On the sunny side of the street

Abandoned by their own, Romania’s homeless children need support and self-belief to survive their hard-knock lives in the ghetto. And with the help of a movie star’s mother and a Scottish socialite, they’re glimpsing a hopeful future, say Eloise Napier.

It’s 5am and the streets are empty, save for a few bits of rubbish fluttering in the gutter. A fluffy terrier trots round a corner, followed by a slim middle-aged lady, her hair still damp from the shower and tied in a bun. She wears minimal make-up and simple clothes. It’s not how I expect to see the sophisticated mother of an A-list Hollywood star.But then, you don’t see many Hollywood mothers choosing to spend their days sur­rounded by squalor. Leslie Hawke, mother of actor Ethan, has never been terribly con­ventional. She married at 17 and had Ethan at 18 because, as she says with a disarmingly straightforward smile, ‘I’ve always been impulsive – I just wanted to have a baby!’

Leslie Hawke with homeless children in the Romanian city of Bacau ►

Squeezed into the back of a four-wheel drive, we rattle out of Bucharest, past the bunker-like concrete apartment blocks that dominate the skyline, and start our five-hour journey to Hawke’s home in Bacau, an industrial city in the north-east of Romania. Chester, the terrier, sits panting on my knee, occasionally licking the microphone of my recorder.

Three years ago, frustrated with her life as an Internet pub­lisher in Manhattan, Hawke jacked it all in to volunteer for the Peace Corps. ‘I asked to go to Eastern Europe, so they sent me to Bacau, to work for an organi­sation that ran a shelter for kids:

On a salary of$I80 a month, she set up home in one of the bleak apartment blocks with which Ceausescu, Romania’s former president, savaged the beautiful countryside. ‘I soon learnt what the hassle of every­day Romanian life involves: queuing to pay your electricity bill, no hot water for three months and no water in the middle of the day. I have my own water heater now; she says triumphantly, before pausing and starting to laugh. ‘But, then, I often still don’t have any water.’

The next day, he was there again. ‘I approached him after three days, and it turned out he’d been sent there to beg by his mother: Like most of the street children in that area, Alex was earn­ing a living for his family. ‘I took him to the kids’ shelter and, a few days later, his mother showed up, angry that he was off the streets:

It was there, in the apart­ment block, that she witnessed something that would change her life. One day, out of her window, she saw a small boy sit­ting in the middle of a three-lane road.

This was Hawke’s introduction to the realities of life for the country’s Romany gypsies. Forming about five per cent of the pop­ulation, they are the poorest of the poor and are shunned by most Romanians, who consider them dishonest and violent. ‘There’s enormous prejudice against them; people are afraid to hire them; says Hawke. Because of this, they are forced to beg and steal.

Realising that ‘the only way to really help the kids was to help the family’, she set up a project called Ready, Willing & Able (RWA) with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which now supports 30 mothers and 50 children.

‘We have a contract with the mothers. We pay them a certain amount each month, and they promise to make sure their kids go to school: RWA offers mothers a three-month training programme, at the end of which they are helped to find jobs. The children receive remedial education and are slowly reintegrated into normal schools. Being able to read, write and get graduation papers is imperative. As Hawke points out: ‘In Romania, you can’t even get a job as a waitress without an education certificate:

Arriving at one of the gypsy ghettos, we see a naked toddler surrounded by rubbish, chewing the rind of an old watermelon. Hawke talks, through an interpreter, to one of the small boys with him. The boy picks the child up and together we walk to the encampment. Immediately, we’re surrounded by people of all ages. Hawke turns to me, indicating a tiny one-roomed shack. ‘That’s home to 10 people: I wander in and immediately am forced to clutch my nose. There is no sanitation and flies cover every surface.

The mothers besiege Hawke. She listens to their complaints and promises to address them later at the mothers’ group. As we turn to go, she makes a face at me. ‘It still shocks me; she says, without distaste, yet incredulous that people have to live like this. Back in the car, a wave of hope­lessness descends on me, but Hawke is upbeat. ‘This is a place where you can see an improve­ment happening. In Bucharest, I don’t think you would – the problems are so huge:

Looking around, you can’t help but wonder if adoption into a rich Western country is not the best option for the mul­titude of semi-naked children running about in the filth. It is a hot topic, because Romania is, yet again, at the centre of an international child scandal.

