American mom raises Vietnamese twin orphans

By Phan Duong   November 1, 2023 | 12:35 am PT
American mom raises Vietnamese twin orphans
The twins Luke and Mark (Loc and Minh) in the arms of their caretakers in Binh Duong Province, July of 2000. Photo by Luisa Duarte-Silva
On a blistering July day in 2000, Luisa Duarte-Silva stepped into a house in Thu Dau Mot City and saw two identical twins in deep slumber.

"They looked so cute. I couldn’t tell them apart at all. They looked so much like angels as they slept that I could look at them forever," said Luisa, 65, recalling the first time she met Luke and Mark (the names she gave them after their original Vietnamese names Loc and Minh).

When the boys woke up, the Princeton University professor was delighted to find out how different their personalities were. Minh was more playful and mischievous while Loc had the tendency to stare at strangers, and even after getting used to them, he was still more reserved.

The twins were abandoned a few days after their premature birth at Binh Duong Hospital in the beginning of November 1998. They weighed nearly 2kg when they were born.

Children’s welfare organization and international adoption agency Holt International took care of them while searching for suitable adoptive parents.

Holt was established in the United States 70 years ago, founded on the mission to help orphaned children reach adoption. When a child is abandoned, Holt International attempts to find their birth parents and find ways to support the family.

In cases where this is not possible, the organization prioritizes matching children with Vietnamese parents. The last option is to find American parents.

The twins with their adopted sisters, Ana and Meghan, at their house in Mendham, New Jersey in 2000. Photo courtesy of Luisa Duarte-Silva

The twins with their adopted sisters, Ana and Meghan, at their house in Mendham, New Jersey in 2000. Photo courtesy of Luisa Duarte-Silva

"The organization went to the address written on the hospital form to find their parents, but they didn’t find anything," Luisa said. "Some Vietnamese families expressed their interest, but they could only adopt one child. Not wanting to separate the twins, the organization didn’t accept [the offers]. Finally, the chance came to me."

The desire to adopt from either Asia or Africa had been brewing inside this American woman ever since she got married. After having two daughters, the professor decided to stop giving birth to open up her door to less fortunate children.

"I want to adopt not because I want more kids, but because I want to give orphaned children a family," she said.

In September of 1999, she heard about Luke’s and Mike’s situation. It then took her family 10 more months to finish the adoption process. As soon as they did, Luisa and her daughters hopped on a plane to Vietnam.

Understanding that it would not be easy for the 2-year-old twins after separating them from their caretakers, Luisa took them all over Vietnam for a month as a bonding experience.

"During the first two weeks, they missed the elderly couple that took care of them. But after getting used to me holding them and playing with their sisters on the beach, we became a family and [have been] inseparable ever since," she said.

When the twins came to the United States, Luisa’s close friends gathered at her home in the town of Mendham, New Jersey to welcome them. They cooked rice, chicken, and pho to help create a sense of familiarity for the boys.

On Oct. 31 of that year, the family hosted the twins’ 2nd birthday and invited all their friends and relatives. Everyone was taken by the boys. But no one could tell them apart.

A day after the birthday party, Luisa decided that she would try to distinguish the boys. She displayed six shirts in six different colors in front of the twins. Luke chose the blue shirt while Mark chose the red one. From then on, everything she dressed Luke in became blue, and everything she bought for Mark became red.

As they grew up, the twins realized no one could differentiate them, so they would frequently trade clothes and pretend to be the other as pranks. This happened many times at school, and while their friends were well aware, their teachers were none the wiser.

"During their high school graduation, they switched neckties with one another so they could go up and receive the other’s diploma. No one in the school knew a thing," Luisa said.

During her 20-year tenure at Princeton, Luisa spent eight years teaching Spanish and 12 years as director of an international internship program. She is currently retired but is still active as a volunteer for an organization that helps Asian and African students receive scholarships to go to universities in the United States.

As a mother, she raised her two boys the same way she raised her daughters: with love and care while "letting things go with the flow."

Luke and Mark were enrolled in a kindergarten that valued keeping its pupils close to nature. From three years old, they had learned how to garden, woodwork, and make bread. Due to the twins’ friendliness, they had friends coming over to play every day.

Both Mark and Luke were particularly attached to their mother. When they were young, the two boys would bring her books at night so she could read them a bedtime story. Luisa also admitted to being "addicted" to spending time with her children, dedicating any moment she could to playing and cooking with them.

Nighttime was always the happiest time of day for the family. While watching their favorite TV show on the couch, Luke and Mark would always sit close to Luisa.

"Since I had the help of my daughters, raising the twins was quite easy," she said.

Throughout their high school careers, Luke and Mark were always at the top of their class. They worked well together, especially on the lacrosse field—a popular team sport in American high schools.

Luisa (in light blue) with her husband and children for Christmas when Luke and Mark were 9. Luke wears blue and Mark wears red to make it easier to differentiate the twins. Photo courtesy of Luisa Duarte-Silva

Luisa (in light blue) with her husband and children for Christmas when Luke and Mark were 9. Luke wears blue and Mark wears red to make it easier to differentiate the twins. Photo courtesy of Luisa Duarte-Silva

They specifically excelled at math, design, and engineering subjects. Mark is currently working at Langan Engineering Company—a company with more than 50 years of history in the engineering industry. Meanwhile, Luke is pursuing his master’s degree in architecture at the University of Colorado-Denver.

When asked about their best childhood memory, both of the twins recalled their summers surfing and winters skiing with their family. While at the beach, they made many friends, and they both even worked as lifeguards at one point.

"My parents frequently told us about where we came from, so we’re curious and aware that our birth parents could be somewhere in Vietnam. It would be wonderful if we can find them, but we’re also grateful for our current lives," said Mark.

Seeing her sons growing up could not make Luisa any prouder. She is grateful that she had a chance to change their lives but is also thankful that they made her life complete.

"The day I met them was the best day of my life," the 65-year-old professor said.

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