Five weeks ago I accompanied Steffi & Gabi as they returned two children to their families in Apata, a Gypsy village not far from Brasov (I wrote about it in my last reflection.) Both had been ready to go home for weeks but there was no indication the parents were going to come get them. The social worker deemed their homes safe enough, the hospital deemed the children healthy enough, so legally the children needed to be returned to their families.
I had assumed there was a legit reason their parents hadn't come to pick up their kids; however, I recently found out that in these cases the families had not come to pick the kids up because they didn't want to - they didn't want *them*.
So now these young ones, a perfectly healthy (and beautiful) baby girl and a 7 yr old boy with special needs, are in the care of their parents living in a slum - unwanted.
Will they be held at home? Will they be kept warm? Will they be bathed? Will they be attended to?
FFR expects we'll see these kids (and their siblings) at the hospital yet again. We've seen them before. In fact, one of their newborn siblings *has* since been brought to (and left) in the hospital...
My bias has always been that if a child has a family let's do everything we can to support that family so they can stay together. That's ideal. And that has been the lens through which I've been caring for the babies at the hospital - holding them and loving them as one standing in the gap, but eagerly anticipating the day when infant is reunited with mom and dad.
I'm learning, though, that sometimes this isn't actually best. Sometimes returning unwanted children leads to abuse. Sometimes returning unwanted children leads to neglect. Sometimes returning unwanted children leads to more harm than the good that can come from a family reunited.
But what's the alternative? Placement in an orphanage? Living in the hospital? Foster care? Is there a best? And if there isn't a best, what's second best?
In some ways I find myself hoping some of these children do come back to the hospital. (Did I actually just write that?!) They are worthy of so much more than being caught in a cycle of poverty that exists in these villages, and we want the pleasure of loving on these kids! We want the joy of holding, laughing with, cuddling, and teaching these teeny ones what care feels like.
Ok, everyone out there needs to experience the absolute joy of picking up Bogdon, aka "Porky". He is the cutest, giggliest little boy, even though he's been in the hospital - healthy for the most part (except for recently catching the *measles* from a sick neighbour baby…) - for a long while. He's got a head full of lice, but an infective laugh that I *wish* I was allowed to capture on film.... I will remember Bogdon...
But that's selfish, isn't it? My true desire is for their own families to seek - and to be free to seek - the joy of holding, laughing with, cuddling, and teaching these teeny ones what care feels like. But the weight of life is heavy for these moms and dads. It's heavy enough for me and I only have myself to care for... and I don't live in poverty.
A few weeks ago a newborn arrived on the newborn floor. Just a few weeks old, this little one has colon problems and needs surgery to remove a portion of his large intestine. The mother left the baby in the care of the hospital... and now she won't return. She believes her child has 'special needs' and no longer wants him.
So here lies a teeny tiny newborn alone in his hospital bed awaiting surgery. We love holding him, and once he makes it through his surgery he is going to be *fine*. But his mom doesn't believe it. To her he is not worth it, and he is now effectively orphaned.
Can people really just abandon a baby they don't want? Seeking help is hard... and doing the work to arrange for adoption must be overwhelming. But to walk away?
Of course I don't know what's going on inside that mother, and the systems she would have to engage to get help. I don't know the challenges she would have to overcome to be able to take responsibility for the life born to her - from the power of the example her own mother showed her, to a severe lack of education, to being a child herself...
I suspect my compassion would be triggered if I were to visit her in her home - which is likely a cold and dirty one room shack with 5 to 8 people living in it... But from here, from the position I'm in right now seeing her tiny baby spend 90% of his day alone on his back awaiting surgery, at only a few weeks old... I have to admit - I find it hard to empathize.
My compassion *was* stirred last week while we were on the fourth floor changing diapers. The little girl being changed beside me had worms. I have never seen roundworms before - the kind that grow inside people - and her diaper was filled with *hundreds* of the buggers. I looked over as Alisha (FFR supervisor) let out a surprised startle. My first reaction was to cringe and shrink away.
Picture a large handful of living worms trapped in a diaper...
