Moira Kelly has been a one-woman United Nations for much of her life. High-profile for the children she has brought to Australia for life changing, and saving, surgery CHARMAYNE ALLISON found the work that led her to that mission is a story of dedication, despair and, above all else, hope.
MOIRA Kelly’s life is all about hope, about never giving up on hope even if you are knee deep in the worst possible conditions.
Because that’s where she has been – the slums of Calcutta, Romanian orphanages and the soup kitchens of Johannesburg’s squatter camps.
Hope was her faint spark of light while she cradled crack-addicted babies in The Bronx and the limp bodies of children torn apart by land mines during the Bosnian War.
And it was her lifeline as she sat in a hospital, waiting anxiously to hear whether her adopted daughters – cranially conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna – had been successfully separated.
Looking back over her 54 years, it’s no wonder Moira – global humanitarian and Order of Australia medallist – is often at a loss for words when asked to describe all she’s seen and heard.
From cities scarred by war and genocide to towns whittled away by poverty and starvation, all places hope seems to have abandoned.
But the places Moira returns to.
Because she firmly believes when all else is gone, hope remains.
And Moira has spent much of her life hoping to achieve positive outcomes for as many people as she can – and then doing it.
Growing up in Carlton, across the road from a school for children with disabilities, Moira would often drop by, first watching and then, increasingly, hopping over the fence to lend a hand.
As a seven-year-old Moira saw a video about Mother Teresa at school and spellbound by the little nun’s work sprinted home, announcing to her stunned mother that one day she too would work with the inspirational humanitarian in Calcutta.
“Back then, we had no Facebook, we were very sheltered,” she said.
“But living across the road from that school and learning about Mother Teresa, I began to develop a real sense of empathy and realised there were people in the world who didn’t live like me.
“Most of all, I was inspired by the people who actually cared.
“I felt I was wasting my time and should be over there helping.”
Nothing could stop this go-getter and by the time she was 13, Moira was working with children with disabilities.
After completing year 10 she studied special education and spent a year working with Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.
And finally, at 18, she sold her car and bought a one-way ticket to Calcutta.
“Because I was a bit of a talker, my family hadn’t taken much notice of my declarations I’d go to Calcutta,” she said.
“So when they were dropping me off at the airport my brothers said to my parents, ‘You’re not really going to let her go?’ They were so shocked I was actually doing it.
“And I was so surprised, because I’d been telling them I’d go since I was seven.”
Moira was devastated to arrive at Mother Teresa’s mission to discover her lifelong hero wasn’t there.
“She was overseas at the time,” Moira said.
“But she eventually came back, to my relief. I bumped into her several times while I was there. She had a wonderful presence – and a great sense of humour.”
After working at Mother Teresa’s orphanage for several years, Moira moved to Johannesburg, helping a group of nuns bring aid to the destitute townships and squatter camps on the fringes of the city.
She then responded to desperate need in New York’s Bronx, spending her mornings caring for fragile crack-addicted babies at a boarder nursery and her afternoons working at a homeless shelter.
“It was the early ’90s and there was a serious crack epidemic in New York,” she said.
“The babies had no homes, so they’d board at the nursery. I was among women, mostly grandmothers, who would feed them and hold them. They just needed to be held.”
After working at orphanages in Romania for two years, Moira travelled to Bosnia.
Even now, decades on, she struggles to describe what she witnessed at the height of the independence wars as the state of Yugoslavia broke up.
Bosnia’s bid for sovereignty was being torn apart by civil war as centuries of religious and nationalist rivalry exploded amongst the small nation’s Serb, Croat, Orthodox and Muslim populations.
The most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of World War II, it was characterised by the indiscriminate shelling of towns and cities, ethnic cleansing on an epic scale and systematic mass rape.
“I saw things there that are too sad for the ears to hear,” she said, her voice dropping to a murmur.
“They haunt me to this day. I’ve barely even talked to family about it.
“But in all this evilness, there was so much goodness as well.”
While there, Moira founded Nobody’s Children, a volunteer organisation offering aid and welfare programs to refugee camps.
But it was after meeting Dani, a Bosnian Muslim boy horrifically injured by war, that Moira’s new mission was born.
“He’d stepped on a land mine in Sarajevo and had his foot blown off,” she said.
“The doctors there had to amputate the leg, but they had no anaesthesia, so they cut it off while he was still conscious.
