Tuesday 20 November 2012


They numbered thousands in the streets of Dublin on Saturday, with beautiful signs and candles lit to protest for a change in legislation. In our front window, I lit candles and placed a slice of Irish barmbrack, freshly baked, still hot. The name Savita will not be easily forgotten.
Vivid through the raw emotional landscape is shame, an emotion that vibrates alongside anger. Those fighting for a referendum to repeal Article 40, clause 3, are also embarrassed that their country let them down. I wanted to write something today to balance that shame with pride, focusing on one Irish woman named Debbie Deegan.
In the summer of 1996, a group of tiny, undernourished children arrived in Dublin, and were housed by openhearted Irish families. Falling in love with 'their' orphan, little Zina, led Debbie on a journey to Hortolova orphanage, eight hours' drive from Moscow, and thence to a life's work of nurturing 200 Russian orphans. There are many moving excerpts in Debbie's book, 'To Russia With Love'.

Thanks to Debbie and an incredibly stalwart team of Irish volunteers, Hortolova has become a centre of excellence, a showcase of good practise, but the heartbeat of the story lies in passages like this...

There were always five or six carers living in the orphanage at any one time and all day long all they heard at the door was 'knock, knock, knock'. It's still like that. We have around 200 children and they will always find a reason to knock for the Irish. You might be having a quick tea break and the next thing, 'knock knock'... They'd make something up - 'I need a pencil, a plaster', anything at all. Or they'd forget what they wanted as the door opened, overwhelmed simply by the need for company. For eighteen hours a day, it never ceases.

At the end of the book is a short essay written by Zina herself, the Deegan's now formally adopted Russian daughter...

I had no English, Mick and Debbie had a few words of bad Russian. They tried their best, I'll give them that! The first few days in their house, I was very uncertain of myself. I didn't know what to do. In the orphanage, it's like the army. There's a time for everything, so when I came to this house and they weren't telling me exactly what to do, when to eat, when to play, when to sleep, I felt very lost. Debbie always said to me, 'My house is your house', and I would say, 'No, my house is completely different.' It was only when she got to know the orphanage that she really realised that... to this very day I find it very hard to make choices, because I didn't get that training as a child... I still always ask advice from everybody else and I don't listen to my own heart. 

Zina's account, and the chapter on the 2004 Beslan massacre, are the most poignant chapters in the book. I think about Amal, the little girl I dedicated a poem to, in Gaza, amid the rubble, and know there are orphanages everywhere, overflowing with children beset by head lice and broken hearts. 'Bright flowers in a burnt-out land' Marian Keyes calls them... and then I think of a woman like Debbie Deegan, who with clear sighted focus, is rescuing one child at a time, fighting for each of them, equally, with tigerish energy. It gives me hope. This morning when I woke, two packages from Ireland were awaiting me. One was full of tea lights, hot chocolate and a scarf to keep me warm. The other also contained chocolate (my friends know me well) and a box of Irish tea! Barry's tea, slightly battered, full of good cheer... the most refreshing cup of tea - I have never smiled so much while drinking a cuppa tay :)
You can buy Debbie's book at her website To Russia With Love... Ah, go on! :)


Jeanne-ming Brantingham said...

Beautiful post about angels....

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