NO PLACE LIKE HOME (SUNDAY LIFE MAGAZINE)
Malnourished bodies. Shaved heads. Soiled clothes. Scabies. Threadworm laced vomit. Daily beatings. Children trapped in chains.
Google 'orphanages in Eastern Europe' and the harsh reality stares you boldly in the face. Images so shocking a lump forms in your throat and no matter how hard you swallow, it chokes you up as a toxic mélange of emotions take control.
Perhaps, as a 15 year old I should have done my research better when I begged my parents to let me travel to my birth country, Moldova, to volunteer in a disabled children’s home.
Growing up, like most kids, I asked a lot of questions. Some verging on the silly, others deliberating the world we live in, and some that my parents just simply did not know how to answer.
It’s fair to say when it comes to my native country, parinti mei fed me only the good news stories, highlighting the positives and choosing to abandon mention of the negatives. When I surprised them with a tricky question about my home country, as I often would, they religiously told me that I would one day get those answers for myself.
“When you’re older Diana, you’ll see the reality for yourself and you’ll be able to make up your own mind about the world we live in”, they said. “We know you want to help make a difference but please, wait. Wait until you are mentally ready to see the truths, that’s when you’ll be in a position to make a real difference in this world.”
This year, almost a decade later and at 24 years of age, I set out to get my answers on a week-long ambassadorial trip with Outreach Moldova (ORM) to its orphanage for girls with special needs, Casa de Copii, in Hincesti.
One of the first things you notice when you set foot on the grounds of the Casa de Copii is the beaming, eager, cherubic faces of the hundreds of children who call this orphanage home.Without hesitation, they envelop you in the warmest hugs, offering in near perfect English a “hello” and “nice to meet you.”
Almost immediately these same children will gingerly take hold of your hand, caressing your arm while bursting with joy at the prospect of making a new friend.
Although not my first trip to Moldova and slightly more well accustomed to its traditions and general standards of living than the average visitor, my first sighting of the Outreach Moldova Casa de Copii knocked the breath out of me with it's beauty and happy atmosphere.
Being a children’s television presenter, engaging with children on a day-to-day basis, it comes as no surprise that I take an enormous interest in the welfare of young people both here in Ireland and abroad. Imagine my horror and disgust then, when my research uncovered an incredibly sad reality about the welfare of special needs children in my birth country.
Abandoned, beaten, disgraced, forgotten, shunned- they were once seen as the undesirables in society; invisible citizens denied their human rights. Indeed, article upon article unveiled a harsh reality of orphanage life and as I boarded my plane to Chisinau for my first ORM ambassadorial trip, I couldn’t shake the feeling of anxiety that accompanies the fear of going into the unknown.
Situated on a hill in the western district of Hincesti, Moldova, the Casa de Copii in question is like something out of a fairytale. The leafy grounds provide a tranquil home for 360 inhabitants and a quick tour reveals western standards of living.
Here children are allowed to be children, their well-being taking top priority. They are treated with respect; they are valued; they are encouraged and loved and most importantly, they are given the chance to live a fulfilled life.
How so, then, with such a negative portrayal of Eastern European orphanages, can the Hincesti Casa de Copii be so advanced? The answer lays in Doctor Suzanne O’Connell, the children’s ‘Mama’ and founder of Outreach Moldova.
A former engineer, the South Dublin native was forced to stand up and take notice in the late Nineties when a particularly distressing documentary highlighting the struggle in Moldovan orphanages was aired on television. Almost immediately Mama Suzie, as the children lovingly call her, packed her bags and trekked to the most eastern side of Europe to see first hand the difficult situation.
That trip resulted in a life-changing move as she retrained as a doctor and, in 2000, bravely set up Outreach Moldova, an Irish charity dedicated to improving the quality of life of mentally ill and disabled children.
“I couldn't walk away when I saw the abject suffering and tremendous human need,” Suzie confides. “Little children; just thrown into orphanages and expected to survive -images that can't be erased; entirely reminiscent of concentration camps of over half a century ago at a time when the new millennium was beginning. I was shocked by the disproportionate realities between what I had known in my privileged South County Dublin upbringing and that of this barely formed ex Soviet state."
