East European Romania possesses some of Europe's most pristine landscapes; Black Sea beaches, untamed Carpathian mountains and a twisting Danube river. The nation's rich history dates back to the Legions of Rome. It's Balkan culture blends a fascinating mix of Latin, Slavic, Germanic - and vivacious Gypsy! All this and yet the world's view of this nation remains fixed on the ugly images of street dogs, overcrowded orphanages, and glue sniffing street children.
After years on the street two former Bucharest street children have risen up out of the gutter and with the help of Catholic Charities programs they have turned their bleak future into something worth sharing. This is their story
I traveled to Bucharest last year with a desire to see for myself the appalling street child situation which I had been hearing so much about in newspapers and television. I was put in touch with Ramona Moise, a former street child who is now a university student and the promising young artist Ilie Mihalcea. Click here for a photo of Ramona, Click here for a photo of Ilie. I asked if they would meet with me and show me some of the places they stayed as children of the street..
We arranged to meet at the Bucharest train located inside a valley of high rise buildings. It is here where exists the greatest concentration of Bucharest's 1000 - 2000 street children. It is a combustible area of the city that swirls with the noise and dust kicked up by hustling pedestrians, cab drivers and trucks
Ramona was the first to arrive. She began living on the street at age five - and didn't get off till eight years later. Today, at 24, her baby face and giggle makes her still seem much like the child she was when she left home. Though the truth of the matter is, and as told to me by a Bucharest social workers, "they are experienced adults inside the bodies of children."
Next to show was Claudiu State and Costel Gheorghe who came as our guides. They are both social worker from the Concordia program who work the streets trying to bring children into the shelters and ultimately back home. Their work is an exhausting one.
...It was half past the hour and Ilie had still not arrived. My translator suggested that he might have changed his mind about coming. She mentioned that while setting up the meeting Ilie seemed a little worried about talking about his past. We decided to move on without him. .
I asked Claudiu to introduce us to some present day street children. I wanted a visual understanding of the situation. I wanted a little taste of what Ramona's life was like back then. I was also anxious to see her reaction to their situation - and hear what advice she might have for them.
We followed Claudiu to a neighborhood called "Grazoveste, located not far from the train station. He explained as we went that there was a present police crackdown on street children around the station since an explosion in one of the sewers killed a young girl and her baby. A few weeks before that a fire in another sewer killed two boys.
Grazoveste is a typical Bucharest neighborhood woven between crisscrossing thoroughfares bustling with traffic and blaring horns all under a wall of mountainous gray apartment complexes, appropriately referred to as "blocs".
Just as we walked out of the subways station two young street people jumped out at us. They greeted Claudiu by name. They know that he is always good for a cigarette.
They introduced themselves as Bogdan and Cristi. Eighteen year old Bogdan has been living on the street for six years. He is of Gypsy decent with exotic dark brown complexion and beaming eyes. Cristi, at 24, has been on the street since his youth. Claudiu mentioned that he has not yet found the right formula to get off the street and that if he doesn't soon he will very likely begin the ugly cycle between prison and the street and then back again like so many other homeless.
I asked where they sleep and Bogdan pointed into the overgrown vacant lot - a little wilderness inside the greater concrete jungle. Camouflaged inside the greenery I spotted a couple shadowy figures glaring back at us. "There is my girl. She is pregnant now," he said proudly. "Would you like to meet her?"
We followed him through the tall grass and shrubbery to a clearing and where we came face to face with the rest of the tired group huddled inside the sheltering arms of a small tree. Sheets of cardboard slid between the branches shielded them from the hot afternoon sun
Bogdan introduced us to Elena, who he calls "my girl". At age 17 she is 4 months pregnant and showing. She sat over a mat of old clothes and torn blankets while nervously leaning into the shoulders of her friend Stephanie. Stephanie's arm was thickly bandaged and I asked her what happened. Point-blank she told me, "I cut myself." If there is one thing that I have learned from all my encounters with street children is that they are always extremely honest - and sometimes brutally so.
Claudiu interjected to say that a gang of about 25 stay here which is the general number in any given area. They quickly fall into gangs or packs which is necessary in order to protect themselves. Lone wolves don't survive very long alone on the tough Bucharest streets.
"The majority of them are children," Claudiu explained, and which are, as he put it , "out working". Even the street child with his 'carefree' attitude towards life has a schedule to keep. The younger street children makes the best beggars and during the rush hours they can be spotted in the subways walking barefoot through the cars with their hands out.
Ramona also belonged to a gang. Her gang was unique in the fact that it was made up of six girls. Today, the majority of that group are involved in prostitution - though Ramona did mention that she recently saw one of them with a job mopping public toilets.
In the background I spotted a young boy curiously watching us from afar. Even from the distance I could see the bruises along his face like a boxer the day after the title match.
