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Romania: the chance for a normal life
by Andrea Bistrich  

Irina Dragoi and her teammates look after poor and homeless children in Bucharest. (1,114 words)

When it comes to fighting poverty, Romania’s Aid organizations are no longer waiting for the government — they are now taking the initiative themselves. A project called “Street children paint Icons” shows how successful and creative they are.

A UNICEF study placed the number of Romanian street children in 2001 at around 8,000. This figure includes children who have lost all contact with their families and live permanently on the streets as well as those who live partly at home. They sleep in parks, rubbish dumps, railway stations or in the “canal” systems, the dark, stifling maintenance shafts of Bucharest’s heating system. In Bucharest alone some 3,000 children live on the streets. Many do not know where they will sleep the following night or when they will have their next meal.

Turning point

Only after the revolution of 1989 did it become evident to the international public for the first time what the Ceaucescu regime had done to the Romanian people. Among the victims were 150,000 children, left to grow up in state homes under extreme deprivation and the most degrading, inhumane conditions. They vegetated away with almost no medical care and no education — hungry, dressed in rags, others naked. However, 1989 was a turning point for children in the homes, and many ran away. Some made their way to the cities, preferring uncertainty on the streets, but with personal freedom, to spending the rest of their lives locked away.

“They sleep in parks, rubbish dumps, railway stations or in the “canal” systems, the dark, stifling maintenance shafts of Bucharest’s heating system.” photo: Andreas de Bruin  

Irina Dragoi remembers the time well. “I saw the misery in which the children were living and I knew that we had to do something. We had to care for our young generation.” For 30 years she had worked as an engineer in factories developing medicine, paints and chemicals. Now she felt a strong inner urge to help, and with two girlfriends tried an experiment. “We approached several children who were living on the streets and were inhaling paint fumes, and asked them if they would like to talk to us, eat something and maybe also do some painting.” That was in 1993. After initial hesitation the children were enthusiastic and from that point the project took off.


Initiatives bring hope

“We want to give the children in Bucharest a chance for a normal life, and to prevent children from poorer families fleeing to the streets,” Irina explains. Since early 1993 the small, committed team has steadily grown and today there are 40 permanent co-workers alongside Irina. They have named their organization, which is non-governmental and Christian, “Sankt Stelian”; Stelian is the guardian of children. Irina reflects: “I no longer have time to think of myself, and when I do, I feel ashamed.”

Every Saturday Irina invites children from poor families, and those who live on the streets, to paint icons                                              photo: Andreas de Bruin  

The helpers go out on the streets, talk with the children, and feed and care for them. Over 100 children have been looked after in this way. Since last year the “social canteen” has served 875 meals weekly to the children; 65 children receive further education, and eight youths from socially weak families are being trained as hairdressers and barbers under an apprenticeship programme. Over 120 poverty-stricken families are regularly visited and supported with food, clothes and medical care. The projects are supported by donations, the majority coming from abroad. Within the last few years, though somewhat slowly, the state has been working towards co-operation with the voluntary groups, recognizing that the problem can only be solved together.

Street children paint icons

One of the projects that Irina is especially close to is the painting of icons. Every Saturday the energetic woman invites children from poor families, and those who live on the streets, to paint icons: “The results are overwhelming.” In the bright rooms of the social canteen the children have the opportunity to create independently something that matches their sense of colour and atmosphere and offers a balance to their hard life on the streets. “The children should feel absolutely well here. They should have time for leisure, without constantly having to worry about survival,” Irina emphazises. At the end of each painting session each child receives a hot meal.

The first icons painted on glass have been donated to families who were too poor to buy a real icon. In Romania icons have a long tradition. Peasants from Siebenbuergen have produced and spread the images painted on glass since the 18th century. It is important for every family to have an icon because, Irena explains, “God is present through the icons”.

Values and new orientation

“Often the children’s personal fate is reflected in their icons.” Irina describes how six-year-old Christian, painting for the first time, covered the colourful painting of the “Holy Family” with a thick coat of desolate grey paint. “He appeared very fragile and too small for his age.” Later, she took him with her to Zurich, where, in Gross Munster, the first exhibition of the St Stelian glass paintings was held. “The public was impressed. When someone asked Christian if he was a street child, he answered with a bright voice: ‘No, I’m an artist.’” Irina says that she likes to tell the story as it clearly expresses the positive transformation in the children and the self-confidence that they gain through painting.

Another example of the great success of the painting project is Marian Negoe. Many years ago Marian was also a street child. Desolate and undernourished he would roam the streets of Bucharest looking for something to eat. But he was lucky; an old couple found him and took him in. Through painting icons in St Stelian he discovered his talent for painting. Today Marian has a diploma and is an art teacher, teaching the children of St Stelian. The children want to know everything. Questions about the contents of the pictures are almost more important to them than the choice of colour or certain painting techniques, explains Marian, as he walks along the rows of tables in the social canteen that has been converted to a ‘painting workshop’.

“For the children, the holy pictures are an ideal that show them how they want to live.” He stops in front of eight-year-old Ionut. Completely absorbed in his work, the slender boy mixes blue oil paints with white on the wooden palette, carefully dips his paintbrush into the fresh paint and paints onto the glass the contours of Saint Nicholas.

From the January/February 2002 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005