Raising a Russian revolution


FAMILY:In 1995, Zina Kurashina was picked out of thousands of Russian orphans to visit Ireland. She was subsequently adopted, and her mother, Debbie Deegan, set up a charity to help Russian orphans. Now, funds are drying up and Deegan is hoping a family-tracing business can keep the charity afloat, writes KATE HOLMQUIST

WHEN 22-YEAR-OLD Zina Deegan sees a programme about Irish industrial schools in the 1940s and 1950s, she has to turn off the television. If she sees an article in the newspaper about the inhumane treatment of Irish children in institutions in the last century, she has to tear it up.

Zina was reared almost from birth in the brutally basic, clinical atmosphere of a Russian orphanage, and her way of coping with that has been to train as a professional nanny, so that she can give children the love she never had as a young child. She feels most comfortable with babies and young children and, when she’s in charge, the children in her care play outdoors, there is no television, and all their food is made from scratch – everything is done according to a schedule.

How she came to be working as a nanny in Dublin at all, after being taken as an infant from her alcoholic parents by the Russian authorities, is an extraordinary story, and one whose effects she still feels. Having come to terms with her past life as the neglected infant of alcoholic parents, she says she has learned to live in the present and grown in confidence. She doesn’t do self-pity.

At the orphanage where she was taken, 600 miles from Moscow in the forests of rural Russia, children were given minimal care, and sufficient food and education, but never love. Nobody exclaimed when Zina took her first steps and she didn’t know what Christmas was. Physical punishment was so routine that Zina and her friends instinctively protected one another. If one got into trouble, the others would move to do something worse to distract the attention of the adults in charge. Zina’s soul-mate was Pacha, a boy her age who was always by her side.

Her earliest memories are of holding other children while they cried. She remembers one little girl, old enough to know what was happening to her, being delivered to the orphanage, cuddling a blue teddy in her arms. The teddy was promptly taken away and locked in the big cupboard where all the good clothes and toys were kept until they were sold. The child was inconsolable. Zina and her friends would fantasise about breaking into the cupboard.

When she was seven, in 1995, a sort of miracle happened. A dozen orphans were chosen to visit Ireland – spot-picked by the Chernobyl Children’s Project out of 700,000 orphans in Russia. Zina remembers having her passport picture taken, then misbehaving so that she was locked into the room she slept in without supper once again. (She so often missed supper that her friends hid bread in their pockets for her.)

On the day of the trip to Ireland, she was as disoriented as the other children. She hadn’t been told where she was going. She’d never been in a car before, let alone an aircraft. As she was ferried along, no one explained what was happening. “We all knew not to ask. We were frightened rather than excited,” she says now, with a Dublin accent in the comfort of a cosy coffee shop.

Zina has no idea why she was chosen to visit Ireland, considering how bad she was always told she was. What she does remember is landing at the airport in Ireland, walking down a set of stairs on to the runway, and looking out for a sign with her name on it – Zina Kurashina. When she found the sign, she ran towards it, reached for the father of the family and instinctively said “papa”.

She was as surprised as he was when she uttered this word. She’d never called anyone papa in her life and had no concept of the term that she was consciously aware of. “It was weird – to this day, me and dad are so close.”

Dad was Mick Deegan, husband of Debbie Deegan, and their two children, Sophie (then 7) and Mikey (then 3). Arriving at their family home was too much to take in. Zina was used to an institution where she was told when to go to sleep, when to wake up, when to go to the toilet, when to eat. There was a bathroom she could use anytime but Zina was so used to being told when to go, on the clock, that she wet the bed because nobody told her to go before she went to bed. The ordinary chaos of Irish family life, with people eating what they liked, when they liked and sitting where they pleased, was so new as to be terrifying, yet by the end of two weeks Zina felt she had a mother, father, sister and brother.

When she returned to the orphanage after two weeks with her Irish family, all the clothes and toys they had given her were shoved in to the cupboard and sold. She was allowed to keep a few photographs.