I waived him over. He waddled towards us swinging a plastic container of wine by his side.
His introduced himself as Marius, age 13. Click here for a photo of Marius. I asked him what happened. He laughed as he told me about an older boy who tried climbing into bed with him. He wouldn't allow it so the bigger boy beat him up.
I asked about his parents and he told me they both live in Bucharest. His father, he said, is a drunkard who regularly beats him. He stays on the street because he prefers its daily uncertainties to the everyday beatings he found at home.
His cause is a common one among street children and one also shared by Ramona. Her alcoholic father regularly abused her and her brother while her mother stood silently by. It was 1985, Ramona was just 5 years old when her older brother, age seven, took her by the hand and together they fled.
I turned back towards Ramona who all the while had been in the background quietly observing. I asked her what she was thinking?
"I feel pity for them," she said. "I remember that I was like that - and I see myself in them."
I began to introduce her. "Do you know Ramona? " I asked the group but was quickly silence by Ramona's frantic cry - "no don't tell them."
"I'll tell you later."
Winter had recently passed and the thoughts of snow covered Bucharest streets was still fresh in my mind when I asked how they managed the cold evenings. Claudiu suggest I see for myself.
Bogdan and Cristi led us back towards the road to an uncovered sewer vent partially hidden inside the tall grass and weeds. Ramona chose to wait up top while the rest of us climbed down inside the darkness.
She told me that she never slept in the sewers. She preferred to sleep inside apartment buildings. She would gather all the doormats to cover herself with. Other nights she would hop an evening train and ride it till its morning destination. She refused to sleep in the sewers because she didn't like them and once I got inside I understood why
I must admit that going in I had imagined a romanticized version of the Bucharest sewer system like that depicted in a Hitchcock thriller; an endless network of tunnels, the echoing trickle of water and flickering shadows. But it was nothing of the kind. The Bucharest sewers that have since become home to hundreds of street child in an ugly concrete bunker with two massive water pipes running through it. The hot water pipe heated the room like the heating rod through an oven. We literally started to roast. All the jackets came off.
Mounds of plastic soda bottles, cardboard and candy wrappers littered the floor. This was the urban hay stack which they would sleep over. Aided by a flickering candle or match they would crawl over one another in search of a free spot in the pile And for a few hours at least they could lay their dirty heads down on something or someone, close their eyes and dream.
In a corner of the room laid a precious filthy mattress covered in stains.
"Last month we found a two months old baby there with cockroaches as big as mice crawling over her," Claudiu said pointing to the bed.
"I have a cat that runs from the bugs because they are so big," Cristi chimed in.
I asked about the infamous Bucharest sewer rats which I had seen before in garbage bins and running from the dogs. "Many, many," Bogdan howled, "and bigger than the cats. You feel them run over you when you sleep."
... We returned to the train station with all its noise and confusion; past the arguing Gypsy peddlers, aggressive cabbies, even shoe shine men clanking their brushes in an effort to draw attention.
I asked Ramona to take the lead and show us some of her old stomping grounds. I told her to speak freely...
She led us through the crowds pointing out obscure sights like the two trees where she used to like to sit - now the claim of a sleeping vagabond and a couple street dogs.
I asked her about the street dogs. I had sensed a bond between both these two Romanian phenomenon. During many walks through the city I would pass lonely street children cuddling a young stray like it was his only friend. After all, they have both been abandoned by society - left to fend for themselves, and now, even the older street children, like the dogs, were beginning to give birth on the street starting up yet a whole new generation.
"There weren't so many street dogs back then," Ramona replied. "We had street dog friends but we didn't like them following us around all the time.".. After a moment of reflection she added, "I am sorry that they left them to be so many and now are killing them. Just like street children there are more and more every year and it's because the problem wasn't taken care of at the very beginning." With a dimpled smile she added, "I just hope they don't start doing to the children what they do to the dogs."
She pointed out the large communist era statue facing the station doors. "We used to like to sit there and watch the people when we did our drugs." she said.
The drugs are over the counter paint thinner - the sickness behind the all too familiar scenes of stumbling street children inhaling the insides of dirty plastic bags that they clasp inside his fist like gold.
"it makes you feel dizzy inside and until you don't know what's going on around you," she went on explained its lure. "The world becomes a different place. You feel like you are someplace else. We used to like to say that we were dreaming."
I asked if she had been pressured into using it. "No, absolutely not. I wanted it. I took it to forget."
"I wanted to show you my scars" she said giggling as she rolled up her sleeve revealing a page of scars up and down her white porcelain arm. These medals were earned fighting in the streets.
Pointing to a wider mark across her wrist she said, "I did this one myself."
