independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

From debbie with love

She has seen off Russian mobsters and a spy scandal, dealt with chatshow ambushes and scythed her way through a mountain of Eastern Bloc red tape. Now Debbie Deegan has written a book about how a Clontarf housewife started the charity To Russia with Love which brought hope to thousands of impoverished, abandoned children. Donal Lynch met her

It's been a hell of a year for a woman who seems as good a candidate as any for the title of our White Oprah: Debbie Deegan. The recession has threatened to obliterate To Russia With Love -- the charity that benefits Russian orphans that Debbie has spent a decade and a half building up. The Irish millionaires, who were her patrons for so many years, are selling their Bentleys and fending off court orders.

The fundraising evenings, which were so lucrative during the boom years, are now political poison -- nobody wants to be seen gadding around in a ball gown while the rest of us sink further into penury. Debbie herself has felt bad "rattling the bucket" when she knows people are in need at home, too.

She saw all this coming, of course, and hoped against hope that some benevolent Russian oligarch would step in to fill the breach -- and, to be fair, it didn't seem like that much of a stretch, given that she's helping Russian children.

She has been on Russian TV, she has groomed potential philanthropists in Russia, she has written to Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich -- himself an orphan.

But while some in Tolstoy's country have deep pockets, they aren't as trusting as our own bedraggled billionaires; 'a housewife from Clontarf' means nothing to a businessman in Moscow. At the same time, Vladimir Putin's sword of Damocles hangs over the whole enterprise. The Russian president recently declared that his was a donor country, not an aid-recipient country -- as usual blithely ignoring the reality on the ground.

All it would take, Debbie says, is a phone call to Orwell Road (in Dublin -- where the Russian Embassy is located) and she wouldn't get a visa next time she needs to travel. And so the situation remains precarious. "There are small children who will be in need of care if we don't continue our work. Something needs to happen," Debbie tells me before adding bleakly: "Otherwise I give it six months."

For a woman who has seen off Russian mobsters and a spy scandal, dealt with melodramatic chatshow ambushes and scythed her way through a veritable mountain of Eastern Bloc (and good old Irish) red tape, that's quite an admission.

Incredibly, given her vast media contacts, she had never written a book on her experiences with the charity, but has now brought out To Russia With Love -- expertly co-written with Sunday Independent regular Emily Hourican -- and hopes that sales of the book will make some dent in the charity's running costs. It was also high time to chronicle a story that goes back nearly two decades.

Deegan had, by her own admission, always been "an organiser", "a doer", "the girl who would collect money to buy flowers for the teacher" but until 1996 it was a talent with nowhere to go. By then she'd been a stay-at-home mother (of a girl, Sophie, now 24, and a boy, Mikey, now 18) for several years, but felt bored by life as a housewife and children who were "so good" they left her with no drama to manage.

When she saw an ad in a newspaper for a meeting at which bringing orphans from Chernobyl and Russia to Ireland would be discussed, she decided to attend. She and her husband, Mick, had a nice home in Clontarf with plenty of space. They took in two elfin Russian girls for the summer -- Zina and Valya -- and later decided to adopt Zina (Valya went to a different family; the two girls remained friends). The process was long and arduous, with Debbie deeply frustrated with the workings of the Eastern Health Board.

One of the questions they asked her related to when she had first had sex with her husband after an earlier miscarriage. "I was indignant -- I thought it was none of their business. Mick said wearily: 'Just give them what they want'." The health board's suggestion, Debbie says, was to send Zina back to the orphanage in Russia and then to pick her up again when she was 12, an idea Debbie scoffed at. She defied them and got to keep Zina, an arrangement agreed to by the Russian authorities in Ireland -- as long as they could call unannounced to the house in Clontarf (which they often did, prompting comical attempts at domesticity by Debbie -- she once deftly passed off a shop-bought pie as her own home-made creation). For the first year or so, Zina hoarded food under her bed and played the part of a happy child -- " Orphan girls play to please," Debbie writes in the book, noting that for many of them it is a survival mechanism. Debbie hadn't realised that Zina was pining for a boy called Pasha, with whom she had a close friendship.

Debbie decided to go back to the orphanage where Zina had come from and establish some sort of communication with Pasha and the other children. But she was unprepared for what awaited her. Later, she would assume that all Russian orphanages were as bad as the one she encountered, but this institution, tucked away deep in the Russian countryside, was like "a forgotten place, a derelict factory." The children were in a terrible condition, with what looked like green mould growing on their teeth. The employees weren't much better.

"It was just a pure coincidence that I walked into one of the worst of them," Debbie says. "Nobody in Russia wants scabby, poor kids in their eye-line, so they're kept in forests. Whereas in the city, you might have trained workers; in the forest you don't. You might have several grannies from the local village who are willing to work there and you have to deal with that. They have to come on a bus and it might be 5am and, it's snowing, don't forget, four or five months of the year. You've got to take a sow's ear and make a silk purse out of it."

In the end, that was what Deegan decided to do. When she came back to Ireland, she organised a coffee morning, and soon assembled a small team of experts, including a doctor, a translator and a human rights worker.

