Romania on My Mind

When I first met Alina (not her real name) she was a quiet, shy teenager. I was volunteering for two weeks at a summer camp for teenage girls living in Romania's 'orphanages'. I use the inverted commas because none of these children were orphans. And the official term in Romania is 'placement centre'.

Many of the girls were very chatty and friendly. They wanted to try out their English on us. They wanted to get close, attract our attention. These days I would call it 'attachment-seeking behaviour'. These girls appeared to form bonds with the volunteers very quickly. It was gratifying for visitors who perhaps didn't stop to consider that they were just the latest in a long line of 'here today, gone tomorrow' people in these young women's lives.

Alina was not like these. Tiny, with her dark, curly hair drawn into a low ponytail, she hung around at the back, reluctant to get in the thick of things. She would sit with us and weave friendship bracelets - the trend of the camp that year - but would rarely speak or even raise her head.

I saw Alina at a couple more camps, and then she left the orphanage and I didn't see her again until I went to live in Romania several years later. As well as running the camps, the Romanian charity I was working with mainly concentrated on providing transition support to young women when they left the city's orphanages, often with just a small bag of belongings, no money and no plan. The charity was there for them long after the state had finished with them.

By this time, Alina was married. She seemed happy enough. During my two years there, she had a baby and I remember visiting her, nervously holding this tiny infant in a room packed with Alina's husband's family, while all the grannies commented on my cradling technique and I concentrated furiously on avoiding some terrible childcare faux pas. Such a thing is easily done in a country where folklore would have it that draughts, going barefoot and sitting on walls can all be sources of terrible illness.

A few weeks ago, an American lady we both knew in Romania messaged me to tell me that Alina was coming to the UK to work and would be in Leeds, near enough to me for visiting. I messaged Alina but didn't receive a reply until she was already here. She was lonely, scared. She wanted to meet up. I put her in touch with a friend who lives in Leeds. Alina messaged and phoned my friend many, many times in one day.

It transpired that Alina would only be in Leeds for one week, training. After that, she would be moved on to a care home somewhere else in the country. She was offered Dorset. She messaged me six or seven times that day, asking whether I thought she should refuse the offer and hope for somewhere else closer to me. In the end, there was no chance of that and, with time running short, I arranged to go over to Leeds and meet her before she left.

I took a little goody bag of useful items, scrambled together at the last minute. We drove to Yorkshire, stopping for the kids' sake at Bradford's Media Museum on the way. All day, messages were flying back and forth. She would be back at her hotel by 5.40. Now the course leader said they were going to finish at 9pm. Now it would be 6.30pm. After 6pm her phone started going straight to voicemail and messages went unanswered. I think her battery was dead. We waited at the hotel until 7.30, but it was getting late and I couldn't occupy the children in the hotel foyer any longer. We left our goody bag at the hotel reception and made our way home. Alina finished her training at 8.30. We never did get to meet up, and as I write she is likely on her way to Dorset.

All week I have been thinking about it. Alina has left her husband and her young daughter in Romania to come to the UK and work in a care home for what I hope will be at least the minimum wage. I hope she will be fairly treated. I hope her husband and daughter can manage without her.

In 2009, the Romanian government released data on children living in Romania's placement centres - the 'orphanages'. Most of the children were there because they had been removed from their birth families due to abuse and neglect. The system of foster care was in its infancy then, having only begun properly as a condition of their accession to the EU two years previously. But, if I remember rightly, 20% of children in Romania's orphanages were there because one or both parents had left to work abroad. And this is before Romania was granted full access to EU freedom of movement.

Alina has already been abandoned by her family, left alone in the world. Now she is alone in the world again, having left her own family and the grinding poverty of so many of her peers to come west in search of work. And in Romania, there is a child without her mother. Many children.

And in the week in which I have been mulling over all of this, I read an article about the work being done by Romania's social workers among street children. These tiny, lone children, sniffing paint and seeking shelter beneath overpasses and bridges are the children and grandchildren of those who fled appalling conditions in orphanages, preferring a life of unimaginable hardship on the streets. These are children who were born to the streets.

Ceaucescu's shadow over Romania still stretches long.


  1. My "little" brother is currently living and working in Romania. Few years back, he went there to volunteer in a orphanage, where he met his girlfriend. She grew up in that orphanage, and like your friend Alina, she wasn't really an orphan.

    His family just couldn't financially afford to look after her and her brothers. Eventually my brother moved back to Italy with her.

    Despite the fact that she was a qualified social worker, she never managed to find a job in Italy. Romanian are considered to be travellers, and there is a huge discrimination towards them. They are considered to be carers for the elderly, rather than the social workers.

    The stories I was told about the orphanages are full with sadness, rejection, and abuse. But many Romanian still refer to the Ceaucescu period as the period where they have a roof over their head, and food.

    I would find it difficult to visit one of these 'placement centres'.

    1. Many of the children I met in the orphanages were clearly travellers, or tigani (gypsies), although they would never admit it. I have seen open hostility from euro-Romanians towards gypsies and the girls considered it a badge of shame to be considered a gypsy. Alina is most likely of gypsy heritage, although plenty of the girls we worked with were not. Some of the girls I met were old enough to remember the orphanages under Ceaucescu - their stories were terrible. But yes, the uncertainty and turmoil following his demise does cause some to look back nostalgically for the days when they knew where they were, even though where they were was sometimes terrible. The Romanians who ran the charity didn't feel like that though. Even seeing Ceaucescu's picture brought back the trauma for them.

  2. I found reading about your time in Romania and this woman's experience of coming to the UK very interesting. Thank you for posting it. I hope you and her can meet up at some point.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I am grateful for social media that has allowed me to keep in touch with her, even though we weren't able to meet in the end.


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