Kitchen and bathroom in one
by Iana Bejaniyska, UNICEF Consultant
In the heart of a handsome Transylvanian city with Roman remains, a medieval fortress and a twentieth-century coronation cathedral complex, there is a block of flats by the name of Turturica. Other than ‘turturica’ translating into English as ‘dove’, there is no trace of the ‘campaign for real beauty’ by the cosmetics giant in the run-down concrete ghetto. For ghetto it is. With the majority of flats consisting of a small single room and a bathroom but inhabited by families as large as ten, the interior is overcrowded, dirty and dark. It shocks and disgusts most visitors. But by the standards of Roma accommodation in Eastern Europe it is pretty average. It belongs in an unendorsed campaign for real ugliness.
Alba Iulia’s main pedestrian area opens up towards a lovely vista of the Carpathians. Nice shops line the promenade. Grandparents sit on benches watching their grandchildren play in the sun. Even in the middle of a recession this city looks confident and full of itself. But if you are to take a turning from the high street, you will end up in an estate initially obscured by the shop facades. Turn another corner, and you will be standing in front of Turturica.
It does not announce itself so much by sight as by sound. The clamour of children’s voices and the loud conversations of adults jar with the serenity of the leafy centre. There are no benches for them to sit on but they are content to stand around for hours while the children play tig or kick a ball. Sometimes fights break out and the voices become even louder but no one takes much notice.
‘The mayor even built us a playground last year but only the slide is still in use. The rest of the stuff got broken,’ says one of the friendly eight-year-olds in a group of curious children which spontaneously forms around the visitors.
In a time of recession the majority of the population suffers a decline in their standard of living but Turturica has seen more benefits since 2009 than it had in the whole of its previous existence. When the financial crisis hit Romania for real, the block was picked to participate in a study supported by the World Bank and UNICEF. Hours of interviews by top statisticians from Bucharest were conducted with focus groups. Diaries were kept and documents studied to determine the extent to which the crisis touched the ghettoised community.
Local bosses sat up and in a short time Turturica acquired not only a new playground but windows in the main stairway. The residents receive regular help from volunteers, support from a Bucharest NGO and many have joined a motivational programme. Those families who score well on the programme are rewarded, in the main, with school books and stationery, and the opportunity for youngsters to go to summer camp.
One objective of the programme was to encourage the parents and children to take better care of their environment and all the public spaces in and around their block. It has been unsuccessful so far not least because the mayor gave amnesty to offenders who continued to soil the landings and throw their rubbish directly outside from the windows. The programme had stipulated that regular offenders would be evicted from the block after a certain time. That did not happen.
Mariela’s is the family where all four school age kids have won awards on the programme. It has been two years now since the recession brought her and her husband back from Central Europe after almost a decade of work overseas. Two of her children stayed behind in a Polish children’s home.
‘Conditions there were a lot better. I had three rooms, a decent income. The children had learned Polish and were doing well at school. When the economy started shrinking we lost our jobs and decided to return. My husband died from a stroke almost immediately after we moved into Turturica. It broke his heart to see us living on top of each other in this tiny room. The fifteen-year-old twin girls have to sleep on mattresses on the floor at night. They can’t change into their pyjamas in peace. My stove is in the bathroom. We live like animals.’
Kitchen and bathroom in one.
The mum of eight winces from a piercing tooth ache. She suffers from migraines. She is desperate but she must have done something right as her children are presentable, polite and have aspirations for the future. One of the twins is aiming to go to university after completing high school. She will be the first in the family. The other is going to vocational school to train as a beautician. Football is on the mind of the younger boys but Mariela’s eldest son, now twenty, is finding life in Romania hard. He has not been able to secure a regular job and between stints of temporary construction work, he spends hours on Facebook with his Polish friends.
‘At least he is not a thief,’ says his mother. ‘Last year three teenagers from the block were jailed for stealing.’
Will Mihai have a roof over his head next month?
In larger cities, apart from petty crime, the recession has contributed to the rise of the number of girls who prostitute themselves, sometimes pimped by their own fathers. In Turturica this has not occurred. Most common are family feuds caused by the return of a relative who worked abroad. Scandals take place outside the block about sharing out the money and gifts that were brought back. The children normally stare in dismay as their parents exchange curses that would make a soldier blush.
The motivational programme tries to educate the children away from this model of behaviour. Many of the parents have become used to receiving social assistance from the state, aid from NGOs and gifts from family members but are prepared to give little in return as the failures of aspects of the programme have demonstrated.
The adults habitually complain about how poor they are and more recently about benefit cuts. Due to a restructuring of the benefit system last January many families no longer qualify for income support due to a lack of clarity in the regulations and a lack of consistency in their application. The local government may decide that possessions such as a computer and a mobile phone constitute wealth and reduce or withdraw a benefit. There have been extreme cases. The lunches which an old woman was offered by her kind neighbour on a daily basis were interpreted as a form of income and her social security payments were substantially cut.
In Turturica a number of parents fear eviction as their supplementary child allowance has dropped, although no one is sure by how much, and they have rent to pay in arrears. Letters from the authorities have been mislaid. Receipts for past payments do not add up. Volunteers explain that the loss to the family will be minimal under the new conditions if the children attend school regularly. A middle aged woman who has just realised that there is ‘money in education’ runs up to the young teacher who organises weekly activities for the Tururica kids.
His mother has not paid the rent for a while and may be evicted.
‘I have a thirteen-year-old daughter who’s never been to school. Will you help me enrol her in first grade?’
A group of women who until recently held jobs at a local clothes manufacturer but were made redundant due to a contraction of the business, now express deep regret for having not completed high school and earned qualifications that would widen their employment opportunities.
Some families are setting their sights on work abroad this summer as the German and Italian economies are back on their feet and need seasonal workers.
The block is teeming predominantly with women, children and old people. The men either abandoned their families long ago or have traded family life for migrant work. There are rumours that Alexandru has a woman in Spain but as long as he is sending money home, his house proud wife, Sofia, alone with three children under seven, is not going to ask uncomfortable questions.
When Anca went to Germany to work as a carer, leaving her husband and two teenage daughters behind, the family was relieved that, at long last, they would have a decent income. Before a year had passed, Anca’s husband was informed that his wife had found a new man. He travelled to Germany and murdered her in an act of jealousy. He is in prison now and his daughters are alone, struggling to finish school on a meagre child allowance.
Such are the inequities of Turturica but there is room for beauty in the midst of this dehumanised space. When single mother Rosa died of cancer last year in her early forties, her son and daughter received huge support from the Turturica community. Two aunties take care of their meals and money, ensuring the children are fed, clothed, clean, go to school every day and do their homework. Neighbours babysit the little boy when his older sister needs to study for exams. There was never a shortage of sympathy and kind words for the orphans.
Is Turturica going to sink or soar? Times are hard, conditions are miserable but there is a core of about seventy children in the block who are learning a set of different values to the opportunism of the adult majority. With education as their top priority, the window is ajar and the new crop of Turturele (doves) are preparing for flight.