Sunday 20 October 2019

'There was a lot of suspicion around why a western family would want this disabled boy' - An Irish family's heartache of adoption

Seven-year-old Banni from Belarus couldn't walk or feed himself when he came to Ireland but all that changed after a year with RTE reporter Colm Flynn's family. So why was he not allowed to stay with them?

Banni when he lived with the Flynn family in Ireland
Banni when he lived with the Flynn family in Ireland
Banni today in the orphanage
Banni with the Flynns

'I remember we would hear this quiet grinding noise," my brother Patrick recalls. It was a low, slow grinding sound that we soon found out was the sound of Banni grinding his teeth together.

"When we looked into his mouth, we saw that he had ground his teeth right down to the gums." He would also shake his head back and forth constantly, making quiet humming noises. All of these habits, we would later learn, had developed as a result of years of being left in an orphanage cot with no stimulation or room to move. The rocking of the head, the constant tapping of his thumb and the grinding of his teeth. He couldn't walk and he couldn't talk, he had severe disabilities but it's hard to explain - there was something very special about Banni.

I was about 12 years old and had just come home from school with my younger brother and sister when we first met him. We walked into the sitting room and saw this little boy sitting quietly on our couch. We didn't know what to think. Banni was different to anyone I'd ever met before. He was seven years old but looked only about three. He would sit in the same spot all day, constantly swinging his head back and forth while making quiet humming noises. My siblings and I were intrigued and would sit beside him for hours, talking and playing with him, feeding him, trying to get a sense of what he could and couldn't understand. My mam explained to us that this was a little boy from a region in Belarus affected by the Chernobyl accident, and he would be staying with us for two weeks.

Banni had come to stay with us through a charity called the Burren Chernobyl Project, set up by Irish Christian Brother Liam O'Meara. Br Liam had first visited Belorussian orphanages in 1994 and was so horrified by the conditions he found the children in, he felt compelled to do something to help. One of the many things the charity does each year is bring a group of orphans to Ireland for around a month to benefit from the fresh air, healthy food and stimulation.

We knew very little about Banni's background. There seemed to be a lot of confusion and mystery around his parents and the circumstances which lead to Banni ending up in the orphanage in the first place. But when you're 12 years of age, you don't really dwell on those details too much. Instead we were excited to have a new brother in the house. We poured love over Banni from the moment he arrived, hugging and kissing him, taking him with us wherever we went, and really treating him like one of the family.

"At the start he was quiet and afraid," my mother Noreen remembers. "But when we left him to play with you and all your friends, slowly but surely we started to see this personality come out in him." The two weeks flew by and Banni was starting to transform. The whole family doted over him and when the time came for Banni to return to Belarus my parents were faced with a tough dilemma: how could they let this little boy who had come on in leaps and bounds return to a life where he would be walled inside a state institution.

"We just thought it would be awful to send him back to the orphanage so we talked about it and thought, he could just tag along with us," remembers my dad, Tom.

My parents made the decision to adopt Banni and for the next year and a half he stayed with us as my parents went through the adoption process. He had well and truly become one of the family; he was baptised in the parish, he started going to a special needs school, and for the first time in his entire life he had a family who loved him. This wave of stimulation, love and attention had a profound affect on Banni. His habits - built up over years of neglect - started to fade; the sound of grinding teeth stopped; his head didn't swing as much; he started to smile - and laugh. He laughed all the time. He started to walk and feed himself. Banni was a completely different little boy to the one who had arrived in our home over a year earlier.

Banni with the Flynns
Banni with the Flynns

Everything was going great until one day my mother got a call saying Banni had to go back to the orphanage for some medical checks and, once they were done, he'd be back in Ireland for good. That was the last time my family saw Banni.

My mother travelled to Belarus with Banni and it soon became apparent that they had no intention of letting him return with her. With the help of a lawyer my parents tried everything to bring Banni home but they were coming up against brick walls with no explanation as to why he was being kept in the orphanage.

"We couldn't get any answer as to why he wasn't allowed to come back and live with us," my mother remembers. "I was told, unofficially, that there was a lot of suspicion around why a western family with perfectly healthy children would want this disabled boy. It was as if they couldn't understand it." After much struggle, it was over, the adoption was blocked and my mother had to return home - Banni was sentenced to a life in state institutions. The whole family was devastated.

Letting Banni go was tough for the whole family, but particularly my parents. I think, for us, when you're young you have a great ability to move forward. I think it was only as the years rolled on and I had finished college, I started to wonder what had gone wrong.

I work as a freelance reporter and presenter for RTE and BBC, which means the job can be demanding and I suppose Banni was a memory tucked away in the back of my mind. It was only earlier this year when, over lunch one day, I was talking to someone about the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, that I started to tell them the story of Banni. I was ashamed to admit I knew so little about this boy who was such a significant and important part of my life. I didn't know the nature of his disability, his family circumstances, where he is now, and most importantly, what his future will be.

I started to look into it and the more I investigated the more I was amazed by the Irish involvement in these orphanages in Belarus and the selfless work people from all Ireland carry out there. I spoke to RTE about making a programme about Banni and the legacy the Irish volunteers have left in his orphanage and ones like them. So last July, I boarded a plane with a cameraman bound for Belarus. I knew it wouldn't be easy but I wasn't in any way prepared for just how difficult it would be.

Belarus is a beautiful country and its capital Minsk is very impressive, but as soon as you leave the city and head out into the countryside, it's a completely different story. The people live simple, self-sufficient lives, many in poverty.

I had been told Banni was still in the orphanage he was in as a child, although he had reached an age when he should be moved to an adult asylum. As we drove to the tiny rural village where Banni lived along with 300 other children, I wondered... Is coming back to meet him the best idea? Would it be too upsetting for him? Question after question was running through my mind.

Banni today in the orphanage
Banni today in the orphanage

The orphanage director was a formidable man who didn't smile all that much. He sat myself, my cameraman and Br Liam, who was with us, down in his office and told us through a translator that there had been a change of plan, and even though we had come all this way with the correct documentation and accreditation, I was not permitted to see Banni and we could not film anywhere in the orphanage. I was devastated but tried not to let on.

The longer the meeting went on it became apparent to me that he was paranoid about being reprimanded by his superiors, which I understood. He told us if "anything negative" was produced about the orphanage, the programme couldn't be made. Eventually he compromised and said we could have limited access to certain parts of the orphanage provided it was a "positive" documentary and he would guide us at all times while we filmed. We were thousands of miles from Dublin, in a former Soviet country which still has the death penalty. We agreed.

The director took us on a well choreographed tour; everything looked immaculate, a blackboard which looked like it had never seen chalk, beds that looked like they'd never been slept in, but we continued filming. My heart was beating fast as every corner we turned I thought I might bump into Banni, but there was no sign of him. Then we came close to a room with Unit 7 written on the door. I remembered that this was the unit Banni had come from. I walked past the director and into the room, the cameraman followed, and it was there, sitting quietly in the corner of the room, that I saw little Banni. Now 21, he looked much older but still childlike. I walked over to him and started to say his name. He lifted his head and looked up at me, only to look away straight away. It was heartbreaking and I tried to hold back the tears, but the little boy who had been in our home for so long had changed so much, and not for the better.

Finding Banni, Wednesday, November 30, RTE2, 9.30pm

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