Media interest was huge and To Russia With Love registered as an Irish charity and opened its first bank account in time for its debut on Pat Kenny's old show, Kenny Live!

In the beginning, Debbie says, she wanted to "make everything pink" -- fix up the orphanage to look like a glorious Barbie Dream Home and then go back to Ireland. But soon she was drawn deeper into the work of improving the orphanage and the lives of the orphans (and their carers).

"The secret of my success was that, in the beginning, I had people with me who were much nicer than me, with much more pleasant personalities," she tells me. "I took an amazing man from Ireland [Derek Tracy] and stole him from Wheatfield prison -- where he was deputy governor -- for two years. I hadn't a clue how to motivate people but he had people skills coming out his ears. He bought a rose for the babushkas who worked in the orphanage and for them to get a rose from a man -- they were eating out of his hand."

Diplomacy was a skill Deegan soon learned as she charmed the local politicians and got them onside. That came in handy when mobsters dragged her from her bed in the middle of the night, menacing her for money. Debbie was terrified but also outraged -- she wasn't about to give away the charity's hard-won money to the mob. A quick word with the local political bigwig and they were never bothered again. In all, Debbie has made 270 trips to Russia, her team arriving "like a warm wind from Ireland" with food, supplies and much needed love for the orphans. While this was happening, her own brood were left without their mother however. Her husband, Mick, minded them -- aided by his mother and Debbie's -- and the family survived on his income. The work with the charity took its toll on the marriage.

"I'm not being martyrish about this at all, but if Mick had been married to someone else, he'd have had a much fuller married life. I'd come home and I'd be cranky because nobody had tackled the laundry while I was away. My husband's life has always been me and the children and our house. If we had divorced Mick would have been the one awarded the house and the kids by a judge," she only half-jokes. Mick found some solace in the family, Debbie says. "He has a son Mikey and two daughters Sophie and Zina whom he adores -- he was a better parent to Zina than I was."

Zina herself had a complicated relationship with her heritage. As a child, she lived in fear of being taken back to the orphanage. She soon forgot her mother tongue (Debbie tells me: "I have an Irish child, Sophie, who speaks Russian and a Russian child, Zina, who doesn't") and according to her adoptive mum "doesn't feel Russian".

"I have to be careful about what I say about Zina, though, because she is 24 now and engaged," Debbie tells me. "She wasn't minded as a baby, so when she grew older she wanted to mind children herself [she's now a nanny]. It's not my place to tell her story. She still has family in Russia; we brought her sister here. For St Patrick's Day last year I took the girls to Moscow for the annual ball there.

"Sophie and Zina came with me and Zina was in heaven -- she was thrilled we weren't going to the orphanage. Going there brings back that whole anxiety inside. She rarely had a visitor during the seven years she was in the orphanage. She carries that heavily to this day. She has a lot of sadness."

For her part, Zina says: "I knew what she was doing in Russia but I never asked, but I was and am still proud in her tackling Russia which can't be easy. She is doing more for the children of Russia than the President of Russia."

Zina and Debbie once appeared on a Russian talk show -- hosted by Andrei Malakhov, who is a big star there. To their amazement, various people from Zina's past were brought out, including Pasha. When the host asked her on camera what she would like to say to him, Zina replied with great dignity: "That's nobody's business but ours!" Debbie's appeal for funds was edited out of the programme that aired and she was disappointed: "The bottom line was that I failed to raise money for our children."

To Russia With Love was also caught up in the Russian spy controversy of 2009. The passport of one of the charity's volunteers, Catherine Sherry, was illegally copied. Sherry's ID was reported to have been used by Anna Chapman, the so-called 'honeypot spy' who was living in New York. The following summer US agents broke up a spy ring in New York, New Jersey, Boston and Virginia and 10 people were eventually deported to Russia, including Chapman.

Last year a diplomat was expelled from the Russian embassy in Dublin in connection with the scandal. "Spying goes on," Deegan says with an air of resignation. "You have to be realistic. Many countries do it. We were annoyed, of course, but life goes on. We were worried about the effect it would have on funding." In general, she says, the Russian officials in Ireland have been incredibly helpful and supportive.

After she won the Rehab International Person of the Year in 2009, a certain political party approached her to run for them. She coyly says that, when she was in school, the head nun wanted her to go into politics and the kids love the idea of living in the Mansion House, but she isn't considering leaping into the ring at the moment.

It's still full steam ahead with To Russia With Love, which takes all her energy. "We are at a crossroads", Debbie tells me. "Every donation is important. Where you are born and where you grow up is an accident, a coincidence. These children are a few hours on a plane from here. And they need our help, more than ever."

'To Russia With Love', by Debbie Deegan, is published by Mercier Press and available online and from book shops. Please visit www.torussiawithlove.ie to donate, or Text CHILD to 57800 to pay €5 and help To Russia With Love. Network charges vary. Minimum of €3.28 goes to the charity. SP Phonovation Ltd

0818 217 100.

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