Up until 18 months ago, Romania was the world’s third largest exporter of children through what is known as inter­country adoption. Couples could ‘purchase’ children for between $7,000 and $50,000. In a country where corruption is not just a way of life but an art form, and the average wage only $120 a month, this proved too much of a temptation for officials. They are said to have kept the children’s homes full deliberately, running them, according to the ED’s rapporteur on Romania, MEP Baroness Nicholson, as ‘supermarkets’ for potential parents. ‘The world has a hunger for babies and children; says Baroness Nicholson. ‘It is a new phenomenon that is a part of the consumer society – you have to have the right handbag, the right shoes, the right dress and the right family photograph. Nowadays, you can get your baby delivered to your door just by giving your credit card number.’

Influenced by the EU, Romania announced a moratorium on international adoptions in October 2000. However, the country has come under enormous international pressure to restart the process. Earlier this year, the Financial Times exposed an implied threat from the US (a major market for the children), suggesting that unless the adoptions restarted, Romania could be barred from joining Nato.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Romania announced, in August, that the ban would be lifted, but didn’t say when. It is a complicated issue, but most people working on the ground believe that a resumption of inter-country adoption would be a disaster.

Hawke agrees, up to a point. Taking children abroad isn’t the answer for long-term improvements. ‘For any individual child, adoption is better. But these organisations that are sending the children out of the country for adoption are just perpetuating the system. It’s all about money. I don’t understand why they don’t invest in birth control.’

The women involved in RWA have all been offered birth con­trol (a totally new concept to them) and, in the year since the project started, not one has fallen pregnant. Hawke is cautiously optimistic about the future; the problems are manageable and the mindset is beginning to change. ‘You have to give people hope. That’s certainly the case with the women on the programme – they have a lot more hope now, and they have a purpose.’

They’re not the only ones to have found a purpose. Hawke seems extraordinarily happy, with no shadow of doubt that she has done the right thing in turning her back on her former life in Manhattan. However, she goes back to the States a couple of times a year, when she sees Ethan, his wife, Uma Thurman, and their children.

‘I’m sad that I don’t see them more often, but they have their own lives, and I’ve chosen to live a long way away: She recalls the first Christmas present they sent her in Romania. Instead of the thermal undies (it can go down to minus 2S°C) she was expecting, Hawke was surprised to find a Gucci dress, with a note from Uma saying: ‘We don’t want you to lose touch with that side of you.’

She wears it on special occasions in Bucharest, where she is a popular, though occasional, member of the ex-pat set. The capital is home to a small but swinging social scene, made up of diplomats, businessmen, journalists and their other halves. There is a strong Scottish contingent, one of whom is the 35-year-old daughter of the Earl of Mansfield, Lady Georgina (Gina) Bullough of Culcreuch.

A former magazine cover-girl and regular on the hip party scene, Bullough now spends most of her time in Romania. Her husband, John, set up some businesses in Bucbarest seven years ago, and Gina moved out there after their marriage in 1998.

She worked on a newspaper for a while, before setting up the fund-raising group Confidence for Kids, with her husband and some close friends.

In the back of a speeding Bucharest taxi, she outlines the phil­osophy behind the project. ‘We raise money for programmes that give children confidence in themselves and in their country. The difficult thing is finding outfits that are effective. Although there are swathes of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) targeting children out here, a lot of them, frankly, are stealing the money.’

The taxi swerves, I duck and she laughs, before adding. ‘Then there’s the group of well-meaning charitable organisations that, thanks to bureaucracy and corruption, have rings run round them_ Other than RWA, they have so far found only one NGO that they completely trust: Viata. Based in the Jiu Valley in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains, Viata, run by Dana and Brandi Bates, is Romania’s only adventure-education programme.

Each summer, soo young people from deprived city centres get to spend five days there. Many have never been to the countryside before, and their arrival, via a vertiginous ski-lift, usually leaves them speechless with excitement. Activities include high ropes and rock­climbing. ‘A friend of mine heard about Viata and organised for a group of us to go there: says Bullough. ‘We’ve all had charmed lives, and there we were, in the middle of nowhere in Romania, having the time of our lives. So we thought, if it’s great for us, how great would it be for someone from an appalling inner-city situation?’