“No way were we going to let her go,” says Debbie Deegan. She put the adoption process in train and got the shock of her life when she visited the Hortolova orphanage. “It was meagre, minimalist, the children were fed and watered and looked after to a point, but because of the numbers of children and the ratio of staff, they couldn’t possibly get one-to-one care.” She realised that Irish holidays and even individual adoption would not solve the problems of the 250 children in Zina’s orphanage.

This was to be the first of more than 200 visits by Debbie Deegan to Russia, where she is now an honorary citizen “with more medals than a war veteran” because in 1998, she started To Russia With Love, an organisation that has helped more than 5,000 abandoned and orphaned children in the Bryansk region of western Russia and further across the Russian Federation through education and development programmes. Last year, 69 per cent of young people leaving the Hortolova Orphanage entered third-level education, with all their costs covered by To Russia With Love, including tuition fees, education and living costs. The charity needs €500,000 per year to meet its obligations. This year, the first lawyer to benefit from the scheme has graduated, and since 2008 two other students have entered medical school. This is all thanks to the €8 million raised in Ireland in the past 12 years.

But now the money has dried up due to the recession in Ireland. This was always a personal project, with Debbie’s determination and charisma impressing the Russians enough to give her the red-carpet treatment, while at home she became a heroine, and was named Rehab International Person of the Year. But with the recession, she’s like a fairy godmother whose wand has lost its magic.

To Russia With Love has enough money left to last for three months, and needs to put together another €250,000 if the programmes at the orphanage are to last until May. Moscow and St Petersburg are awash with cash, but in rural Russia there is grinding poverty and philanthropy is not part of their tradition, says Debbie. She adds that while Russian authorities have been supportive, social entrepreneurship has yet to catch on.

Zina worries about the strain her mother is under. “Mum has 1,500 children in the orphanages and shelters totally dependent on her for their futures.”

One of Debbie Deegan’s plans to raise funds has been to start a tracing service, at a cost of €2,000 per trace, for adopted Russian orphans around the world, although she adds with not inconsiderable passion that a €10 donation would be enough from whatever source.

Tracing is problematic and needs to be handled carefully, Zina and her mother have learned. Debbie traced the twin brother of one orphan who was barely surviving as an impoverished Russian teenager. In the US, his twin brother had been adopted into extreme wealth, was going to an Ivy League school, and had a luxury car given to him for his birthday. When the twin brothers met, they couldn’t cope with one another.

Zina was reunited with a much older half-sister, as well as with her childhood soul-mate, Pacha, after Debbie searched for him for years. When Debbie brought Pacha to Ireland one Christmas, it was so overwhelming for Zina that she wanted nothing to do with him despite his affection for her. Being around him reawakened the pain of the orphanage and she couldn’t handle it.

Later, Zina visited Pacha in Russia, and all the pair could do was sit on a bench in the forest and hold hands, remembering the bond that had helped them to survive. She’d like to see him again some day and thinks he’ll visit Ireland again, but she says she needs more counselling first. Her many friends adopted into Ireland from other countries feel the same way, she says – they’re not ready to face their roots.

Zina adores Debbie and Mick, and her way of helping to run the Deegan household when her mother travels to Russia is to clean, cook, and keep everyone on their toes. Now that she’s working full-time, she gets up at 6.30am to make the family meals before she goes to work. As Zina explains it, she does this because, after her background in the orphanage, she needs things to be exceedingly well organised and to help her mother. Having created a successful charity on the crest of our short-lived years of prosperity, Debbie is struggling to keep her promises to the Russian orphans who rely on her.

For more information or to donate, see www.torussiawithlove.ie or tel: 01-8532920. Donations can also be lodged to AIB Artane, 62 St Brigid’s Road, Artane, Dublin 5 to account number 21221230, sort code 93-20-78. To make a €5 donation by text, send CHILD to 5780