Thursday, December 20, 2012

Raul, Elena, and Ana

Because of strict confidentiality policies I was not able to know much about the children’s background situations and how they came to the center. But there was one group of siblings that I got to follow closely their transition from begging on the streets to living at the center, only coincidentally. I distinctly remember on our first day of walking around Lupeni, while a group of my friends were waiting in line to pay for their food I was standing off to the side and watched as a sad, tired looking little boy walked up to them asking for money. My friends, as foreigners and unaccustomed to know how to handle such a situation, talked amongst each other as to what they should do and in the end tried their best to ignore the little boy. It was hard to watch, as the boy slowly walked away looking pained but also numbed to what probably wasn’t his first time being rejected. A few weeks later when I started going to the Residential Center I recognized this same boy but he looked altogether like a different child. His face and clothes were clean, but most notable was that he was considerably happier and freer. He now possessed a childlike freedom, and boyishness that was not present the last time I had seen him.
I learned that his name was Raul and he had two other siblings an older sister named Ana and a little sister Elena. Apparently these children were well known throughout the community as they were often seen begging. One person told me how sad they looked as Anna used to carry her little sister on her back, walking around town begging for food and money. I could tell from Anna’s mannerisms that she had to grow up rather quickly and was the primary caretaker for her two younger siblings. She was fifteen years old yet she was extremely petite and frail looking. In spite of the fact that she is far behind in her schooling, you would never suspect it because of how young she looks. The first thing that you will notice about both the two sisters is that their hair is cut extremely short, like a boys, because they had such bad lice before entering the center.
I can’t imagine how difficult their lives must have been prior to entering the center, yet Ana was undoubtedly one of the most active and vocal children in the IMPACT club. It’s hard to say if any of the children loved IMPACT as much as she did, it was obvious how much she enjoyed the games and the projects. I was later told by one of the staff at the center, that since entering the center and participating in IMPACT they saw a big change in her. She seemed less angry and was much less aggressive towards her younger siblings. I was also told that these siblings also had a baby sister, who was with their mother, and they had father, but who was extremely ill, and it was an obvious case of extreme neglect. I later found out that upon entering the center their father had recently died.
Elena, the youngest, was around 5 years old, and was probably everyone’s favorite at IMPACT. Our IMPACT club leader, Cosmin, rightfully nicknamed her “Sunshine”. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a little girl that smiled as much as this little one did. She was also a busy body, always running around playing with someone, a bundle of love and energy this little girl was.
While Anna and Elena were extremely friendly and outgoing Raul, the younger brother was a bit more reserved.  At first he was rather shy, but after a few visits one day as I was saying goodbye to the children and giving hugs, after I had already walked out the door Raul ran after me and gave me a hug and I returned his hug and kissed him on the head. He grinned from ear to ear and from then on he opened up to me, he hung around me during the club meetings, and always gave me hugs whenever I came and left.
Raul soon became one of my favorites especially when I got to interview him for my project for my internship, asking the kids questions about their experiences with IMPACT. Raul must be only 7 years old, but was very smart and seemed to give well thought out answers. My favorite response that he gave was when I asked him what trust means. He responded saying, “trust is when you let someone have something and you know that they will give it back.” When I asked him who he trusts he said that he trusts God, and his mom.
I will never forget all of the children and the many beautiful memories that they gave me, the lessons that they taught me, and the love that they shared. There is no greater feeling then walking into a room and being ambushed with hugs and kisses from the sweetest and purest love of a child. I will never cease to be amazed by a child’s strength of heart to press through, to laugh, and to love in spite of facing more suffering and hardships then any child ever should.
Fall 2012

Romanian Children Residential Centers (Orphanages)

