Oana Dan & Silviu Panaite, Dela0.ro, November 2015
It’s Monday, September 28, around noon. The first harsh wind of autumn has blown away the small reddish dogs that usually lie around in the sun on the cobbled streets of Traian, a village in southern Romania. The very few dogs who venture outside hang around the entrance of the kindergarten, a tall white building on a dusty and narrow alley called Kindergarten Street which breaks away from the only paved street of the village.
Pressing against the wind, a couple of dogs make it to the kindergarten door and are barely able to keep their balance and brake. They stop to stare blankly at the closed door, waiting. Now and then the door squeaks open as some kids push hard from inside. The animals snap out of their dog day reverie and, chests bulging, escort their young owners home, shielding them from the fierce wind stirring the gravel.
Less than one hundred meters down the street, just opposite the kindergarten, a dirty face with running nose and unclipped hair, a kid wearing a darkened red sweat-shirt and ragged pants faces the harsh wind propped against an electricity pole. Behind him, a broken wooden fence, left gap-toothed by the wind, reveals a greenish clay house, leaning over on one side, the only color in a damp and dreary yard.
The kid’s name is Nicuşor. He’s a 4-year-old who spends most of the day gazing up and down the road. From time to time he uses his shirt sleeves to wipe his nose. He’s shy and doesn’t like strangers. When asked a question his best reply is a grin. Then he rushes inside the house to join his 13 year older sister Marcela, who stays at home to take care of him. Their mother, Nuţa Marin, a dark-skinned, short and hectic woman, is gone on some day labor to make ends meet for the family.
Nicușor should have been in preschool by now. Though his mother signed him up, he hasn’t attended so far. We’ve got no shoes for him, says the father, Sandu, a white-haired tall man with pale skin. Sandu is also at home this Monday, at noon. He says the family is waiting to cash the social and school allowances to buy shoes for Nicuşor and then send him to preschool. But, says Marcela, the oldest of the children, the boy is not accustomed to preschool yet. Marcela spent a few years in school but cannot read or write. She can tell numbers from letters but can’t find meaning in either. She is kept at home now to look after the younger children as she can’t work either, a consequence of a complicated knee surgery. The next in line, Georgiana, a sturdy 16-year old girl with a similar school record, goes to work as a day laborer along with her mother. The other kids in the family– aged 11, 9, 7 and 6–all attend school.
Nuţa is the 46-year old mother of seven. She is dynamic and energetic, but not necessarily in a good way, says therapist Luiza Udrea who specializes in such cases and who’s just finished watching a 20-minute video interview of her. I can see she is egocentric and lacks empathy. She comfortably plays the victim. Judging by what she sais, Nuța is a conformist and knows what’s right for her kids – notes the therapist -but she has no grasp of how things really work and what has to be done to raise a family, so her thoughts and words never turn into actions. Her background, her upbringing in a stereotypic environment and her inherited in-action, all explain it. It’s also why she hasn’t taken Nicuşor to preschool yet.
“She doesn’t know how a kid can grow and develop among others or the value of belonging to a group and learning rules,” says Luiza Udrea. As she’s clearly been cut off from education, she can’t see the benefits of having one.
However, if asked, Nuţa says she’d attended school for seven years, just enough to learn to read and write. She’s rather clever, she adds, and really wanted to learn a craft. “But a caravan rail fell over my father and cracked his skull-bones and he could no longer keep me in school”.
Lacking other options in the small rural community of Traian she married Alexandru Rusu, known as Sandu, a man who’s three years older and one head taller. Sandu suffers from ulcer and epilepsy and this kept him from smoking and away from booze. But also out of work. So this responsibility rests on Nuţa’s and Georgiana’s shoulders. Each make about $10 a day when they find work. The family lives on the $90 social subsidy and the children’s allowances, worth $20 each.
