Mom Leaves Daughter at an Orphanage to Save Her from Death, Finds Out Her Girl Is Missing the Next Day

Stephen Thompson
Apr 09, 2022
10:00 P.M.
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Nguyen Thi Dep was separated from her three-year-old daughter due to a conflict in Vietnam. She was left devasted for decades, but her story took a positive turn one day. Find out what happened in detail.


In the 70s, things were difficult for Nguyen Thi Dep, a Vietnamese lady. In her early 20s, she was the sole provider for her family. Dep's sick father and four sisters depended on her, and the young woman had to do everything to keep them alive.

So, she got a job at a U.S. Army Base in South Vietnam as a phone operator. At the Base, things went well for the woman, and she fell in love with an American Army Sergeant, Joe O'Neal.

[Left] Picture of Nguyen Thi Dep and her daughter, Leigh Small; [Right] Picture of Leigh Small as a little kid | Source: Youtube/ WMTW-TV


In no time, she became pregnant with their child. Sadly, O'Neal left the country when his girlfriend was two months pregnant after officials ordered all U.S. troops out of Vietnam.

With this development, Dep was forced to look after herself and the baby until the child, whom she named Phuong Mai, turned three.

In April 1975, when Mai was three, Dep dropped the child in an orphanage for fear of her safety. The painful decision took place just before Saigon fell to Communist North Korea.

Photo of Nguyen Thi Dep and her daughter, Leigh Small | Source: Youtube/ WMTW-TV


As U.S. troops exited Vietnam after twenty years of conflict, thousands of South Vietnamese who had fought alongside them or otherwise opposed the North were terrified of what lay ahead. 

As some fled, more than 3,000 children were flown overseas to be adopted in what became known as "Operation Babylift," and Mai was part of them.

Sadly, Dep was unaware that her little daughter had been taken, and when she returned to the orphanage the following day, Mai was nowhere to be found. The little girl was sent to the U.S. and began her new life with her adoptive parents in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

Photo of Nguyen Thi Dep and her daughter, Leigh Small | Source: Youtube/ WMTW-TV



Many miles away, Mai, who had been renamed Leigh Small, had no connection to her biological family for over forty years. Thanks to DNA testing and modern technology, all of that changed in 2019.

Small, who had been looking for her biological family, connected with a few cousins through One day, she received an email from that would change her life forever.

It read, "My DNA says we're half-sisters, I believe we're sisters, and your Vietnamese mother has been looking for you." The message led to a reunion the mother and daughter anticipated for decades.


Photo of Nguyen Thi Dep and her daughter, Leigh Small | Source: Youtube/ WMTW-TV


While Small lived a normal life in the U.S., Dep continued to search for her daughter. When Small was 22, she saw a musical, "Miss Saigon," about her history and also decided to search for her biological mother.


She traveled to Vietnam, but all efforts to find Dep proved futile. However, in 2019, 44 years after Small was separated from her mom, she got the life-changing email. 

Picture of Nguyen Thi Dep and her daughter, Leigh Small reuniting after 44 years | Source: Youtube/ WMTW-TV


In 24 hours, she was on a call with her long-lost mother, and a week later, they had a video call. During an interview, Small said the first thing her mom said to her was:

"Do you have a good life?"

Picture of Nguyen Thi Dep and her daughter, Leigh Small reunited after 44 years | Source: Youtube/ WMTW-TV

It was one of the most emotional moments for the duo. On November 17, 2019, Dep and Small finally met in person in Vietnam, and it was everything they had wished for.

The mother was nervous that her daughter would hate her for leaving her in an orphanage, but Small understood the decision. Hopefully, the pair heals as they continue to make up for the lost time.