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The Rohingya crisis: Lorraine Keane visits the world's largest refugee camp

For 10 years, Lorraine Keane has been travelling to some of the world’s poorest countries, driven to try and help by the fundamental unfairness of what she has seen. She talks to Emily Hourican about making a difference, as well as being maternal; life after TV3; her attempts at IVF; her strong faith, and selling houses

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Lorraine Keane and Rohingya refugee Naila in a camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Jeannie O'Brien

Lorraine Keane and Rohingya refugee Naila in a camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Jeannie O'Brien

In the camp in Cox's Bazar, people's shelters are fragile, made of tarpaulin and bamboo. In the monsoon season, during cyclones and giant storms, flimsy shelters get damaged. When it floods, it can sweep houses and even little children away

In the camp in Cox's Bazar, people's shelters are fragile, made of tarpaulin and bamboo. In the monsoon season, during cyclones and giant storms, flimsy shelters get damaged. When it floods, it can sweep houses and even little children away

Ahassan Mohammad met and married his wife two years ago in the refugee camp, and now they have a one-year-old boy. Ahassan and his wife find it very difficult starting family life far from home

Ahassan Mohammad met and married his wife two years ago in the refugee camp, and now they have a one-year-old boy. Ahassan and his wife find it very difficult starting family life far from home

A volunteer supports Oxfam's sanitation programme, ensuring the people in the camp have clean water, safe sanitation and are kept safe from deadly disease

A volunteer supports Oxfam's sanitation programme, ensuring the people in the camp have clean water, safe sanitation and are kept safe from deadly disease

Lorraine with Lizzy Hallinan, who has been working for Oxfam in the camps for almost two years. Supporting women and girls is one of her top priorities

Lorraine with Lizzy Hallinan, who has been working for Oxfam in the camps for almost two years. Supporting women and girls is one of her top priorities

Rabia is one of almost a million Rohingya refugees forced to flee Myanmar, now supported by Oxfam in Cox’s Bazar

Rabia is one of almost a million Rohingya refugees forced to flee Myanmar, now supported by Oxfam in Cox’s Bazar

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Lorraine Keane and Rohingya refugee Naila in a camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Jeannie O'Brien

'I don't feel like I've a right to say no." That's Lorraine Keane's most basic motivation for the annual trips she has been taking to some of the world's poorest places over the last 10 years. "I did the first one because I kept saying, 'One day, when I have time…' And then one day, I did have time, when I left TV3 and decided to take time out with the girls [Lorraine's children, Emelia, now 16, and Romy, now 13]. So I had to put my money where my mouth was."

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She has been to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Haiti, Guatemala, Somalia and more. The day we meet, she is recently back from a trip to Bangladesh with Oxfam, to what is now the largest refugee camp in the world, where nearly one million people, nearly half of them children, live in flimsy, makeshift conditions. Most of them are Rohingya who have fled extreme violence in Myanmar, and desperately hope to one day go home.

There, Lorraine met Naila, "An amazing woman. She lives with her four children in a shelter in the camp. The eldest is 10, the youngest is two, and they've been there over two years now. She told me about her house and her farm back in Myanmar. She and her husband had a lovely house, lots of land; a very successful farm. They had to flee. The house was set on fire. She had four children, and was heavily pregnant with a fifth. Her husband was shot in front of her. The family fled, hid in a forest overnight, and got to a neighbouring village a few days later where she gave birth to a baby girl.

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Ahassan Mohammad met and married his wife two years ago in the refugee camp, and now they have a one-year-old boy. Ahassan and his wife find it very difficult starting family life far from home

Ahassan Mohammad met and married his wife two years ago in the refugee camp, and now they have a one-year-old boy. Ahassan and his wife find it very difficult starting family life far from home

"They made it to the border with Bangladesh, and there they were caught again, and Naila's 14-year-old son was shot in front of her... I was sitting there, listening to her, sitting on the rough floor of a bamboo shelter, with her kids. Watching their little faces as she told the story, seeing her eldest girl, who's 10, looking at her mum describing how her brother was shot..." Lorraine doesn't finish. She doesn't need to. No one could listen to that and not feel an overwhelming need to act.