You don't want to picture it, do you?!
If I had been the one changing her I think I might have screamed and jumped three feet in the air (those of you who know me well know how readily I startle at unexpected movements.... :) My second reaction was to feel incredible compassion for that little girl. She's about 3 years old, one of the oldest kids in the 'baby' room. I don't know Romanian, but she's been crying for 'mama' every shift I've had on her floor... and I know what that means. Here she is feeling miserable with a head full of lice and a belly full of worms, and she's alone.
It is common for children growing in Gypsy villages to have worms, and apparently most of the diapers I've changed likely had one or two (I just didn't notice them, covered as they were in all that other stuff... ;) The culprit: roundworm eggs in dog feces are deposited in the dirt by the large numbers of stray dogs kicking around, and can last for years in the soil. Gypsy children play in dirt year round, and are not regularly bathed and cleaned. And they get infected.
One of the FFR staff was musing the other day about starting a de-worming program for the Gypsy villages they are working with. After seeing it firsthand, I think it's a great idea.
Ok - one more story. This one is about a little girl (7 or 8 mos. old) who arrived in the hospital long before I got here. I think she's been here for about 4 months - half her life. Her name is Andrea. Her mom is a prostitute, and doesn't want her. She has lice, but is otherwise healthy. She cries *desperately* the moment she sees anyone who might hear her, relaxes completely once held in someone's arms, then cries/shakes/convulses immediately upon being put back in her bed.
Oh Andrea - you break my heart.
But... Gabi got Andrea into foster care, and this past week Andrea was taken to a real home. I have no idea what home life there will look like, or how long she will get to stay there... but I do know that Andrea has a *lot* of love to give, and if given the chance to be in real relationship with a mother-figure she will thrive.
We are so happy Andrea has been placed. But so sad that she had to be placed.
I hate that families and people and systems are broken. Where's that perfect world when you want it?
Anyways, there are a million stories to tell and a million actions to take.
I came to Romania for a few different reasons, and I am so glad I did. Have I changed because of this? I hate that question. I don't know. What I do know is that I am grateful for what I have, for the life I've been given.
I have been lucky to hold these babies, and I have seen the difference that visiting with, holding, playing, and providing toys and stimulation to these little ones makes. Those that can't sit up get a chance to be upright. Those who might otherwise have their bottle propped get a real person to feed them. Those who should be walking get a chance to strengthen their leg muscles. Those babies in that 'busy' stage get toys to be busy with. It's an outlet for babies to laugh and cry, to smile and frown. It's a time to interact with us, and with each other - and it makes a difference in their lives. We facilitated a 'Doctor Appreciation Day' a few weeks ago, and as we handed out gifts to doctors to thank them for their work and devotion, over and over they thanked us for the love and care we extend to the children - they too recognize the difference it makes.
There really is nothing quite like caring for a vulnerable little one. In some ways, they have nothing to give back; they are solely dependent on us for everything. But in other ways, just by lying helpless in my arms they give so much to me - trust, honesty, presence, smiles. I'm softer when I'm with them. More kind and more gentle. (Of course, there are moments when their tears and sickness and discomfort are a bit too much to bear... and I discover other less wonderful qualities in myself...)
This experience has reminded that I love being part of communities that work together, that laugh together, that serve together, that learn together. I love being a part of something good. I love learning. I love listening. And I want to be part of good things happening in my own city and country.
Romania is not the only place of need. People everywhere are in need of love, care, education, opportunity, dignity, help. I am in need of those things! And I ask of you - my friends - please please please keep me accountable! I want to give of my self and my time to others when I return home. Help me do that, will you? I've been caught up in my own head for a long time...
Thank you Firm Foundations Romania for letting me come to volunteer alongside you for a short while. And thank you for staying here and being part of the longer edition of this story - caring for the immediate needs of these babies, but also working towards ending the causes of abandonment. I have been blessed by you and the opportunity you have given me to spend time with these newborns, babies, and toddlers.
(I am not so thankful for the lice I suspect I've contracted... ;)
**and FFR, if I've miscommunicated anything... please correct me!