There is another, more basic reason for her support. ‘Most of the big organisations raise money for cute little children, but adoles­cents are not cute. They’re spotty and grumpy. These ones are also very disadvantaged, and we all felt that it’s the last chance – the world hasn’t quite quashed their hopes and dreams yet. If we can show them that their country has things to offer, then leaving doesn’t have to be their main ambition if they get any money. ‘One of the trainers at Viata was one of the first boys to go through the course. He’s now a mountain rescuer, and is doing a part-time masters in sports management. It’s exactly what we hoped the project would achieve:

We visit Viata two days later. Bullough has torn a ligament in her knee but, undaunted, we plod up the two-mile track to the pine forest. Halfway up, we’re overtaken by a group of young teenagers, who look at us shyly. We reach a clearing, where ropes and wires dangle from tall trees, and are introduced to the children. Immediately, Bullough starts gabbling to them in Romanian. The ice is broken and before long she is hurling herself back­wards, knee-brace and all, into their arms from the top of a tree trunk. There are screams of laughter from everyone. It’s the same for all of the activities we try. I am addicted – it feels like Christmas Day.

‘Some of the activities teach teamwork; explains Brandi Bates. ‘Others encourage communication and problem-solving: Dana Bates adds: ‘The phrase, „Trust no one” sums up Romanian society – under communism, teamwork was literally illegal. It also destroyed any kind of ethics and pro­moted deception. What we’re trying to show the kids is that, when they help someone else, they help themselves. Together they can achieve much more than they can alone.’

At the end of the week, the young people are asked to do a community project. ‘A lot of kids have gone back to town and organised themselves into groups to clean up their area; says Dana. ‘One group removed three skips’ worth of rubbish from a river. We asked if they got teased by other kids. „No;’ they replied. „They just say, ‘You’ve been to Viata!'” Hearing this, Bullough, who is in the middle of organising a fund-raising ball for Viata, beams. ‘That’s why it’s worth putting up with all the hassle:

A close friend of the Bulloughs, and one of the founder members of Confidence for Kids, 34-year-old James Gray-Cheape, is no stranger to the problems that arise when you start trying to change social attitudes in Romania. A Gulf War veteran, he came to Romania six years ago after he left the army, intent on avoiding the monotony of a job in the City. In the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Bucharest, he sips an espresso, and talks in a quiet, measured voice. After deciding to set up Pegasus, Bucharest’s first bicycle-courier company, he went skiing with friends in Transylvania. ‘I met a Scottish friend-who was out here teaching in a children’s home. I needed to employ couriers, so I asked him about the guys he was working with. He gave a fantastic report, and so I met up with some of them in a bar.’He ended up employing five of them. But he hadn’t banked on the hostility this would provoke among his staff: ‘One said, „You’re crazy! You don’t know where they’ve come from. I warn you, they’ll be drunken and rowdy!'” Despite the barracking, he stuck to his guns. ‘It was a business decision, not just altruism. Many Romanian children are spoilt, and we didn’t want people who’d cry off when it started raining. These boys were tough and hungry to work. If we hadn’t employed them, they’d have ended up working in the market humping vegetables around – if they were lucky: He laughs wryly before adding: ‘Now we employ about 50 per cent orphans… and we’ve had far more problems with the other halfInitially, he didn’t dare tell anyone in the business community that he was employing these boys but, as Pegasus started to become more and more successful, news leaked out, and now other companies have con­tacted him regarding doing the same thing. ‘I believe in giving someone the tools so that they can create their own life; says Gray-Cheape. ‘I give the guys a job – a livery, a bike and a wage. Then, it’s up to them: .As he speaks, he becomes increasingly animated. It is obvious that he takes as much pride in the personal success of his employees as he does in his business. When we meet the couriers later at the Pegasus office near the centre of Bucharest, he relaxes completely and begins to chat with them in quick-fire Romanian. He seems more like an older brother than the head of an international company.

I meet Florin Iacob, Pegasus’ longest-serving courier. Although shy, Florin becomes more eloquent as he talks about his boss. From this indi­vidual beneficiary, I get a sense of how much Gray-Cheape, like Hawke and Bullough, has helped Romania’s most deprived children make a life for themselves. ‘My future would have been very hard; says Florin. ‘I had no family, no contacts or favours, so I couldn’t get a job. Because I was an orphan, I was seen in a bad light. All I could do was lift bags of potatoes in the market, but now people see I am professional, they take me seriously.’

This article is reproduced by permission of Harpers & Queen, in which it was originally published. Copyright 2002. Photographs by Carlos Reyes-Manzo.