And then, she continues, "Naila said, 'Tell the Irish people thank you so much. We feel safe here. We have medical supplies and clean water; my children are being educated.' I'm looking at them, thinking, 'You have so little, and you're thanking me...' I just thought, 'This is so unfair'."

I'm not a bit surprised when she admits, "I dread going over. Every trip. I dread it for weeks in advance. I find it hard, and I get homesick. I pray before, during and after each trip."

To God? "Yes, I do. I've got a pretty strong faith. It's been really helpful. It gives me somebody else, something else, to hand it over to; to pass the load. That sounds really selfish, but since I've had the girls, I've become a total wimp. I was always a softie, but now I'm a total wimp. I'm afraid of heights, I get claustrophobic - stupid things like that. And meeting these people, seeing and hearing what they have to say, I find it really hard. When I come back, it takes me a while to stop thinking about their stories and feeling sad. But pity about me!," she says robustly. "I don't feel like I've a right not to."

Doing what she can

And, she continues, "The rewarding bit is, I know I can help. That makes it a bit ok. When I'm upset, I think, 'Well, at least you can do something about it'. And I can say to Naila and the other people I meet, 'I'll do what I can'."

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Lorraine with Lizzy Hallinan, who has been working for Oxfam in the camps for almost two years. Supporting women and girls is one of her top priorities

Lorraine with Lizzy Hallinan, who has been working for Oxfam in the camps for almost two years. Supporting women and girls is one of her top priorities

And what Lorraine can do is pretty considerable. For the past couple of years, she has been running Fashion Relief, a fundraising initiative that pulled in €70,000 in its first year, and has since grown even beyond that. "We're into the third year now, and have raised over €200,000. All that money goes to support Oxfam's work worldwide, from long-term development projects, to life-saving emergency response in places like Cox's Bazar, the refugee camp, in Bangladesh."

Fashion Relief began because "Three years ago I came back from a trip and I looked around me. All of us have too much stuff, and some of us have way too much. I looked at my wardrobe, and I had way too much. I was keeping it, thinking I might wear things again, or I've two girls and they might wear it. And then I thought, 'My daughters may not even want it - and if they do, they can go out and work and earn their own money'. If I sell off a massive chunk of my wardrobe, I can raise some money. If I sell a dress that cost €100 for €10, that will feed a family for a week.

"I started talking about it to friends, and they all wanted to be part of it. Irish people are so generous - as soon as they hear you are doing something, they really want to help! I didn't want to set up my own charity because logistically, that is a nightmare, and doesn't make sense. So I approached Oxfam because I like what they do, and they have the shops, so anything I didn't sell at the event could go into the shops and be sold through them."

That first year, Fashion Relief was one day in the RDS. Last year, it was four events: the RDS; City Hall in Cork; in Galway; and a weekend pop-up in Dundrum Town Centre. This year, it will be all that and more. And, this year, as well as Lorraine's friends - including Miriam O'Callaghan, Rob Kearney, Brent Pope, Rosanna Davison, and Mary Kennedy, who have all previously donated - and the many boutiques and designers who have got on board, there is a corporate drive too.

"The Smurfit Kappa Foundation has sponsored big cardboard bins and we deliver them to a place of work and ask every member of staff to donate one pre-loved item. Then we collect the bins. Google took 42 bins," she says, and doesn't flinch when I make a stupid joke about them being filled with normcore jeans and trainers.

Clearly, Lorraine is bringing all the qualities that have made her so successful as a broadcaster to her fundraising. It's a kind of neat balance between glamour and good sense; kindness and efficiency. Exactly the qualities she needed to draw on when she left TV3 10 years ago.

