Slightly smaller than Oregon, Romania is perhaps best known for its beautiful capital Bucharest and the Transylvanian Alps. Its population is 22 million, of whom 45% live below the poverty line due to decades of dictatorship from Nicolae Ceausescu which began in 1965 and lasted until 1989 when he was overthrown and executed. A small number of Romanians (2.5%) are considered Roma, or “Gypsy.” Religions are varied, with the majority being Eastern Orthodox with 87%, Protestant (7%), Roman Catholic (6%), and approximately 1% Muslim.
Romania’s economic development lags far behind most of Europe. Per capita income is only US$7,600, ranking Romania 69th in the U.N. Human Development Index, somewhere down around Venezuela, Brazil, and Thailand.
Romania is infamously known for its staggering amount of orphans, and its orphanages are among the worst in the world. The problem of Romanian orphanages began with the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. One of his goals was to spread communism by increasing the population of Romania to 30 million by the year 2000. He went to extreme measures to reach his population goal. Under Ceaucescu’s regime, every woman was required by law to have at least four children, which was increased a few years later to five children. Families that had fewer than three children were taxed heavily. Women were regularly monitored for pregnancy and did not become eligible for birth control until the age of 45. Importing condoms was an imprisonable offense.
The vast majority of children in Ceausescu’s orphanages are not actually orphans. These state-run “orphanages” were created to house the excess children that families could not support and abandoned. Orphanages were staffed by the smallest number of people who could keep the institution minimally operational, with no consideration given to the developmental needs of the children. Children in these institutions grew up without mental stimulation or physical activity, without any loving human touch, and often without sufficient food, clothing, or health care. Pierre Poupard, the head of UNICEF in Romania, calls these children “a lost generation.” They were closeted away from society, often malnourished and subjected to physical and even sexual abuse.
Conditions in the orphanages have changed only slightly for the better. Romania is currently experiencing a great deal of economic difficulty but is slowly moving in the right direction. The consequences of the nation’s many years of authoritarianism are lingering problems that will continue for a very long time. As Romania crawls from the rubble left after decades of communism toward a free market economy, many people are still suffering. International monetary organizations have reported that Romania has actually regressed economically during recent years. As a consequence of this economic downturn, many more children have been abandoned to the orphanages bringing their numbers to over 140,000.
Orphans International is committed to helping these children under a new plan developed specifically to deal with the orphans in Romania. In partnership with The Princess Margarita of Romania Foundation, OI Romania will work towards de-institutionalizing children from state-run orphanages so they have a chance to learn, grow, and become global citizens.
Thinking about what volunteers I had available to meet me for a tour of Romania, my thoughts returned to Boris Stankevich of Belarus. How far could Belarus be from Bucharest, I wondered? Soon I knew: two days by train. But he traveled the distance in February of 2006 to spend a week with me in Bucharest – through a blizzard – speaking to a host of specialists, including Ethan Hawke’s mother Leslie who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania and returned to head an NGO. We spent a wonderful day in her home.
The most significant woman we met in Romania was Princess Margarita, who as coincidence would serve, was cousin to Duke Frantz. She welcomed Boris and me to her palace, and we got along extraordinarily from the first moment we met. The Princess was enthralled by our approach, and quickly made the decision that the Princess Margarita of Romania Foundation would partner with us in creating OI Romania. Although fancy myself good at making quick executive decisions, she stunned even me with her speed and resoluteness.
Following our meeting with the princess, we met with the Romanian Department of Social Affairs, and found another big-hearted person, Liliana Vasilescu, Executive Director of the Romanian Social Development Fund. She agreed to find three candidate villages meeting our needs in Transylvania. Our ideal village, we explained, would have a population of about 2,000, be made up of a cross-section of ethnicities, and have not only the need and desire but the necessary leadership in place to invite us to work there. Using the experience we have accumulated in opening our other projects, we have found certain universal issues that need to be addressed in each country, and we expect that they will be similar in Romania. The first important step will be to identify the appropriate village. Here we build up over time to a 16 hectare (40 acre) campus, either in one lot or scattered throughout the village. In each of our campuses we have become one of the largest local employers, and local leaders welcome us with open arms. One of the possible towns we looked at is Bontida.
We hope to build four small houses for four adolescents each, for a total population of sixteen children aged ten to fourteen. The noted organization World Learning stressed the need to cater to a specific population, which we believe would be in keeping with our established model. These children are in the process this year of being de-institutionalized from large government-run institutions. The tentative working name for this project will be “Orphans International Romania in Partnership with the Princess Margarita of Romania Foundation.”
Our next step will be to return there and visit each of the villages, which we hope to do by the spring of 2007.
At the end of our first organizing trip to Romania, Boris Stankevich and I were particularly grateful to HRH the Princess Margarita of Romania, Corina Crangasu, Executive Director of the Princess Margarita of Romania Foundation, and Liliana Vasilescu of the Romanian Social Development Fund.
Best Western for offered their property to us as a Transylvanian base for our next organizing trip, Air France provided transportation from New York to Bucharest, and Hilton Hotel offered to provide us with furniture, bedding, and linens.
We were grateful as well to Peggy Bates and Ioana Ciaunde Santiváñez of the International Women’s Association of Bucharest for encouraging us to apply for funding to cover washing machines, dryers, and refrigerators; Lucretia Moldareanu, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages for tentatively agreeing to assist us with the training of houseparents; the Japanese Agency for International Cooperation for agreeing to consider us for inclusion in their program; and the U.S., Peruvian, and Japanese embassies.
We would like to extended thanks to Adriana Stoica, Executive Director of the United Way of Romania; Malin Malineanu, General Manager of American Express Travel; Dr. Bill Saur, Executive Director of World Learning; Maria Sandor and Bill Seas of CHF; Leslie Hawke and Maria Gheorghiu of Asociata Ovidiu Rom; Hon. Bryan Dalton, American Counsel General; Hon. Ryohei Tobibayashi; Mike Costache, Director of the Blue Heron Foundation; and Attorney Tony Raftopol. In the name of each child, may I give them all a heartfelt thank you.