Romania 1997

When I started Ioana's sponsorship in December 1996 [through the Christian Children's Fund, now ChildFund International], I couldn't have imagined the journey of discovery it would take me on. For the first few months, I received letters translated into English; they told me little more than that this was a normal, cheerful little girl. I knew that my sponsorship money was going to the institution as a whole (for fairness, as some children do not have sponsors); I knew that living conditions in Romania were improving since the days of the Revolution, but very, very slowly.

In summer 1997, I was lucky enough be given a generous sabbatical from work. I'd often toyed with the idea of spending some time overseas, working and living in a world very different from my own; now I had the chance! I contacted what was then the Christian Children's Fund (CCF - now EveryChild), and so it happened; between 14 November and 6 December, I worked with the staff in ARAC and ASKLEPYOS, the Romanian NGOs (non-governmental organisations) which operate on behalf of CCF in Romania, based in the towns of Oradea and Cluj-Napoca respectively.

I flew from Heathrow to Budapest, travelling to Oradea by train - a journey of some 5½ hours, although it's only about 150 miles. I stayed in a flat in Oradea, which is used by any members of CCF staff who need to visit. My husband, Selwyn, is an Anglican parish priest, so it wasn't possible for him to come with me - this was the longest time I'd ever spent away from him, which was very difficult. Fortunately, he was able to phone me each night - our next phone bill was enormous!

Once I was there and helping in the office, it became clearer to me just what a huge difference there is between our living standards. At the time of my visit, there were 12,500 Lei to the £. A bottle of wine cost the equivalent of about 80p (and tasted very good); a loaf of bread cost about 30p. Clothes in the market cost about the same as here - £20 for a cheap anorak in the market. However, the salary of a professional office manager like myself was about £1,500 per annum - say 10% of the British equivalent. For a labourer or the unemployed, you're talking more like £40 per month. So multiply the cost of that bottle of wine x 10 to see what it means to a Romanian… £8 for wine, £3 for a loaf of bread, £200 for the anorak… I started to understand how hard life is.

So what about the children? Why are so many of them in institutions? I was shocked to understand: during the regime of Ceauçescu, until the Revolution in December 1989, it was the law that women under the age of 45 with less than five children were not permitted contraception or abortion. Ceauçescu wanted a large workforce, and this was his way of getting it. If the families couldn't afford to care for so many, never mind - they were encouraged to put superfluous children into care. Can you imagine it? Some of the children, like Ioana, do still have families - they just can't afford to look after them; some have been abandoned or orphaned.

Well, of course I wanted to meet Ioana as soon as possible, and this was arranged a few days into my visit. One of the social workers, who spoke very good English, acted as my interpreter. The headmistress - a large, warm-hearted, enthusiastic woman - brought my tiny, dark-haired, sponsored "daughter" to me in an empty room. Ioana came to me shyly, but she held on to my hug tightly. I realised how seldom she received this sort of attention, and how much it meant to her.

She sat back and held my hand, gradually relaxing enough to chat to me through Sorin's translation. Much of the time she spoke so fast that even Sorin didn't understand her! She's obviously happy at Livada, is popular and has many friends; gradually these friends started to sneak into the room to see this strange English woman. They were all clean and healthy, dressed in an odd assortment of Western clothes - and all eager for a cuddle. I didn't have enough arms for all 18 of them, and had to keep an eye out for anybody getting missed - especially since Ioana and her brothers obviously felt that I was their personal property for the day.

I'd brought some "party bags" for Ioana's class - each of them got a colouring book, couple of pens, a lollipop, a sheet of stickers. Tiny things, costing me very little, but they seemed to mean a lot. I'd given Ioana a little brooch that I'd brought for her - she proudly showed it off for the rest of the afternoon.

We went off for lunch. The dining room was freezing cold and very crowded; the kids shouted grace together; we then had some sort of soup, with big lumps of bread and bowls of raw onion! This was followed by a sort of large sweet pastry, that many of the children took away with them. Then it was time for exercise, and we all made off for a large recreation ground for kite-flying.

Finally, we left the orphanage. The headmistress came out - the string of children following her made her look like the Pied Piper - and thanked me over and over. She thanked me for coming to Romania, for coming to see the children, for taking time with them; she asked me to thank all the sponsors for making such a contribution to the children's lives. They then gave me a little set of lace mats for a dressing table, which I treasure.

I saw children in many other situations during my visit - some good, some far worse than Livada. One of the worst was a "special" boys' school in Gilau, based in an old castle with thick walls, crowded conditions and the appearance of a prison. The staff do their best - but what can they do?

Yes, the conditions are improving, and this has a lot to do with the Western aid which has been pouring in over the last decade. That support is still very much needed, and sponsorship is a practical and effective way of helping - it means a lot to a child to have a friend, no matter how many miles away, who cares about them. What's needed most now is attention - emotional support - affection. I found it very hard to imagine what will happen to Ioana and her classmates when they leave school - when my sponsorship will come to an end. Where will Ioana go from there? I can't imagine. Can you?