The Orphans of the Romanian Dictatorship

More than three decades have passed since the world was shocked by images showing orphans in Romania living in terrible conditions due to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s barbaric regime. Even though the problem is still present in many places of Romania, in recent years the number of abandoned children has significantly decreased thanks to organizations and volunteers who have dedicated part of their lives to help them.

Romanian children living in an orphanage in Popricani, Iași. Photo: Elisabeth Blanchet

The ideal childhood varies, but one commonality is the desire for unconditional love provided by a family. In order to understand more about this social issue and the ones affected by it, two specific words must be explained, and those are: Institutionalization and Deprivation. In this context, the first one is a term used to describe residence in an institution such as an orphanage or children’s home. And when the child’s bond with their mother or other caregiver is significantly disrupted because the child is separated from them is what is known as deprivation.

Having said that, in the past, many children in Romania were institutionalized and deprived from very important and essential things such as food, water and a loving home, things that any human being should be able to have without any struggle.

According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Work and Social Solidarity of Romania, by the year of 2017, there was an estimate of almost 56,000 children that were living under public and private residential care. Of these, approximately 18,000 were in foster care, 13,900 with relatives, 4,800 with other non-relative families, and 18,500 in state-run institutions. Only around 3,000 of those children were adoptable.

Things have changed, and nowadays orphaned children are better taken care of with the help of many organizations. However, not all of them are able to help the whole country since most of them target certain areas of Romania. Therefore, not all children in need are fully helped and many have not had the same luck as others when it comes to having a better upbringing as orphans.

The reason why children become orphans vary, but common factors in Romania are poverty, lack of education, and the inefficiency of the welfare system. According to Iarina Taban, the founder and president of the association Ajungem Mari, not only orphans end up in placement centers. The reality is that about 90% of children know their family, at least in part.

“They often idealize this family, hoping that one day things will change, and they will feel truly loved and cared for and that they belong to a family. This is the greatest wish of institutionalized children”.  – Iarina Taban

Growing up like this sometimes not only affects children physically, but also psychologically. An article published by the American Psychological Organization featured relevant information related to orphans in Romania, which highlighted how in 2014 a group of psychologists from the US published a book on how early deprivation harms children and the best way to help those who have suffered from neglect. Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery, was written in collaboration with the Bucharest Intervention Project.

The study that was conducted to have accurate information for this book took 14 years to make and it was coordinated by three psychologists: Nathan Fox, Charles Nelson, and Charles Zeanah. They began their research by assessing 136 children who had been living in Bucharest’s institutions from birth. Then they randomly assigned half of the children to move into Romanian foster families, whom the researchers recruited and assisted financially. The other half remained in care as usual. The children ranged in age from 6 months to nearly 3 years, with an average age of 22 months.

Their research included returning to assess the development of the children in both settings. They also evaluated a control group of local children who had never lived in an institution. According to them they found many profound problems among the children who had been born into neglect. Institutionalized children had delays in cognitive function, motor development and language. They showed deficits in socio-emotional behaviors and experienced more psychiatric disorders. They also showed changes in the patterns of electrical activity in their brains, as measured by EEG.

On the other hand, the kids who were moved into foster care showed improvements in language, IQ, and social-emotional functioning. They were able to form secure attachment relationships with their caregivers and made dramatic gains in their ability to express emotions.

The voices of the abandoned

Even though many children grew up in horrible conditions, there are many cases that show that even though their past haunted them, their present has been bright enough. An example of that is the story of Claudia Voican. She was born with one arm during the Ceaușescu regime. Her mother died in childbirth, which led to her being placed in state care. Her story was showcased by The Guardian. In the article, she expressed in detail how her life as a disabled orphaned was, which during those times was unacceptable and it meant she was treated even worse than non-disabled children. Her past did not stop her from returning to a place she once lived in as a teenager, the Ion Holban institution in Iași. She became the artistic coordinator and supervisor of this place because she wanted to help children like her.

Claudia Voican standing in a street. Photo: The Economist

A very successful story of someone who grew up as an orphan is the one of Florin Cătănescu. He lived in state care institutions until the age of 22 and then decided to integrate into society and landed jobs in television stations in Constanța and Brașov. He always had a dream of helping others like him and in 2003 he was able to do so and created his charity Un Pas Spre Viitor.

Florin Cătănescu wearing a purple sweater visiting and bringing some food to a family in Sânpetru, Brașov County. Photo: UPSV Facebook page.

The main objective of this charity is to help young people aged 18, who have either left or are about to leave the orphanages and to assist these young people to become integrated into society.

Another example is the story of Bogdan Mueller. In his case, the family he was born into is not the one he now calls family. Born in the town of Cehu Silvaniei in 1993, Bogdan was placed in a foster home by his biological mother. With an absent father, who wasn’t even named on Bogdan’s birth certificate, and a mother who was unable to take care of him for unknown reasons, he was forced to live the first three years of his life in this place.

However, in 1996, his life changed completely. He was adopted by an American couple who were unable to have children. After a long process, which involved not only paperwork, travel and lots of money, Bogdan was brought to Indiana, USA, where a new chapter of his life began. Bogdan was not the only adoptee. This couple also adopted a little girl from another town, who joined Bogdan in the family a few years later. Ever since Bogdan was a little boy, his family has been open about his adoption. And in 2017, both he and his adoptive parents decided to return to Romania so he could see where he was born and understand a little more about his origins.

