To Russia With Love


I met Debbie Deegan in the office of ‘To Russia With Love’, which is a charity she founded to help Russian orphans. The office consisted of one room inside a rabbit-warren Soviet style office block off Stoleshnikov Pereulok. On talking to Debbie, who is wonderfully Irish, I soon realised that a smart office in the most prestigious building in Moscow would not be enough to pay credit to what she is doing. The impact that one person, who is now helped by a small team, has had and continues to have on people’s lives here is truly vast. Here is Debbie’s story, in her own words:

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Selection_215“I was at home in Ireland, watching telly back in 1998. We had taken in two Russian children; they were called ‘Chernobyl Children’ which was a phrase we used to describe all Russian orphans at the time. They were over on holiday for a month, and arrived with tags on them stating their names, ages and the word: ‘orphans’. The night we took them in and put them to bed, I said to my husband: ‘We’re not taking them back’. After a month one of the girls returned, actually she had no interest in our family really, but the other girl, Zina, didn’t want to go anywhere again, she was at home. So we let her stay. To get round problems with official adoption procedures, which can take 5 years in Ireland, we decided to think outside the box, and went straight to the Russian embassy in Dublin and asked for permission to keep her. The Russians surprised me by saying: ‘yes it is manageable to keep her’, and granted us permission to keep Zina with the caveat that they could come to our home, visit her school and her doctor at any time to check up on her for the statutory 5 years. My mother had to go out and buy a tablecloth, as diplomats were coming to the house. We cut the grass every second day, I polished the knobs on our hall doors every day in case the consular Alexander Pikalev should call by, and he did. He was very professional, and we became quite friendly with the Russian embassy.

Selection_216“After about a year of living with us, Zina started telling us stories about some of her friends in the orphanage where she had come from, who she was broken hearted for. She had lived seven years with some of the children. I hadn’t really considered the whole Russian aspect; I was only concerned with keeping her in Ireland. She started talking more and more about her best friends Pasha and Valya, and the more I heard about them the worse I felt, because yes, we had sort of rescued her, but in fact we had taken her from a whole life that we hadn’t even considered. I realised that I needed to do something, so when Zina was 9 years old, I went to Russia in 1998, to try and find her friends, and that’s what bought me to Russia.

“So I had to trace the orphanage where Zina had come from. My main goal was to find her friends and report back to Zina, so that the bond between her and her friends would not be lost. I eventually found the orphanage, and it was not in good condition, in fact I was quite shocked by it, and don’t really want to talk about that. All of Zina’s classmates were there and I felt quite guilty that all I was really doing was kind of bringing her sweets from Ireland. But at the time, with no previous knowledge of orphanages it was all I could do. So I went back to my comfortable lifestyle in Ireland, but I felt terrible. My heart wouldn’t let me rest, and eventually I sat down with a group of amazing people from my community, and we talked about the orphanage in Bryansk. Together, we raised £150,000 to rebuild the orphanage, put in new windows and heating. That’s how it all started.

Selection_217“And so I began the process of setting up a charity called ‘To Russia With Love,’ with the blessing of the Russian ambassador of the time and we started fundraising in earnest. We were lucky, because it was the beginning of the Celtic Tiger, a time when the Irish economy was booming, and Irish are incredibly generous when it comes to giving. I think they are one of the most giving nations on earth. All the charity’s board were parents, not bankers or whatever. We kept it very focused.

“I went on national television and told my story, and said: guys I need to raise about £200,000. It snowballed instantly. People In Ireland came forward, or should I say angels came out of the woodwork – builders, carers, teachers, doctors, and nurses, they all volunteered their time to help. In Bryansk we started the rebuilding work, we asked the children themselves to help us with the designs, something which didn’t go down too well with the authorities because the children wanted the walls to be painted a sugar pink colour, whereas according to regulations they should be brown and green. We painted the walls sugar pink… that was just the start.

Selection_219“We started bringing in beautiful new Russian staff and carers, and the effect of this, plus the impact of the new buildings meant that the children really began to grow. We introduced the idea of foster parents, and we bought Irish foster care specialists in to talk to the authorities about that, but it was a little too early in 1999 for Russia to accept that then. In the meantime, the kids were running around with tattered socks and shoes, so we started to provide then with warm new clothes, as a well as visits to dentists and a thousand other things. Basically, we treated them as human beings, exactly as family children would be treated. None of the children knew when their birthdays were, so we found out and organised celebrations for each child. The older ones were allowed to celebrate outside the orphanage walls, which they weren’t allowed to do previously, so we bought an orphanage bus.

“Then we started education programmes. The Russians are actually way ahead of the Irish with education, but the children need socialization and integration skills very badly. So we copied various programmes used in Ireland. Basically we set about training our staff and the Russian carers about the importance of unconditional love, something rare in any institution. It is not our job to judge the children it is our job to love them. The younger kids were going through the system and getting brighter and brighter, we started many new programmes, the boys were dying to develop sports! So we brought in sports equipment because there was none in the orphanage. Within 5 years we had a whole wall full of trophies that the children had won, previously the orphanage had none.

