“No tambourines, dancing bears or golden earrings: A Snapshot of Life in Today’s Romania” – Valeriu Nicolae

©Valeriu Nicolae, 2002, all rights reserved. Published in The Romani Diaspora in Canada: History, Culture & Equity Issues, Editor Ronald Lee et al., 2003, Canadian Scholars Institute Press, Toronto, Canada. Required Course Reading for Spring Seminar, NEW 343HI, University of Toronto.

This is what real life is about for the majority of Romanian Roma, a life most of our politicians don’t care or don’t know about.

Where ever I go people ask me where I am from. The answer is always complicated because I have to explain that although I am from Romania I am a Gypsy (Roma doesn’t say anything to most of them). In Europe, when I give this answer, people look at me like I am crazy. Gypsies are the people no one wants around: the thieves and the beggars who cheat everybody and live rich and carefree lives. But I was the manager of a respectable company with partners all over the continent. I did not prominently display any big gold rings or chains; in fact, I seemed to be absolutely normal. In North America the reaction when I say I am a Gypsy is usually “cool!” They think I must be a free spirit with some mystical ability to read their future in their palms, even though I work as a programmer. None of them know or want to know that life for the majority of Roma in Romania is a daily struggle for survival and nothing else.

Summer days are dry and dusty in the southern Romanian town of Craiova. The stench is terrible as I approach the garbage dump in Mofleni, five kilometres away from Craiova: this is the place were sanity stops. Between the heaps of garbage I see several dead animals; I can recognise the remains of a cow and a horse. Around them are crows and pigs, scavenging for food. Not far away are about 20 children, all of them Roma, looking for scraps in the field. They survive by the only means they can—by collecting and selling scraps, and by stealing. Most of them are barefoot and wearing only shorts. They are extremely dirty as they have no running water in their homes…and the places they call home are just shelters built of dirt and straw, often shared with chickens, dogs and cats. In the winter they keep the animals inside to keep their homes warmer. Ionuþ, a ten-year old boy, told me that the garbage dump was a good place during the winter because they often found food which was still good because it had frozen, and wood to burn for heat.

Even in the garbage dump the kids play games. When the trucks come to dump garbage from the city they wait and try to catch the rats which fall out of the trucks with the garbage. Then they kill them. This is a dangerous game: quite a few of the children have been bitten. Only last month two Romani children died, one of tetanus and the other of septicaemia.

At around 12:30 everyone suddenly starts running towards an approaching car from the Daewoo factory. The South Koreans throw away the best stuff: the food is always still good and sometimes even still sealed in its package.

Some entire families live nearby and spend their time at the garbage dump. Most of the adults collect paper and metal scraps to sell. Copper gets the best price. Between 1995 and 2001 the Romanian press reported five deaths of Roma by electric shock as they tried to steal copper cables.

Floriþa and his two daughters wander around the field looking for scraps of metal, paper and food. He makes about 20 US dollars per month selling scraps. He told me that he had decided to steal a chicken in order to get thrown in jail for two years. Then his daughters would be put in an orphanage and would finally have enough to eat. I heard later, at the end of 2001, that he had succeeded: he was in prison and his children were in the orphanage.

Another brother and sister have been put in the orphanage because their father is in prison for stealing a coffin to bury their mother. The village priest refused to provide a funeral for the woman unless they had a coffin, although he knew they couldn’t afford one.

Orphanages seem like heaven for these children. Picture an average sized house. As many as 90 kids are crowded into this space. The bathrooms have just four toilets, two for boys and two for girls, and they are always filthy. The food looks and tastes worse than anything you have ever seen. At night you are afraid to switch on the light because you don’t want to see the cockroaches scatter. Everything has a musty smell and the walls are always wet. Nothing in the place is new. All of the pots and dishes are at least six years old, and most of them are rusted and all of them chipped. The children get a shower once a week on Fridays, and this the only time they have hot water. For most of them this is luxury: when they come to the orphanages at eight years old or more, many of the children don’t even know how to use a water faucet or shower, or how to flush a toilet. In winter the temperature inside is just above eight degrees most of the time, and the water is so cold that many of them will avoid washing their hands. The biggest event is when some sweets, close to their expiry date, are sent by a company eager to get rid of them so they can write them off in their taxes. And this is heaven.

Another of Craiova’s Romani neighbourhoods is close to the “Fabrica de confectii” (clothing factory). Outside the factory canteen you can always find Romani kids waiting for the garbage. The cook told me she doesn’t dare throw away anything which could make somebody sick: “I couldn’t live with myself if any of those kids got sick and died.” This is an unusual attitude: most Romanians think that “a good Gypsy is a dead Gypsy.”