As Suzie speaks her eyes glisten, fresh tears a blink away from cascading down her face. To give up your own personal life in one country and dedicate it to improving the lives of hundreds of innocent children in another is an overwhelmingly enormous selfless act.
Speaking to Suzie for just five minutes, my heart fills with pride and a reinforced belief that, despite the horrific stories we hear on the news on a day-to-day basis, there is still good in this world.
The residents of the Hincesti Casa de Copii, despite their young age realize the enormity of what Mama Suzie has done for them. The older ones, in particular, can easily recall life in the Casa pre Outreach Moldova’s involvement at the turn of the new millennium.
Doe-eyed Felicia Bulimaga, 21, was more than happy to share her early childhood memories with me- a topic I had shamefully tiptoed as I had gotten to know her. “Before Suzie’s arrival these grounds weren’t as beautiful”, Felicia remembers.“There were no ramps for wheelchair users; there were stones everywhere, mice and rats… I didn’t even have a wheelchair. I used to crawl everywhere. I was confined to the four walls of the block I was assigned to.”
“Our punishment for misbehaving back then was being locked in the toilet, naked for the whole day," she continues. "Sometimes they didn’t even feed us. That was to prevent us from going to the toilet, doing a number one or two and dirtying the place, as some children could do.”
“Up until the age of 8, I pretended not to be able to speak. I played dumb. I could understand absolutely everything that was going on but I didn’t want the nurses and minders to know because they would have treated me differently then. Treated me even worse. They would have kept me away from visitors in fear that I would talk.”
“Our food consisted of a piece of maliga (boiled polenta), maybe some tea- anything that was cold and didn’t take long to prepare. In the winters, the radiators didn’t work and even in the summers they didn’t let us out a lot of the time. When I was about six or seven, I got my head stuck in the window bars trying to get some fresh air. Maria [not her real name] had to come and help me out. She still works here now and can remember that incident well.”
Felicia speaks freely and openly, the hurt in her big brown eyes almost too much to take in. At risk of upsetting her further, I have to bite down on my tongue repeatedly to stop my own tears from falling.
I find it difficult to comprehend how an intelligent, beautiful, angelic girl like Felicia ended up in state care for her entire life. I find it even harder to accept that she, like most Moldovan children living in institutions, is the product of pre-independence Soviet Moldova.
Like most Moldovan children in state care, Felicia isn’t an orphan. Rather, she was abandoned at birth by her parents and left in the hands of the state. Wheelchair-bound and a sufferer of Cerebral Palsy, her future looked bleak from the outset.
“I came to Hincesti straight from hospital in 1996 at the age of four. I can still remember how terrified I was. I didn’t want to stay. I could tell they were leaving me and I began to cry. For about four years I felt like that. They would beat us. They didn’t let us change our clothes back then either. They used to shave our heads like boys and I used to cry so much. There was no physio back then, no school. I didn’t even know how to hold a pen in my hand. The situation is completely different now. Under Suzie’s rules and watchful eye, that’s all changed. And also, we all have beautiful, long hair!” Felicia shyly smiles.
And it’s not just their glossy, long hair the girls are proud of. They love to show off their freshly laundered clothes and pearly white decay-free teeth - especially when posing for photographs! Every day, I laughed whole-heartedly with these children as they grabbed my phone to take cheesy “selfies”. Much like my friends and I, they would then sit down to analyse their photos, laughing at their own silly poses and begging me to print copies for their bedroom walls.
It’s the simple things that matter to the Hincesti children. A smile, a hug, an encouraging pat on the back; that human connection and interaction they were denied for decades. They want to feel loved, they crave affection and praise, they want to feel like they are part of a family- even if only for five minutes each day.
I found myself lost in conversation with many of the children over the seven days I spent in Hincesti. With Masa, I laughed about boys; with Alina, I shared hospital stories; with Veronica, I answered a million curious questions about my life in Ireland. For the most part, the girls couldn’t comprehend how I ended up at their Casa, sometimes confusing me for an employed translator, so unusual it is for them to have a native Moldovan come to visit.
