After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Anna Gabriel (25) was adopted by an Irish family in Bandon following a long legal battle
Living life to the full: Anna Gabriel pictured at her home in Bandon, Co Cork. Photo: Clare Keogh
I was a day old when my birth family put me up for adoption. I was born in Belarus and because of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl 32 years ago, I was born with many medical difficulties.
I have one kidney, 12 fingers and my legs were very deformed – because of that I was put in the orphanage. I spent my first three and a half years there. I’ve been told since that if I hadn’t got out before I was four years old, I would have been put in an asylum home.
It was all thanks to Adi Roche and Chernobyl Children International (CCI) that I got out. She brought me to Ireland on a medical visa. I have no memory of my time in the orphanage. I arrived in Ireland in January 1986 on a flight into Shannon where the Gabriel family from Bandon, Co Cork, took me in.
My family said they were not sending me back and they started a long legal battle to adopt me. My parents Robert and Helen had to fight so hard. I don’t know where I’d be without them.
I have three sisters Marian (32), Rose-Mary (29) and Clodagh (24). I’ll be 26 in June. I’m so busy living my life and focusing on where I am now that I don’t keep looking back. I take each day as it comes and focus on what makes me happy.
I’m surrounded by people I love. I don’t think about the ‘what ifs’ too much because you could drive yourself mad.
My family has always been very open with me about my birth family. They always told me not to be afraid to talk about it. They were always so loving and they gave me so much affection. My sisters were always sensitive to me – I’ve always had so much support. My sisters would describe me as loud and say I never stop chatting.
When I first came to Ireland I wasn’t able to hear, so I couldn’t speak. I had a special hearing conductor fitted – a brilliant device that allows me to hear everything. I can even hear the grass growing! That turned my life around as it meant I could go to school. I very quickly learned English and I haven’t stopped talking since.
Both my legs were deformed. At the age of 13 I met an orthopaedic doctor and he introduced me to artificial legs. I went through lots of different appointments and I got two artificial legs. It was a case of learning to walk all over again and for the first time I was as tall as everyone else and could look my friends in the eyes.
Now I get up in the morning and I put on my artificial legs and they don’t come off until 10pm at night. I need to go back and get new legs every two or three years.
I’ve six fingers on each hand – I’ve always felt it’s a bonus. I’ve had a few people looking at me but I explain to them why. They are fascinated and I’ve never had a negative reaction.
People can’t believe my background or my achievements. I’ve never let anything block my way – I’ve always been very determined. That’s the way life is.
I’m working as an accounting technician with the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) in Bandon. I graduated with a business administration degree from Cork Institute of Technology last year and I did my placement with the ICBF. They offered me a full-time job after that. I was recently conferred as a member of Accounting Technicians Ireland and was honoured at their annual dinner earlier this year when I received a standing ovation for telling of all my experiences.
I have tracked down my birth mother and I got to meet her with the help of Chernobyl Children International. I was 19 at the time. She travelled to Ireland and stayed for a week with a translator. It was amazing.
I met her at the airport and she came up to me. Her hands were close to her chest and she was bawling. Even though there was a language barrier, I could see the sadness in her eyes. She saw the baby she had given up. I threw my arms around her and said, ‘It’s okay’. I told her I understood why she gave me up.
That week we got to bond with one another and ask one another questions. I got to show her around where I went to school and where I was in college at the time. I was able to drive her around. She could see for herself what my life in Bandon was like.
We keep in touch with Christmas cards and birthday cards. There’s always going to be a language barrier. She told me her pregnancy with me was perfect and there were no problems. It was only when I was born and the doctors saw the deformities that they automatically put me in an orphanage. My birth parents didn’t have the money or the resources to look after me.
I’ve always thrived in school and in college and now in work. Of course I have my ups and downs, but my friends and family and my boyfriend Derek support me through it all.
I think if you focus on the future you forget to enjoy the present moment. That’s the way I’ve always been. I love travelling and socialising with my friends and chilling at home.
I can’t thank Chernobyl Children International enough. I’m very honoured to have Ali Hewson as my godmother. Ali has always been there for me. She is so generous and kind and she never forgets my birthday. When U2 play in Dublin Ali always provides me with tickets.
I would be dead today only for Adi Roche, who plucked me out of misery just in time. Growing up with my family, they gave me positivity from day one. They are amazing. They are ridiculously amazing and they’ve supported me through anything and everything.