During my very first trip to Romania in 2002, I was introduced to an entirely separate social structure of young people: the sewer children. Orphans, runaways, addicts, cast-offs who sometimes beg, sometimes steal, and sometimes work menial labour to get by, but live beneath streetside Bucharest.
There were the beggar children — sometimes orphans, sometimes sent out by parents, sometimes used by gangs and organized crime — to bring in cash. After all, who can resist a dark-eyed, dirt-smudged child wearing no shoes?
There were the street children — sometimes orphaned, sometimes runaways — living on the streets in gangs or just passing through.
There were the orphans — sometimes living in orphanages or foster homes, sometimes runaways, sometimes beggars, thieves or sewer children — who got by however they could.
But the sewer children commanded a separate identity. Not all beggars, many would show up at the crack of dawn to help unload delivery trucks, stack crates, set up shops, etc. Some would beg, but I found a deeper pride in these children — one that begged in and of itself to be respected out of the sheer will and intelligence to survive.
Aurolac… that's the paint thinner many street, beggar and sewer children live for. Not only does it make one feel invincible, but it greedily steals away the hunger pains for a time. That is a coveted state. To not feel hunger is to feel full. To feel full is to feel satisfied. To be satisfied… isn't that a longing we all crave?
Children who migrate to the sewers do so to keep warm in winter by the hot water pipes. Romania, in its violent effort to polish its international image, tried to clean up Bucharest of its vermin and thus the children were more or less forced underground. It began a sub-culture, a grimy, smart-lipped one that longs to break free from the ground but is proud of what has grown below.
When I descended the rusty ladder into a particular sewer, I was both disgusted and awed. The disgust came at the stench, the garbage, the cloying heat that invaded my pores and the wonder that anyone could live in such a hell, let alone children.
The awe came in the obvious care in the small touches that made this sewer a home. A 15 year old girl and her 16 year old boyfriend and a few friends inhabited this place. 4 months pregnant at the time I met her, someone had taken great pains to squeeze a large mattress down through the manhole we had just descended. There were blankets, candles, pillows… all rather filthy, but cared for nonetheless. A few pieces of clothing lay strewn about the piping reminding more of an average Canadian teenagers messy room than a sewer! (What's that saying about our messy teens!!) 😉
That I had been invited down there was an honour. I had been invited into a HOME. Not just a rank sewer. What greater honour is there than to be asked and welcomed into one's home?
For all their care and concern for one another, for all their codes of honour to share, for all their wits to survive, these children are some of the most vulnerable in the world. Fishing in Bucharest's polluted canals, working day jobs, stealing, and (despite protests to the contrary) begging, their desperation is evident. The girl was scared for her baby knowing she'd deliver in the sewer.
What wouldn't they do for relief? Acceptance? Love?
Prime pickings for traffickers.
All aurolac all the time, food, shelter, warmth, free from stench… can you hear the cash registing "ch-ching!"?
No parents. No guardians. No healthy role models. It's Neverland taken to the darkest and ugliest extreme. No Tinkerbell as a conscious. No Wendy to read stories. These children live below and survive by depending on each other.
And of one… just one… falls prey to a smooth talking hero, it's not hard to imagine how all would follow.
What to do?
Get back into the sewers. These children have made homes there and home isn't easily abandoned. You can't yank them out in offer of protection. They'll only return. Instead… like in so many other circumstances… descend into their world, become a pillar of trust.
Behind every smudge and self-injuring slash is a story.
And behind every story is a child.
And every child is worth saving.