How the women of Ireland saved the children of another small divided country

What do the Land League leader Michael Davitt and a young Dublin-born medical doctor, Suzanne O’Connell, have in common? The answer lies in Europe’s poorest and probably least-known country, Moldova.

For at either end of the 20th century these two Irish people played small but significant roles in the welfare of that tiny landlocked country of just under four million people between Romania and Ukraine. In 1903 Davitt, then coming to the end of his extraordinarily eventful life as an agrarian and socialist agitator and nationalist parliamentarian, was working as a journalist for US newspapers, and came to Kishinev – then capital of the Russian province of Bessarabia – to report on the first major anti-Jewish pogrom of the 20th century, in which 50 people were killed and more than 500 injured. The episode featured in his book Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia, which is still in print 110 years later.

Dr Suzanne O’Connell’’s story is almost as unusual. 13 years ago she was studying for her fourth year medical exams at Trinity College Dublin when she took a break to watch a BBC television documentary called Convoy to the Dying Rooms. This told the story of a group of Northern Irish volunteers taking a convoy of humanitarian aid to a girls’ orphanage outside the town of Hincesti, near the Moldovan capital, now called by its Romanian name, Chisinau.

What they discovered was a hellish place where mentally and intellectually disabled girls were sent to die: there were 50-60 deaths every year in an orphanage with 192 residents. There was no doctor and no nurses. The heating in midwinter was broken. Children were being operated on without anaesthetic and then returned to filthy, faeces-sodden cots.

Suzanne experienced a life-changing epiphany. Two months later she was on her way to Moldova along with nine Northern Irish builders and two other TCD medical students. She returned determined to take a year out of her studies and do what she could to help the orphaned and abandoned girls of Hincesti.

That autumn she was back in Moldova. She persuaded (this is a young woman of enormous persuasive powers) a team of local specialists – neurologists, cardiologists, orthopaedic surgeons  – to come in and examine the girls. She came home and organised – along with her mother and father, a senior administrative officer at TCD – an appeal throughout Trinity for clothing, educational materials, toys and medical supplies: she ended up with six warehouses full of ‘stuff’.

That was only the beginning: from the tiny acorn of a shocking television documentary and the determination and drive of a 28-year-old medical student, grew the strong tree of a new Irish charity called Outreach Moldova. In the past 13 years 1,800 volunteers from Ireland – builders, doctors and nurses, teachers, child care workers and just  plain ordinary folk – have helped to transform the Hincesti orphanage into a haven of loving and professional care in the Moldovan countryside. Many are long-term  volunteers – remarkable women like Liz O’Leary from Cork, Mercy Fleming from Tralee, Linda Walsh from Limerick, Clare Fitzsimons from Cavan and Orla O’Connell from Naas – who have been coming every summer for 10 years and more, and staying for up to 20 weeks annually.

The Irish influence is palpable. It is uncanny to wake up – as I did this summer – from an afternoon nap in the volunteer quarters to hear a chorus of ‘Ireland’s Call’ outside the window; or watch a group of teenage girls in the purple and gold of the Wexford GAA team line up for a photo; or sit in on a superb entertainment of Irish and hip-hop dancing – including laughing girls in wheelchairs – put on by residents under the baton of national teachers from Tallaght and Ashbourne.

However, it is even more extraordinary to witness the care and loving kindness of the Moldovan doctors, nurses and ‘nanas’ – there are now 251 staff (including 18 doctors) for the 351 resident girls and young women in their very difficult and often painful lives . Because in the Hincesti home there are girls with a daunting range of medical conditions: in the palliation unit I met a tiny 14-year-old with a severe intellectual disability, cranio-facial defects, respiratory and gastrointestinal tract disorders, and gross deformity of her skeletal system –and she was smiling!

The challenges to Suzanne O’Connell  –  now married with a family in Moldova – and her team remain huge. Outreach Moldova needs over €500,000 per year just to keep going, a very small sum to cover its extremely onerous workload (which includes work with a baby orphanage in  Chisinau). But times are hard:  annual fund-raising dinners in Trinity College which used to raise €250,000 at the height of the Celtic Tiger, now raise much less than €50,000.

Moldova is a small country with a history of invasion, hunger and division that should strike a chord of solidarity in every Irish heart. As recently as the late 1940s 216,000 people died in a famine there brought about by drought and requisitions imposed by the Soviet Union, and after a short war in the early 1990s it  has a partitioned province which is still largely run by the Russians. If anybody would like to help a remarkable Dublin-based charity working in the poorest country in Europe, there is plenty of information available on Outreach Moldova’s website at www.outreachmoldova.org

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