One weekend, Valeriu walks quickly through the Ferentari ghetto. He greets the children playing among the rubbish heaps on the pavement outside the dilapidated buildings.
A group of children are playing by a container overflowing with rubbish. Some have climbed inside to look for something of value, perhaps to sell. They poke about carefully among the refuse, because they know that drug users throw their used needles everywhere. One prick from a needle could infect you with serious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.
On weekdays, the children are at school at this time. But that’s not how it was when Valeriu first came here. The few children that had even started school soon dropped out. Most parents in Ferentari have little or no education and they can’t help their children with homework. Prejudices about poor people in the ghetto meant that children from this area were often bullied at school by both other pupils and teachers.
When Valeriu decided to start up an alternative education club for children in Ferentari, offering help with homework and fun activities, he was warned against it. Usually by people who had never even been here. Many said: “The ghetto is hopeless, nothing will ever get better there.”
When Valeriu and his friends built a new play area in Ferentari people told him: “It’ll be ruined in a few weeks, everything broken and covered in graffiti.” But today, seven years on, the play area still looks like new. The children clean it and look after it.
Smell of rubbish
There’s a horrible smell from the wastewater that leaks from the buildings and rotting rubbish on the ground. The council stopped collecting the rubbish here ages ago and no one listens when the people in Ferentari complain. Valeriu spots a woman he knows sorting through the rubbish. She has three children who come to the education club. She’s looking for plastic bottles so she can get the deposit back on them and buy food today. Like most other adults in the ghetto she’s unemployed. Many become desperate and start selling drugs or sex, or steal to support themselves. This mum doesn’t do any of that but the children’s father is in prison.
Valeriu enters a doorway on Livezilor Alley, the poorest part of the area and one of the most dangerous city blocks in the world for children to live in. Criminal gangs that control the drug and sex trade here make many people feel powerless and afraid. Valeriu was also afraid at first. He’s had his tyres slashed, and been threatened and chased off many times. Some thought he was trying to disrupt the drug trade. Others were just afraid he would take their children from them.
Valeriu goes up the stairs and knocks on a door in a dark corridor. Zana, 11, pulls open the door and says:
Zana lives in the only room in the flat with her little sister Rebeca, 6, and big brother Bobo, 13. Their great-grandmother, who is almost blind, has been looking after the children since their mum ended up in prison. The flat is very neat and clean but run down and cramped. It does have electricity and running water, unlike many others in the area.
Children’s club popular
At first, Valeriu had to go round the area and talk children like Bobo and Zana into coming to the club. He doesn’t need to do that anymore. But he still visits the children at home now and then. Sometimes he discovers that a parent has a bad drug problem or has gone abroad to get some money together and left the children on their own. If that happens, he tries to find a solution.
Bobo goes to football training with Valeriu every Sunday.
“We’re finally starting a girls’ team,” Valeriu tells Zana. “You should join!”
Valeriu talks to their grandmother too. Does she need anything? Have the troublemakers in the building been causing any problems? Grandma says things are quiet at the moment, but that the children miss their mum.
Helping all children living in poverty
Bobo and Zana’s family are Roma, one of the poorest minority groups in Romania. They make up less than ten percent of the population, and the term Roma actually has nothing to do with the country’s name Romania. The Roma people are called Roma all around the world. The Roma have lived in Europe for almost a thousand years, but have nearly always been excluded from society, harassed and even killed just because they are born Roma. Valeriu is also Roma and has been campaigning for many years against prejudices and racism. But the important thing for him is not just helping Roma children, but all children that are living in poverty in Ferentari.
Valeriu gives back
Valeriu was one of the few Roma of his generation who studied at university, despite a difficult childhood. He left his homeland Romania and worked well-paid jobs in Europe. Some were about strengthening the rights of the Roma people. But after a few years, Valeriu had had enough. He was tired of writing lengthy reports that no one seemed to read. He couldn’t stand the thought of going to another conference at a luxury hotel and listening to fancy speeches about how to help poor people. Because nothing got better for poor children like Bobo and Zana; if anything, it got worse.
“I felt guilty,” says Valeriu. “I grew up like them, in extreme poverty. It was tough, I had nothing and I had to work really hard. But there were also people who helped and supported me, so I was able to have a good life. Now I have everything I need, and I felt I should do the same for other children. That I should give something back.”
Valeriu moved back home and started the Alternative Education Club in Ferentari.
“You can’t wait for someone else to change something you think is wrong. Only when you’ve done something yourself can you ask others to help. Anything else is hypocrisy. That’s how I feel, and I hope the children in Ferentari feel the same.” c
What does Valeriu do?
Valeriu and his network of friends, volunteers and organisations work with the following initiatives:
• The Alternative Education Club in Ferentari, which helps hundreds of children every year. The children get help to cope with school and get to do lots of different activities: sport, dance, drama, music and other creative workshops. They also learn about their rights, health and democracy, and they go on trips and study visits.
• The poorest children are given shoes, clothes and sometimes food.
• Children who can’t live at home have the chance to move to decent foster homes, and are later reunited with their families if, and when possible.
• Children who take drugs and/or are exploited and forced to sell drugs or sex are given support to leave this life and have the childhood to which they are entitled.
• Valeriu also campaigns for the introduction of laws and systems that protect children from violence, discrimination and hate crimes, and to strengthen their rights and opportunities.
Text: Carmilla Floyd Photo: Kim Naylor & Carmilla Floyd