The house’s roof is cracked, the windows are broken and patched with plastic and in order to have electricity Nuţa illegally connected to her neighboring mother-in-law’s pole. But if the old lady gets mad, she cuts off the electricity for Nuţa’s family. “She never liked me; she claims her son married a gypsy from Marin The Deaf’s clan” says Nuţa.
They’ve got no running water, despite the whole village being connected to the water supply network. As the days get colder, the southeastern wind easily makes its way through the three-room house. The family crams into the only room with good windows, where nine people share three beds. The second room is damp from the leaking roof and the third is both a bedroom and a kitchen, now under the control of a swarm of flies that stick to any warm body in proximity. There’s also a hallway which ends in a kind of closet – where raffia sacks of clothes are piled up.
The family numbers seven kids: Marcela (17), Georgiana (16), Aurelia (11), Florian (9), Cristina (7), Dana (6) and Nicuşor (4).
Aurelia, with a porcelain complexion and shy as a doll, is the smartest of all, says Nuţa. She is in in 5th grade and does homework at home at a small table placed in the narrow unheated hallway. The corridor is dark and damp and the smaller kids run up and down around her, dragging striped cats by their tails. Older sisters are busy with chores, Nuţa is frying some onion and Sandu walks in and out of the house working on some scrap from the yard and letting the cold wind surge into the house each time he opens the door.
Aurelia wrapps herself in three layers of clothing. It’s October 10, a cold Saturday. She’s sitting on one of the three beds, knees bent inward, with a textbook in her lap. Her lips are moving but no words are heard. At times, murmuring syllables, she nibbles sunflower seeds spitting the crust all around; it’s crusts and half words everywhere. She is learning a poem for school.
Next to her, Nuţa is giving her first video interview. She’s yelling at the camera that she would die for the kids, just to know they are alright. Watching the scene, a few days later, therapist Luiza Udrea says the mother definetely loves the kids but in an utilitarian kind of way. The video shows kids walking in and out of the frame, a cat jumping from Nicuşor’s hands. The youngest is now wearing proper clothing and socks, his face is washed, but his nose is running. “You gotta go to preschool! That’s it! I’m taking ya’!” yells Nuța. Nicușor does somersaults in bed and shouts something indesciphrable, right next to his mother. “You see, he doesn’t really want to go to preschool, he isn’t used to it,” continues the mother. The boy keeps jumping up and down and shouting, luring his brothers and sisters into joining him. Teenagers Marcela and Georgiana stand in the doorframe – they frown. One of them grabs a rod and wiggles it in the air, pointing towards the little rogues, signaling them to cool down.
“It’s like having a preschool class at home but without a supervisor”, says the therapist. The children are free, but it’s clearly a kind of freedom springing from ignorance and what they learn is how to survive, just like animals in the jungle. There is obvious aggression in these families and this pattern is passed on from one generation to the other.
Udrea is watching Nuţa shout “my kids love to go to school, they do well in school.” The mother is pausing for moment, as if she’s run out of breath. She’s scratching her head, well hidden under a grey and dirty cap. “I take them to school every day, I want them to learn well, I wash them every morning, they must be clean for school”, says Nuţa.
Yet, the local health mediator, a tall, strong woman called Georgeta Sandu, contradicts her. The kids are unwashed most of the time, the household is a mess and the mother is off the rails, she says. “But they raise pigs, a horse, ducks and rabbits in that clutter” we point out. The health mediator confirms: “But have you seen the mess in that yard?” Plus, she adds, the village has several pumps and wells, so not having running water at home is just a lame excuse. “There’s no such thing as not having shoes and clothes for the kid. If he stays at home the mother still needs to provide for him, right? Even if she has just two pieces of clothing, she should organize, wash them and take the kid to preschool. But let me tell you the truth about her. The thing is she’s just too used to living like this, it’s what she inherited from her parents, it’s how she’s always lived. I keep trying to make her change, she keeps saying she will, but it’s still her way, in the end.”
