An Irishwoman's Diary
A steady stream of Irish women have made their way to a remote forest in western Russia since Debbie Deegan founded the charity From Russia with Love last December. But before plumbers Stephen More and Andre Lowe from Bray, Co Wicklow spent a "holiday" there in September, only one man had volunteered. The Irish connection with the Hortolova Orphanage near Bryansk, 500 miles south of Moscow, began when Debbie Deegan, a housewife from Clontarf, adopted Zina, an orphaned girl who had stayed with her via the Chernobyl Children's project. After Zina's best friend Valya returned to Russia, Ms Deegan decided to visit her there in her state-run orphanage.
She was appalled by the conditions: overflowing toilets, filthy mattresses, rat-infested kitchens. The children, aged from seven to 17, were suffering from ill-health, as well as from a chronic lack of love and stimulation.
Ms Deegan arranged for Valya to stay with Irish friends, and came home determined to improve conditions for the remaining children. Thanks to her, there is now an impressive new block incorporating kitchens, a laundry, dining-room and storage; and imported teams of Irish care workers concentrate on the children's well-being. Debbie Deegan is currently raising funds for new accommodation blocks via an appeal in Irish provincial newspapers. The charity is also marketing a CD, Russian Lullabies, through Tesco stores and other outlets, price £10, with all proceeds to go to From Russia With Love.
There are around 700,000 orphans in Russia, along with a million street children. In some cases both the parents are dead; but there are stories of murder, alcoholism, and - with scant contraception available - many unmarried and married couples who simply cannot afford their many children.
"They throw them away. It's as simple as that," says Stephen More with incomprehension. "It disturbed me. You're looking at 137 children - and I'm talking about fabulous children, beautiful children - and you're thinking: "What, nobody wants these?"
"Debbie's brought a shine to the children. She's made them bloom," says Andre. "The kids are so alive; so loving. It was unbelievable. The so-called `bully boys' would hold your hand. And the 16-year-olds would give you a hug. They were so innocent.
"When we first went there we saw kids being thrown up into lorries. It was like something from Schindler's List. They were going into the forest to dig potatoes for the winter. We saw them later on. They were waving at us, and smiling. I said, they're digging potatoes on a rainy, horrible day, and they're happy about it?"
"I've learnt a savage amount from those kids," says Stephen More. "They have literally nothing. The clothes they are wearing, and, maybe, a rat. You'd see them laughing first thing in the morning, and smiling last thing at night. After a day of nothing but school, really. Walking around with a stick in their hands. Playing crosses in the dirt for hours."
It worries the men that when the children reach the age of 17 they are given 20 dollars and shown the door. Many of the girls end up in prostitution, and the future for the boys is no brighter. Debbie Deegan is hoping to set up training sessions in the orphanage, to give the children a trade.
Already, woodworking is compulsory for the boys; and they have learnt the art of hand carving. I saw photographs of some exquisite pieces carved by the children.
The experience has had a profound effect on 24-year-old Stephen, and on Andre, who is 25. "It's like going into a battlefield and lying in a trench. It's incredible how you change. We had three cold showers in a month - I was praying for the man who was sitting next to us on the plane home. But if things like that worried you, you wouldn't last three days."
In addition to their work with the children, Stephen and Andre spent up to nine hours a day using their skills to maintain the building, repairing cisterns and televisions, and fitting locks and shelves. They travelled to a market in Bryansk to buy their materials and were astonished there to see rows of old women standing in the cold all day to sell a pair of second-hand shoes, or fruit, to pay for dinner.
Before Andre became Stephen's apprentice, he spent a year studying animation at art college. Using his skills he painted an incredible, colourful mural for the children, showing famous landmarks from all over the world. The night before they left, the children presented the men with bowls of flowers.
"I'll never forget it. We were watching these two little girls dancing together in their slippers, looking like angels. And you think, what have they got ahead of them? I'd love to come back in five years, and see if they are happy."
Leaving was hard. "It was lashing down from the heavens at 6.30," says Andre. "The children had spent half an hour in the pouring rain and freezing cold to see us to the taxis. We said our goodbyes and the kids ran through the woods to meet us on the laneway. We were cracking up. There wasn't a word said for three or four hours."
"I think our last words were that we never thought we'd be so sorry to leave such a kip," adds Stephen.
Anyone interesting in making a donation to From Russia with Love should contact the charity at 49 Clontarf Road, Dublin 3; telephone: 01-833 8966; fax: 01-833 8947; Email: TORUSSIAWITHLOVE@tinet.ie