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In Between Worlds

Author: Mihaela Marin, UNICEF Romania

A row of broken-down shacks located in a barren space by an abandoned railway line running between a modern mall and a supermarket, is what one Roma community in downtown Bucharest call home.

A place many children call home

Getting water means a walk of some kilometres from their slum dwelling to a public tap. The better off have power generators whose rumbling is almost drowned by the scratchy sound of “manele” music screaming out of old speakers, the barking of dogs and the shouting of children playing in the dust and grime. 
Laura is 15 years old and she comes here every now and then to stay in a shack with her maternal Roma grandparents. She comes here when she can no longer stand living at home. Her mother’s partner beats her up, locks her inside and doesn’t even let her go to school.

The barracks where Laura comes to stay with her grandparents

He even wanted her to take drugs, which he sells, but she didn’t touch any of that "because she doesn’t want to get addicted and pleasure him”. Laura detests him,
especially given that since her mother has got together with him, she has been treating Laura “worse than a stranger”.

Her parents broke up before she was two years old. Her father is Romanian, but it has been a long time since she last saw him. She knows that he tried to keep in touch with her, that he wanted to take her with him, but after a while they grew apart from each other. Later, Laura had two other “stepfathers" and brothers and sisters from each one of her mother’s partners. The first one, Izabela, is 13 years old now and she finished six years of school but she no longer attends.

Laura talking about her mother

The other sister must be about nine now. She went missing one day and nobody knows anything about her anymore. It seems that she was sold. They don’t know to whom and for how much. She was three and her name was Corina. Florin and Gina, born from her mother’s current relationships, who are aged four and two respectively, were practically brought up by Laura.

Daniela Dinu, counsellor at ASIS (Association for Social Integration Support) met Laura a year ago, on the street, after she had run away from home, sick and tired of her step father’s beatings and insults. Although she had just turned 14, she didn’t have an identity document. She had had a birth certificate, but her mothers’ partner had ripped it up. "I won’t let her have any documents until she is 18 because I just don’t want to!" he said. When ASIS insisted and threatened to call the Police and the Authority for Children’s Rights Protection, the man softened a little bit provided that “afterwards, they leave her with him".

Recreation in the day care centre

ASIS contacted the competent authorities so that Laura could first get her birth certificate and then her identity card. Laura’s mother didn’t protest the way her daughter was treated. The woman can’t read and write, which makes Laura ashamed of her, but she makes good money selling forged invoices. Meanwhile, Laura and her sister, Izabela, look after their younger brothers, as well as cooking, washing and cleaning. When she talks about her mother, Laura swings between love and hate. On one hand, she is afraid that something bad might happen to her mother because she knows the risks she is exposed to and, at the same time, she angrily accuses her of not caring about her at all and she would like to be just as cold or even never hear about her ever again. And, caught between these two strong and conflicting feelings, her heart of a child can’t take it anymore and she bursts into tears. Sobbing, she says that all she wants in this world is to have her mother back, the way she used to be, "a mother to teach her what is right and wrong just like all mothers do with their children".

Lacking a mother figure, Laura found herself another role model. Daniela is now the person she trusts the most. She can talk to her about anything, they quarrel every now and then like friends do as Laura is stubborn and headstrong, but she eventually gives in and she “does as Dana says”. Laura admits that meeting the people from ASIS was pure luck for her; she could have ended up on the street or, as has recently happened to her cousin Mariana of the same age, she could have been sold to God knows who for a few thousand euros.

Laura comes every morning to the day-care centre run by ASIS and she leaves at 5 p.m. Besides counselling, she takes part in all kinds of educational activities, and when school begins, the people here will help her with her homework.

Laura, Dana (left) and other girls at the day care centre

After getting her an ID card, Daniela managed to also enrol her in school this year. Any teenager of her age would start high school this year, but Laura will start only 4th grade this autumn. She finished the first three grades intermittently, skipping and repeating classes. She can’t wait to go back to school and she would like to finish at least 8 school years. She wants to show the world that she can do it. She is a fighter and Daniela thinks that she can make it and she is worth being helped.
ASIS also recorded Laura as presenting a high risk of contracting pulmonary TB, but she is currently undergoing treatment for that.

She is hardworking and ambitious at school and she likes to compete with the other children. Who knows, maybe one day she will get to work in a similar day-care centre because who better than her could listen to and guide the children who have a rough start in life just like her.

Smiling to the future

Laura swings between two worlds – one which is at hand and available to her, the world of the street and crime, where she is being pushed by her natural family, and another one opened to her by the joint efforts of the people working at the Association for Social Integration Support, that together with UNICEF is trying to give Laura and other children like her better chances in life.

The Association “Support for Social Integration” (ASIS) is a Romanian non-governmental organization which runs projects aimed at developing and consolidating independent life skills for the social integration of underprivileged persons. Projects targeting street children in Bucharest were assisted technically and financially by UNICEF Romania.

The appearance, especially in the larger cities, of children who are generically called “street children” is a phenomenon which has emerged in the past decade, and which is of continuous concern to UNICEF Romania. The estimated number of street children dropped from 3,200 in 2000 to 1,900 in 2003, with 300-400 living in Bucharest.

The project was assisted by UNICEF Romania with funds provided by the UK National Committee for UNICEF.

Note: the names of the children have been changed to protect their identity.



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