Debbie Deegan awarded the ‘Order Of Friendship’ medal from Vladimir Putin

I met Debbie Deegan, the founder of the charity: ‘To Children With Love’ the day after she had been awarded the ‘Order of Friendship’ by the Russian President Vladimir Putin (4.11.18). She was exuberant about the whole experience, but also very aware of the difficulties that her charity faces in the present situation. Here are some excerpts from her interview.

Interview by John Harrison

You have just been awarded the Order of Friendship by the Russian President. How did this come about?

It came about after 20 years of hard work! I suspect the Russian embassy in Ireland had something to do with this, and a very close Russian friend wrote to the Kremlin about 5 years ago, so I came to the attention of somebody. It’s been an amazing journey along the way. There was a run-up, in a way, to this award. Last year, the Russians invited me to talk at a conference in Sochi, at an international forum for students. There were 100,000 students from all round the world there. I’d never been to Sochi before, and I was on the stage talking to all these young minds – university age, it’s the right time to catch kids really, and they gave me the subject I was to discuss. And the subject was: ‘there is no success without kindness’. I absolutely loved this.

Then I was invited to St. Petersburg two months ago by Valentina Matvienko to talk at a conference on women’s issues. They were addressing the fact that social change is needed. I received an award for my work in this area. There were 2000 women at the conference from all over the world, from 120 countries, it was like an EU delegation, Iran was on my right, India was on my left. President Putin came in and made a speech unexpectedly, he took the room by storm and said: look, there are not enough women entrepreneurs, there is not enough money behind young women who have great ideas, child care is too expensive, we need to do something about it, so that women can go back to work. His speech was real and he meant it. If he didn’t, I’m going to write to him in a year’s time! In the middle of the conference they had a video link up with American and Russian cosmonauts from space – speaking about breaking down boundaries and reaching to the stars; it was mind boggling.

At the end of that, as I was leaving, Matvienko contacted me and said you’ll have to cancel your travel plans because you have just been awarded one of 12 prizes for women who have made the greatest social change internationally. One of them was a Russian astronaut, another a brilliant violin player from China, a female scientist from Germany, Russia’s oldest female scientist who’s 84, a beautiful Japanese girl from the Pushkin society… Again, we were in an elaborate room, but I didn’t feel that I was on the same platform as those other people. Valentina Matvienko got up on the stage and asked us to make speeches about our lives in Russia, and we received green malachite cups which were very heavy. Mine is now sitting firmly on my mother’s wall and it was really such an unbelievable honour.

A week later, I was driving my car and I saw my phone ringing. A man from the Russian embassy was on the line and he said please, if you are driving, pull over. He said that the Kremlin has just been on, and you have been awarded the ‘Order Of Friendship’. He said the award ceremony is next week. I said I can’t go because it is my daughter’s wedding. He said: Oh, No, you HAVE to go. The only way I could do it was to attend the wedding and travel through the night to Moscow, and then straight to the Kremlin. I think the St. Petersburg award was a stepping stone to this.

We were given a beautiful helper who was allocated to us and met us at the airport. We were driven to the President Hotel – very posh; you have to be a guest of the President to be there. I had a spectacular view of the river, it was quite overwhelming. Then we were out of the door, and there was a line-up of BMWs and men standing waiting, and I asked: Is this for us? We went through the city in a convoy with blue lights flashing, and into the Kremlin. We walked a little way, it was autumn, absolutely beautiful with autumn leaves, fabulous. I have a friend who made me a coat 20 years ago, and I wore his coat because I wanted his coat to be in the Kremlin. So I had that on me. We went up this staircase which was carpeted in red and gold, with chandeliers, just exquisite, and those soldiers dressed in ceremonial uniforms completed the effect. We were then ushered into a room with double gold doors that the Wizard of Oz would have envied! I was brought up to the front table. I thought OK, I’ll be sitting with the four medal winners, and they are bound to be nice people. Then I saw that to the left of me was the Patriarch. I am not religious at all, I’m the complete opposite. But actually, he was so easy to talk to; a gentle, kind, big warm bear of a man. On my right the place was empty. I’m thinking, I’m praying – Please God, don’t let that be the President! I thought it’s OK, of course he won’t come and sit at our table and eat with us!

Then two men come over and say that the President will be sitting beside you. I thought – what am I going to talk to him about? They said – well maybe foreign policy? I said – I don’t know anything about foreign policy! Anyway, he came in to huge applause and violin playing, and the emotions were high, and he called up the four of us and I went up and I made my speech, and I spoke about my love of Russia.

He was really nice to me, I told him that I was in Sochi last year and I stole 3 hours and went to Krasnaya Polyana, which is a beautiful place and stood on top of Rosa Khutor, which is this beautiful mountain, which is spectacular. There are about 7 cable cars up to it, and it was kind of a moment for me last November. My realisation was that we all need to be doing more for the world.

I invited him on a fishing trip, and he was nodding and smiling, he’s at these functions all the time. He was incredibly friendly, he spoke in English and there was an interpreter behind us, who came in when needed. We chatted for an hour and a half. He was genuinely warm and thankful to me for working with orphan children.

 

Does getting this medal mean that the Russian authorities formally recognise that they need help?

I’m not sure that it means that, but I appreciate receiving this award for our work in Russia over the last 20 years.

Is your charity able to help with the new Russian policy towards orphanages here?

I would be delighted if the charity could give insight from our Irish experience – it has been about 50 years since there were orphanages in Ireland and there were many mistakes made along the way for example in the fostering and adoption systems here. Ireland is still paying the price for these systems.

If anyone would like to offer help to our charity, please contact info@tochildrenwithlove.ie

 

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