Could There Be Light at the End of the Tunnel?
-Can you breathe properly?
-Can you stand up tall?
Marius is telling me about his home: Bucharest’s heating pipe tunnels. They are part of the centralised heating system which takes hot water to the concrete blocks of flats built during Ceausescu’s era. Marius is fourteen. He belongs to a tunnel commune of nine who keep close together and look out for each other. Among them are an aunt and a cousin of his. It is warm down by the pipes and it is reassuring to have an extended family but this is where the romance of such a lifestyle ends.
‘Every time I come out of the tunnel, something claws at the inside of my head. The stale air really gets to you after a while.’ This is the only semblance of a complaint I hear from Marius all evening. He is one of the most polite fourteen-year-olds I have ever met. Manners come with his job description: begging. He is a dab hand at it, making in excess of 300 RON ($90) on a good day. And he has been doing it ever since he left home at six.
Marius is the bread-winner of his family based in Ferentari, Bucharest’s largest Roma district. His mother is visually impaired and has four more children to look after. His father has been out of work for a while now. Marius buys them groceries twice a week. If he can’t make it there from the central parts of the city which he occupies, he sends messages with his aunt or grandmother. Tonight we want to offer him a hot meal but he declines in his singularly polite manner and asks for a carton of milk for his little sister instead. Everyone present is fighting back tears in awe of this boy’s extraordinary humanity.
If he earns so well, you might wonder why Marius does not live some place nice. Why does he sleep on cardboard instead of a comfortable bed? Why does he crawl in a tunnel instead of chilling out on a leather sofa? Why does he look so tired and undernourished if he could well afford nutritious wholesome food? The ugly truth is that 90% of what he makes on the streets goes on injectable drugs.
Why does he inject? Psychologist Cristina from the Romanian Association Against Aids (ARAS) knows better than most how the homeless kids in the city slip into the drug habit: ‘It often starts off as something fun to do with your friends. Then they realise that it offers them an escape from the reality which they inhabit. Then it becomes an addiction: a routine of forgetting the hardship of their lives’. Marius’s forearms look like they have been attacked by rust disease, so dense are the red needle marks and the scabs on his skin.
Marius seems to mistakenly believe that one day he will become clean and set up house near his parents in Ferentari. His dream property is a baraca, a shantytown type of structure and the most common type of accommodation for Roma families. The reality of it is that the legal drugs Marius injects cause the brain to deteriorate irreversibly and for young people like him it can end tragically in death. When he refuses our offer of food tonight, he is not just being polite. One of the side effects of the drugs he uses is a total loss of appetite.
ARAS’s remit is to supply reusable syringes, educate about the risks of injecting drugs and monitor the health of users who approach them voluntarily. UNICEF backs up their work as many street kids in Romania inject. One of the main sponsors of the project, the Global Fund, pulled out this year. This has meant a reduction in the distribution of syringes although the two ambulance teams are working hard to maintain the frequency of visits they make to clients in the city.
Marius has been living in the tunnels for five years. He has been excluded from school because of poor attendance and because he does not have a permanent address. He confesses that at fourteen he can read a little. He has an illustrated book of children’s verse in the tunnel. Writing does not come easily to his right hand which was maimed when he burned it on a stove as a toddler. But he proudly announces that he still has his 2009 pupil record book. ‘With my picture in it,’ he adds with evident satisfaction.
As I write this, it strikes me that the name of the game is ‘human dignity’. If anyone could give back to Marius the pride of being who he is, there could, indeed, be light for him at the end of the tunnel. I am about to cry again this evening when he speaks his message to the world: ‘Thank you for listening to me! Thank you very much!’
Marius is a beneficiary of the MARA programme in Romania. It is designed and funded by UNICEF and implemented by ARAS. The aim is to reduce the risks of HIV infection among most-at-risk adolescents and improve their access to social and health services. The programme has been running since 2008. In 2011 it will continue with financial backing from the EU and a contribution from UNICEF.