryan and Wendy created the DSR.
Connecting with extended family: From long shot to on-demand
In its earliest form, the DSR was a Yahoo! Group that was more for connecting fellow donor-conceived families than trying to find donors or extended family. Says Ryan, “It wasn’t to make contact with half-siblings or my donor... We thought that was really long shot.”
Yet eventually some matches did happen through the registry. And the popularity of genetic testing has accelerated the number of people finding donor connections, and how fast those connections are uncovered. Wendy says, “It’s not like you’ll be found in 18 years. You might be found next year. People are swabbing their babies’ cheeks, and figuring out who the biological father is right from the get-go.”
Forming new norms around “anonymity” with new technology
As Claire notes in the episode, “There’s an interesting distinction between searching for genetic relatives and making it possible to be found.”
When Ryan was deciding to reach out to his biological father, he was mindful that sperm donors sign up for anonymity, and the parents go along with that. Yet the kids who are being created, and arguably have the most stake in the game have not agreed to anonymity.
While Ryan sees this as a bit unfair, he does realize that the assumption of anonymity was in place when his biological father donated. When Ryan finally reached out, he was clear that he would respect his donor’s wishes if the donor didn’t want to be in touch.
As Ryan says, “Our mission with the DSR has never been about seeking people out or invading people’s privacy. It’s a place to be found, so you can say I’m here, I’m interested, and give you an outlet to make yourself available in that way.”
There’s even more interesting conversation in this second episode of YOU around how the internet is enabling us to define, navigate, and deepen connections with the people we call family, and we hope you enjoy it.
Listen now to episode two, “Family: Where YOU Come From." You can get this episode here: https://www.youpodcast.co/episodes/two/
You can also learn more here about why we created YOU, and check out episode one, all about online dating, “Algorithm of My Heart: YOU +1.”