PERCHED on a stool in the comfort of her New Town restaurant’s wine bar, twinkling glass lights overhead and a dramatic wall of wine bottles to her side, Virginie Brouard could hardly be further away from the heartbreak and horror she’s just witnessed.
Three weeks spent helping out at an orphanage in Ethiopia have left her with vivid, deeply upsetting memories – the two little brothers keeping vigil by their dying mother’s side; the man lying in his sick bed with feet chewed away by rats; the gut-churning stench from the infected wounds of women ripped open by childbirth and the heart-breaking rows of street children huddled together for warmth, with skinny bodies and sad, pleading eyes.
There were the sick, the young and vulnerable and the dying. And all looked towards her with desperate eyes, yearning for help from the kind Frenchwoman who comes from Scotland every year to do what she can to help.
“It is terrible, so terrible,” says Virginie, shaking with anger and despair. “It’s overwhelming but,” she shrugs helplessly, “you can’t save the world.”
So, instead, for years Virginie has left behind La P’tite Folie in Randolph Place and Frederick Street for weeks at a time to travel to poverty-stricken north Ethiopia to help at one of its many orphanages. Back at home she has ploughed profits from her award-winning restaurants into thousands of pounds of donations and raised cash to help feed and care for the area’s most vulnerable.
And while changing the world may be beyond her grasp, she knew she had it in her to change the future for at least one sad and desperate little child.
Today, she flicks on her phone to show a video of her recently adopted Ethiopian daughter, Genat. Now two years old, she’s captured spinning and dancing carefree up and down the kitchen of Virginie’s family home, wild black curls framing her beautiful smile, large chocolate brown eyes and, although she’s still small for her age, she’s an adorable picture of thriving toddler health.
Last May, however, when Virginie held her for the first time, Genat was six months old, frail and underweight. Abandoned when she was a few hours old by her natural mother, she was found near a church by a shepherd who had heard her pathetic cries. A policewoman gathered up the naked bundle, found her someone to care for her overnight before delivering her to an orphanage run by nuns.
As chance had it, back in Edinburgh Virginie and husband Ghislain had just come to the end of an exhausting adoption application. Driven by what she’d seen during her trips to the area and a lifelong urge to give a home to a needy child, they had decided to give new hope to one of Ethiopia’s most fragile children.
And as Genat slowly progressed, nuns at the orphanage where Virginie was already a regular visitor realised she could make her perfect mother.
Today, Genat is settling in well at the family’s Edinburgh home alongside the couple’s sons, Milan, 18, and Pierre, seven. She speaks English and French – she counts along in French as mum Virginie, 43, spoons out her feed – she’s energetic and full of life but sometimes at night she slips from her new big girl’s bed and seeks the reassurance and comfort of her mother’s arms.
That’s hardly surprising, says Virginie, who has lived in Edinburgh for more than 20 years.
“Although she had been well looked after, of course there is trauma,” she says. “Some days when I went to see her at the orphanage, she was soaking wet, she had spots on her face that could have been worms, she was anaemic, she had no energy.
“That wasn’t the nuns’ fault. They try so hard but they have very little to go around.”
When Virginie held Genat for the first time, she shook with anxiety while the frail little girl flopped in her arms like a newborn baby, unable to find the strength to lift her head.
The mother-of-two spent hours sitting with her, playing and feeding. The moment when Genat’s eyes finally locked with hers during a peaceful feed was the point that she finally knew it would be alright.
“The first time she fell asleep with me it was, oh my God,” laughs Virginie, recalling the special moment at the Missionaries of Charity Orphanage in Gondar. “And when she made eye contact, it was fantastic.”
The formalities of the adoption taken care of, Genat came home to be with her new family last August, slotting in perfectly around the couple’s two sons, their business lives and nursery. Having her has only strengthened Virginie’s resolve to do more to seal her already strong bond with her daughter’s homeland – in particular so Genat will grow up knowing where she came from, even though the place of her birth is one of death, despair and grief.
Virginie was inspired to visit the area four years ago, keen to help and curious to see what had happened to the area at the heart of the mid-1980s famine which prompted the massive Live Aid fundraiser.
She found the nuns of the Daughters of Charity, which has orphanages in the Mekelle area, and watched with admiration as they cared for wayward street children and the sick, offering them clinical support, food and shelter. One of the most heart-wrenching elements of their work involves looking after the many fragile babies who are abandoned by mothers like Genat’s, either too young, sick or poor to care for them.
Since then Virginie has donated at least £15,000 to the mission and returned time and again to witness the dreadful hardships that face children, their parents, the elderly and sick.
Sadly, she says little has changed in the north of the country since the devastating famine, while parts of the south enjoy lush crops and good infrastructure, the north remains crippled by harsh lands, horrific poverty and corruption.
“It costs less than £100 to feed each child for a year,” she says. “I give what I can and some of the regulars in the restaurants who know about this will give me money and I am incredibly grateful to them for that.”
She sponsors a feeding programme which provides enough food to help 800 children survive. But, she agrees, there is no end in sight. “There is hardly any medical care,” she says. “You could go there in 50 years’ time and it will be exactly the same.”
It is the sight of pitiful children left to fend for themselves that is the hardest to bear. “There are five-year-olds sleeping in the street, it breaks my heart. I see them and I know that could easily have been Genat in a few years’ time. It is absolutely heartbreaking.”
• Find out about Virginie’s charity work at www.laptitefolie.co.uk/charity-work
CRIPPLED BY POVERTY
La P’tit Folie restaurateur Virginie Brouard has spent several summers working at an orphanage in Mekele, a town in north Ethiopia near to its border with Eritrea.
Wars in the area have left it crippled by poverty, HIV and Aids, while droughts have left the land dry, making farming difficult.
While its economy is among the fastest growing in the world, its infrastructure – particularly in the north – and its climate have left many in poverty.
Organisations such as the Roman
Catholic Daughters of Charity and Missionaries of Charity support street children, orphans, the sick, elderly and disabled.
Virginie has visited the area six times and donated more than £15,000 to help run orphanages in the Tigray region.
Her last visit took her to the spot where her adopted daughter, Genat, was found, having been abandoned naked near a church, and then to the village where it’s thought she was born.
She plans to take her daughter back when she’s older. “It is important she knows where she comes from,” she adds.