To be or not to be a volunteer

Revista 3, Fundatia pentru Dezvoltarea Societatii Civile, no.2, May 1998

This is an article I wrote after five years in Romania as a volunteer. The original was written in Romanian with not a few mistakes (Nota: Redactia a respectat intocmai textul – redactat de catre autor in limba romana). My Romanian is even worse after 6 years back in the UK so I’ve translated to English for this site.

‘Lion’ for five years in Romania

I will never forget my first journey on a Romanian train. Leaving London on a beautiful March afternoon, it was a shock when I arrived at Otopeni and began to shiver at -6degC. I took the night train to Suceava. The ‘Gara de Nord’ in Bucharest was a lot more interesting than now – ‘cleaned’ of all the street kids, of beggars and anything else which attracted attention. This is what I wrote in a letter home on 8 March 1993:

The station in Bucharest is amazingly like King’s Cross, St. Pancras, Paddington, Victoria, Waterloo and London Bridge (the biggest train stations in London) of 30 years ago, all came to mind. At 11 o’clock at night, but at any hour of night or day, hundreds of people swarm here, without any obvious intent, with bags, small children, babies in arms, boxes, collections of luggage even bigger than mine and immense parcels wrapped in paper, some as big as a double wardrobe, tied with string and carried on the shoulder. God knows what is in them. Each man wears a hat of fur or ‘astrakhan’ and the general impression is of hundreds of small furry animals rushing to and fro”.

As far as the train goes, I wrote:

A journey to the lavatory in village can be a difficult trek through thick snow to find an unpleasant smelly hole which is the ‘WC’. Although I didn’t expect this on the train, that’s how it was; the corridor was covered with a layer of snow several centimetres thick. I continued my journey with difficulty, I took a swallow from the Scotch I had bought on the plane and I went to sleep … the train ticket cost an incredible 1175 lei – only £1.30!”

To describe completely my journey would take the whole of this article. I will say only that, in due course I arrived at my destination, Siret. One of my main tasks was to open there a small school/day centre for disabled children who lived with their parents in the villages around. From this, I was also to be the ‘bus driver’. This was one of the reasons I had been convinced to come to Romania as a volunteer by someone I met in January in a pub in Yorkshire, in the north of England, from where I come. The person managed a project in Siret for a small English charity. They had need of someone able to drive a Land Rover to nearby villages even in the worst weather conditions and, as I had driven a Land Rover over the Alps and over the Sahara, it seemed to be a ‘job’ I couldn’t refuse. This motivation was increased by the fact that, as a ‘Lion’ in the UK, I had worked a lot as a volunteer with disabled people, both children and adults. My club in the UK, ‘Shipley Lions Club’, sponsored me to come in Romania, paying for the air ticket and $10 a week for board with the family with which I lived in Siret.

If you want to really annoy me, tell me that Romanians are lazy. In the towns I know a lot of lazy people, especially the men, but in the countryside these are very rare specimens. Many of the people who live in a town like Suceava in fact come from the countryside, having been moved by the Ceausescu regime to work in factories. Now, with very high unemployment, they find themselves in an impossible situation. In the large towns of Romania there are many true ‘townies’ and the differences are large.

But the women here are remarkable. Every day I see women taking on tasks which I could not do, during which time – often – the men look on. I know many female teachers who teach at school for many hours, afterwards give many private lessons to increase the monthly family income, and are awaited at home to cook, to clean, to care for the children and to carry out other household tasks.

But there are also many men who are similar to ‘civilised’ men in the West. I have had the possibility to employ some, who had been unemployed, in the Siret project, including Nelu Zaharia who changed my ideas about the qualities needed for management. Always I had thought it was necessary to ask people only to do what I would do myself. But I could not make the physical effort which these people were capable of, over the time they would do it.

There are so many anecdotes from this time! One day, in a drunken rage Radu threw a bottle of beer through the Land Rover windscreen because I didn’t stop to pick him up (I had several disabled children in the car at the time). He was arrested. How could he pay the $100 for a new windscreen? The police officer told me he would go to jail, but he had a wife and small child and was unemployed. So, I came to an understanding with the police officer: Radu would pay the debt by working in our project in Siret. He became one of our best workers and one of the most punctual. A short time after the incident we paid him a wage and spent time with pleasure with his family in their house in the village. I was the pupil in this lesson!

There were many times I was brought to tears with emotion. Like on the day when it seemed to me that I saw little Laura, a spastic child, looking at the keys I had on a cord around my neck. Everyone believed her to be blind. I did not think so and a while after this a doctor confirmed my thoughts. Only a week previously I had written: “Laura is a little girl of five years with a severe disability. She stays in front of the fire, but she turns to the sound of my voice. Afterwards I heard that she cannot see. She grasps my finger when I caress her hair. With another four children, Laura’s parents have no kind of help”.

Among the most contented moments in Romania were those rolling about on the floor with Laura, which made her very happy. Or when I took her for her first ever ‘paddle’, in the river Siret. Or then when I rehearsed for some shows in English with some children from Burdujeni, the industrial zone of Suceava, with a high level of unemployment and oppressive environment. A true success was an English Nativity Play in which they played, which was filmed and broadcast by the local television station on Christmas Day afternoon.

