Bandon-based Anna feels lucky to have escaped area stricken by 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster
YEARS ago she was one of Chernobyl's forgotten children - but now she stands alongside national figures like her godmother Ali Hewson, wife of U2 singer Bono, and campaigner Adi Roche as a flag-bearer for the long-running Irish rescue mission to Belarus.
Second-level student Anna Gabriel was one of the first two children to be adopted and brought to Ireland in 1996 following the Chernobyl disaster as part of a joint Irish-Belarusian adoption agreement.
She spoke this week of how lucky she feels to have escaped the stricken region as a programme of events was launched to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster. 'I feel very happy that Adi found me. It's hard to believe I was there before I came here - I have made friends and I have a social life,' says the teenager, who plans to study business and computers in college.
'Children over there wouldn't have the same opportunities,' says Anna, from Innishannon Road, Bandon.
The 18-year-old, currently studying for her Leaving Certificate at the town's Coláiste na Toirbhirte, was found at the age of three and a half in a home for abandoned babies in Belarus, suffering from a number of problems - her legs had failed to develop correctly, while she also had hearing loss and a missing kidney.
Once Anna reached Ireland, she was taken in by the Gabriel family in Bandon: 'I was in a wheelchair when I came to Ireland. I came out of the wheelchair at the age of 13 and I was on crutches for a while. I have two prostheses, so I walk without the crutches most of the time now.'
She's been very lucky, she says:
'Children over there at my age would have had different complications - heart or brain problems and they would possibly not get the same level of treatment I have received here in Ireland.'
Not to forget
She stays in touch with what's happening in Belarus and urges Irish people not to forget the unfortunate ones who were left behind: 'It's 25 years later and there are still complications and problems there. I read the newspaper about it and I check the internet or ask Adi Roche. I know some of the children there - they've come over to Ireland for a holiday and I got to know them.'
She hopes that the legendary generosity of the Irish people to the devastated people of Belarus will continue, despite the gruelling recession. 'Irish people are so generous to Belarussian children, inviting them over for the holidays, getting them clothes and medical treatment - it's a huge thing for these children. They have so little - they don't have many clothes or many toys and I hope the Irish people will continue to be generous. The smallest thing brings happiness to a child's life.
She might visit Belarus some day: 'I have no memories of it at all. I'd be interested to see whether a visit back would bring back any memories.'
For the moment though, she is perfectly happy to stay in Ireland. With the Leaving Cert coming down the track very quickly, there's a lot to do, so she doesn't get to see her famous godmother regularly: 'It's hard to catch up with Ali. She is always travelling and I'm doing my Leaving Cert.
'We usually try to catch up on the holidays, but when I'm in school she can be in different countries. When we do meet up, there's always a lot of gossip to catch up with.'
'I am so happy to be here. My health wouldn't be as good as it is now if I was still living there,' she stated.
To mental homes
She's glad she was taken out of the orphanage, adding that many children were routinely transferred from the orphanages to mental homes once they reached the age of four. 'They were unwanted and they were put into these asylums - you could still be in there at the age of 18.'
Explosions and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26th, 1986 sent a plume of highly radioactive smoke into the atmosphere and throughout a wide geographical area. Since then, thousands of cancer cases and myriad health problems have been linked to the accident.
It's believed that up to 80% of children in the region are affected by the fallout from the accident, which has been linked to a wide range of problems, from the breakdown of the immune system to serious heart defects known as 'Chernobyl heart.'The Chernobyl Children International organisation, which has already raised more than €90m in aid, has called on the Irish public to donate €25 to help care for those still dealing with the fallout from the accident.
This Thursday, April 21st, President McAleese will host a special commemoration of the disaster at Farmleigh House to honour 25 volunteers for their work, while CII is expected to attend a top-level briefing with government representatives on the date of the Chernobyl anniversary in Iveagh House on Tuesday next, 26th.
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