Mioriţa the teacher
The harsh wind of the Bărăgan plains, where the Traian village is located, roars around the tall building, a former school, which now hosts the preschool. It’s cold and overcast, but warm and noisy inside. Five teachers look after 100 kids, divided by age into five groups. Attendance is around 85% estimates Mioara Iosif, a 53-year old kindergarten teacher, who’s been teaching here her whole life. The kids call her Mioriţa.
She was born in the village, married and had children here. She knows the community like her own pocket. She sums it up: there are no hygene issues in preschool, kids are always clean, some have packed lunch, others don’t, some have writing tools, others don’t. So the teachers chip in money to buy pencils and textbooks for those who can’t afford them. “We don’t want to highlight any differences between the kids here. Kids can be so mean sometimes,” says Miorița.
She hasn’t seen Nicuşor in preschool so far, though his mother signed him up at the beginning of September. She knows Florian, Nicușor’s brother, who is now 9 and attends primary school. Florian used to attend preschool as well, but he was slower than other kids and often felt singled out, says the teacher. She recalls a day when Florian was extremely happy after his mother had helped him learn a poem at home. “The family? I never visited them, but I know them well. Some are ok, others suffer from all sorts of mental conditions. The older sisters attended school but can’t read nor write. They’re not too clean either,” says Miorița.
The teacher plays an essential role, especially in preschool, says therapist Luiza Udrea. He or she should be a preacher of tolerance, a mediator, a warm and patient person who steers children from poor families into other options and alternatives. Unfortunately, the current education system is solely based on competition and does not encourage teamwork, which sets a stereotype pattern from the start, says Udrea.
Mioriţa has been teaching preschool kids to form correct sentences, learn group and social rules, use letters, geometric figures and colours and develop various creative and social skills. During class, kids also get a grasp of what it means to be proactive and to actively listen to what is being said. All in all, preschool equals school readiness for these kids.
Felicia Ienculescu-Popovici, an environmental activist living in a small community in Mogoșoaia, near Bucharest, carries out projects for vulnerable families, focusing on preschool and primary school kids. Preschool, she says, is essential in acquiring specific skills that would help kids throughout school. Past experience has revealed that poor kids who skip preschool have a really hard time understanding and obeying rules in school and this leads to lower attendance and even dropout.
The 43-year old activist is the kind of mentor therapist Luiza Udrea spoke of. Felicia Ienculescu-Popovici fights poverty stereotypes and is building a community where vulnerable children can find options. Throughout the summer she mentored 13 preschool kids from poor families and from a state-run foster home, improving their self esteem, teaching basic hygene rules, communication and team work.
Fănel Năstase makes quite an impression on a cloudy Saturday afternoon in October. It’s 8 degrees Celsius and he is wearing a sky-blue shirt, suit pants and a leather jacket. He is in a hurry, rushing to the village stadium where the Traian football team is to meet a local rival called Unirea Ion Roată. Prospects are dim for the Traian team and the mayor fears they will lose the match. (later edit: they lost by 9 goals to nil). There’s little time left until the beginning of the game, so the mayor has a quick word with his wife, who runs a local store across the street from the mayor’s office. It’s that kind of rural store which sells anything you can think of, from food to alcohol, clothing, shoes, house cleaning products etc. Some villagers shop here, while others stop by to complain about local matters, hoping that the mayor’s wife would pass on the information to her husband. She always chooses to defer.
