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IN WASHINGTON

Polish orphan Colleen Turzynski reunites with Singapore family of murdered mum

ST article on tragic story of deaf orphan brings about a happy reunion of 25-year-old with her Singapore mother's family

Published on Apr 13, 2014 6:12 AM
 

Sitting in front of a computer in Washington, DC, Colleen Turzynski tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and straightens her shirt, excited but also anxious about the video call about to start.

The screen comes to life, and two elderly Chinese men and an elderly woman appear in the foreground. Several others - 10 in all - pop their heads into the frame smiling, waving and saying: "Hi Colleen!"

Ms Turzynski, 25, has longed for this moment for years, and now she is overwhelmed. She breaks down weeping, reaches for a tissue, waves and smiles, all at the same time.

Afterwards, she tells The Sunday Times: "I have never met them before, but I've missed them for so long so when I saw them, the tears just started. I was happy to see them and the tears just burst out of my eyes."

Last Monday, The Straits Times reported the tragic story of the deaf orphan's search for her Singapore family. Her Singaporean mother, Lee Kui Yin, 39, Polish father, Kazimierz Turzynski, 35, and grandfather, Mieczyslaw Turzynski, 61, were murdered in a brutal stabbing attack in Clifton, New Jersey, in 1990.

It was a week before police found the bodies, and discovered 17-month-old Colleen, who had survived drinking water from a toilet bowl and eating Cheerios. The toddler was taken to Poland and raised by her paternal uncle and grandmother, and lost contact with her mother's family.

 

An American and Polish citizen, she returned to the US recently to search for clues about her mother's family, and enrol in English language courses in Washington, DC. She has a bachelor's degree in social work and a master's in financial management from Poland.

The Straits Times report triggered an outpouring of support from readers. Some offered to pay for her trip to Singapore, others offered her a place to stay if she visited. Most importantly, her mother's family members read the article and wanted to reconnect with her too.

The video call on Thursday night was the first time they were seeing the girl who disappeared from their lives after the tragedy 24 years ago.

Among those staring back at Ms Turzynski from the Whampoa home of her third uncle Lee Tak

Nyen, 70, were second uncle Lee Pheng Nyen, 72, and second aunt Lee Say Moi, 66. Her mother was the seventh of eight siblings - three girls and five boys.

And though the two sides faced a formidable language barrier - messages had to be translated from Mandarin to English and then to sign language and back again - they seemed to have little trouble connecting as a family.

When Ms Turzynski broke down, her aunt Say Moi immediately comforted her: "You must be happy, don't cry."

That said, there were tears in Singapore as well.

Uncle Tak Nyen said: "For years, we've been waiting for news from you, waiting to see your face. How have you been?"

She told him about growing up in Poland, studying for her degrees and moving to the United States.

He said: "We've been waiting for this day, and now that we see you're all grown up, we're relieved."

Aunt Say Moi, who was perhaps the sibling closest to Ms Turzynski's mother, asked if she wanted to visit Singapore.

Ms Turzynski replied: "I would be happy to visit - I really want to meet all of you. I want to learn the culture of my Singapore family."

There were more questions before Mrs Karen Lee, 33, wife of Ms Turzynski's cousin, asked the inevitable: "Colleen, do you have a boyfriend?"

Ms Turzynski brushed her thumb under her chin, sign language for "No".

Without missing a beat, Mrs Karen Lee chirped: "Okay, you can come to Singapore to find one!" Everyone cracked up.

The banter went on for 45 minutes, and it was near the end that Ms Turzynski asked the question that had been haunting her for years: "I'm curious why we haven't been in contact all this time. I was worried you had forgotten about me. I worry about that all the time."

Her uncle Tak Nyen and aunt Say Moi both chimed in explaining how they had tried approaching the Singapore Embassy in the United States for information but drew a blank. After she was taken to Poland, the family had no contact with anyone there. Her mother's ashes were flown back to Singapore.

Soon they were asking when she would visit Singapore, saying they were eager to meet her in person. At one point, uncle Tak Nyen attempted sign language too, gesturing to urge her to study hard, holding an imaginary pen showing two thumbs up.

Her aunt said: "We await your good news on when you'll be able to come."

Neither side seemed to want to end the call and there were a few rounds of goodbyes before they finally exchanged e-mail and home addresses, promising to stay in touch.

Ms Turzynski was beaming by the end of the meeting and told The Sunday Times she had been so anxious and excited the night before that she had woken up at 3am, 5am, and again at 6.30am - at which point she decided to get ready for the 8am call.

She also thought hard about what to wear, settling on a conservative buttoned-up shirt. "In Europe, we dress one way, maybe I had to be modest in my dressing so that my family sees me and likes me when they see me," she said.

Seeing her relatives at last made her feel happy, she said. "Before, I felt alone and now I feel like I have a really big family. I can't believe it."

She said she remains close to her Polish uncle and grandmother, but always felt a part of her was missing because she did not know her Singapore family. Having connected, she plans to keep in touch by e-mail before visiting. She wants to pay her respects at her mother's columbarium niche.

"Maybe in a year, maybe two years, I hope to fly to Singapore and meet them and hug my whole family." She will save for the trip, concentrate on improving her English and hopefully pick up some Mandarin as well.

"I'm really excited and want to jump up and down. I feel like I could fly."

simlinoi@sph.com.sg

 

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