The first time I took the children up to the plateau, it was a perfect fall day, the sun was bright and by the time we climbed up to the plateau we had all peeled off our coats. The breeze was gentle; the sunlight shifted through the branches of the trees, and even the ground was soft and warm with the light of the sun. We started out playing a game lying on the ground, with children’s heads on each others stomachs faces turned toward the sky, but what followed was a fit of uncontrollable giggling that never quite ended. After which we attempted to orchestrate a series of games focused on appreciating the beauty of nature, but the children weren’t much for following rules that day, but it didn’t bother us much. It was enough to see them having so much fun simply running around, chasing each other, enjoying the freedom of being outside.
I’ll never forget the littlest one, Elena, only 5 years old, who got more of a kick out of being outside then anyone. She jumped up and down, tumbled and rolled in the leaves until she was covered in them head toe. It always amazes me how the simplest things in life, can bring so much happiness to a child. An open field of grass, a pile of leaves, a flower, or a hill to roll down can brighten up a child’s day, but only if an adult takes the time to show it to them. From what I was told, this was the first time the children had ever been up to the plateau, and was one of the few times if any that they get to be outside of the Center.
At the Center in Lupeni, there are about 24 children who live there, all from the ages 5-18. My weekly visits to the center were by far my favorite parts of my time in Romania. Being able to spend time with the kids and doing the activities with them was challenging but was also a lot of fun and very fulfilling. The children were so curious and loving from the very beginning, randomly giving me gifts and always ready for a hug. It’s very easy to see how much these children crave love and attention, and unfortunately with limited human resources and the restrictions of living in an institution these needs are rarely met.
If anyone has heard about Romanian orphanages before, most likely they have a very negative picture in their mind. The world was flooded with news coverage after the fall of communism in the early 90’s that made Romanian orphanages infamous for their horrendous conditions. News reporters showed pictures of overcrowded orphanages, with children who were left in their cribs all day, permanently emotional, intellectually, and developmentally stunted, because of lack of human interaction. But the picture of residential centers today is much different. Things have greatly improved but still much work needs to be done, especially in the area of helping the children to transition from living in an institution to living on their own.
For my internship most of the week I spent in the office 9-5 doing office work but in the afternoons Wednesday and Thursday I got to spend at the Lupeni Children’s Center and on Friday evenings I spent at the Batania House, a private orphanage in the town over. The reason that they are now called Children’s Residential Centers is because often most of the children in these homes are not orphans as many of their parents are alive, but they are taken out of their homes because of severe abuse or neglect, or the family willingly gave them up because they wanted a better life for them.
The first time I arrived at the children’s residential center, to be honest it was not at all what I was expecting. The children live in a large beautiful building, but there is something about it that makes it cold, apart from the temperature that it is also always rather chilly. The staff for the most part are very kind and the children seem happy and well taken care of but there is something about the institution that somehow made it not feel like a home where children lived, there was a love and a warmth that was missing.
This is in direct contrast to the private orphanage that I went to on Friday evenings. Granted the children were extremely rowdy, fought more, and seemed to be left to their own devices at least for the time that my partner and I were present, but there was a love and warmth there between the children and the staff. They seemed much more like a family and this is evidenced by the fact that a few of the children even once they aged out of the program, choose to stay to either work at the center or to continue their schooling.
Unfortunately, because of schedule conflicts, and because Friday evenings were often our busiest days with the program I was not able to go the Batania house as much as I wanted to. Even though most of times when we did go the time was spent simply getting the children to calm down it was a lot of fun to spend time with them, as they loved the games, and the Bible lessons that my partner and I always had planned for them.
Going to visit the children at the orphanages was my favorite part of my time in Romania. They are such good kids with so much joy and such big hearts. I often was overwhelmed by how much love they poured out to me, a complete stranger. But somehow even with language barriers we were able to laugh together and learn from each other. I am also so thankful for the Romanians who accompanied me every week to the center to help me translate.  Without them it would not have all been possible for me to work with the children and I am truly indebted to them that completely volunteered their time for nothing.
I know that in situations like these, it often feels like when volunteering in a foreign country that you receive much more then you give but for once I feel that this wasn’t the case. I feel that my time there was well spent, for 3 months I worked probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. I worked long hours, and it felt like I was literally always going, but I had so many wonderful experiences. Even though I still feel like I gained much more, I can also say that I gave, and that feels good. My prayer is that someone continues to invest in these children’s lives; they need positive relationships with adults so badly. But it also feels good to know that IMPACT will continue to be apart of their lives and hopefully more volunteers will come and invest in them also.
Fall 2012

Walking in Lupeni

I wrote this blog a long time ago and chose not to post it but I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I finally decided to put it out there so here it goes!

