FOR Anna Gabriel, life has been a remarkable journey. She spent her first three years in a large, bleak orphanage in Belarus where she had been abandoned.
However, she found salvation as part of the Irish efforts to help children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. Anna became the first child to be adopted in Ireland as part of a joint Irish-Belarusian adoption agreement in 1998 and Ali Hewson, Bono’s wife, and Adi Roche were her godmothers.
Now 28, Anna has been conferred as a Member of Accounting Technicians Ireland, after receiving her accountancy diploma.
It was a proud day for her and her parents, Helen and Robert, who she met in 1996 and who took under her under their wing in Bandon.
Anna works for the Cattle Breeding Federation in Lauragh, near Bandon, and said: “I’m treated just the same as everybody else.”
It’s a remarkable arc for the brave woman, who overcame multiple health complications and physical disabilities, including legs that had not developed normally.
She studied for three years at CIT at night after achieving her diploma in Business Administration. “Yes, it was a big commitment,” says Anna. “But when you’re in it, you’re in it. I was encouraged and supported by my family and everyone at work.
“When I was thinking about a career, I visualised the world of a nurse or a garda, but realistically it had to be an office job and 9 to 5 hours. It had to be practical.
“I always had a flair for maths and technology; accountancy became my career. When I graduated, my parents were as proud as punch.”
There aren’t enough hours in the day for Anna, who loves to swim, sail, socialise and dance. She loves hanging out with friends for coffee and dancing and spending time with her boyfriend, Derek. “I love the beach and the freedom of the water,” she adds.
Her favourite occupation is driving. “When I started driving, I loved spinning around with my friends,” says Anna. “I’m always the first to volunteer if a driver is required for any trip.
“One Saturday night when my parents were out, we drove to Dublin, got a MacDonald’s, and came home again! When my parents came back, they asked had we done anything for the evening. They couldn’t believe I had driven up and down to Dublin! Dad loves telling that story.”
After a tough start in life, before her fourth birthday, Chernobyl Children International set to work to bring Anna to Ireland.
“I had never seen daylight, never seen rain,” she says. “I never had hot food or hot water.
“I was officially classed as a ‘reject’ child, being committed to a mental asylum at four years old. I would be dead only for Adi Roche. She plucked me out of misery just in time to give me the best life I could ever have.”
“I came to Ireland in the arms of Adi Roche,” adds Anna. “She put me on a plane travelling with a medical visa.
“From day one, my parents wanted me. They wanted to adopt a little girl. In my photo I was smiling and from the beginning I responded to affection. When I started primary school in 1998, my adoption was finalised after a long legal battle. Both my parents had to go to court to say why they wanted me. They say they are lucky to have me. I say, I’m lucky to have them.”
The Gabriels wanted Anna very much. She fitted into the third slot of four girls, the others being Maria, Rosemary and Clodagh.
“I have one younger sister,” says Anna. “Clodagh is a year and a half younger than me. We all shared everything growing up, including our Barbie dolls. We fought a lot over clothes, the remote control and occupation of the bathroom, like all sisters. Whenever I tripped over the dog, they’d call out ‘Mind the dog!’”
Anna doesn’t trip up much any more. When she was 13, a Dutch surgeon, Andries de Bont, operating in the Orthopaedic Hospital in Cork, fitted her with artificial legs.
“He introduced a world I thought couldn’t exist for me,” says Anna. “When I stared secondary school in Bandon, I started comparing myself to the other girls. They were all taller than me, and had different shapes. My top half grew, but not the bottom half. It was difficult to carry my body weight around. I used a wheelchair but didn’t want to be reliant on it. It was alright for open spaces.”
Anna went out into the world standing on her own two feet. “There were loads of appointments with Dr de Bont,” she says. “The logistics of creating new legs for me were huge. He worked around my own limbs, so there was no amputation. Learning to walk and balance, took time. It was sore in the beginning. I had to re-think my artificial legs with the rest of my body.
“I used crutches, which felt like walking on stilts! I was described as a heavy user. I practised hard and I went a little further every day until I got comfortable. My legs were like putting on pants in the morning, wearing them for 18 hours a day. One day I looked in the mirror and I thought; you’re tall!”
Anna’s legs gave her more than height.
“They gave me determination,” she says. “Dad got me driving lessons with a local driving instructor. Soon I was sorted with my own car. I’m the first to put my hand up if we are driving anywhere. I love it. I drove into college every day, and I drive to work every day. Travel and discovering new places is big for me. For my 21st, I went to visit the Grand Canyon.”
Anna never saw any barriers. She overcame the language barrier as a young child, even though she was born without ear canals, so she couldn’t hear.
“I spoke gibberish and baby talk at first,” she says. “Then a mixture of English and Russian. When I interacted with people and watched TV, I picked up English fairly quickly.
“Before I started school, I was fitted with a special head-band called a bone-conductor, which allowed me to hear.”
Did she ever allow herself to think about her home country or her birth mother?
“Chernobyl wasn’t on my radar ever,” says Anna. “But when I was 21, Adi located my file in the HQ in Belarus. My mother happened to live in the same house, which is unusual.
“Adi made enquiries on my behalf and when she met my mother with a translator, she told her that her baby she had given up more than 20 years ago was very much alive. My mother had no clue and she was in shock.”
Was Anna in shock when she met her birth mother? “I met her at Cork Airport,” she says. “It was a hot summer’s day in July. My heart was racing, I didn’t know what to expect. She was embarrassed and apologetic. I threw my arms around her and said it was OK. She was relieved.
“She came with a translator and they stayed in Kinsale for a week. I showed her my school, my college and my town. I showed her my personality and who I am.”
Anna was able to show her birth mother how happy she was.
“I had an amazing upbringing,” she says. “When my dad went over on a convoy to Belarus after I was adopted and saw the orphanage, he said it was like a dull, dreary prison. The director told him she used to trick the children by not opening the curtains from Friday to Sunday morning. They thought it was just a very long night. There was enough food for six days, but not seven.”
Anna was one of the lucky ones. “If I hadn’t come to live here, I would never be able to enjoy all the things I do on a daily basis.”
She regularly meets her famous godmothers.
Adi is my second godmother, my Mother Teresa. Ali never forgets my birthday, and when we get tickets to U2 concerts, my Dad and I go backstage to meet Bono and the family.”
Anna is a bit of a celebrity herself. She smiles.
“I met Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show in 2016, the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster. I spoke this year at the Chernobyl Children’s International lunch in Dublin, attended by lots of celebrities. Speaking in front of 320 people was a bit daunting. It was great when I got a standing ovation afterwards.”
But at home and at work, she’s just Anna, the bubbly, fun-loving girl who will drive to the moon and back. She walks tall and talks the talk.
“I probably talk too fast!” she says laughing.
“You know, I never felt adopted. The last 26 years may as well be my life.”
Chernobyl Children International was founded by Adi Roche in 1991. Email firstname.lastname@example.org