No Time for a Slipped Disk
A little princess dreams of better days
by Iana Bejaniyska , UNICEF Consultant
As many governments worldwide endeavour to reduce their budget deficit, people at the bottom of the income pile are increasing theirs. In Romania these are often parents on a minimum income who do not qualify for a credit card, an overdraft or an interest-free repayment plan with one of the big furniture or electronics stores. Like the bohemians of an earlier era, they buy on credit from the local grocer. Potatoes, sugar, washing-up liquid and many other basics have nearly doubled in price since 2008. Desperate parents are accruing debts to buy food for their children.
100 RON ($34) is the price of a historic tour-for-one in Brooklyn, whereas in Bucharest, Cristina, her husband and their four children have to live off this amount for a month. No wonder they have been supping on beans ever since her husband lost his job in January. A slipped disk kept him off work for two weeks and, when he returned, he found his driving job was gone. Being Roma and in his forties he is hardly an employer’s first choice. He has been working since he was a teenager and all his papers are in order. Sadly, the first and only time he was sick, he was ruthlessly axed. Discrimination against Roma employees in Romania is very common. The tough economic conditions have only exacerbated the problem.
Cristina is an ethnic Romanian. She was sixteen when she met Dan, seven years her elder. Their marriage was received very coolly in both camps.
‘My parents did not approve, neither did his. But we stood by each other.’
Hard-working Dan made sure that the family was comfortable, putting money aside to buy a three-bedroom flat in the capital. Many families in their position, especially Roma, make do with a single room in shabby state-owned blocks built during Ceausescu’s regime.
Life looked good four years ago. Then the economy stagnated before starting to go downhill. With Dan’s health deteriorating, the current outlook for the family is bleak. Their oldest son, fifteen-year-old Stoica, has had to give up his football club as his parents can’t afford to pay the membership fee anymore. Thirteen-year-old twins, Silviu and Alex, haven’t got the full set of books they need for school as the family budget ran out after the purchase of their school uniforms. Little Ana, the three-year-old darling of the family, the spoiled little princess who had such lovely shoes and dresses before, has to wear clothes donated by charitable individuals. The children haven’t sniffed sweets or had a bite of meat in a long while. The only way to make the daily helping of beans more interesting is to add some tomato puree to the pot.
‘Mum, is it beans again this evening?’ the boys ask with frowns on their faces, pressing their hands against their swollen tummies.
Cristina has a part-time job at one of Bucharest’s large emergency hospitals. She sorts the dirty bed linen. There are rumours that everyone in her department will be made redundant soon. For now she takes full advantage of the meal coupons her employer provides and, whenever the canteen has leftovers to go round, she brings the food home.
She might have married too early and not finished the sixth grade of school but, in the midst of the financial crisis, Cristina has found a new determination to do better in life.
Last year she enrolled in the Second Chance Programme which allows adults to complete the education on which they missed out earlier in life. The programme is flexible and Cristina can cover the material for two academic years in one. Consequently, she is already working towards completing the seventh grade on a par with the twins. They help her out with geography and maths. She hopes to get her tenth-grade baccalaureate in no more than another two years and go to nursing school.
‘Once I’ve qualified as a nurse, I’ll be able to support the family even single-handed.’
The joys of being a mature student aside, it is nerve-wracking times for Cristina and Dan. He needs a back operation but because his condition has stabilised his case is no longer classified as an emergency and he cannot receive free treatment in a state hospital. Prices at private clinics are prohibitive so he has decided to find another job, any job, and work until his back gives completely in order to qualify for a free emergency operation.
Because of their relative prosperity in the past and Dan’s unfair dismissal without a certificate for unemployment, the family cannot access the unemployment and income support benefits to which they are entitled. The only assistance they receive from the government is a discount for their heating costs which covers less than half of their monthly bills.
Cristina smiles as she tells her story. An intrepid spirit like hers is the only means to pull through a recession made significantly worse by unscrupulous employers and bureaucratic social services.