November 23, 2019
In Blog Letters To Finkelstein News
I have lately illustrated a series of books specifically addressed to children from poor communities, especially poor Roma communities. It’s not a problem restricted to them, but it’s particularly Roma children who are facing poverty, inequality, and discrimination. Most of the time, they are invisible to the others. Most of the rural communities they are part of are isolated. A lot of schools, be they from small towns or big cities, are more or less segregated and the press or middle-class discourse never mentions them, apart from complaining that they are a burden for society. Instead of getting better, problems seem only to worsen, year by year.
These books intend to favor a change of the perception of Roma children about themselves and, at the same time, the perception of the Romanian children about Roma children. There are almost no books in Romania that have a Roma child as a main character – I only know another one. The stories try to supply the virtually nonexistent role models they desperately need. Right now, the classical question “What do you want to be when you grow up” receives heartbreaking answers as “Nothing” “What God wills” or “Trashman”. They live a life of poverty and humiliation, cut out from civilization and virtually offering no possibility of acceding to a better situation later in life.
The writer who imagined the stories wanted them to address the reality and the challenges these children encounter. She wanted them to be well understood, and empower their little readers. Therefore, before writing anything, she went to visit the place where they lived, to see what their daily life looked like, what their problems and dreams were.
It was a good idea, as nothing from my or her life resembles their daily reality.
Just an example – for me, foxes are lovely animals, that belong to distant places or fairy tales, and account for some of the cutest children’s books characters. But for these kids, there is nothing cute about them. They are part of a frightening daily reality they have to deal with. Foxes are nothing but a feared enemy, which enters their houses at night, steals their food and kills their chickens.
As Easter was approaching, my friend was curious what they wished for as gifts. She was shocked to find that some of them wanted only a door. At least 5 children listed as their dream gift a simple door. Well, maybe not so shocking when thinking that some of these children’s houses don’t have doors, nor windows.
The differences between these children’s lives and the lives of the children I usually have workshops with in Bucharest couldn’t be bigger. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee any positive change. The gaps between the middle and the poor class, the educated and the uneducated, the rural and the urban, only widen.
The daily life is continuously worsening in Romania’s countryside, even for the communities that are not so poor. During the last years, villages and mono-industrial towns deserted at a faster rate, as peasants couldn’t compete with big agricultural companies and cheap imported products, and all Romanian industry was eventually sold and dismantled. A village that a year ago still had 5000 inhabitants now has only 2000. Thousands of schools closed over the years, thousands of libraries closed, too. In my friend’s native town, from 80 libraries, there are only 20 left. In other places, there is none. A lot of children grow up without any books. Unfortunately, Romania’s investment in the education sector still represents the lowest GDP percentage from the EU. Many children abandon schools as they have to travel long distances to reach them. After dismantling the public services of buses and closing train lines, transports became expensive.
Half of Romania’s children live in cities, half in rural areas; they have very different lives and chances. One example – 97% of the urban population has running water, vs 33,5 in rural areas; the percent is 88% vs 8,2% when talking about sewerage. One third of Romania’s children live below the poverty threshold, while 21,5% live in severe poverty. Only 2% of the children living in rural areas continue to higher studies.
We are number one in Europe at school abandon and at young mothers. Also, at houses having the toilets outside (62% in rural areas), and at infantile mortality (twice the European ratio – 61.69 vs 31,6 at 100.000 children).
Not long ago, the same ONG who published these books wanted to build for one such poor community something which would be really helpful. It wasn’t a library, neither an entertainment center, nor an equipped sports ground, but…a toilet. A toilet inside the school. They only had one in the backyard, with no running water and no sewerage. It wasn’t the only one in this situation – in the XXI century Romania, around 2355 schools still have their toilets in the backyard, without running water or sewerage.
Buying a new toilet costed about 10,000 euros. The ONG, together with the parents from the village and school teachers, raised the money. Unfortunately, they also had to obtain the approval of the city council. But the mayor wanted to buy himself the toilets, through a government program – for 60-70,000 euros each.
The result of this conflict is that the school doesn’t have toilets inside to this day. A hepatitis epidemy followed (its source was determined to be the courtyard toilet), many children had to be hospitalized and subsequently the school was closed. The 50 children enrolled in the primary school had to travel for long distances, to schools in other localities. Many abandoned. After a while, the mayor bought an eco-toilet. It’s not used, as they did not get the sanitary approval, but the mayor is satisfied – he has bought the toilet though, so everything’s fine.
And it could have been worse. From time to time, a child falls in one outer toilet and sometimes, he even dies; there were 4 cases of such deaths these years. The youngest child to die was 3 years old.
This story is very suggestive for what the involvement or “strategies” of the authorities for poor communities look like.
The drawings below are made for these children. I hope they will find something empowering in them. They have very little access to books and stories. And, even if they would, they would still not find anything inside the books published here related to their life, nor a character they can identify with. If nothing is done, it will be very difficult for them, if not impossible, to escape poverty. Hating and despising them, as it happens to their parents today, will change nothing for the better. Trying to help them could.
I have changed the style of my works, generally more delicate and poetic, opting for vivid colors, stronger contrasts and more tactile, realistic descriptions. There is nothing delicate in their life, even if the photos I’ve seen can be harrowingly beautiful. Omnipresent dark gray dirt is spotted with the bright colors of their clothes here and there, just as heavy desperation sometimes allows fragile bursts of hope to show up.