Selection_218“We’re still working with that orphanage but as the money kept coming in, we started to take on more projects. We discovered that all the orphans had been separated from their brothers and sisters, which they do here. We had children coming up to us and asking us to help, in finding a brother or sister. So we put a social worker on the job and in three or four years we hunted down every brother and sisters that any of the children had. It was a huge job. It is a very emotional experience for a nine year old to find that he had a four-year-old sister and a 16-year-old brother. Some of the brothers were in prison, some of them weren’t. We did that for about 10 years, we found I don’t know how many siblings. If we found that one of the siblings was in another orphanage, and I found that I could trust the director, then we stayed and helped that orphanage. But if I felt I couldn’t trust the director, for example if he had a fancy car outside his office and a karaoke machine with bells and whistles in his office, and the children were running around barefoot, then we moved on, because I felt that there was no point in putting money into a situation like that.

Selection_220“That was how we found our new orphanages. We took on a beautiful small orphanage for blind children at the time. They had no specialised equipment at all. If any of the children we worked with, who by then we felt were ‘our’ children, was moved somewhere we also arranged to visit him or her a month later, to let the child know that the family, as it were, is still there. So we took on three orphanages, actually what were called ‘temporary shelters’. Nobody paid any attention to these places, because the authorities felt that the children would not be there for very long, so they didn’t spend money on things like playgrounds for them. Orphanages for babies are comparatively well looked after here, so I didn’t feel that we needed to spend a lot of resources on them. But nobody wants to look after 17-year-old orphan boys for example, so that was where we focused our attention. They are also the most difficult category to raise money for. There was a fantastic orphanage in Kaluga, which has sadly closed, and we helped them for a while and set up our own Leavers’ Programme. This was a whole programme for children going on to college. If we can afford it, we pay for them to go into hostel accommodation. We hold a clinic for these students every once a week, which they have to attend, and the rules we set are quite strict. Some of them go into the army, and when they come out we are there for them. We get them back on their feet, back into college. The programme has been a great success. I think we’ve had one of our children in prison in 15 years, which is very low for the national average.

“So now we are helping children in a network of orphanages throughout the country. I have been amazed all the way along at how welcoming and cooperative the Russian authorities have been. I thought that they would sort of resent outside interference, but I was wrong, the system is full of great people, people who care. We don’t come across as being superior, we Irish are not in a position to tell any country how to how to do it, we have a lot to be ashamed about ourselves when we look back at our orphanage history. To understand some aspects of that, I advise you to see the film Philomena. I have met a lot of people in various levels of the administration here, and they all know that I am not here because I want fame, or some egoistical reason. They have seen me crying my eyes out, they have seen me go to weddings, in maternity hospitals when babies are born, stand at children’s funerals, they have been watching me for 15 years. There is no glamour associated with what I do. The Russians well know that we adore the children and visa versa. I have never been a threat; I have never said a negative thing in my life about the Russian system, because I respect the efforts that are being made every day to eradicate this enormous problem. The people we work with are hard working, under paid and probably under great pressure.

Selection_221“Due to a recent EU law, funds are no longer available to strengthen institutions, orphanages etc., this is the right decision, however, until we live in a perfect world, we have thousands of children still behind those very walls. Russian corporates donate to us, and so do expats. We can’t survive without money, we are grateful for every rouble. We have so many programmes; the orphanages, the leaving programme, the college fees, the petrol for the bus, and everything in between. Parents know how much it costs to supply everything for a child, and that is what we are doing, for hundreds of children. We have never said no in 15 years in answer to a request from a child. I have to say that we don’t need volunteers to go into our orphanages, to just be there for a short period and then disappear. Orphanages have very tight schedules and if a bunch of volunteers arrive in a bus from a bank etc., jump around in front of the children and then leave, quite honestly, this can cause more harm than good. At times we have to please donors, of course donors should be allowed to see where their money is going. But if you want to help, you need to help us in the way we need help to be given. That’s the way to get involved. We don’t want to sound ungrateful, but we don’t need old torn clothes or used and broken toys. It’s difficult to say this, but it’s quite embarrassing when we go to an orphanage and open up a box of old clothes, we respect our children as we respect our family members. It takes a lot of money to do what we are doing, that’s where we need so much help.

Selection_222“There are some fantastic donors out there. For example, The Marriott hotel just across the road are amazing. They bring the children into the hotel, they talk to them about careers, about cleaning, cooking, management, they treat them to dinner, the hotel does career days at the orphanages also, this is constructive help. Very structured, very well managed and very useful. The Marriott Aurora is in partnership with the Bolshoi Ballet, so the children are allowed to come in and watch the ballerinas practising; this is such a treat for the girls in particular. They get packed off after a long and exciting day with a whole kit of shampoos and so on. On top of all that, the hotel has now put envelopes in all their rooms where guests can donate. The Marriott Traverskya recently had all the children up for a big family day, the children loved it. Other Marriott hotels are also helping with parties, they are a perfect example of well thought out care, and make a real difference.

“Finally, I would like to reiterate that we know that the way forward in Russia is to get children into foster homes, out of the orphanages. The current government have many good programmes running to make this happen but like Ireland, they need to look at quality and not just quantity fostering. We made many mistakes in this area, they could learn from our mistakes. That’s our next big project, to assist our authorities with this if we are allowed, this is a difficult thing to fundraise for, but ultimately it gets a child a family, what more could we want.