Romania's orphans: Where are they now?
The images shocked us all. Romania’s orphans lay in their beds, staring unblinkingly through their cot bars at cameras: victims of physical and sexual abuse, their behaviour controlled by drugs. Some were lying in their own excrement. Some were tied to their beds. All had lived a sub-human existence that had, in many cases, resulted in quiet, unnoticed, death.
It happened to be Christmas Day when Nicolai Ceausescu, Romania’s former leader, was executed, together with his wife Elena. Given the West’s intense interest in the fall of Communism, the press was watching. With the regime now overthrown, the press could venture where it had never been before. So Romania’s orphans received a Christmas gift they could not have anticipated: the world discovered them and, outraged, took action.
Among those who responded was UK charity, Epiphany Trust. Bill Hampson, director, voiced the thoughts of the watching world when he called the situation “a total violation of human rights by anyone’s standards.” The charity mobilised goods and funding and has worked with Romania’s orphans ever since.
Twenty years on, after its prolonged emergence from the shadow of Ceausescu’s regime, much about the country has changed. Romania is now a part of the European Union. Free trade, and privatisation, has dramatically increased income generation and quality of life is slowly on the rise.
Where have these changes left Romania’s orphans? Mercifully, many, though not yet all, of the orphanages are largely unrecognisable from those of Ceausescu’s regime. Epiphany, for example, has seen vast improvement in a major orphanage it has supported at Lugoj. Two decades ago, its nearly 600 children had no more than 28 carers. Today there are around 400 children, with 240 staff. Epiphany has helped create a centre of excellence at this institution which is now used as a model throughout Romania.
Yet Bill Hampson has identified a gap in the system which, as yet, is not being met. At 18, when children leave these orphanages, they are in no way prepared to make the jump into normal life.
While under care, children do not, for example, even own their personal clothes as this, along with every aspect of their lives, is institutionalised. It typifies a much broader set of skills that the orphanages do not equip the orphans with. Epiphany has therefore built a half way house to help them transition. Its Romanian coordinator Sorana Puscas explains. “City centres are full of young people sleeping rough on the streets, having left an orphanage… For those with learning disabilities this can be a death sentence….” At the half way house, she explained, they “for the first time had their own possessions. They felt more important, as they could call things ‘mine.’ They now have to learn how to share, learn how to live in a normal house, and how to live together.”
When Epiphany set up its first half way home, four years ago, it found resources through the Global Hand network. It partnered with Crossroads’ Global Distribution services, who provided a 40ft container with which to furnish it. Sorana was there. “I was impressed because of the furniture”, she said, “but also the other things included; the small things that make a house a home. The handmade rugs had the address of the people who had made them. The children wrote to thank them, and they wrote back saying how happy they were to hear from us.”
Epiphany is currently in the process of building a second half way home at Sinaia, one of Romania’s mountain locations. It will house more young people, and also provide employment opportunities in the form of skills workshops. Once again there is a need for all of the furniture and smaller items to make a home for the new residents. Now that Romania is a part of the EU, shipping items from the UK is infinitely easier.
Romania’s orphans were once abandoned in their infancy. Today, although childhood care has largely improved, they may yet be abandoned in their adulthood.
If you would like to partner with this new project, please contact The Epiphany Trust