Laying the foundations for a happier future in Ferentari
Author: Debbie Stowe
From an anonymous building in the impoverished Bucharest neighbourhood of Ferentari comes the cheery sound of children’s chatter. It looks like a school, but it isn’t one. The building is home to the Philip Home Foundation, a day care centre which 126 local children attend before or after school for help with studies, company, fun, a hot meal, medical care and all-round family support. UNICEF has sponsored the project, run by Professor Ovidiu Filipescu, for six years. Demand is high, and there is not enough space for all the children the organisers would like to accommodate, leaving them with tough choices to make.
It is to the credit of all involved that the foundation does not feel like a project for vulnerable children. When adults enter, the children jump up immediately and chorus “bună ziua”, before getting back down to work. They complete their homework on their own or work in groups, with help from a tutor. They are well behaved and friendly.
But they all have a story. Ferentari has a reputation as the worst part of Bucharest. Famed as a centre of drug-dealing, prostitution and other illegal activities, the accommodation in the area is typically substandard, often lacking heat or running water. There are many single-parent families, while generations tend to live together in small apartments, sometimes with up to eight people sharing a room. Children are often inadequately cared for, encouraged and fed. They can also be exposed to some of the worst aspects of their parents’ chaotic lives.
Seventh-grader Gabriela was found sleeping in the garbage six years ago, her only source of “protection” coming from the stray dogs who befriended her. Having failed to hold down a job in Bucharest, her mother had left to work in Italy. Gabriela now lives in social housing, sharing a flat with a 17-year-old friend, Beti. Asked who takes care of the house and of her, she replies that she is a big girl and doesn’t need help. Without the centre, she doesn’t think she would be able to go to college, something she fully intends to do. When Gabriela grows up, she wants to work in an office, wear suits and have a nice car. She plans to be either a lawyer or a vet – the latter owing to her love of dogs.
Twelve-year-old Adrian is also growing up without one parent. His father has gone, he says. Asked where, he replies to a foreign country. Pushed further he specifies Italy. Adrian’s dad can’t come and visit, he says, but they speak on the phone and he sends the family money. But it’s not the full story. Adrian’s dad really can’t visit, but not because he’s busy working in Italy. He is in prison, a fact that Adrian’s mother advised him to conceal, for fear of being teased.
Beyond the litany of social problems that blight the neighbourhood, Ovidiu Filipescu and his team also have to confront parental attitudes. Education, he believes, is the key to the problem, but many of the parents take a short-term outlook, and question the point of their children studying when they can steal or deal drugs and have money immediately. Social integration is another vital aspect. The children’s parents frequently shout, despite the relative quiet of the streets, and part of the foundation’s task is to teach the children basic behaviour and manners. A book called Bunele Maniere (Good Manners) is displayed prominently on a shelf.
As well as supporting the children in their education – assisting them with their homework, helping dropouts reintegrate into school, preventing pupils from abandoning their studies in the first place – the Philip House Foundation feeds them, providing a hot lunch which for many is the only cooked meal of the day. The children also get access to healthcare and a dentist, as well as psychological support. Fortnightly meetings with parents attempt to address some of the issues – drug use, child abandonment, inadequate parenting skills – that affect the children’s wellbeing. An Early Childhood Development Multifunctional Centre targets two- to three-year-olds. Poorer children are furnished with school supplies, while the centre extends similar support to families, as well as helping them to get proof of identity, a job and health insurance.
There are heartening success stories. One boy who came to the centre studied at a local RATB depot, where he learned to be a bus driver. Eight years on he is now a chauffeur, and now takes his own child to kindergarten.
In a community short on positive role models, one of the most important things the foundation gives the children is self-belief. Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, seventh-grader Mihaela answers confidently, “Save the world.”