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Rabia is one of almost a million Rohingya refugees forced to flee Myanmar, now supported by Oxfam in Cox’s Bazar

Rabia is one of almost a million Rohingya refugees forced to flee Myanmar, now supported by Oxfam in Cox’s Bazar

"The first two years were really daunting," she says of that time. "I was nearly 20 years employed, between AA Roadwatch, RTE and then TV3. I did find that a bit scary. There were hairy moments, and moments where I would have tons of work coming in and I'd say yes to all of it, because I'd be afraid to say no in case they mightn't want me next week. I still do that," she laughs. "I don't say no to anything. But the pros far outweighed the negatives. I could take time off to be with the kids during their holidays, for example. You don't have them for someone else to rear them. Or at least I didn't."

Lorraine is entirely open about the fact that she and husband Peter Devlin wanted more children. "We would have loved to have had more," she says. "My whole life, I've been maternal. I'm the second eldest of seven; I helped rear the younger children. I treated them like they were mine."

But it was not to be. "It was one of those unexplained infertility things - not my fault, not his fault," she says.

Now, "from the work I've done with Cleanmarine around peri-menopause, I believe that it was probably something to do with my hormones. I think that I was 36 or 37 when I started going through peri-menopause. I was irritable, sleeping badly, stressed. But I struggled and suffered in silence. I didn't get hot flushes, but I did get night sweats. And I was so stupid, I thought it was because I was so fit, that my metabolism was working while I was sleeping."

She hoots with laughter. "I didn't want to tell anyone because I was afraid they'd give me a tablet to stop it and I'd get fat. Imagine how ridiculous that was?"

Alas, as a woman, I can imagine only too easily.

"I had no idea that our hormones run our bodies," she continues. "Even though I did biology for the Leaving. If we don't have the right levels, we're screwed - brain, heart, sleep, emotions. I used to skip through any article that mentioned menopause, peri or otherwise, and I had no idea. But also, nobody said to me this is a possibility, not even my female GP."

And so, when she didn't get pregnant, Lorraine turned straight to IVF - something she now thinks was the wrong move. "I would have saved myself a lot of pain, distress, stress, hassle, financial strain, the strain it puts on your own relationship, if I had checked my hormone health," she says.

"I had a problem with my thyroid, and endometriosis. It was kind of pointless, doing IVF. I should have sorted that stuff out first. I'm talking about it now because I want other women to know that from 35 years of age, check your hormones."

She did three cycles of IVF - and is only now comfortable talking about it - and after the first, unsuccessful attempt, decided to leave TV3. "Romy was about two, and I was told, 'There's little chance you're going to conceive with the hours you work and the stress you're under'. So I decided to leave. And I didn't say it at the time, and I really should have, but I just couldn't. It was too personal."

Not only could she not say it, she actively tried to hide it. "I used to go into the clinic for my appointments half an hour before they opened because I didn't want to be seen. Because I was so embarrassed and self-conscious. I'm annoyed with myself when I think back. I'd sit in the waiting room with other people and, god knows they were all in the same situation as me, yet I'd sit with my back to everyone. I'd say, 'Don't call my full name - just call Lorraine.' In fact the first time I went, I gave my name as Elaine Keane. I mean, how ridiculous! Elaine sounds exactly like Lorraine... even if I'd said Elaine Devlin..."

She laughs a lot about this now, but clearly, it was all much less funny at the time. Not least because the IVF didn't work out. "I did two more cycles after I left TV3, and it didn't work. But at least I knew I tried..."

Was she able to 'move on' as that awful phrase goes? "Not really, no," she says, with admirable honesty. "I remember a little moment of hope when I was about 41, and being thrilled with myself. Thinking, 'This is fantastic' and having it all worked out in my head, but it didn't happen.

"But now, with the girls the age they are - 16 and 13 - being busy with work, I'm really happy with where I am. I've always been so blessed to have two healthy babies. That's why it was easy to jump off the career ladder. I knew there would always be other jobs, but I didn't know if there would be more babies, so I needed to spend time with the two I was blessed with."