“And this wasn’t unusual, it happened often. It was horrific; these poor little children went through so much trauma.”
So affected by the tragedy, and bravery, in this little boy’s life and touched by spending time with him and his desperate mother, Moira organised for Dani to be evacuated to the US, where he received a prosthetic foot.
“He also had severely rotted teeth from years of decay, so we then went to Chicago and had all his teeth fixed in theatre,” she said.
“When he woke up, I was crying my head off. I said, ‘Dani, your dreams have come true, your teeth have been fixed’.
“At first Dani couldn’t understand what was going on, but when he did he was so excited – to him, his new teeth were even more wonderful than his new prosthetic.”
Dani would prove the catalyst for Moira’s self-funded medical evacuation of children for life-saving and life-altering operations.
Since Dani she has evacuated hundreds of children from Bosnia and Albania, armed only with her laptop and the support of friends, family, surgeons and volunteers from across the globe.
Finally, after what has seemed a lifetime of travel, of caring and suffering the pain of the many people with whom she has worked, Moira came home.
But not to rest.
She took her work a step further and established the Children’s First Foundation, a not-for-profit transporting children with serious health problems to Australia.
To date, the foundation has seen more than 350 children treated for critical conditions.
Until finally she completed her life journey with motherhood.
In 1998, visiting the Mother Teresa Orphanage in Baghdad, she met brothers Emmanuel and Ahmed, both born with severely underdeveloped limbs due to chemical warfare.
The boys were in serious need of medical care, dragging themselves around on their bottoms.
After a two-year struggle, Moira brought them back to Australia for treatment and then adopted them.
The brothers have since flourished – Ahmed, a world record-holding Paralympian swimmer is studying to be a sports journalist. And Emmanuel, an X-Factor star, has a blossoming music career.
In 2007, two more were added to the Kelly clan when Moira brought cranially conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna over from Bangladesh.
The babies were in a fragile state, months – even weeks – away from death.
To many, the situation looked hopeless.
But once again, hope prevailed.
And two years later, Moira found herself in the Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital, waiting anxiously – along with millions from across the nation – to hear whether her girls had been successfully separated.
It was a marathon 38-hour operation, with a 16-member team working meticulously to separate the brain and skull tissue fusing the twins together.
Looking back, Moira said those 38 hours – and the two years of intensive care that followed – were a blur.
“It was one of the scariest times of my life; I had to be super vigilant at all times. But I just held on. It was a horrific journey,” she said.
“But the girls are now 10-years-old and thriving. Trishy’s in grade 5 and plays tennis and soccer and sings in the choir at school.
“Krishna has some challenging medical issues still, but she’s progressing.”
As if motherhood wasn’t enough, Moira found time to set up the Moira Kelly Creating Hope Foundation, providing support for children and displaced women from Australia and abroad.
Her one stipulation: taking on causes everybody else had rejected.
“We manage a home in inner suburban Melbourne where children and families in need are housed and provided with medical care and support,” Moira said.
“We’re all volunteers and rely on donations.”
And now, Moira is looking to her next humanitarian effort, Global Gardens of Peace – a lush garden offering an oasis for people living in the Gaza Strip.
She has already secured 20ha for the project and top architects from the Victorian Botanical Garden have spent the past year designing it.
“I’ve had a dream to build it ever since I drove through the region several years ago and saw a cemetery there for Australian, New Zealand and British war graves,” she said.
“It was the most beautiful place in Gaza, the only place where trees and grass grew. And I thought if we can do that for the dead, why can’t we do that for the living?”
The garden, which will be a gift from Australia to Gaza, has become a part of the United Nations development program and is currently garnering further funding.
In her 54 years, Moira has seen incredible joy – and indescribable grief.
But said she refused to give up as long as even a shred of hope remained.
“There have been dark times, and we could always walk away or turn a blind eye,” she said.
“But there are always other people worse off than us and we have the passport, the freedom, the healthcare to reach out and help. A lot of people don’t have what we have.
“It’s sad that people think what I’m doing is extraordinary. Because I believe it should just be ordinary to help people in need.”
Moira Kelly will be sharing at the upcoming Murray Business Network event on Wednesday, August 22 from 5.45pm at Moama Bowling Club.
The event is free to MBN members and $95 for non-members.
Dinner is provided, with drinks at bar prices.
Tickets sales and reservations close Friday, August 17.
For tickets visit mbn.org.au