A few years after the 1989 fall of the communist regime, I was contacted by an American College and asked if I would be interested in teaching Romanian culture and language to groups of college students. Groups of 10 to 15 late teens and young adults were to spend three months in the area. It was a unique opportunity for a young teacher that had read a lot about the world outside of the communist walls but had never come into direct contact with anybody from the western world. To be fair, I had tasted a couple of the western beverages – Teacher’s whiskey and Bacardi rum were my favourites and managed to acquire a few clothing items that I was quite proud of but that was all. It was a new perspective that I was so eager to explore. What I thought would be a short 3 months, turned out to be a collaboration that would extend over the years up to the very last week of my leaving the country for good. It was a fun time but also a tremendous learning experience for me.
Part of their assignment in Romania was to help with orphanages and the newly created Street Kids program. The orphanage experience was horrendous. In their attempt to maintain a facade of a healthy, happy nation, the directions from the party leaders were clear: all newborns with any kind of disability or HIV were taken from their parents at birth and locked into this orphanages where they were barely kept alive in sub human conditions. Psychologically, emotionally, and physically abused, they were never taught anything and never knew human touch or caress. To say that I was shocked by what I saw is underestimated. Enough to mention that those images still visit me in the odd nightmares. There were small children in straight jackets or tied to beds and chairs, and toddlers sitting in their own feces, banging their heads on the steel gates of their cribs. Scared, starving and sick. My students were heartbroken. Crying and trying to give hugs to terrified kids that thought we were there for more punishment was hard to watch.
The Street Kids program, provided some heart break as well, but on a different level. Orphans that eluded the system and found refuge in the underground sewage system or kids that ran away from abusive poor families and were living on the streets were a different kind of challenge. Trust was never in their vocabulary and all they knew was how to steal and rob to survive. The mission of the program was to teach them basic skills, hygiene and how to read and write. It was titanic work with a very low rate of success. We were all amateurs in dealing with these high risk kids but tried our best. The excitement and satisfaction I felt when these kids were accomplishing the simplest tasks have yet to be matched. And when the first kid asked if he could help us teach others, we all teared up with joy for a change!
Conditions have slightly improved since then or this is what I read. I am posting the link to a story that I have been following since 2000. It is the story of Izidor Ruckel, one of the orphans that was adopted by an American family when he was 8. His challenges growing up, his inability to understand love and also why he was abandoned and his continuous struggle to have more and more orphans adopted as early as possible.
Tears? Compassion? Sadness? Yes, for people like him and issues like these I have time, I have lots of tears and tons of compassion. The rest to me is first world problems and I rarely have time, compassion or tears for them.
Photo: Andrei Pandele