The neglected children of Fundulea
By Blessy Savu
NOTE: The names of the children in this story have been altered in order to protect their privacy.
Located in Calarasi County, Fundulea is approximately 30 km east of Romania’s capital city, Bucharest. Officially labeled a town, Fundulea still carries the feel of a village while the once poverty stricken appearance with mud homes and household farms is being replaced by burgeoning homes with gardens and cars. Though this change may sound beautiful and heart-warming, it is accompanied by a vigorous strife for prosperity, in which the children of Fundulea are constantly being left behind.
Without the Day Center, supported by UNICEF through IKEA funds and set up by the NGO ‘Equilibre’, some of Fundulea’s children may simply run the risk of losing their childhood, easily getting drawn into manual labor in agriculture or as shepherds. Mr. Eugen Tincu, the manager of the center says that “often children in Fundulea get jobs that adults would not accept doing such as cleaning up animal excrements and herding”. Besides preventing child labor, the Fundulea Day Center is a necessity for children like Corneluta, Andrei, Valentina and Petre. In a community where parents are not open to education programs or counseling, saying “we know best how to raise our children,” direct support for the children provided by the Day Center is a gateway to positive change. Many of the children in Fundulea are being brought up by a grandparent or left home alone day after day. They have no chance of support for doing homework, or playing with toys or games at home – which small and insignificant as they may appear to an adult, are defining the prospects for these children.
Keeping their chin up
Soon after the Easter break, the Day Center is clamoring with the sound of children’s laughter and that of a ping-pong ball against the table. Children wish us “Hristos Inviat” (Christ has risen) as we enter the center. Corneluta, a 4th grader proudly walks in from the yard, grabbing her younger brother, Andrei by the hand. Corneluta is clearly aware that she’s a good student, and says with sheer eagerness, “I don’t have any bad grades in my report card”.
We’ve been told that they frequent the center daily, Corneluta before school and Andrei after school, at times accompanied by their mother, who keeps a keen interest in their education and out-of-school activities. Corneluta's mother has no education, she barely can write, but this does not hinder her from helping her children get a good education.
Corneluta's family struggles hard to meet its daily needs. They have a humble house; and on a sunny spring day, all that can be seen in their backyard are a handful of plants, too few even for subsistence. Corneluta’s father works a 12-hour shift on a crane, but Corneluta has never visited her father at work, and does not even know where he works.
Corneluta’s father is pleased with the upbringing his children are having, he does not want them to do chores, but all the same, he is not involved in their school life. He says with a weary smile, “I am not home much, but I am glad my children are good students. I just need to see the grades at the end, I don’t get involved. I need rest when I come home from a long day at work”.
The siblings keep their chin up as their father says, “I had no help, I started my life from scratch … my children are doing well”. The unity and strength of this family is admirable; it is unfortunately not something all children can rely on. Corneluta’s father reminds us with a meek sincerity of other children like Valentina and Petre, who have it much worse.
Adapting to hardships
Valentina, now in 5th grade, had joined the Day Center out of her own initiative four years ago. A bit atypical for a 7 year-old one may say. Sure, this initiative was not a 7-year old child’s fancy, but rather a choice and a decision that Valentina made, like many others she makes on a daily basis. Valentina’s daily routine starts with leading their cow to the herdsman, preparing herself for the day and helping her brother get ready as well. She goes to the center daily and after school she comes home and tends to the hens, cleaning up their pen, feeding them corn, gathering water from the well and tiding up the house.
Valentina is a quick learner, deftly adapting to the circumstances that surround her – circumstances beyond the daily routines and ones that a 7-year old should not have to cope with. Valentina and her younger brother Petre live with their parents and grandmother, at least until recently. After Christmas break last year, Valentina came back with news that their parents have separated. They now live with their father and grandmother. The stormy family life has scarred the children, both emotionally and physically. With his hand in a cast, a child stands apart while other children prepare for a game of tag.
The trauma of the dysfunctions in the family is most visible in Petre. Mr. Tincu from the Day Center observes that “Petre has very poor memory and attention. Often he forgets the alphabet that he just wrote.” His unstable state of mind is visible even in his posture. Like a curious child, he smiles a lot for the camera, and then all of a sudden recluses from interaction – absorbed by the music in his headphones.
Mr. Eugen Tincu from the Day Center recollects the day when he first realized that Valentina’s parents had separated. “Valentina came in one day and started crying her heart out. Trying to subdue her, I asked her what had happened and she said that her mother did not even want to return her calls.” Like Valentina, Petre who claims he was him mommy’s favorite, as well speaks with anger, “My mom doesn’t even want to see us. We don’t love her anymore. She left us. She lied to us; she said she will come for us.”
Directing anger, disappointment and blame towards their mother for leaving them, Valentina and Petre defend their family from criticism and ridicule. Petre is “unhappy about his classmates who talk bad about (his) father.” Valentina is careful and tries not to reveal too much of her family problems, particularly putting her father in a positive light.
With a mother who is collecting the children’s social assistance without providing them any support and a father who is often drunk, sometimes abusive, working sporadically and barely holding on to a job each time, Valentina and Petre depend on their grandmother who is taking charge of the family responsibilities.
When asked: what is the result of 3 times 2, Petre speedily responds “six”, 4 times 3, “12”, and when asked 3 times 4, he smiles shyly and says, “it’s the same, 12”. Petre who says that he wants to be a bodyguard “to beat up the guys who do bad things” also happens to like mathematics. He surely knows his multiplication tables well. It is clear that Valentina and Petre need the support of the Day Center, also in shouldering their grandmother’s drive to bring normality to their lives.
The UNICEF supported center established by Equilibre in Fundulea helps over 50 children. The stories of Valentina, Petre, Corneluta and Andrei are not unique in Fundulea. The Day Center helps restore the childhood of many children in Fundulea, and to many it is a place of solace. The center as well provides guidance to families at risk of neglecting their children, or subjecting them to strenuous labor and toil or worse yet at risk of abandoning their children.