Ileana Cunniffe, from Attymon in Athenry, is one of more than 1,000 Romanian children adopted by Irish families in the aftermath of the Romanian revolution of 1989. The event spelt the end of the harsh regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and appeared to promise a brighter future for the people of the country.
However, the despotic reign of Ceausescu left a tragic legacy. Orphanages became overrun due to the dictator’s policy of banning abortions and contraception, while encouraging women to have at least four or five children. Most could not afford to keep their children, and orphanages were unable to adequately care for those placed there.
After the revolution the issue was highlighted by media outlets around the world, and thousands of families rushed to adopt the children at risk. According to a recent documentary aired in Romania, the number of orphans is still a serious problem for the country today.
Despite enjoying her upbringing in Ireland, the plight of Romania’s orphans has always remained close to Ileana Cunniffe’s heart. Last year, she came across of a group of mature students from NUI Galway, The Galway Brasov Group, who were carrying out fundraising in aid of Romania’s abandoned children. Ileana decided instantly to take part and help out as much as possible.
“I was completely overwhelmed by the hard work and commitment these students were putting into this,” she says. “When my work came to an end with them, I decided to carry on myself as there is no end to what can be done for these children. At the end of January this year, I created a Facebook page called The Never Forgotten Romanian Children.”
In a short space of time Ileana’s Facebook page reached 2,000 followers. It was quickly discovered by a young Romanian man in search of his adopted brother in Ireland. Ileana offered to take on this search and some time later she located the man’s brother. Since then she has got more than 100 of the same requests from all over the world.
“So far, 122 adoptees have requested my help with their search. Each one of them had a unique and beautiful journey since they were adopted at an early age, but all of them are in a desperate search for the same thing: their biological family. Up to this moment, I have managed to reunite 20 families.
“Making these reunions possible, words can barely describe the emotions, particularly when I tell people I have found their family. The reactions are overwhelming. The strongest emotions take over. In Ireland, six adoptees have requested my help, and I have managed to reunite two of them with their biological families.”
Ileana also takes part in numerous fundraising initiatives to raise money for Romanian children: “Last summer, we organised a cake sale and ice cream day at the Killimordaly Community Hall and playground. With the wonderful help and support of Kiltullagh/Killimordaly parish and surrounding areas, a significant amount of money was raised.
“The money was put towards maintenance at a Romanian orphanage in Brasov. The 1990s horror orphanages have disappeared, but tragedies have not ended. Today, there are more than 60,000 orphans abandoned in the system, and these statistics do not include the unknown number of street children. Unfortunately, at present, international adoption from Romania remains closed.”
Ileana’s drive has not stopped there: “I am currently getting a lot of help with these searches from the Romanian press and major TV stations. I’m working with a major TV show called Magic Moments which is starting in September on Romania’s biggest TV station, Pro TV.
“I’m required to bring on the live show as many Romanian adoptees as possible, to share their stories, their journeys, and that magic moment when they are reunited with their families after more than two decades. In return, the show is making a significant donation to the new project I’m working on at present: the building of a small playground in a very poor area where up to 500 children will benefit.”
Locally, Ileana has organised a Family Fun Day at the Raheen Woods Hotel, Athenry, on August 2. The day will be a fun packed three hours of activities for the entire family, including party games, a children’s disco, ice-cream, refreshments, face painting, arts and crafts, a book sale, bouncy castle, Lego building, and a treasure hunt.
A number of prizes will be on offer for the best artist and best Lego builder, as well as a number of fun guessing games. Admission per family costs €5. All the proceeds go towards carrying out more projects to improve the lives of poor Romanian children.
Family Fun Day takes place on Sunday August 2 at the Raheen Woods Hotel, Athenry, from 2pm to 5pm. If you would like to contact Ileana you can do so via the Facebook page ‘The Never Forgotten Rommanian Children’. Alternatively, text or call 087 3434 274 for details.