Shattered Lives: A look inside one of Romania’s poorest communities
** Translated by Antonia Sampalean **
- What is this, ma’am?
Asks a kid who seems to be about eight years old as he sticks a plastic-wrapped toothbrush into his mouth and gives his best toothpaste commercial smile. In his other hand, he squeezes a sealed toothpaste tube.
- It’s a toothbrush and toothpaste. Open them, says the woman gently.
- They won’t go bad? asks the child, afraid.
On the sprawling crest of an earthy hill, several hundred Roma, of whom half are children, live untouched by time.
Most of the houses are huts made of wattle and burned yellow daub that peels off in dry clumps. Once in a while, the huts unexpectedly come crumbling down or erupt into flames. When you step inside, the heat and smell instantly glue your epiglottis to the roof of your mouth.
Children are everywhere, nestled between puppies, hens, thorny bushes, horses, clothes and dust.
A blue water pump is being erected on the side of the road, as enticing as a campaign promise. The soft air and flies weave themselves together as they mutually regenerate each other – in fact, the precise sensation is that the flies are a secondary form air.
Welcome to reality, this is Ponorata, Maramures, one of Romania’s poorest communities. Ponorata translates to shattered or broken.
Here, children usually eat once a day, in the evening.
In Ponorata, children are overjoyed if you write their names on a piece of paper and give it to them, for good. As if you’ve given them some remarkable toy.
Here, not too long ago, a girl asked for contraceptives to put an end to repeated pregnancies. It was explained to her how to use them. She swallowed all the pills in one day.
Here, hope is measured in child benefit payments and dietary allowance.
Also here, little girls walk barefoot on the dusty road in dirty princess dresses. Others wear blue plastic shoes, torturous.
“We moved here after that revolution because they didn’t let us stay in the village. I’m 51 and I’ve been living here for about 20 years. Look at me, at 5’7” I weigh 110 pounds. I have three kids and seven grandchildren. We don’t bother dreaming about having a decent life, we want this, maybe a little better…” Ioan Varga tells us, as he explains Ponorata’s story.
At this point, no one knows whether it’s fact or merely a local legend that at the beginning of the 1990s, all the Roma were evicted out of a nearby village because someone in their community sexually assaulted a Romanian girl.
There were about 10-15 families back then. At first, they sought shelter in the forest but eventually settled on the hilltop.
Now, there are about around 500 souls here; almost half of them are children.
While he speaks, the lines around his eyes extend outwards like the spreading of wings. He complains that even their drinking water isn’t any good – it was collected from a valley where animals tread. And it makes them ill.
“A factory, something, can be invested in, ma’am. So that we can work with animals, bricks, anything. I’m a craftsman, I know how to build, renovate, I make chairs, I can make anything, I know how to sculpt…”
In terms of employment, he works as a day laborer for people in nearby villages. With his wages, he buys food. For clothes and other necessities, there usually isn’t enough.
Incidentally, only a few of the men in Ponorata are employed. In regards to the women, employment is out of the question since most of them are too occupied giving birth and raising children.
Contraceptives, for some of the women, mean, “The pills I take without my husband’s knowing.” For more mature women, solutions can become ingenious.
At 41 years of age with 10 children scattered around the yard or in the tiny hut, a woman tells us her recipe: “I sleep alone!”
Some of the children playing in the village don’t know their birthdays or the year in which they were born. Some of them aren’t even used to being touched.
Reading and writing skills don’t really stick, probably because schools days are often missed when parents pull them out of class to work as day laborers instead. And the gaps can no longer be filled.
For these types of cases, the OvidiuRo Organization has created a program though which monthly vouchers of 50 RON are given to parents for each child that attends kindergarten.
In the meanwhile, this program has become a law that’s currently being implemented in deprived areas all over the country.
The income of some of Ponorata’s families depends on the number of children parents have and whether or not they get them registered at birth. Without a birth certificate, parents can’t cash-in state allowances.
Some of them also get aid from the town hall. A few work as day laborers and about two teenagers managed to find minimum wage jobs in a factory that manufactures construction material. If you ask them, they’ll proudly tell you that they get a monthly salary, “like people.”
The social workers here say that often times, the Roma from such communities can’t manage to keep full-time jobs particularly for this reason - wages are paid once a month as opposed to daily, which is what they’re used to.
The majority of families in Ponorata have electricity in their home but few of them have contracts with electrical companies. Instead, they tap into their neighbor’s and share the bill.
For years, a few people have been trying to supplement the meager and unequal state allowances. These people are the public policy on integration.
Maria Gheorgiu and Nadia Gavrila, Elena Mocanita or Alin Useriu. They all have first names and last names just like the rest of us.
Backing them are companies that have rallied together, companies such as Romstal, Kaufland, or powerful NGOs such as the OvidiuRo Association, Tasuleasa Social, the Association for Community Partnerships Brasov or the Medical Students Society of Bucharest.
Lorand Szeuszner and Dr. Horse Seithe from the Die Johanniter Foundation were also key players.
With their help and together with European funds, the Ponorata community now has a school, an afterschool program and designated shower facilities near the school.
At the beginning of this week, a number of doctors and medical students from Bucharest and Cluj have set up tents for two days.
Since there is no access to medical services, the community members crowded around to have their children receive check-ups. Some of them surrendered themselves to check-ups as well. And some went for the simple reason of being seen by a new pair of eyes. That’s what the doctors were saying.
In the schoolyard, with colorful bicycles worn on their chests, they unfold in different directions: children head to pediatricians, adults head to other types of check-ups. The majority of them don’t have a family doctor and the nearest one is 8 kilometers away.
As they leave, the children can stop by the storytelling station. They react to the volunteers’ gentle expressions with spellbound looks. Some of them have the simplest of needs: for stories, to be spoken to.
Back in the community, people are getting ready to go to the house of prayer. Two times a day, the Protestants in the community listen to prayers said by a female pastor.
“I tell them! To go to work, to find a workplace! To be more understanding, to not beat their wives, to wash themselves and their children, to keep their minds out of the gutter!” she says.
-But did you send them to the doctor?
-Go to the doctor, all of you, so the doctor can get a look at you!
A kid grabs my hands and asks me what happens at the doctor’s. I tell him that the doctor will look over and weigh him. He doesn’t seem to understand.
He asks me if he’ll be getting an injection. His cheeks are full of dust and he’s holding a baby in his arms.
- Will you write my name down over here? He shows me the notepad.
I write his name on the paper. He runs away happily with the white paper in his hand, barefooted on the trodden earth. He doesn’t go to school. He doesn’t know how to read what’s written on the paper.
After awhile, he comes back with other kids.
Will you give us some too?
The Atlas of Marginalized Rural Zones shows that in Romania there are approximately 200 communities like Ponorata, communities where the level of poverty is alarming. In order to help them, the government has launched the National Anti-Poverty Project, which focuses first of all on the protection of children.
But without long-term interventions that are constant and concurrent, people from these communities stand no chance. They depend on social assistance – which contributes to their unemployment - and remain prey to illness, misery and illiteracy.
The only periods of time when local authorities remember these communities and visit them showing any concern is during the pre-election period.