I wanted to ask why but I already knew... It wasn't but a few silent minutes later that she kind of pulled me aside and in her broken English said something I will always remember.. "There are many things that are very hard for me to talk about. You know that I like to talk about my life, but there are somethings that I prefer not to. They are forbidden even for me to remember."
We had been on our feet for hours and decided to take a break and have something to eat.
We stopped in at the Paradis Restaurant just across from the station. While pondering our menus I asked Ramona about the difficulties in finding food on the street.
"We had many ways to get food," she said, "either we begged or sometimes we walked through restaurants and ate the food that people left on the plates."... she paused while the waitress leaned in and deposited the silverware. She waited till she walked off before continuing. "We always had problems with the waitresses. They could get very violent sometimes. I remember one restaurant where the waitress came after me with a big plate. I was lucky because I saw her coming. I wrestled it away from her and then hit her with it."
Then what did you do?"
"I ran away."
We took a pause to eat and after that I asked Ramona to tell me about the Ramona of today and how she managed to achieve what no other street child has yet been able to accomplish.....
The question made her turn red. Her hard life has deeply humbled her and she still can't quite understand what all the fuss is about. She looked back up into my eyes and said, "it's a long story."
Ramona's turn around began in 1992 when Catholic Charities offered her a community house to live in.
"I was very very glad, but at first I admit it was very hard for me because I was used to coming and going as I pleased. It felt more like a jail than a home, but once I started going to school then things really began to change for me."
However all those early years of truancy had taken its toll and she needed to repeat classes right up till the 7th grade when she finally reached her grade level. After that there was just no stopping her.
Though she is now beginning her final year at the university studying psychology she still has not escaped her past. She lives in a thinly walled void caught between her ugly past and hopeful future. She didn't forget to tell me why she did not want the street kids to know who she was. "It's because sometimes I get recognized by street children and I can start to have problems. They don't see me like I am now, but as I was." Meanwhile she protects herself by keeping the secrets of her past from her classmates. "Not too long ago," she told me, "I was walking with a friend from school and a street child came up to me and said, 'hey, your Ramona. You're one of us.' Then my friend told everyone at school that I use to live in on the street and after that it wasn't the same anymore."
The next day I called Ilie and arranged to meet with him at his home at Catholic Charity's St. John's house.
It is an unobtrusive little house tucked away inside a narrow cul-de-sac just a few blocks from the train station and what 11 former street children today call home.
The on duty resident, Cristina Rusu escorted my translator and myself up to Ilie's room on the second floor which he shares with five of his house brothers. There we found him at his corner workstation where he spends just about all his free time sketching or sculpturing some fine new creation.
We sat down on one of the beds and just as Cristina began talking about when Ilie first came to St. John's house he got up and walked out.
Cristina has been around since the beginnings. This August will mark her 9th year with Catholic Charity's street children program which is quite remarkable as most social workers working with street children don't last more than a couple years
But according to Cristina - she was fated to be a career social worker, or as she puts it, "I was born to be at this place."
Social working comes natural for her, she says , because she understands what it is like being different, and it is just this lack of understanding that causes so few to hold out. Christina was born with a single arm. Baring a grim smile she told me that as a child she always felt people didn't understand her and it is the same with the children from the street. They come from abusive homes, alcoholic parents, or they run away from orphanages.
She knew Ilie back when he was just beginning with the program and when the sight of water pouring out of the faucet amazed him. She also knew Ramona who for a while also stayed at St. John's house.
"She had good people around her which made all the difference," Cristina says about Ramona. "For street girls it is doubly hard to straighten out especially with the lure of prostitution. For that reason Ramona's achievements are even that much more spectacular... but I do remember," Cristina went on. "she was a real difficult girl at the beginnings."
Ilie popped back in. Though participating in the conversation he remained on his feet - ready to run off at the slightest opportunity. I engage him in talking about his art work and asked me to show me some of his recent creations. He is multi-talented working with pen and ink, paints, sculpture and even wood carving. He prefers country architecture and natural landscapes. Though living in and surrounded by the city he doesn't ever paint it. He says it just doesn't interest him, but certainly a setting full of bad memories.
After coaxing him to sit down - I asked him about his early years. I asked why he went on the street. - but his answer was always the same, that he left home at 7 years old and doesn't really remember all that much
Cristina cut in and speaking in English which is foreign to Ilie she told me that he doesn't talk much about his past with anyone. "We sometimes have these conversations in group but Ilie always says, 'I don't want to talk about it' - he had bad early years that's for sure."
Allot of Ilie's forgetfulness stems from an attack he received while living on the street. The owner of a garbage dumpster caught him sleeping in-between the stacks of cardboard and beat him over the head with a stick. Ilie spent weeks in the hospital and as a result has forgotten much about his past and which it seems, and understandably so, he would just as well like to keep it that way.
Links: Caritas Bucharest | Concordia
-- by Chuck Todaro