Hard to reach
Maria, her husband and eight children live below the poverty line. Theirs is not so much a life as a perpetual struggle for survival. Out of the eight children, only three are at school.
A seventeen-year-old girl stays at home and helps her mother look after the younger children. An eleven-year-old boy drives the horse-drawn cart and helps his father as a farm hand or with other casual work. Three girls attend the elementary school in nearby Joldesti. Another three are still too young for school. Why aren’t they at kindergarten?
‘It’s too complicated. The three-year-old boy nearly lost a finger recently. I wanted to keep him close so he would recover from the shock. His older brother is too naughty. He’s been to the local kindergarten with big sis. But she’s moved up to primary now and he won’t spend a minute there without giving everyone absolute grief. I’ll wait till I can send both boys together to keep each other company. The older children are better off at home. They are good workers and school never did them much good.’
Maria’s eyes are constantly darting back and forth keeping tabs on the moves of her brood. Her hands never rest either. She is stripping corn off the cob to use during the long winter months. Ground, it makes good polenta. In the tiny village of Icuseni in the extreme North-East of Romania, winters are long and biting cold. They will pull through on a diet of polenta but without heating and running water it is going to be a tough few months.
Maria seems to be a caring mother but she has the values of a past era when children were a commodity to be exploited by adults, expected to work as soon as they could walk, their education a nuisance rather than a vital investment in their future. Soon Maria’s husband returns from another day of futile search for casual local work.
‘Believe me, good people, there is no work round here. None at all. In the summer we manage to scrape a few bob by helping out on farms but once the winter sets in, that’s it. Child benefit is our only income. We have twelve children but four have already flown the nest and have families of their own. None of the older ones is employed. Even the bigger towns of Botosani and Suceava don’t offer much in the way of work. And how do I get there? Walk 20-30 kilometres every day? Are you crazy?
The two younger daughters will be back from school any minute. They need to get the 7:30 bus from the centre every morning, which is a fair walk. If they miss it, they have to leg the 4km to Joldesti. At least they are keen to learn. Their eleven-year-old brother and two big sisters never settled in school. Left to repeat the same grade four times, they were put off education very early on.
‘What’s the point in sending them to school? At the rate at which they were progressing, they would be granddads and grandmas before graduating from middle school. The boy who helps me was only thinking of who to beat up during the interval. Letters and numbers went right over his head. His class teacher said to me: “Sir, it’s just not happening for him here. He has to go to a special school.” They said exactly the same about our eldest daughters many years ago. A special school? How am I even going to get them there? We barely manage to buy a few ounces of oil and sugar every month. Money for transport is out of the question.’
The parents are not aware that they could have turned to a medic or an educational psychologist to have their children assessed for learning difficulties. They are embarrassed that their less academic offspring are troublemakers at school. In their view, the best course of action is to withdraw them from school permanently. Neither their children’s teachers nor the GP have paid them a visit for years. The family has given up hope convinced that nobody in the outside world really cares.
Maria walked 14 kilometres to Vorona last summer to buy her daughters school stationery. Although the family would be entitled to a number of supplementary benefits, including free school stationery, they subsist solely on child benefit because they ‘don’t like to make a fuss’. They struggle with filling in the endless application forms and do not know where to hand them in.
‘It’s a waste of my time,’ the father rejects the very idea of seeking further help. ‘I’ll need two or three weeks to sort it out: travelling to the nearby town, waiting for hours in front of the closed doors of social services...What are they going to give me anyway? We are managing somehow as it is.’
The family lives in isolation like many others in that area. Put off education and the services and benefits they might be entitled to, they are suspended in a social and economic limbo. They are difficult to reach and not reaching out. Children are anonymous numbers. While they are young, parents receive child benefit for them. Once they turn eighteen, they become a burden. Although the government pays supplementary allowance for children who are in regular full-time education, many parents lack the means, mindset and skills required to keep their children in school.
‘There was a nice teacher who used to pull up by the gate and drive our kids to school every morning. But she’s gone. We have noon to lean on. I was up until midnight the other day trying to help the girl in second grade with her homework. Once they move up the school I can do nothing for them. The daughter who is in fifth grade wants to go to ballroom dancing. She’s smart. She’s sociable. But where do I get the money for after-school activities?’
UNICEF Romania and partners, together with community stakeholders, are piloting a programme designed to answer questions like that and help families get access to information, services and benefits. Dedicated social workers from each commune in six districts in the North-East are trying to reach every single family, record their circumstances and offer guidance on what help is available.
One of them paid a visit to Maria’s family in the summer. The mother has enrolled three children in school and kindergarten since but it will take a lot of hard work and dedication to convince these marginalised people that education is worthwhile, that asking for help is OK, that there is more to life than basic survival and that their children have the right to a better life.