Ceausescu's horror orphanages have disappeared
With European help Romania offers a future to former neglected orphans
Tijn Sadée, NRC Handelsblad ( Netherlands )
Little orphans who crawl around in their own excrements. That is the way the world got to know Romania after the fall of dictator Ceausescu. The 'horror orphanage' of that time no longer exists.
BUCHAREST , 4 Nov. 'Blocks' is the short name of the hundreds of blocks of flats built for workers during the Ceausescu regime. All of them respecting the same, monotonous style of communist building planning. It has never been counted how many Romanians jumped from their balcony out of desperation. More than fifteen years after the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu, most of the flats are shaky because the concrete foundations have eroded. But they are still popular, due to the low rents level.
"Your address sounds like you are in prison", says Alexandra (age 16) from Block D-16, 6 th floor, apartment 36 , somewhere in District 2. For two years she lives here together with five peers, who - just like Alexandra - are children with a problematic background. Three of them are orphans, the other half run away from home because of domestic violence. The six of them have to do it now together: becoming adults under the supervision of a social worker who comes by every other day for help and advice.
Alexandra and the others are part of a project in the framework of the Romanian childcare's new style. They learn to cook by themselves. The girls are making their homework in rooms where posters of Stefan Banica Jr., the Romanian Robbie Williams, are displayed on the walls. Catalin, the only boy in the group, is watching cartoons on the TV in the living room. He has already finished his homework, he assures us. "Two years ago I came here from the System", says Catalin. 'The System' is how the Romanian orphanages from the Ceausescu time are called. Since he lives in flat D-16 Catalin dares to dream of a future. "I want to be a stuntman later in movies".
In the European Commission's reports on Romania , the childcare quality is an important chapter. This extra attention is the consequence of the indignation generated by the degrading conditions from the Romanian orphanages found by foreigners after the fall of Ceausescu in 1989. Little orphans crawling around in their own excrements, that was the way the world got to know Romania .
The very crowded orphanages were the consequence of Ceausescu's decree that forbid abortion for women under the age of forty. Each Romanian had to make a contribution to the accretion of the new Romanian. During the '70s and the '80s the population grew explosively. At the same time, the life standard of the Romanian population sharply decreased, as a consequence of Ceausescu's policy to maximize the exports (even if that decision had a negative impact on its own people). Big food shortage arose, and as families could not longer take care of their own children thousands of them went to orphanages.
After 1989 large scale aid projects were set up. Especially in the Netherlands tens of organisations got interested in the fate of the Romanian orphan children. They are still active. "Hoogeveen helps Brasov ". "Urk helps the Danube Delta". " Limburg helps Sibiu ".
"Obviously people in Limburg do not know that fifteen years later the situation has considerably improved", says Rupert Wolfe, who researches childcare in Romania . "In 2007 Sibiu will be the cultural capital of Europe ".
Wolfe leads an EU-funded project in the field of child rights. Just like Wolfe, in the recently published accession report on Romania EU observers were positive about the situation of the childcare system.
Since recently it is forbidden to place a child under the age of two in an orphanage and this put an end to the trade of adoption babies, in which the care-givers have also been involved in the past. "The 'horror orphanage' is history", says Wolfe. "But it seems that is not a sexy story. 'Disaster country Romania ' is an outdated image, but is still being used by the media because it scores. Also, aid providers have an advantage, as the over- dramatization of the situation legitimizes their existence."
According to UNICEF - Romania , 100 000 Romanian children still live in orphanages and that number is increased each year with 9500. UNICEF is severely criticized by independent experts. "The research method used by UNICEF is wrong", claims the Swedish researcher Ulrike Jerre. "Many children in the childcare system are double counted by UNICEF. Besides, during the UNICEF research many children returned to their families."
According to Bucharest officials, there are not 100 000, but 83 000 children under 'the supervision of the state'. Out of them there are 50 000 who live in foster families, and the other 33 000 live in centers that are currently being modernized, under the supervision of the EU project 'Children first!'. The last 'old style' orphanages have to be closed down before the end of 2006.
"Everything happens here in conformity with the EU norms", says Constantina Toader from Casa din Tei, a Bucharest center for children with problems. On the first floor are living ten mothers with their children, who got on the streets because of poverty. The mothers attend educational programs in order to increase their chances on the labour market. The financing of the center has mainly been supported during 2002 by the World Bank.
"In this neighborhood there is only one old style orphanage, where 50 children live, the rest were already closed", says Toader, who is trying to put up in Bucharest a network of pedagogues and social workers. Pedagogue Ioan Dura, who works in Casa din Tei, remembers the way her parents use to threat: "Behave yourself, otherwise you will go into the System!". Dura: "Then the bugbear of Auschwitz for children came up". But it does no longer exist, the Romanians have demolished it by themselves.
Alexandra and the others in flat D 16 use "the System" expression only to remember each other where they are coming from. For more than two years now they are living in the supervised independently living project.
In the corridor of their flat, Alexandra, Elena and Daniela are standing for one hour already in front of the mirror. Lately they took a modeling course at school. Elena: "As soon as I leave the System I want to step on the catwalk."