If I said that before embarking on this trip that I hadn’t thought about what it would be like living in Eastern Europe as an African American, I would be lying. I thought about it a lot actually.
I have met more and more people who have been so kind and accepting and tell me over and over how much they love my dark complexion and my hair. One day one of my little host nephews touched and squeezed my hair in joy and fascination, and every day I walk past this gypsy woman she always says hi and once said that she likes that I am darker like her and thinks I am cute.
Walking down the streets of Lupeni I have been called everything from “Africa” to “Whoppi” to “Rhianna” by rowdy teens on the street. Some just stare, double takes are probably the most common reaction, and some have simply burst out laughing in disbelief.
Most days I am able to laugh it off but some days its not so easy. Some days I really just miss blending in. “Just because they are staring does not mean that they don’t like me,” “curiosity is not a crime,” “just because that older man is staring at me does not always mean that he is checking me out”…are things that I really have to tell myself over and over.
I think people may also be getting used to me, or maybe I’ve gotten better at tuning it out, except for the annoying teenage boy every once in awhile I haven’t had as many problems. Recently I walked passed a group of men and one man called out “hey nigger, como esta blab bla bla…” but it didn’t faze me. I surprised myself in how well I handled it. But truly I know that this man most likely had no idea of the historical implications of the word “nigger”. It is funny though how I’ve realized that some don’t even know that there are black people in America. I’ve gotten this reaction only from children but I’ve had many of them ask what it is like in Africa. But how would they know otherwise?
When you think about it on a deeper level it’s an issue that really has absolutely nothing to do with me. The people of Romania have been isolated from other ethnicities and populations possibly due to Communism. Few people were allowed in and out of the country during Communism especially not foreigners. Today people end up living in small towns like Lupeni, struggling their entire lives, never able to see the world around them. This blog entry may be a vent for me but it is also a window into a topic that is a rather sad situation. This makes me realize that much more how lucky I really am to be here. 
To be honest in some ways standing out so much may have been an advantage. It gave some people an extra curiosity and eagerness to engage with me, and even if it was hard, I hope that I was able to give them an accurate depiction of what an African American is like, in contrast to what is often portrayed in the media. I would be lying too if I didn’t say that every once in a while I appreciated the attention, but most of the time it was exhausting. When I went to a freshman prom, many of the kids were really friendly and asked who I was and what I was doing here in Romania. It was nice but at certain points I also felt like an exhibit in a zoo. Some asked to take pictures with me and one even asked for my autograph (can’t really explain that one haha).
I can say that I do not at all miss always cringing at the sight of a group of boys walking towards me, and the third time I was called a nigger, pushed me a bit too far and bothered me a lot. One of the American students was with me when this happened it outraged her. She later explained to me that she has a lot more understanding for minorities in the States, and she can finally understand what it feels like to be identified by your ethnicity and not by who you are as person, when Romanians made generalizations about her being an American.
I think that it’s important that we all learned lessons about our identity, about being a woman,and about race upon living in a foreign country. But the biggest lesson that I learned on this topic was from none other then my host mom. Whenever I walk around town with my host mom, she links arms with me just as many other Romanian mothers do with their own daughters. When people stare she is undeterred and simply holds my hand tighter, smiles, and keeps walking. I could write a whole blog about my host mom and how genuine her love and kindness was towards me. We had so many conversations and beautiful moments that I treasure deeply, she really is a special woman. It is our bond that surpassed all color lines, and language barriers.   It’s her love and acceptance that truly made me feel more at home then I ever could anywhere else in the world.

Fall 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


I was warned about reverse culture shock before I left Romania. I’ve only been back a few days, so I don’t think I know exactly what it looks like yet, but considering I did not experience culture shock in Romania until about two months after I got there, it would not surprise me if it is a bit late in setting in here too. The whole concept of “reverse culture shock” seems strange to me. That I should be shocked by my own home, where I’ve grown up and been formed for the past three years. How could three and a half months change me so much as to forget my own home?
            But whatever it will look like, I don’t think it will stem from the obvious differences. The initial shock of walking into a grocery store and gazing down the cereal aisle. Experiences like that bring the full realization of how much stuff I have and show me the amount of thought and conversation that is devoted to the material. Then there is the fact that everyone speaks English, that I now rely on a car, that I am constantly tied to my cell phone, and that USD costs a lot more than Romanian lei. But these are all surface level differences. Initial reactions. I think that what will really be shocking is deeper and more difficult to sift out.
I have grown over the past semester with an entirely different group of people and those people grew with me. We shared many similar experiences and learned similar lessons. But because we were together, it was difficult to identify the ways we changed. Now that I am back, I am with people who have learned their own lessons and grown in different ways. Three and half months of learning and growing lay between me and them. They will never fully understand my experiences, nor I understand theirs.
I believe that this is where the reverse shock will come from. And although transitioning will be difficult and awkward at times, I am thankful because through this transition, I will see more clearly how I have grown during my semester abroad. Perhaps this is one of the most important reasons to come home from time to time: To see how far we have grown from our roots.

