Saturday, November 23, 2013

Romania Under My Skin

When I met Gheorghe at the euphemistically entitled Baby Clinic, he was three years old and, visually anyway, did not really fit the stereotype of the Romanian 'orphan'. He was a chubby little boy, with blond curls and blue eyes - not the skinny, shaven-headed image I had picked up from TV documentaries at all.

However, after only a few seconds, it was apparent that, despite his looks, Gheorghe was every bit as hurt and damaged as those children I had seen on my TV screen, rocking in metal cots, staring through empty eyes. At three years old he simply sat there, unresponsive on the rug where we had placed him. He didn't respond to our voices or turn his head to look around.  He didn't speak or even walk.

We had sought out the only oasis of shade in the patch of scrubby grassland at the back of the clinic, and it was uncomfortably close to the charred remains of the week's burned rubbish, complete with still intact syringes littered around the edges of the fire-scorched grass. Perhaps we would have been better inside, but with afternoon temperatures in the high 30s, the unventilated 'nurseries' upstairs were unbearably hot for our English sensibilities.

Our purpose at the clinic was simple: to play with the children and talk to them. We were visiting Romania for two weeks in the high summer of 2001 to run some summer activities in the mornings at an orphanage just outside the city but, in the afternoons, we had the opportunity to visit the baby clinic and do what little we could with the babies and toddlers there.

The clinic was a two-story building with a dual function.  The downstairs was indeed a clinic, or perhaps more of a detached hospital unit for sick children. We were never allowed in there, but we saw doctors and nurses and all the paraphernalia of ill-health through the windows. Upstairs was a different story. Here were tiny children who were not sick, just abandoned. Perhaps they had once been sick, brought to the clinics or hospitals anonymously by parents who could not afford the bribes necessary to get proper medical care for them, but then they had never been collected. They were waiting in a sort of halfway house until they were old enough to move onto an orphanage.

In all my visits to orphanages (more properly called 'placement centres') during my times in Romania, this was closest to what I had seen on TV over a decade earlier. The babies and toddlers lived upstairs in three, large, well-lit rooms consisting only of row upon row of metal cots with bare mattresses and sometimes a blanket or sheet. Our Romanian contact (later my good friend) explained to us that the children were rarely played with or spoken to and lacked stimulation and human contact. After years of working with abandoned children and learning about their attachment disorders, she was anxious to do what she could to bring some kind of nurturing input into the early lives of these little ones. What we were able to do was little enough, goodness knows, but we struggled through our heartbreak and the almost overwhelming sense of the futility of it all to offer what we could - a kind face, a smile, some songs, modest toys and cuddles, even if only for a few hours.

Not the clinic we visited - but it looks exactly the same

Gheorghe, we were told, had arrived at the clinic both walking and talking. In over a year there, all of these skills had faded away, leaving just this empty shell of a child rooted to the spot in front of us. We wondered about the women who were employed to care for these children. How could things be so bad? We were told that the place was under-staffed and that the women who cared for the children upstairs had no medical or educational training. They were appallingly underpaid and sometimes not paid at all.  They had children at home that they sometimes couldn't feed. When aid packages would arrive filled with clothes, toys or shoes for the clinic babies, these desperate mothers would take the things for their own children. Behind every tragedy, just another tragedy.

I have never, ever forgotten the faces of the children we worked with at the baby clinic during those two weeks, even though I never saw any of them again or visited that place again, despite many more visits to that city, and two years living there. I walked past it many times, but access was no longer allowed; the children were re-classified or moved on and there was no way for NGOs to find them or even know what was happening to them.

All I have of them are memories and blurred photographs, but meeting them irrevocably changed my life, setting me on a path that even I could not see the end of when I began. They got under my skin. Romania got under my skin and I've never really been able to get it out.


I am very aware that much has been written and said about Romania and its orphanages. I am also aware that this is a period of the country's history that many of its residents are anxious to move away from and put behind them. My intention here is not to re-open a painful wound. This is the first of what is to be a series of blog posts describing how the time I spent in Romania has changed me and changed my life, my opinions and views about many things. Some background is necessary to put all of that in context. The situation for children in care in Romania has changed a great deal since my first visit in 2001 - development of fostering means that babies are no longer held in the clinic I visited, and everywhere, orphanages are being closed as alternative solutions to the problems of children in care that all countries face are being sought.

4 comments:

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  3. Thank you for writing about Romania. The first two comments are spam by the way.
    As a romanian i know that a lot has chafed in the last 13 years and if you ever visit again i would love to meet you. looking forward to read more about your experiences.

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    1. Hi Otilia - and thanks for reading. I haven't been able to visit Romania since 2010 which makes me very sad! But I'm hoping to get back there this year if I possibly can.

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