Bread and Mustard
This accommodation cannot shelter the family from bad weather
By Iana Bejaniyska, UNICEF Consultant
A ham and mustard sandwich is a delicious combination, won’t you agree? But what happens when you take the ham away? What happens when you are so poor that you can’t afford to insert a piece of ham between your slices of bread? You end up with a mustard sandwich. One, it is a lot less palatable. Two, when consumed too often, it causes acute abdominal pain. Three, when it constitutes the staple diet of a mother and her children, the lot of them are severely under- and malnourished.
But bread and mustard is precisely what Sandra and her children had last weekend. And the weekend before. And many long weekends before that with no heating, no gas and no running water when the only way to cheat your huger would be to fall asleep, provided your head or stomach were not too sore and you had a thick blanket to wrap up in. Sandra’s son is a past master at cheating hunger but not so the girls and their mother.
Poverty and pain have become Sandra’s lifetime companions. Given that she is a wisp of a woman, it is surprising that she is still functioning at all, never mind doing an amazing job as a single mother. Not in terms of providing for them materially, but in raising them to be respectful, hard-working and have aspirations.
‘I fight for the kids. Without them I wouldn’t be around now. There was a time when we had to rough it,living in the street, but I carried on sending them to school. Toma was fifteen and Ela seven. My youngest, Cati, was only two.’
The children are now twenty, nineteen and eleven, respectively, but each one looks at least five years younger, their ‘bread and mustard’ bodies struggling to appear their true age.
Just over twenty years ago, soon after Sandra left the orphanage in which she was raised, she had Toma. The father never lived with the family. Then another man entered her life who married and then divorced her because she gave him two daughters but failed to ‘deliver’ a son.
When asked about the effects of the crisis on her own life, Sandra smiles a bitter kind of smile: ‘Crisis! My life has been an interminable crisis. I was in care between the ages of three and eighteen. My dad died and my mother abandoned me as a toddler. No one has ever helped me.’
Life as a single parent has been an uphill struggle but Sandra somehow managed to make ends meet. Until 2010, that is. Some years ago she sub-rented a room from a large Roma family in Bucharest’s massive slum, Ferentari; and during the years of economic boom made a living selling pocket calendars, tissues and knick-knacks on the long tram routes of the two-million-strong city.
Then the crisis hit Romania and many unskilled workers who had been made redundant began to compete for the market niche Sandra had carved out for herself. During the mid-noughties she easily made 100RON ($34) per day. Now she is lucky if she comes home with 20 ($6.80).
With such a severe drop in income, the inevitable happened. When she failed to pay the rent last summer, her landlord kicked her and the children out. All their belongings, including IDs, were retained by him. She fears for her safety if she is to go and plead with him to get them back without bringing the money she owes. Contacting the police is out of question. Sandra is convinced that the large Roma family will retaliate although she is half-Roma herself.
Without her papers she cannot qualify for social assistance and had huge trouble finding somewhere to stay. Eventually someone took pity and let the single mother have two rooms with a hole in the roof in a village outside Bucharest. Now most of the pennies she sweats for go on the commute to Bucharest for the children’s school hours.
Caminul Phillip: a ray of light in a gloomy landscape
‘Life is catching up with me,’ sighs Sandra. ‘Last week I wasn’t well. Couldn’t make it to work. Now I feel so tired. I’m beginning to get depressed from the constant exhaustion. Cati, my baby, suffers from calcium deficiency and is on constant medication. She wasn’t feeling well either and I couldn’t take proper care of her. I didn’t have anything to give her for her headache, just bread and mustard. And she can’t stomach it.’
All Sandra’s children have benefited from the care of Caminul Phillip, a haven for children in the Ferentari slums. The foundation not only ensures that children from vulnerable families do not abandon school, the staff set the bar high and expect strong academic performance by their charges. The youngsters also learn life skills such as keeping clean, eating well and behaving politely. Back home many of them end up teaching their parents what they learned at the day centre. Slowly, the habits of the community begin to change. Or so do the foundation, its partners, UNICEF being one, and the local Roma leaders hope. They want to integrate into Romanian society and see their children get a decent education and employment.
This is Sandra’s goal too. ‘I am proud of my children. They have learned to endure hardship but never for a moment thought of giving up. They work hard at school even on an empty stomach. On weekdays I don’t have to worry so much about Cati’s meals. She gets a three-course lunch at Caminul Phillip and she knows how to make it last through the day.’
Academically, Sandra’s children have done extremely well. Toma is learning to be a car mechanic but is already a dab hand at fixing computers.
‘He’s so generous that he does it for friends and friends-of-friends totally for free. Always puts others before him,’ the mother shakes her head in disbelief and approval at the same time, pleased that she has raised a good man.
Ela married recently and is learning to be a nurse. She benefits from accommodation for young families provided by a religious charity. This summer Toma will work as an irrigation maintenance engineer in Italy. He wants to buy a small piece of land with the money he earns. If he could build a little house for his mother, she would never again have to worry about a roof over her head.