Bogdan as a little boy on a chair/ Photo: Bogdan Mueller

“I’ve always been curious to find out more about my background, where I’m from, to find out more about Romania, why my mother left me… and going to Romania was something I needed.”, says Bogdan Mueller.

He took a leap of faith and decided to move to Romania in 2019. He moved to Cluj-Napoca, decided to enroll in a Romanian language program, and even reached out to Christian communities because his faith and love for God travel with him all the time.

Bogdan seen here studying Romanian at the Faculty of Letters in Cluj-Napoca/ Photo: Personal archive

Bogdan also decided to volunteer as an English teacher in an orphanage, not only to help the children, but also to practice his Romanian. Bogdan plans to set up a non-governmental organization with the help of Romanian churches, which will provide assistance to orphanages. Apart from that, he would like to someday reunite with his biological mother and to meet more relatives from that part of his family.

Even though these are just a few stories, there are many more that have been highlighted by the media and others that have not, but what is clear is that these people deserved a better care back when they were born.

Life-changing organizations for children

Since the 1990s, many organizations have been set up to help children.

A woman helps children at one of their workshops/ Photo: Official website for Salvați Copiii

One of the first organizations to be created in Romania was Salvați Copiii, a non-governmental organization that has been defending and promoting children’s rights in Romania since 1990. They offer programs/services that help not only children, but also families going through difficult times. Salvați Copiii offers services in the fields of health, education, and protection, as well as reinforcing children’s rights.

According to the National Authority for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Children and Adoptions, 75,136 children had parents working abroad in December 2020, of which 13,253 children with both parents away and 9,409 children with the sole supporting parent away. In such situations, what Salvați Copiii tries to do is prevent children from being abandoned and to provide immediate services, such as: additional schooling for children, social, psychological, and legal services for children and parents; social and leisure activities for children and facilitating communication with parents abroad.

Another organization that was created around the same time as Salvați Copiii is FARA foundation, which was created in 1991 by a British woman, Jane Nicholson. After seeing how orphans lived after the Ceaușescu era, Jane wanted to name this foundation in a way that would get people’s attention, FARA (without in Romanian) meaning: without family, without love, without resources and support, without equal chances at education and opportunities, without hope and confidence, and without smiles.

Over the years, FARA has built homes for the ones without a home and even young adults with disabilities. Even though they aim to help children in need, it tries to limit the number of homes it creates, so in that way the love, support and help is offered equally.

Thanks to her determination, Jane Nicholson has received help from many volunteers and even had HRH Prince Charles of Wales as her royal patron, who has visited the sites that have been built to help and house children in need.

Visit of HRH Prince Charles of Wales and Jane Nicholson in Sf. Nicolae / Photo: FARA Foundation official website

Another way FARA raises funds to continue to help is through their online store which sells different types of items, from clothes, books, to electronics and more, and at the end every profit from the sale helps to raise funds.

In 1991, another non-governmental organization decided to start helping these children in any way possible and so SOS SATELE COPIILOR was founded. This was made possible thanks to the collaboration of the main SOS organization in Austria and the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection at that time.

Two cities were initially selected as the focus of the organization, Bucharest and Cisnădie. Once this was established in 1993, children and families in need were able to move into new homes and finally start a new chapter in their lives. And for the past 31 years they have worked hard to keep children together with their own families facing economic or other difficulties.

Children cared for by an SOS mother in a family atmosphere/ Photo: SOS SATELE COPIILOR website

One of their current projects, in collaboration with the European Union, is to educate and provide the necessary tools to enable proper communication between members of a household to prevent violence between family members, especially to protect children who are at risk of such situations. According to SOS SATELE COPIILOR, the project’s target group is children and young people who are in alternative care programs, come from vulnerable families and are supported by child protection authorities in Belgium, France, Italy, Romania, and Spain.

Like the other organizations, the public is encouraged to help in any way they can, from volunteering to donating money, however small, with the ultimate goal of continuing to help in any way they can so that children who are not as fortunate as others, in a stable home with a loving family can have a chance.

In some cases, one person can change the mood and lives of children in need, and a man named Miloud Oukili began doing just that in the early 1990s on the streets of Bucharest. He used to walk the streets of this city dressed as a clown, because that was his passion, and when he realized many orphans were homeless, he decided to give his all to help them. And in 1996 he set up a foundation called PARADA, which aimed to help teenage children and families living on the streets of Bucharest.

Miloud Oukili entertains children living on the streets / Photo: PARADA Foundation official website

A day centre was created and is still located in the 4th sector of Bucharest. It offers children who are struggling on the streets the possibility to receive a hot meal, to wash themselves and even to be listened to by those who work and volunteer there. This center offers different activities, such as theatre, dance, sports activities and much more.

Around 32 years have passed since thousands of babies were deprived of human contact and unconditional love. For those who survived, the scars of their childhood are still felt in their present and many only hope that someday soon there will be justice for the tragedy that marked their lives.

Imagine principală Emilian Robert Vicol pe Pixabay

Nicole Portillo Rivera

Nicole Portillo Rivera