A Beacon in the Ghetto

Some NGOs ask people, “What do you need?” but we ask “What can you do with us?"

If you mention Ferentari to most people in Bucharest, they will give you a fearful look. It is a very densely populated and poverty-stricken area of the capital that many are afraid to visit, and it is true that problems of drug abuse, prostitution, and gang activity are high there. Ferentari is not so much a Roma neighborhood as simply a very deprived area but, seeing as most Roma fall into the lowest economic bracket, some do dismiss the district using the same stereotypes as they do for the Roma.

The Alternative Education Club (AEC) is active in three schools in the area and offers education, training, and artistic activities to children who may be orphans, runaways, or living in precarious, high-risk situations. The initiative started in 2010 and we take in children from the age of 6 to 15. We also helped children enroll in the Ministry of Education’s “Second Chance” program for children who are up to four years behind their contemporaries at school because they have been made to repeat a year, because they dropped out of school at an early age, or, worse, because they never went to school before.

Our program provides more ways for children to express themselves—through theater, music, sports, and street dance—than the national curriculum does, and some of our pupils have become successful, even winning national competitions. These activities also help to foster better cooperation and teamwork, because if you are not working as a connected group behind the scenes it comes across on the stage.

In 2011 we did a study that asked residents to list the influential actors in their life by proximity. The closest was the drug dealer, somewhere in the middle were the police, and the furthest away were the political parties. Part of the role of the AEC is to create opportunities to explore new activities and perspectives, and thus help children to avoid falling into the dangerous and corrupting influences in the neighborhood and to try to break out of the cycle of poverty. One desirable outcome from our program is that it can produce “big brothers” who can act as guides and inspirational role models for the kids in the club as they get older.

In Ferentari, children make up around 60 percent of the population, and the municipality of Sector 5 is infamous for not having a consistent dialogue with citizens. We try to position ourselves as a go-between. For example, we facilitate a mothers' club to help them take some of their concerns and complaints to the local government. In this way we have already managed to transform a notorious spot in the area where addicts used to inject drugs into a park where it is safe for children to play.

Romania has one of the highest percentages of people defined as “working poor” in all of the European Union. In Ferentari, some families may sleep as many as ten people in a room, which has a great impact on the physical, not to mention mental, health of children. Parents here, if they are employed, typically work as janitors, builders, or clerks and might take home a maximum salary of €200 per month. The club is free, but each parent pays 10 leu (€2) each month to maintain security for the school building where we function. Sadly, some families even struggle to afford this nominal fee, but thanks to the efforts of the mothers' club we convinced the local authorities to take over these costs in School 136 from the beginning of 2014.

Our approach is not to offer too much, but rather to involve both children and parents, and to ask the latter what they can give in return to either the project or the wider community. Some NGOs ask people, “What do you need?” but we ask “What can you do with us?" We strongly encourage parents to be closely involved with their child and to make an effort to come to our meetings. In the same way that we challenge the children who come here, we challenge parents not to be passive or take this education for granted.

By encouraging children artistically while also helping them improve their skills in mathematics, Romanian, English, and other subjects, we are raising their motivation, lowering drop-out rates, and slowly working toward transforming an area with a very bad reputation. Ultimately, we give kids a shot at creating a future for themselves.

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I worked with deprived Roma communities for a number of years, including in Romania. I would like to offer my good wishes and respect for what you are doing to give Roma kids a better chance of getting out of a cycle of deprivation and crime. Good luck - its a long and hard road.

I admire the efforts to improve the situation of the people, especially the children, in this area. In the end the government of Romania and the municipality of Bucharest is responsible for the wellbeing of all their citizens. In my opinion the pressure on the governments of Eastern Europe to make a beginning of the improvement of the situation of the poorest people in their countries, of whom a lot are of Roma background, should be strengthened.

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