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52 MAY 2003
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Postcard from Romanian Orphanages

Niall McElwee

Apologies for being late with my column this month, but I am writing this between Romania and Ireland. I am travelling to Bucharest and its environs visiting four State orphanages with a colleague from my Department, Teresa Brown who is a Child and Youth Care Practitioner. Teresa has been travelling back and forth to the orphanages for the last decade, so I am in esteemed company. By a quirk of fortune, Teresa was a student of mine in another college some eight years ago, so I’m pleased she didn’t leave me at the airport in Dublin!

We are out here to explore the possibility of formalising field practica for twenty of our social care Certificate students who await eagerly our report to Faculty. More about this anon.

I am going to pen this column in two parts – part one on the airplane over to Bucharest detailing some of my thoughts prior to reaching our destination and part two after visiting the practica.

Part One
There have been many changes in the Romanian orphanages since Teresa’s initial involvement. I can’t comment on the media exposure of the orphanages in the 1980’s around the world, but the case was pursued relentlessly in Ireland and many Irish people adopted Romanian babies after witnessing several documentaries detailing the horrific conditions of abandonment.

The impact of volunteer workers from around the world on the quality of life for children in care cannot be overestimated and the Irish have played a very significant part by giving of their time gratis over the years. Irish people have engaged in direct work with children, in construction and in administration. Although there have been many positive developments, we are all on a long journey to ensuring that the children enjoy basic human rights and enjoy a quality of life that all children are entitled to.

Happily, we are laden down with chocolate, flower seeds, nail varnish, perfume for the older girls, and the biggest novelty for the children – Walkmans (complete with batteries which are highly valued by the children) so we should be made welcome! It is always wonderful to see a child open a wrapped present.

Normally, I would welcome any opportunity to leave the administrative drudge that is the life of a Head of academic Department. Indeed, Leon Fulcher described such a job as “pushing manure up a hill” if I remember correctly. But, since the birth of my son Conor (who is going on sixteen months now), I view life somewhat differently. I am fearful of my reaction to seeing young children in such institutional environments, bereft of love and attachment figures. I have heard many stories of westerners visiting orphanages and children wailing uncontrollably, wanting to be picked up and held. How many children can we hug or provide meaningful time to in a three-day visit? Should we engage with the children or not? Should we stay in the safety of administrative offices during our visit?

Perhaps we should. Perhaps we should simply believe what we read and are told on our assessment visit. But very many readers will be acutely aware of the difference between administrative reports (all is well here. Don’t call us, we’ll call you) and what frontline workers and children in care will tell you privately (get me out of here!). So it is with an air of expectation that I travel today.

Part Two
We arrived into Bucharest on Wednesday afternoon. That evening, we visited Orphanage Ankka (not its real name) which is situated in Bucharest City. We arrived at about 7.00pm and met with several staff who showed us around and talked with us for about two hours. When we went to the first room, I have to say that I was initially taken aback. The entire building was very clean and had no institutional smell which one often reads about in the media (urine, damp clothing, etc). However, all the doors were locked so the children were, in effect, prisoners to the institution. In defence of the staff, this is to protect the children from each other as they can behave quite aggressively to each other.

When we entered the first room, there were about twelve girls in beds. They immediately flocked to the door and came to us. One girl stayed at the window staring out, seeming not to notice us. Another five girls lay on their beds registering no acknowledgment of our visit. There were some holes in the wall and two panes of glass missing and the room had no play objects or lockers for the children. In this Orphanage, each child had her own bed which is significant in the Romanian system. We were then shown around the rest of the Orphanage which had three other rooms for girls of different ages.

I’m only going to comment briefly on my reaction here as I feel I need more time to process my emotions, but I did feel very upset for the children. I have visited hundreds of practica sites around the world and the majority of them had toys of some form in them for the children to play with. The staff in this Orphanage did appear to care genuinely for the children and take an interest in them and I was delighted with this. Teresa informed me in the taxi on the way back to base that the orphanage had a very good standard of care in a Romanian context and that I should prepare myself for the next day’s visit to a much different scene.

We arose at 6.00am the following morning and travelled out to the country to another Orphanage which caters for over 120 children between the ages of 3 and 19. I was dreading this visit as Teresa had done her best to prepare me emotionally. It was over 30 degrees and we were sweltering after an hour's journey by taxi. A stale smell of urine greeted us – the one I had expected on my first site location. This room caters for 7-12 year olds, both males and females. The children all swamped us and, to be fair, Teresa was much better at handling this than I. I felt compelled to pick up and hug every child that came to me, but many of the children were not wearing diapers or were wet, so there was an issue of safe health practice.

Nonetheless, I swung several around in a game of ring-a-rosies and did my best to present a happy disposition to the children. Two children lay on a bed together without any movement or recognition of us visitors and several of the other children were confined to wheelchairs. If adequate physiotherapy was provided I really feel some of these children could have run out to us. Alas, this is not the case. The Orphanage appears to be run on a very limited budget and is dependent on aid from various Irish organisations and individuals. Any Orphanage that considers diapers for children a luxury is worrying.

We spent the morning working with some of the children that might be considered key children to Teresa. She really is popular with both the children and carers in the Orphanage and one can see the effect she has had on the Orphanage, and on the village more generally. Several people in the village popped out their heads to say hello to her (in Romanian, of course!) and give her a hug. We brought five of the children outside the Orphanage, with the permission of the Director, to the village and stayed with them whilst they ate ice creams, drank cola and received various small presents we got for them. I tried to teach the children the tune to the “Hokey Pokey" as they were all conversant with “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" from Teresa’s earlier visits. We must have been quite a sight, walking up a dirt track road, hand-in-hand with two of the children in wheelchairs and three beside us all singing completely out of tune and no-one knowing the second verse of either of the two songs! It was magical.

Concluding Thoughts
All in, it was an emotional visit for the both of us – for me, because it was my first time in such a barren environment, and for Teresa because she has some very strong attachments to several children, carers and families out in Romania. We are going to allow our twenty students to undertake a practica in an Orphanage, but will ask them to write up a 2500 word reflective journal. We wish them good fortune. As we travelled back to the Airport to catch our connecting flight to London, Teresa chatted fairly effortlessly in Romanian to the driver. I enjoyed seeing another side of Teresa on this visit.

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