Some of these pupils, now in class 10, afterwards became members of a Leo Club founded in Burdujeni in 1996. A Leo Club is a club of young people formed within the international Lions organisation. Subsequently they won three of the 30 available places in bilingual classes in one of the best high schools in Suceava, Petru Rares High School. I wonder what would have happened to them if they had been left alone in the Romanian system. Now they and other pupils from Group School no.1, Burdujeni, work with disabled children and with special needs children as volunteers. Recently, members of the Suceava Burdujeni Leo Club have ‘adopted’ one of my other pleasures, the ‘Happy Bunnies’. They are a class 3 of children with special needs at what I am told is the largest school in Romania, School no.11 in Burdujeni.

Each week these 11 bright, noisy kids give me a ‘party’: they sing to me, learn a little English and do an email project with a class in Pensacola, Florida. These children, for whom the ‘sin’ is simply they were born, are passed over by the Romanian system – a shame on this country. Happily, this class has a loving teacher, who has not had any special training, nor teaching/learning materials nor even a manual for children with learning disabilities or other problems. How much time must pass until these kinds of children and others with special needs will be truly integrated with other children in Romanian schools?

If these golden moments with children and youngsters are among the happinesses of working as a volunteer in Romania, then what are the negatives, the disappointments? To illustrate this, I have to go back to the early days in Siret. In these times I was distributing aid packets from the UK in the villages. In a short article for my local newspaper in Britain, I wrote: “I wasn’t able to get to Maria in the Land Rover, so I made a difficult journey over two hills, through snow which sometimes came as high as my waist. I think she was about 80 years old and living in a shack with a single room less than three metres square. Maria has nothing other than the shack and a small piece of land. She smiles, she grasps my hands, she chatters then smiles, thanking us, thanking God for the few clothes we have brought her. We are really shamed and promise to visit her again.

I visited Maria again, sooner than I had thought. I did not write the following story because there is a danger that people in the UK would not send aid any more if they learned the whole truth. It is very sad that so much aid – which usually comes from pensioners and people in Britain who don’t have much more money than people here – ends up in the pockets of some Romanians, now wealthy, with villas and expensive cars. Some of the evangelical churches are the sinners in this respect, although I’m sure many others do valuable voluntary work.

Maria’s clothes were stolen from her immediately after we left. We went back in the dark, late in the evening, to take her some more.

The general Romanian attitude, especially in Moldova where I have stayed until now, towards stealing is a great disappointment. They will steal from Maria without thought. They will steal from the children, even from those with special needs. One of my biggest recent disappointments came when a teacher with whom I have worked a lot, a close friend, stole from me a musical instrument which I needed for working with the children with special needs.

Intolerance of other races and cultures is another attitude many volunteers from the West find difficult to deal with. In the five years I have spent in Romania, a lot of things, including my passport and a large sum of money which I could not afford, were stolen from me in the trolley bus, in the train, even from my shopping bag. From what I saw, it was never a gipsy. It was a ‘Romanian’!

The attitude of teachers and pupils in the ‘elite’ high schools in which I have worked when I began to teach English in Suceava were similarly disappointing. I asked what I should do about the half the class who could not keep up with the brighter children. “Ignore them, work with the best ones”, was the usual response. And a frequent question from teachers and pupils was: “Why do you waste time with children with problems? You should concentrate on the best, who have something to gain”. Sad, but this attitude is very common. My response was to concentrate even more on the work with these children whose parents could not pay for private lessons or books, and the children who needed special care to develop their potential. Happily, most young people do not any more have this attitude and demonstrate another point of view through their actions. Those in the Leo clubs in Romania are a very good example, but there are many others.

Another disappointment is the attitude of some foreign charitable organisations towards their volunteers in Romania. Sitting in their comfortable armchairs in the UK, USA or other countries, they think they know more than those who are living and working here. So, in some cases, a lot of money is not allocated appropriately and is wasted. In the worst cases some Romanians get very wealthy while those in need continue to suffer. But perhaps, impatient to be ‘recognised’ at home, even when they come they refuse to see what is very clear to anyone, even when volunteers point it out to them repeatedly. As a result, I now work with my own humanitarian organisation, even if it is difficult to begin to find the money and continue at the same time to work with young people and the needy.

But I don’t want to close on this note. Volunteering in Romania is a satisfaction which overcomes the inevitable frustrations and disappointments. The biggest part of the Romanian people make it so. And, as I usually say, if it were easy there wouldn’t need to be anyone here. But the greatest satisfaction is that now very many Romanians, especially the young, are learning to help themselves and those less fortunate through voluntary work. And perhaps it will not be long before we, foreigners, can go home. But only if this beautiful country has not become our home.

This was the introduction written by the Revista 3 editorial team to say who I am (or was!).

Roger Livesey a lucrat ca voluntar in Romania din 8 martie 1993. El este acum directorul de program al unei mici fundatii umanitare romanesti care are ca scop “dezvoltarea” tinerilor romani – toti tineri, dar in special cei dezavantajati intru-un fel sau altul. Activitatile sale include predarea limbii engleze, folosind computere si prin internet, si pregatirea profesorilor de limba engleza pentru acest scop. El este ‘Leo Advisor’ (sfatuitor adult) al Suceava Burdujeni Leo Clubului; director al Comitetului Tineretului din Romania pentru cea mai mare organizatie de voluntariat din lume, Asociatia Internationala a Cluburilor Lions; director onorific in Romania pentru organizatia ‘Computer Pals Across the World’ (CPAW); sfatuitor academic la CPAW despre tineri cu nevoi speciale; si, bineinteles, un Lion.

One Response to “Volunteering in Romania – 1993-98”

  1. Lois Says:

    Interesting and very moving

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