My trip coincided with the first week of the Outreach Moldova Summer Volunteer Programme and each day I watched my fellow Irishmen and women interact with my new Moldovan sisters. Language didn’t form any sort of barrier in the bonding process, as hugs, smiles and kisses are international.
Together we sang songs, played games, danced, coloured, went to school lessons and lazed under the summer sun. Special, intimate moments that I will never forget.
Prior to this trip, I had never had much interaction with children with severe physical and mental disabilities; I had never witnessed a child rock to and fro; I had never heard the terrifying screams of a mentally ill patient. By nature, I am sensitive but strong and yet, my first day or two in Hincesti, I battled with my emotions. I was guilty, like most, of seeing the disability before seeing the child. I was afraid of hurting them, of saying naive inappropriate things, of bringing back memories that haunted them. I stuck to safe subjects- the weather, their pretty hair and clothes, what they had for lunch and dinner, what they did in class that morning, if they were tired or happy or in need of water or something to eat. After a few hours in their company, however, my perceptions changed. I noticed their personalities, marvelled at their strength, determination and independence, laughed along with their infectious giggles and fought back tears when I witnessed incredible acts of kindness that made my heart break into a million pieces, knowing their mothers and fathers couldn’t see these things for themselves.
Dr Suzanne O’Connell and the Outreach Moldova team have completely transformed the lives of the children in their care. Through medical, educational and social care programmes they have given hundreds of children a second chance at life. Felicia herself recognizes this too well.
“You have no idea how many children used to die here every year,” she says. “I was so close to death myself on a number of occasions but I’ve been incredibly lucky to be brought back. It must be because God is watching down on us. I can’t even describe to you how bad my legs were before Suzie came into my life.”
“Suzie encouraged me to learn the computer and now I have an ECDL [European Computer Driving Licence] certificate. Masha, Alexandra and I all did it together. I’m happy to know something; to hold some sort of degree.”
“Still, integrating into society is difficult for me," Felicia adds. "When I was doing my course in the village, I would come back here crying. Everyone would point and laugh at me, saying horrible things. I was permanently crying. There was a point when I said I wanted to stop learning. I couldn’t take it. Suzie encouraged me to keep going; to finish my course; to become a stronger person. She believed in me and supported me when not many other people did.”
Dr O’Connell’s strength is something to be admired. To this day, she battles with ignorant native Moldovans stuck in a negative, backward mindset when the topic of children with disabilities arises.
"A young lady from an affluent and well-educated family in the town asked me what these children give back," Suzie tells me. "She said 'Cows give milk and meat. Pigs give pork. Chicken give meat and eggs; but these children, what do they do for the community? Surely if they give nothing then there is no reason for them to live?'"
This revelation both breaks my heart and angers me. Had this lady taken even 10 minutes out of her day to visit the Casa de Copii, located a short drive from her own home, she would understand for herself why Suzie and her team fight every single day to make sure each of these children are given the best of the best; quality medical and social care.
The sad truth is this Moldovan woman is not alone in her thinking, and so Suzie and her staff of 183 employees are every day fighting a losing battle. If the state itself is unsupportive of Suzie’s intentions, how can normal people change their attitudes?
I consider myself truly blessed to have witnessed the incredible work the Outreach Moldova team do, but the frightening reality is that times are tough for the charity. It costs €700,000 per annum to fund the work the charity in both the Hincesti Casa de Copii and the Chisinau baby orphanage, which ORM also supports. More than ever, ORM are in need of funding and donations and it is here I must call to the Irish public to help make a difference. Insufficient funds mean that ORM programmes will have to close down and let go of staff, which, in turn, will affect the welfare of the children. The Moldovan state provides such little funding and support, without Outreach Moldova’s involvement the future of these children is very bleak. They themselves fear the worst and are aware of the reality that the programme could soon come to an end.
“Every year we hear that this programme might be finishing and although I know nothing lasts forever, I can’t get my head around it. It’s my biggest fear,” Felicia tells me. “We try to be strong. Suzie says it’s not going to end but if people are talking, that must mean something. It would be so tough to get used to. It’s a much easier transition from bad to good, than from good to bad. When you go from bad to good, it’s still tough but at least it gets easier as you adjust to the changes.”