We’re lucky to catch the mayor in time to ask about Nicușor’s family. How do they make ends meet, wonders even the mayor. It’s complicated; they have almost no earnings except for the social subsidies. “I know the mother. She seems like a survivor. She seeks work every day, but work is hard to find in winter time,” says the official. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party in Romania and has been mayor for seven years now. With elections coming up next year, he feels torn, should he run for another term, should he quit? That is the question, he says. Maybe he should run again, he reconsiders, the villagers entrusted him to lead the way and he has a duty to carry out. But he feels so tired and the public administration system is such a nag, he adds. Getting back to our subject, we ask the mayor who is responsible for Nicuşor’s future, who should take care of him. Well, it should be his parents, shouldn’t it? says the mayor. What if they have no clue how to do that? We ask. Legally, says the mayor, we provide a social subsidy, and that’s all we can do. Our possibilities are limited, there’s not much we can do. Then he adds emphatically: If they lack earnings, why do they have so many children?! it’s also about their mentality! he adds with revolt. Having 4-5 kids and no money, of course that means no access to education and without education there’s no future, we all know that. He continues angrily: we even carried out birth control programs in the village; they learned nothing.
How about connecting them to the water supply system in the village, we suggest. Well, says the mayor, 900 households of 1,080 in the village are already connected, those unconnected are households of people who work abroad. But Nicușor’s family is here and they have no running water. I couldn’t agree or disagree, says the mayor, I have never visited them.
Time is running out, the match is about to start. The mayor makes a promise before rushing to the stadium, that the local authorities will connect Nicușor’s family to the water supply network for free. Then he seals it with these words: the family should understand – from our sympathy and the authorities’ benevolence – to be more responsible and change and take good care of the kids. And off he goes.
Different children, another destiny
400 kilometers from Traian, on the road that links the multicultural city of Sibiu to smaller Agnita, there’s a village called Nou, in Roșia commune. It’s one of the hottest days of August, with temperatures rising above 40 degrees Celsius in the shade. But it’s really cool in the attic of the kindergarten where Daniela Ţugulea and Radu Bratu – a preschool and a history teacher – remember how change all started.
It was five years ago. Daniela Ţugulea, a 38-year old dynamic woman, had been a preschool teacher in Nou for a decade and felt she had run out of options. Her plan was to really act as a mentor for the kids, but many of them skipped preschool and there was no money to buy materials. She was about to quit altogether when something changed her life.
It’s a program called “Every Child in Preschool” started in 2010 by OvidiuRo, an NGO, in order to curb school abandonment in vulnerable communities. Thanks to the program, 2.400 preschool kids in 43 communities are attending kindergarten regularly. The program provides needy parents with monthly food coupons worth of $20, but only if they bring their kids to preschool every day. It organizes a local action group which monitors attendance and the village council provides almost $40 per child as a subdsidy for clothing and shoes. OvidiuRo also contributes money for school materials and trains teachers, so they can be a real support for kids. In exchange for the coupons, parents are required to attend the monthly preschool activities and sign up for the “Parents’ Day”. Some parents take this opportunity to learn, along with their kids, letters, colours and numbers.
In Nou village, this project completely changed the community, according to Daniela and Radu. We visit Mihaela Otveş, a 26-year old skinny woman, mother of three preschool kids and now pregnant with a fourth. Her house is as poorly equipped as Nucușor’s in Traian, but there’s no clutter here. This family also lives only on social subsidies and child allowances, but the house, though modest, is made out of brick, not clay, and it’s tidy. The family has running water and the three kids are well-dressed and neat. When they spot the teacher they shy away and hide behind their mother, while she tells us that she‘d been out picking nuts, selling them to brings some extra money for buying clothes and shoes for the new preschool year.
400 kilometers to the south, Nicuşor is enjoying the last hot days of summer. He’s in the alley, teasing the reddish dogs he finds lying in the scorching gravel. In less than a month the first cold wind will blow, preschool will start and the alley will get crowded. From his post, standing against the electricity pole, this 4-year old will again be gazing up and down the road at the dogs waiting to pick up kids from preschool.
In the mean time, Romania’s Parliament has passed a bill that transforms the food coupon mechanism of OvidiuRo’s approach into a national program .With a bit of luck and well-written and enforced norms and with the work of preschool teachers and local authorities, next year over 110,000 poor children accros Romania might begin to hope for a better life.
But will this hope reach Nicușor as well?