(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog; the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

NGO Report: Diakonia "I drank the ink, so I had to go to work"

Diakonia is making a difference in a poor Romanian village by helping villagers create sustainable sources of income through traditional crafts, by helping poor Roma children develop school skills and life skills, and by caring for elderly who live alone at home or in the nursing home.
Villagers have pride in their engraved gates
Last week I visited Mera, a Hungarian village outside Cluj, with Brigitte, from Fundația Creștină Diaknoia (translated: Diakonia Christian Foundation),  and Csaba, a faculty colleague.  Diakonia  is a ministry of the Reformed Church in Transylvania.  Diakonia began in 1992 as a medical mission of Dutch doctors and nurses.  They opened home care nursing services and a nursing home in Cluj, and later opened a nursing home in the village we visited. 
Soon after opening the medical clinic and nursing home in Mera, they recognized the need to develop a comprehensive social program in community development, assistance in obtaining identity cards and government benefits, educational programs for poor children, and support for elderly who live alone ("Adopt a Granny").
Community Development: Soon after they opened the clinic, they met with local village leaders, the pastor of the church, the schoolmaster, and interested villagers to discuss issues concerning the life of the village.  The villagers decided that to show pride in their community, they wanted village residents to repair or renovate the traditional engraved wooden gates at each house.  But this was a poor village, no one had any money, ...and on and on... then they decided to have a Village Day where they would show the traditional music, food, and handcrafts of village people.  ...And raise money to repair or install traditional engraved wooden gates.

Traditional painted furniture and hand-made textiles
The Village Day has been an annual event since 2002 organized by a committee of representatives of different groups in the village (union, church, civic).  This has spawned a cottage industry in traditional crafts. We visited one of the village leaders and looked at her traditional painted furniture and handmade textiles.

Documentation Assistance: My American friends can't imagine how important an identity card is in Romanian bureaucracy.  At age 12, every Romanian citizen goes to a government office with their parents and their birth certificate to get their identity card.  For many of the Roma in the village,  their births occurred at home, so they had no birth certificate. Their world consists of face-to-face contact, so they didn't see the need for any document from the government to work for a neighbor in the village for a little cash.  Imagine this going on for several generations, and you get an idea of what the situation was in the village for the Roma.  Without an identity card, they could not get a regular job, could not get job training, and could not get government benefits that they may be due, such as retirement,  disability, or social assistance.
A Roma house under construction
So the Diakonia social worker helped obtain 13 birth certificates for children and 31 identity cards.  They helped 16 youth attend job training and helped several village residents gain employment.

Children's Educational Program: Public school in Romania is compulsory through age 12, so each village has an elementary school.  However, public school only goes from 8am to 12 noon, and if parents want children to stay until the parents get home from work, they must pay the teacher privately to watch the kids and help them with their homework. So, in Romania "after-school program" means a whole lot more than it does in the US.
Diakonia provides an after-school program for 25 children, mostly Roma, which provides them with a hot meal (probably the only nutritious meal they get all day), a personal hygiene kit (some don't have running water, none have hot water; they teach them to wash before the meal, and brush their teeth after the meal; sometimes they provide clothing and wash their old clothes), school supplies, and educational games and activities to encourage and develop reading skills.
The after school program is staffed by 3 teachers (all of whom have degrees in education; the lead teacher has two Master's degrees in Early Childhood Ed and Special Ed) and 2 social workers. They do psychological assessments and have identified almost 25% of the children in their program have severe learning disabilities.  The teachers in the after school program try to coordinate their services with the public school, but one frustration these teachers have is that the public school teachers don't believe in making accommodations for special needs, even for the 2nd grader who has an IQ of a 2 year old. Punishment and shame for not doing what you're told is the norm for the village school, even if it is beyond a child's capabilities.
Chickens in "Roma Hill"

When we walked into the Roma section of the village we were greeted by an older man. When told that we were with the after school program, he said, "You're doing good. When I was a child at school, I 'drank the ink,' so I had to go to work."
Our hosts later explained his figure of speech "I 'drank the ink,'" as he didn't take school seriously, so he dropped out at an early age and went to work in the fields.  As they explained, to the Roma what we "Gazde" do is not work--they only understand day labor: you shovel a barn all day and the owner of the barn gives you some money...and you don't need to do that again until the food is gone and you need more money. They can't figure out how they can get in on our deal where you sit around all day, maybe read some books, look at a screen, talk to people, drive around the city, and once or twice a month someone gives you more money than they can imagine.

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