SALT LAKE CITY — The feeling of anticipation was eating through Belle Barbu.
It was Nov. 14, 2019. The 25-year-old Washington, Washington County, resident had traveled to Italy and was moments away from meeting her birth family.
The last time Barbu’s birth parents had seen her was the day she was born in a Romanian hospital. But even after their baby girl vanished, the family never stopped praying or believing that God would bring her back to them.
The special reunion, decades in the making, was made possible with the help of Operation Underground Railroad.
The gathering, full of tears and tender hugs, later reminded Barbu of the final scene in the Disney movie “Tangled,” when Rapunzel meets her parents, she said.
“I was literally taken from my parents like she was and taught a whole different life,” Barbu said. “I still don’t know how to thank the Lord for bringing us back together. How did he make that happen? It was such a miracle. ... There’s nothing perfect about my story, but yet, it came together so perfectly.”
The story behind Barbu’s mysterious origins has only unfolded in recent years.
Raised by a family in Wisconsin, she knew at a young age that she was adopted from Romania. As a teenager she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served a mission in Oregon.
Barbu is estranged from her adopted Wisconsin family and now lives in Washington County.
With the encouragement from close friends, Barbu began digging for more information about her past. She took a DNA test and traced her heritage back to India, Israel, Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean region, she said.
A friend who had also been adopted from the same country pointed Barbu to a Facebook group that helps adopted Romanian children find family members. The group had more than 500 success stories, she said.
She told them her family was from Sadova, Romania. Less than 48 hours later, they found her birth family.
“Yep, there’s one Romanian family — Barbu — let’s call them,” she said. “They did and they were in Italy.”
Through a series of pieced-together, translated conversations with them, Barbu learned about their lives and how she ended up in the United States.
Born a little premature, but still healthy in a Romanian hospital, doctors falsely informed her parents that she had a heart condition. Barbu said they told her parents, poor farmers who were treated like second-class citizens, that their baby could stay in the hospital but they must return for her in a few days. Obviously wanting their daughter to live, the parents cooperated.
When her parents returned a few days later, she said they were told that their baby had died. Someone at the hospital, perhaps a nurse, told the family the truth — that doctors collaborated with an orphanage to sell their daughter to be adopted in the United States, according to Barbu.
Her birth parents are simple people of humble means. They still live without running water, although they use some electricity. Despite limited resources, they searched for their daughter and offered many prayers, she said.
“For a year they looked for me but couldn’t find me because I was adopted out to the U.S.,” Barbu said.
What became evident in Barbu’s case was that she was a victim of human trafficking, which led to the involvement of Operation Underground Railroad, said Tim Ballard, the organization’s founder.
“They use the legitimate orphanage system, falsify the birth certificate, send the child to an orphanage, adopt it out and make a ton of money — around $15,000 to $20,000 a kid,” Ballard said. “A newborn is very valuable.”
Operation Underground Railroad, currently fighting child trafficking in 22 countries, rescued its 2,000th survivor last March and its 3,000th in October of 2019, according to OURrescue.org.
Barbu shared her story with Operation Underground Railroad and Ballard took an interest. As she and others made plans to travel to Italy and meet her family, the organization contributed funds to make the reunion possible for all involved. One of Barbu’s siblings lives in Germany and couldn’t afford to make the trip. This sister, who was about 9 years old when her baby sister was kidnapped from the hospital, had been praying for Belle’s safe return for 25 years.
“We couldn’t stand the thought of these sisters not being able to reunite after a 25-year-long nightmare because of money,” Ballard said. “At O.U.R., this is what we aim to do. First and foremost, we aim to reunite kidnapping victims, trafficked victims, with their lost families. So we volunteer to cover these costs.”
Barbu’s story also led to new leads on other similar adoption fraud trafficking cases, according to Ballard.
“We know cases like this have been going on for years. Belle’s case is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “By participating as we have in this case, a door had been opened now and we intend to walk in and we intend to find other lost children.”
And so on Nov. 14, Barbu found herself in Foggia, a city in southern Italy about two hours east of Naples. She and her birth family had already submitted to a DNA test to make sure they were related. The tests confirmed that they are.
When she saw her parents, Barbu’s hand flew to her mouth and in an instant she was wrapped in her sobbing mother’s arms. Tears flowed as they held each other and wept together. Long, tender hugs with her father and siblings followed. They had never stopped praying for this day, they told her, and a strong spiritual feeling enveloped the group, Barbu said.
As she embraced her birth mother, Barbu’s thoughts turned to Michelangelo’s Pieta, a sculpture she saw while visiting the Vatican. The famous Italian sculpture depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the crucifixion.
“I can’t even imagine the pain she went through,” Barbu said of her mother. “My mom thought I was dead multiple times in her life and yet I’m alive giving her a hug. ... It was such a blessing and to know they were excited to see me. I was so happy.”
Since meeting her Romanian family, Barbu has pondered why heaven allowed her to be taken. Perhaps it was so she could be a blessing to them at this time in their lives.
Barbu wouldn’t change anything about her life. She is grateful for the people and the wide variety of experiences that brought her to this point, she said.
Jessica Mass, director of aftercare for Operation Underground Railroad, said not every case has a happy ending, but she called Barbu’s story a true “miracle.”
“Every survivor of human trafficking has a different path and we see miracles happen often,” Mass said. “One thing that stands out about Belle is her joy and gratitude. ... I think we can all learn from Belle the power of genealogy study and her courage to allow others to go on this journey with her. Belle is an incredible woman and she does not take this miracle lightly.”
Discovering her past and meeting her birth family has filled a void in Barbu’s life and strengthened her faith in God. She in the process of writing a book about her life’s journey. She’s also a registered volunteer with Operation Underground Railroad and hopes her story and talents can help other trafficking victims.
“I’ve never cried more deeply in my life than I have through this journey,” Barbu said. “The Lord is the one that has pulled me through it.”