By then, anyway, she says, "I was miserable. That was the second year I was on Xpose, and I spent a lot of time crying. I was going through IVF, that wasn't working out - I was an emotional wreck. I used to think of my gravestone: 'She was a great worker'; 'She had a fabulous career'." She laughs. "That wasn't what I wanted."

Clearly, she couldn't be happier at her decision. These days, she takes Eltroxin for her thyroid, and Cleanmarine's MenoMin for her hormonal balance, and is, she says, "at a place of acceptance" with her age. "I don't like the idea of ageing," she says truthfully, but agrees there are compensations. "I don't put myself under the pressure I used to before. One of the nice things about aging is I don't sweat the small stuff as much. I don't worry as much about work; those kinds of things. I get to share and help others, I talk about my health, about women's health. I can be myself.

"My TV job, being on the red carpet at events, that wasn't the real me, so it's nice to be able to be myself. I'm in my late 40s and I feel presentable, and think that I look good for my age - god forbid, sexy, even, at times. It'll be the same in my 50s, 60s, even. I think I'll feel nervous going into my 70s," she admits. "That seems to be when a lot of health stuff happens."

No Botox

She looks amazing, with noticeably great skin. In the interests of all of us in our 'late 40s', I quiz her closely about this: what is she getting done? "Nothing invasive," she says. "I've been going to the Monkstown Laser Skin Clinic for almost five years, and up to that point, from my late 20s all the way through my 30s, I had adult acne. Hormonal breakouts. It was desperate, because I was on telly the whole time. Now, my skin has never been better."

This, I am willing to believe.

"No Botox, no fillers," she insists. "It suits some people, and I don't hold it against anyone who does it, but for me, it doesn't work. I use my expressions too much." Instead, she swears by peels and laser. "Like a lot of Irish people, I have rosacea, so I get laser for that about four times a year, and the added bonus is it reduces fine lines and boosts collagen."

She says she has no intention of writing another book - her memoir, Working the Red Carpet was published in 2010. "I hate writing," she says candidly. "I find it so lonely. When I got the first copy of the book, delivered to me at 11pm on a Sunday night, I told them not to bother. I'd written it, and read it so much by then... But it was delivered, and myself and Peter flicked through it, then I threw it on the bed and said, 'Next!' I was so over it; so glad to see the back of it."

But she'd love to do up another house. "I bought my first house when I was 20, a tiny cottage, and I've done up four now." In fact, she and Peter put their Monkstown house on the market last year, with that intention in mind.

"I saw a house around the corner from ours that's half the size, and I want to stay in the area, but I want a smaller house. We've got four floors, and we only live on two. I thought I'd fill the house with children, and I clearly didn't. Two children, two very small dogs, myself and Peter - we do not need that amount of space. And going forward - I don't want to put almost everything I earn into a house that I don't use.

"So we put our house up in May, before Brexit, before the summer - a really silly time." The smaller house she had her eye on got sold before her own did, and so she and Peter took theirs off the market again. "We'll maybe try again in the spring, and if it doesn't sell, we might wait until the kids grow up and leave us. We're in no rush. I don't get attached to houses. It's the people in it that make it a home, but this is the house where our children were born, it will be very hard for me to leave."

Meantime, her love of doing up houses has led to setting up a new business, finished.ie, with a friend. She describes it as "an online directory and marketplace for all things to do with renovating and refurbishing".

Clearly, Lorraine is not someone to sit still. "God, no. I love working," she says. "I hope I keel over while I'm working. I can't be idle. It makes me stressed if I don't feel I have something to do."

There seems to be no fear of that: broadcasting, presenting, public appearances, interiors, Fashion Relief, Oxfam... that's a lot of plates, all spinning efficiently. In fact, the only issue seems to be ever slowing down, something she is well aware of.

"With Fashion Relief, I know I'll have to do this for the rest of my life. There's no exit strategy -I couldn't live with myself!"

See fashionrelief.ie

See oxfamireland.org


Photography by Jeannie O'Brien

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