One of the stores I managed in Craiova is close to Valea Luncii, an area with a large Roma majority. I found out that Romani children rummaged through the garbage bins behind the stores looking for discarded salami, meat and dairy products. At first I thought they fed the scraps to their dogs or cats. Then I saw a six-year-old child eating one of the old salamis, which had turned almost green. I tried to find a way to provide some food for the children but I had to give up, there were too many of them.

One time a 12-year-old Romani child managed to hide in one of my stores over night. There was more than 1000 US dollars in the store. He spent the night eating as much as he could. When the security guard caught him trying to leave the store with the first customers the next morning he had only four pieces of sausage and one salami on him. Criminality does run high in Romani families. Sometimes children are sent by their parents to steal as a way to avoid prosecution, as children under 14 can’t be prosecuted. However, research done by a local lawyer showed that more than 90% of the children caught stealing were stealing food.

You can also see Roma at Craiova’s market at the end of the day, filling their sacks with half rotten oranges, apples and other discarded produce. Any of these can feed a child or even a family, or produce alcohol as a last resort to deal with a hopeless life. Children growing up with alcoholic parents and family violence as well as extreme poverty have almost no chance to develop normally. Most of them end up addicted to alcohol, aurolac (a paint thinner) or perlandez (a glue) – the last two extremely toxic substances which seriously damage the brain. In 1999 Craiova’s emergency room registered 22 cases of Romani kids with severe caustic soda intoxication (resulting in permanent oesophagus and stomach burns). They had found almost empty juice or alcohol bottles in garbage bins and had drunk the remaining liquid, which turned out to be caustic soda used to clean the bottles. Even after these incidents there are no educational programs aimed at keeping Romani kids safe.

About half of Craiova’s Romani population live close to the open sewer canal (Craioviþa Veche). In the summer a fetid stench rises from the canal, advertising the danger. But the children are unaware and play around the canal wearing next to nothing. Some of them have open ulcers. Dr. Anghelescu, a pediatrician, told me that in Craiova more than seven out of ten cases of serious infections are among Romani kids.

In winter the situation is desperate, and its normal to see children inside garbage bins looking for anything to burn or to wear. On the coldest days the emergency room of Craiova’s hospital is invaded by Romani children and adults with frozen limbs.

Another normal sight in the winter is Roma carrying sacks of wood. You can see them around deserted buildings removing pieces of the wooden floors with their hands. Dragos Popescu’s wife died when a deserted house collapsed on her as she was trying to get pieces of wood for heating their home. Dragos was left with four children to look after. He makes a living filling gas lighters, making about 25 US dollars per month. In order to survive he was forced to give up three of his four children to the orphanage: he alternates which child he keeps at home in order to give each of them some attention. Cuvantul Libertaþi, a Craiova newspaper, printed an article describing how Gypsies destroy apartment buildings by lighting fires in their own flats using the wood from the floor. In fact, this happened only two times. The article didn’t mention that both families could not afford the $15 US to pay for heating.

Craiova has several main intersections. At any of them you will find Romani kids waiting to wash or scrape the frost off your windows for anything you may want to give them, even a piece of gum or a sandwich. You may say that you can find people washing windows at intersections in most cities: the difference is that these kids are mostly between four and nine years old. Sometimes they have to work in pairs to reach the car window, a smaller child sitting on the shoulders of a larger child. And you will find them at work in all weather conditions, from minus 20 to plus 40 degrees Celsius. They live on what they earn at the intersections, and if they don’t make anything they will not eat that day.

One Romani woman sells air fresheners at the intersections. In the winter of 2001 she always had a young child her arms. Cuvantul Libertaþi accused her of cruelty, saying that the Roma didn’t care about anything except making money, even if it meant keeping a young child outside in minus 20 degree weather. I talked to her the day after the article was printed. She told me that she had no one to leave her child with. Her three other children were in school during the day, and the temperature in her home was four degrees. The only way to keep the child alive was to keep it close to her body. And the only way for the mother to survive was to sell those air fresheners.

I didn’t see anyone playing music or dancing close to the garbage dump or the canteen garbage bins. There were no tarot card readers or beautiful dramatic girls after the market closed. In the orphanages I found no free and open fields or passionate lifestyles. But there are Gypsies: there are thousands of them just trying to find a way to survive through the day. Some of the kids have enormous, dramatic brown eyes but it is just despair or fever flickering in those eyes.