03 December 2004

Slate's Dispatches from Romania

Sarah E. Richards in Slate has a series on Romania that focuses exclusively on the negatives. All that's missing is Vlad Dracu (Dracula, not Vladimir Putin!).

Nostalgia for communism
"Yes, it was better under communism. You had a job, a house, a car," said 20-year-old university student George Pascaru. "But you could not have your own thoughts."

But such talk makes few feel better about the giant elephant making its way east. Romania, a country of 23 million, is lumbering toward entry into the European Union in 2007. Despite robust economic growth and low inflation, corruption is rampant, and the average Romanian makes slightly more than $2,100 a year, or just 30 percent of the EU average in purchasing power....

The mention of the European Union is met with cynical laughs. People tell how Hungarians have been forced to raid Romanian grocery stores because they were priced out of their own when their country joined the union this spring. There are rumors that EU regulations will force polluting old cars off the road, and drivers won't be able to buy new ones. And how will people buy houses?
Discrimination against Roma
"In Communist times, I worked 30 years in an iron factory," said Sandu Stana, who is 71 but looks 80. "In capitalism, it's hard to have a job. When the jobs are open, and they see our face, they say, 'Sorry, it's been taken.'"

Activists insist that embracing the Roma identity is the only way to move the community forward. For example, the government recently hired 200 health-outreach workers and set aside 400 university spots for Roma in 2004 compared with 10 earmarked in 1994. About 2,000 have graduated, said Marius Taba of the human rights group Romani Cris. About 80 percent of Roma drop out of the system before high school. For those who do go, there are tales of bus drivers refusing to pick them up and school officials segregating them in separate buildings. Discrimination is everywhere. A French film crew followed Taba and several other clean-cut Roma young men on a night out around Bucharest. Five of eight bars they visited kicked them out.

In an informal ghetto north of Bucharest, Roma residents had more immediate concerns. One woman showed me how they were stealing electricity by attaching wires from the power pole into their apartments because they couldn't pay their utility bills; they're worried the police will come soon.
Dysfunctional citizens
Eni Gall has one of the most depressing jobs in Romania. Equipped with a minimal range of social services, a couple of loaves of bread, and an earnest idealism, 25-year-old Gall works as a case manager visiting poor, dysfunctional, and marginalized families. Her assignment is to keep families together so they won't abandon their children.

Gall is one of a slowly growing number of social workers in a country that, during communism, didn't recognize it had social problems. Today, Romanians know they have problems, but there is scarce public funding to even begin to address them. They can clean up the orphanage system in an attempt to become a EU–worthy country by 2007, but there's no mechanism in place to stem the supply of deserted children. "There are no public social services in Romania, only institutionalized ones for the disabled or orphans," explained Calin Braga, director of Gall's employer, Arapamesu, a nongovernmental agency founded in 1995 by an American nun and funded by U.S., European, and Romanian donors. It provides counseling, tutoring, support groups, and children's activities for around 330 at-risk families in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu. "We need services, services, services!" he said....

Two years ago, residents of a gypsy ghetto north of Bucharest didn't even know contraceptives existed. I met health coordinator Florica Petre, who blushed as she recalled showing a roomful of men how to put on condoms. She said that whenever she gets a new delivery of prophylactics, the men scoop them up for visits to local prostitutes. (Apparently, the equivalent of $6 buys a visit to a French or a Japanese [!?] hooker, the neighborhood favorites.)
And the miseries of adoption
It's not easy to adopt a child in Romania, and at first the Heiseys thought they were following the law by hiring lawyers to notarize the signing over of the birth rights and applying for her birth certificate. That began a local legal brouhaha that involved more lawyers, social workers, court appearances, abandonment proceedings, commission meetings, and mandated visits of the birth mother to the Heiseys' home to confirm that she did not want this child.

There's an old joke that Romania is the land of possibility, where anything can happen—anything bad and anything worse. So, when Peter proudly plopped the file containing every single document carefully copied and collated on the desk of Larissa's assigned social worker at the local office of the National Authority for Child Protection, he wasn't surprised when the clerk told him she couldn't send it on to Bucharest. The Romanian government had passed an emergency ordinance forbidding international adoptions. For the previous three years, the government had imposed a moratorium stopping such adoptions after the European Union criticized the country for selling its babies to foreigners for as much as $50,000 apiece.

Hoping to join the union in 2007, the Romanian government said it would resume international adoptions once it had a chance to straighten out the corrupt child welfare system.
Va rog, Domnule Guvernamint, don't make me abandon my children! Don't make me steal electricity! Don't make me suffer through high school! Don't force me to find a job in a robust economy! Don't let me use your condoms on foreign prostitutes! Vai de mine! Jos cu libertate! Bring back Ceausescu! Et cetera.

Beware Ukraine! Life is so much worse for everyone in the West. The painful transition can hardly be worth the effort.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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