Romanian adoptees coming of age

 

My siblings didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Romanian, but somehow I could still communicate with my brother, writes CIAN TRAYNOR

WITH HIS arms tightly folded, head bowed, Nicusor O’Driscoll is uncomfortable with the thought of being among the first to leave the ruins of Romania’s communist regime.

He doesn’t remember the overpopulation, the food rationing, the lack of plumbing or the power cuts. Instead his first memories are of Ireland, having been adopted soon after the execution of Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Day, 1989.

Following the Iron Curtain’s collapse, an exposé of Romania’s squalid orphanages made headlines around the world. The sight of these “crying rooms” overcrowded with starving children inspired unprecedented numbers of Irish people to volunteer for adoption.

Within six months of Nicusor’s arrival in Cork, there were 28 other Romanian children in his hometown of Carrigaline. By the time he asked his mother where babies came from, adoption was such a familiar topic in his household that his younger sister, Elena, piped up with, “well, they come from Romania, Ukraine, Russia, China . . . ”

Still, while his parents were open about his background and kept in contact with his biological parents, Nicusor felt Irish. It was just easier to leave things as they were. Then, at the age of 19, he received news that his paternal grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer and that a nephew had been born blind from a hereditary condition. He knew he had to go. Within a week, he was travelling back to Romania with his Irish parents.

“The day we arrived in Romania was the anniversary of the day my mum had first seen me, 19 years before. The day we left was the anniversary of when I came to Ireland, so that added to the weight of it all. It was a big deal to my parents; they were probably more emotional about it than I was.”

Together they travelled through a blizzard to the mountains of Suceava, a 10-hour train journey from Bucharest, to stay with Nicusor’s birth family, whose house was twice the size of his bedroom at home. Seeing how far below the poverty line they lived did not help his nerves.

“It’s natural to imagine the worst possible outcome because there are so many emotions going through your head,” he says. “But you can’t prepare for how bad the conditions are out there. Once I saw they had nothing, all I could think about was whether they would hate me for having a good upbringing.”

Just realising that a good upbringing was exactly what both families had intended for him was a milestone. He knew, though, the trip centred on what his father had been waiting 19 years to tell him.

“Over the years he told my parents that when the time was right, he needed to explain things to me in his own words.” Part of it, Nicusor acknowledges, may have been because they had more children after him.

“It wasn’t that he wanted to defend himself, but that he didn’t want me to reject him because of that decision. They couldn’t afford to feed another mouth when I was born and I understand that, especially after going over there and seeing how they live for myself.”

What Nicusor wasn’t prepared for was how alike he and his siblings were, how he recognised himself in the little things that photos never communicated.

“It was like looking in a mirror,” he says. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. My siblings didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Romanian, but somehow I could still communicate with my brother, Vasile – there was no barrier there. It was like when you meet someone you haven’t seen in a long time. There was a bit of awkwardness initially, but once the first day was over and we’d had the emotional reunion, that was it: we felt like the one family, which is what my adopted parents always said we were.”

Speaking so softly that his Cork accent is barely audible, Nicusor admits that the only reason he agreed to the interview is because he fears there are young people out there who may be reluctant to trace their biological parents. If you know your birth name, he says, it’s far easier to trace an inter-country adoption than it is in Ireland, where secrecy often halts the identification process.

“You’re connecting to a part of yourself that you don’t know, part of yourself that might have been left in the dark. It’s not something you can easily explain to someone who hasn’t gone through it but it was a huge weight off my shoulders. In one way, I was sad to leave but I couldn’t wait to get home either,” he says with a laugh. “I see things differently now. It brought me peace of mind and made me appreciate the opportunity I was given.”

Since Nicusor was officially the fourth of 786 Irish children to be adopted from Romania, he is also among the first to reach an age where it’s no longer children asking questions, but young adults making sense of who they are. Every week, Marion Connolly gets calls from Romanian-born Irish teenagers or their families looking how to trace their biological parents. For the last 20 years, she’s run the support group Parents of Adopted Romanian Children (PARC) in her free time.

“Some are inquisitive teenagers scared of hurting their adopted parents; others are the parents themselves saying, ‘they’re getting interested now, what do we do?’” she says. “But when you consider that the oldest of them are between 18 and 21, this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

To her frustration, Connolly spends most of her time explaining to people that, despite 20 years of campaigning for the Adoption Board to provide an adequate contact registry for Romanian adoptees, there is no service in Ireland to facilitate their trace and reunion requests.

Connolly has undertaken 20 trace investigations herself, mostly with the help of “search angels” in Romania who agree to trawl databases voluntarily. The problem is that for years, the adoption system in Romania was unregulated and suffered from corruption, with many children given only exit certificates that did not reflect their identity.

Appreciating the scarcity of information for adoptions in Ireland, Connolly travelled back to Romania a year after adopting a son of her own to gather as much information about his background as she could.

If he became interested one day, she wanted to be able to provide answers.

But now, tired of feeling helpless to aid others, Connolly is on the verge of pulling the PARC helpline. Every time there’s a change at the Adoption Board, she says, PARC is called upon to make suggestions; they get their hopes up, but nothing changes.

“I can’t take people’s calls anymore because I have nowhere to refer them to. I’ve done all I possibly can. In other countries, there is a database people can access at their local adoption board, but we have nothing here. How long are we going to let these children grow up without that service? People have a right to know where they come from. Even if they get to a dead end, at least they know they’ve done all they can.”