“Maybe for other children who don’t understand it’s easier because they can’t be anything but indifferent; but when you understand everything and you know how it was, how it could be and how it will be… that’s the hardest thing of all. If I stayed here and Suzie went away, living conditions would still become more difficult.”
Casa de Copii, as most children’s homes are, is by law required to house children until the age of 18. After that, they are either moved on to an adult institution or released into society, where they find it indescribably difficult to integrate.
“This Casa di Copii is officially for girls up to the age of 18,” Felicia acknowledges. “Growing up I feared getting older because I knew I would be moved on. Suzie told me that wouldn’t happen but even so... I’m 21 now and I know us older ones have Suzie to thank for still being here. I would rather die than move to another orphanage or adult institution. I can only imagine how bad it is in Balti.”
Balti is just one of the state-run adult institutions that the children from Hincesti are sent to upon reaching adulthood. I decided to go and see for myself what Felicia’s future may hold. Accompanied by a local doctor Nina [not her real name], a fellow Irish volunteer, my own mother and our driver Andrian [not his real name], I set off to Balti, bracing myself for the worst.
The driveway leading to the gates of the adult institution was enough of an indication that what I was about to see was a million miles away from that of the Hincesti Casa de Copii. The steep drive up the potholed, rural road was difficult enough for a skilled driver to handle in summer conditions and my thoughts immediately wondered to how anyone could even attempt this same drive in -20 winter weather.
As we drove in the rusty gates of the institution, the sight of dishevelled, dirty, weathered adult men and women choked me up. I wanted to ask Andrian to turn the car around and drive away but knew better than to act so childish.
I feel ashamed to say I felt fearful getting out of the car. I had never seen anything like this in my life. The intimidating grey blocks that house the patients loomed tall, in stark contrast to the beautiful, brilliant white, freshly painted buildings back in Hincesti. I felt like I had arrived in a prison.
Dr Nina, Andrian, my mam and the other Irish volunteer immediately got to work, locating the women who had been discharged from Hincesti who now called this very different institution home. They began distributing shoeboxes left over from the ORM Santa Shoe Box appeal, while I shyly hung around in the background, wary and uncomfortable in my newfound surroundings.
At that moment, Iulia [not her real name] approached me. A patient with a healthy head of fiery red hair, she took my hand, asked me my name, introduced herself and offered me a handful of sweets. She called over her friends and in turn each of them reached out for my hand and began enveloping me in warm hugs. Behind my sunglasses I began to cry. I felt angry at myself for judging them upon my arrival.
Much like the children in Hincesti, the Balti patients want to feel love. They too long for a hug, an encouraging smile, someone to make them feel human. Behind their intimidating exteriors there are warm, caring, thoughtful souls.
Perhaps the most shocking experience of my entire trip to Moldova was the initial footsteps I took inside the blocks housing the men and women. Upon setting foot in the door, I felt like vomiting, as the smell of faeces, sweat and unkempt human bodies hit my nose.
The bleak, cold walls; the dark corridors where women lay unconscious in corners; the grown ladies rocking to and fro in silence; bruised and battered, some wearing hardly any clothes, others wearing so many layers I wondered how their bodies were able to withstand the 40 degree heat. For 10 minutes, the resident carers allowed us inside a room locked behind an iron door, where 40 women walked in circles in a tiny enclosed space. They all rushed to us, begging to be let outside, telling us they had been locked away for various acts of “misbehavior.”
One lady was celebrating her birthday- she couldn’t remember how old she was. I hugged her and held her hand and sang her Multi Ani Traiasca, the Moldovan version of Happy Birthday. When our 10 minutes were up, I felt ashamed to feel relief, grateful to escape this prison I found myself in.
We took the Hincesti women outside and showered them with hugs and kisses and, for the first time in my life, I saw the impact a single shoebox filled with basic necessities could have. One girl began to cry at the sight of a new toothbrush and toothpaste; another was overjoyed with her new notepad and pen.
