Eye-opening IWitness experience

Day 1
The IWitness team comprised of an array of nationalities and different positions within IKEA, we were all taken to one of many counseling centres run by Save the Children. Here we met our hosts for the week, the lovely and dedicated Diana Stanculeanu and Cristina Tanase. Cristina would become our guide, interpreter and would provide insights for a deeper understanding of the issues the Roma community is facing in Romania.

After getting to know our team members, Diana gave us a brief overview of the week ahead of us and of the programs and projects run by Save the Children. The most important project, and the one that we would be chiefly occupied with, is the project of the integration of Roma children in elementary schools through their participation in summer kindergarten programs which take place in the summer before entering the elementary school. The goal of the project is to increase the retention rate of Roma children in the school system since the majority exit the national school system around the second grade. This is the sad but inevitable consequence of children not having basic skills normally acquired in kindergarten and being discriminated against, both because of poor performance and due to their ethnicity. The summer kindergarten project aims at dispelling both causes of discrimination since it gives the kids the skills they need for successful further education and integrates successfully the Roma children with the general population at a very young age when children are too innocent to discriminate.

After a brief lunch and meeting with Gabriela Alexandrescu, the director of Save the Children Romania at their headquarters, we were about to get our first taste of the IWitness experience, with a visit to the kindergarten of the School 141.

We were welcomed by a class of happy children, a mix of all the generations that participated in the project who were busy doing an art project – creating a collage of a caterpillar and a ladybug.

Children and teachers at work with the art project
Children and teachers at work with the art project

We immediately joined them and they were happy to let us help them (although in my case my young colleague was helping me more than I was helping her since I was really bad at art projects when I was a kid, let alone 20+ years later!).

The final product of the art project with my lovely colleague Sara
The final product of the art project with my lovely colleague Sara

After finishing the collage, the children sang all the songs they had learnt during the past 3 summers.

The discussion with the school director and the teachers confirmed that this was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Bucharest but that they still managed and succeeded in helping the children with the help of Save the Children.

After the school visit, we were invited into the home of the family of one of the children we had just met and were welcomed by the mother who is raising her daughter alone, with the help of her parents. The tiny house has all the basic needs fulfilled but there is no heating and there is mold all over the walls. Cristina assures us that this is one of the better homes and we were starting to realize that there are much more graphic scenes ahead of us.

Day 2
Our hosts took us on the road – to Constanta, a relatively large town on the Black Sea some 270 km away from Bucharest. Here we visited a local school where again we were welcomed by a group comprising of all the children that had participated in the project from 2012-2014. The children were busy making flowers from red, yellow and blue paper, symbolizing the Romanian national flag.

Children performing the songs they had learnt in the summer kindergarten program
Children performing the songs they had learnt in the summer kindergarten program

Here we also got a chance to meet a group of parents and discuss the program. They said that despite their initial skepticism, they quickly realized the benefits it brought to their children. Here we also got a glimpse of another major sad and unfortunate trend among the Roma community – parents forced to leave their children behind when seeking jobs abroad. The support system in place are the grandparents and relatives but children often suffer severe depression since Roma families are very connected and unused to being apart. Mothers assured us that unfortunately they do not have another option available to them and the emotion in their faces and voices confirmed this heartbreaking reality.

The ensuing discussion with the school director confirmed this, but also gave hope because the program works and children continue with their elementary school education in spite of the general trends for Roma children in Romania.

A collage of all the children participating in the program 2012-2014
A collage of all the children participating in the program 2012-2014

After lunch we headed to Mangalia, a small community close to Constanta.

mangalia 1

This is where we saw the harshest living conditions but the one thing that remained constant were large groups of smiling and playful children following us in our walk through the community
This is where we saw the harshest living conditions but the one thing that remained constant were large groups of smiling and playful children following us in our walk through the community
Cristina with the children of the Mangalia community
Cristina with the children of the Mangalia community

Here we visited a building with 10 member families living in 5 m2 rooms, without heating, electricity or access to bathroom facilities. They have the right to use the communal bathroom twice a week and the clothes are washed on a water pump in the street in the cutting northern wind coming from the sea.

Harsh and eye-opening living conditions in Mangalia
Harsh and eye-opening living conditions in Mangalia

But there were also families that managed to create a slightly better head start for their children, with homes that have all the necessities and both parents working. The only hope for the children living in a community such as this is successful integration into society via education, and this is where Save the Children’s project comes in.

The main take away for me lies in the fact that the project we witnessed were not about quick and easy fixes – providing children with toys, having a photo-op and walking away. It’s about giving them a leg up in the world through education and making sure they fit in in their larger community. It may not be glamorous or immediately visible, but the project works and the communities are better off for it.

Day 3
On the third day we visited Vulcana, a small community with a large Roma population. The kindergarten we visited has the highest success rate of the schools we visited so far – 100% of the children were enrolled into the summer kindergarten and then proceeded into elementary school.

Croatian team colleague Ivan hard at work on a colouring project
Croatian team colleague Ivan hard at work on a colouring project

In a discussion with the parents, we heard of their initial skepticism and how the teachers and Save the Children representatives went door to door and persuaded them into enrolling their children in the program. The mothers laughingly admitted that now all their children were enrolled. One mother gave a particularly poignant speech wherein she told that as a recently widowed mother, the program helped her and her daughter Diana more than she could have hoped. Her sincere tears left the whole group in tears as well.

The enthusiastic school manager took us to the elementary school where we were greeted at the gate with the traditional Romanian bread which we dipped in salt to symbolize that we are welcome guests. Then the children aged 6-7 gave us an outdoor gymnastic performance, with the help of their P.E. teacher.
The lovely gymnastic performance by the Vulcana children

The lovely gymnastic performance by the Vulcana children

Inside the school we were welcome by a musical performance from 2nd and 3rd grade children – they performed the songs they had learnt in the summer kindergarten program and also a song in English. The oldest children then performed a medley of popular songs from various musicals, in full costume.

Musical show by the talented youngsters of Vulcana
Musical show by the talented youngsters of Vulcana

The effort taken by the school and the children was breathtaking and impressive and when we “complained” that we are not worthy of such effort, the school manager and the English teacher assured us that the children were very enthusiastic and that our coming there was a rare occasion for them since they rarely had a chance to meet people outside the community, let alone foreigners coming from the other side of the world.

All in all, the experience was amazing and humbling, all at once. Meeting colleagues from half a world away was great and fun but we also got to see the shocking conditions that people face in one of the countries of the European Union in 2015. I sincerely hope that IKEA continues with its contributions to causes like this one because it really is making the world a better place.