Not For Sale Campaign's founders David Batstone and Mark Wexler are right now in the country of Romania. I'm not too sure of all the hijinks they are up to (ha!), but two things are for sure: 1) they're scouting out innovative ways to end slavery there, and 2) thanks to their updates… I long to go back.
The memory of pre-teen and young teenage girls left on the highway every kilometre, dressed in thigh-high boots, leather skirts, and fur jackets, with gaudy makeup will be burned into my memory forever. The utter helplessness of it all amidst the beautiful Carpathians was deafening. I wanted to jump out of the car, scoop them all up, and bring them to safety. I'm sad to say that would have been the dumbest, and probably most deadly, idea in the world. Pimps, johns, and even police (as my driver and I discovered) were waiting in the woods. No gas stations or hotels around… just mountains and forest. Men could pull off and discreetly use these girls for their pleasure.
Romania is known for a lot of things… the Revolution, the 5-children law, state-sanctioned abandonment, the squalor of the orphanages. Yet the outside world overlooks this tiny country's beauty too: a people enthralled with their land and heritage, a mix of Romanian and Roma, flatlands and mountains, misty hills and sparkling rivers. Factories left bombed from the Allies invasion of Europe surrounded by pastures filled with shepherds and sheep. A country of legend, paradox, and pride.
But it is a country vulnerable to trafficking, especially the children in both Romania and Moldova.
In Bucharest, I learned not all street children are created equal. This is important to know because this changes the tactics of the recruiters at times. I've blogged about it before, but I'm reminiscing… bear with me…
Beggar children: these children have parent(s) who may/may not have homes (which are usually slums), but family sends children out to beg. Tourists are more apt to give coins to children than parents. These kids are often left at the bottom of the heap in terms of street child culture.
Abandoned children: these children, too, have parents but are left to the state to take care of. Up until a few years ago, this usually meant orphanages, hospitals, churches… but Romania has been trying to move to a foster care system. The reports I've received back are mixed: yes foster homes are used, but children waiting for them are left in "centres". (not sure how this is different from orphanages)
Runaways: once again, these children have family… but home life is so bad they know they can't survive if they stay with mom and/or dad. So they call themselves street children, but if the secret comes out that they have family, they are sometimes persecuted among the ranks of street children for leaving by choice.
Fortune-seekers: these children leave a home they love, looking for work where they can send money back to family. Sometimes they stick to it; other times they are lured by the call of the streets and wind up huffing aurolac (paint thinner) and running with local gangs.
Sewer children: living full time on the streets, these children survive by living by the underground hot water pipes in Bucharest. Attempts have been made to remove these children in order to clean up Bucharest's image. When I was there, there were still quite population of them. At present, I cannot say how many there are. Yet I know, despite their ragged and violent appearance, there still existed the warm Romanian hospitality. I was invited once to come down into the sewers… into their homes. Hovels… filthy, stinking hovels… but homes. Humility muted me there.
Orphans: some would consider themselves the true street children, running the streets of Bucharest, fleeing foster home/system care and living by their wits. Often addicted to aurolac and alcohol, these kids will wake up at ungodly hours to meet the delivery workers helping shop owners. These kids will work lifting boxes for a few coins for food, clean water and more aurolac. They have no family to speak of, or will speak of, and establish a tribal system by which they create their own family… rules and all.
Seeing the self-inflicted cuts on the arms of many (badges of honour in place of tattoos), the plastic bags from which they huff, the hours they wait with palms outstretched, the garbage they rummage through to find something worth selling… these are the forgotten ones in a country still seeking identity from ancient times, through the myth of Vlad Dracul, to Communism, to now.
There are many organizations seeking to help these children. Yet they are still prey for traffickers. Those with parents are duped into thinking their children are going to a better life, and with cash up front it's hard to say no. Those without parents are lured again by the prospect of perhaps learning to read or getting a better job than hauling crates at 5am. Others simply vanish, never to be seen again.
Beautiful Romania is a country caught in a time warp — ancient history with present suffering and future cloudiness. Yet the people are kind, with one of the most beautiful languages I've ever heard… graceful… lilting… full of life. There is light here… and beauty! Moreover there is hope.
I hope one day I will be given the honour of returning.