The other Balti patients looked on silently, but once the boxes had been distributed and van doors closed, they ran over begging us to send them something too. I drew up endless lists of names and requests. One man wanted a sun hat, another a new pair of flip flops, a young woman asked for sanitary towels and her friend a watch so she could tell the time.
I was amazed at how polite these institutionalized patients were. They spoke softly, showed respect and when I finally broke down and cried when the time came to say goodbye, the brushed away my tears and told me: “We don’t cry in Balti, you shouldn’t take everything to heart, Diana.”
The most heart-wrenching thing of all was driving away, knowing these souls will remain long forgotten and that a visitor coming to say hello is the best it could get. I sobbed uncontrollably thinking of the wonderful people I met. Of the man who sang me a love song he composed himself; of the woman, who had offered to pick me a bouquet of flowers; of the young woman who told me of the daily beatings, being injected with tranquilizers that made her shake violently and uncontrollably; of an 81-year-old wheelchair-bound lady who reminded me of my own grandmother and had asked me to send her a present from the heart; of the dozen men and women I saw laying unconscious in their own faeces in the summer heat on the grounds of Balti.
I cried, too, for the former Hincesti patients who desperately wanted to go back to Suzie, for the current Hincesti patients who might one day have no choice but to call Balti home. But most of all, I cried because I felt helpless. In that moment, I so desperately wanted to do something to change their lives and knowing that I was powerless killed me.
There are 585 patients in Balti with just one doctor. The numbers speak for themselves. What the patients didn’t tell me, Dr Nina filled me in on. Stories of sexual abuse and abortions- daily happenings in Balti. And if the whole experience wasn’t shocking as it was, Balti is considered one of the better state-run adult institutions.
It is no wonder Felicia fears for her own future and that of her Hincesti sisters. Having seen the reality, I too find it difficult think of anything else. In Hincesti, the sun shines, there is more laughter and joy than anywhere else I have ever been; in Balti, by comparison, dark storms permanently loom.
I tell you Felicia’s story because we are a similar age but her story is just one of 360 in Hincesti. And she is just one of the tens of thousands of children in state care in the Republic of Moldova.
With the help of Outreach Moldova hundreds of children now know what it feels like to be a part of a family but, without funding and help from NGO’s and outside bodies, the dark stories of the past could become reality once again. Without Dr Suzanne O’Connell and her team, instead of 360 smiling faces in Hincesti Casa de Copii, I could have instead been greeted by 360 headstones.
“I often have dreams that I’m running. I don’t know what it’s going to take to make that a reality but I need to find the motivation; the inspiration,” Felicia tells me. Let us make that our priority: to make not only Felicia’s dreams become a reality; but all the other children's too.
Leaving behind the Casa to return to Ireland was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do but as the Moldovan saying goes, “mai bine o data se vezi, decit de 10 ori sa auzi,” – it’s better to see once than to hear about it 10 times.
In just seven days, I built up a lifetime of memories, the children of Hincesti teaching me and giving me so much more than I could ever give them. My mind is overflowing with wonderful memories from having an impromptu disco with Pasha one Friday afternoon; to seeing Felicia’s determined face as she abandoned her wheelchair and attempted to walk for the first time in years; Rada passionately singing Moldovan songs in class; Gulia tugging at my arm the first time I met her- her way of asking me to hold her; playing wheelchair chasing; dancing the traditional hora; spending time with the severely disabled children in sensory class and watching their eyes light up at the human touch; the constant kindness and being told “I will never forget you”; being unable to walk 10 paces without being hugged and kissed and showered in affection; seeing the hundreds of eyes light up as we surprised the girls with a princess picnic; Dana reciting poems by Moldovan poets which even I couldn’t remember; Alina proudly showing off the Casa’s farmyard animals' Victoria singing Barney’s I Love You, You Love Me in perfect English; hoola hooping with Alexandra.
To look at these children you would never know of the battles they endured just to stay alive. Hepatitis, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, Down syndrome, autism, cardiovascular, neuromotor and genetic conditions, severe intellectual disabilities and so much more. Inside the grounds of Hincesti there is so much beauty, so much joy, so might light – it breaks my heart to think that all this could be history without continued support.
To make a donation to Outreach Moldova, see