Angels on Public Transit

            Before Romania, one phrase that I lived by was the classic, “You can always count on the kindness of strangers”. Whether it was a bus in Portland or an airplane going to Minneapolis, there have been countless times where a mere stranger has either told me which stop to get off at or would make sure I could get on my connecting flight. This probably doesn’t help my naïve and optimistic outlook on human nature; but so far it has rung true throughout my personal experiences.

            Traveling alone around Romania definitely intimidates me. I could travel in the States all right, but relied on those to help along the way. In Romania, there are the added obstacles of not being able to fully speak Romanian and also not being able to call Mom or Dad when something goes wrong. While traveling with a colleague mid-semester and taking the wrong train by mistake, a kind woman over heard our panic and called us a taxi. In my eyes, she was an angel. I knew that that was a lucky occurrence, but at the same time I knew that we were going to get back okay.

            This past weekend I traveled alone to Brasov to visit the sister congregation to my church back home. Sure enough I made both of my maxi-taxi’s just right on time. The second maxi-taxi left me at the Deva train station. Not fully understanding how the train system works in Romania (or anywhere for that matter), I was little nervous. About twenty minutes before my train was to depart I started to ask friendly looking old ladies whether they were going to Brasov as well; buddy system for me is the safest way to travel. After a few failed attempts I decided to ask a group of several young adults who seemed approachable. At last I found a group getting on the same train.

            My unconvincing Romanian accent gave away my American identity pretty fast. We soon started chatting and found out that they were from Argentina, France, and Deva (Romania) volunteering for a Catholic affiliated organization that works with kids in poverty. They invited me to sit with them on the train and insisted on me having some of their lunch food while proceeding to find out more about one another. Meanwhile, a Roma friend of theirs who they had visited through the organization called. They told her that they had met an American and the Roma lady asked to speak to me on the phone so that she could use her English. At the end of a rather awkward phone conversation she invited me over to her house if I ever returned to Deva.

            I think the moral of this ramble is it’s okay to trust a bit more easily than what we are raised with. I find it especially ironic being in a post-communist country where trust is in short supply. Without talking to strangers, I would constantly be lost. I understand that there is a clear line of being open to friendly people and being careless and putting myself in danger. However what I have found is that if you are open and genuinely interested in people, it is likely to be reciprocated. 
-Jenna King
Fall 2012

Trip to Sacele Romania

One of the biggest blessings during my semester has been the opportunity to visit the sister church to my home congregation. Finding traces of home half way across the world really made me reexamine what constitutes a family. I was a bit nervous before arriving; I had never been to Sacele and I also had not met in person the family I was to be staying with. Although I was only in town for several days, I was able to experience the feeling of unity in a place that often seems detached from my home town.

            The family that hosted me were ethnic-Hungarian Lutherans, a “double minority” described by Pastor Laszlo, the father of the family. Much of my time spent there was visiting Saxon and Hungarian Lutheran churches and schools that have endured the hardships of oppression. Being apart of the Lutheran church in America, I have never felt marginalized. I don’t think I realize how grateful I should be this. Back in Sacele they struggle the most with funding and not receiving help from the government to upkeep their churches. They also have troubles with claiming buildings that were originally Hungarian owned before communism. What I understand from Pastor Laszlo is that in general they really have to be active in order to stay a float.

            I probably write too lightly of the hardships of what it means to be an ethnic-Hungarian Lutheran in Romania. The silver lining of it all has so far been the relationships that have formed in order to keep the Lutheran church in Sacele up and running. I think that the beauty of a sister church in Romania is that through the works of God and his shared love for us, we can connect to others almost effortlessly. That has been the core of my experience visiting the folks out in Sacele. It definitely shrinks the world just enough to find familiarity and comfort thousands of miles away. 
-Jenna King
Fall 2012