Independent Appeal: How Ceausescu's orphans were given a new start in life

A charity founded by Anita Roddick is honouring her memory with its work in Romania. Cahal Milmo reports from Iasi

When British volunteers arrived at Orphanage One in Halaucesti 20 years ago, they were greeted with a scene of Dickensian squalor.

Shaven-headed toddlers were tied to their urine-soaked beds by supervisors who patrolled the corridors with sticks up their sleeves ready to beat their charges. Even when it came to feeding time, babies were not picked up; their bottles were pushed through the bars of their cots.

Among the 44 infants in this barbarous "Casa de Copii", or Children's House, in a village deep in the impoverished north-east corner of Romania was a small, brown-eyed, three-year-old girl called Roxana. She had been surrendered at birth to Orphanage One by a mother whose alcoholic husband had abandoned her with her five other children; the woman was so poor she could not afford to feed the newest arrivals, Roxana and her brother, Ionut.

Like thousands of Romanian women "encouraged" to bear at least five offspring under the erratic despotism of the country's late Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, Roxana's mother consigned her daughter to a state that systematically reduced the children it cared for to a loveless silence. If a child is left to cry for long enough, it simply gives up and withdraws from the world that surrounds it, with profound consequences. In all likelihood, Roxana suffered such treatment.

Two decades later, it is hard to reconcile the Roxana of today – a confident, smiling and eloquent 23-year-old, with a liking for Enrique Iglesias and a proficiency at karate – with her diabolical beginning to life. She is proof that the wide-eyed, emaciated waifs of 1990 have survived the horrors of the Halaucesti orphanages (among the worst in the country) and, against all odds, prospered.

In February, this young woman whose life was once considered barely worth sustaining, will graduate from Romania's oldest university with a degree in physiotherapy and a cabinet full of trophies testifying to her sporting prowess; she is a former Romanian national karate champion and a keen footballer.

Such a transformation is due in large part to the work of Children on the Edge, the charity founded by Body Shop entrepreneur Dame Anita Roddick, and one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. Like millions of others, Roddick was moved by the images of Romania's orphanages that shot around the world in 1990 in the aftermath of the short, bloody revolution that ended the lives of Ceausescu and his equally-hated wife.

Some 24,000 children remain in institutionalised care in Romania, now a member of the EU, and concern persists about the quality of care in some state-run homes. But today's orphanages bear little relation to the satanic mills that by 1990 housed 160,000 minors as a result of Ceausescu's malign pressure to produce a cheap workforce from children parents could not keep. Roddick, who died three years ago, joined the convoys of aid heading towards the former Eastern Bloc country.

But while others stopped within a few hours of the capital, Bucharest, the Body Shop's three lorries and 20 volunteers pressed further north to the district of Iasi, which even now remains Romania's most impoverished region. There, the group asked to be directed to the neediest and most isolated orphanages.

They were sent to Halaucesti and its three Casa de Copii. They have been helping the 600 children they found there, and many others, ever since. Rachel Bentley, the charity's director, who was on the first convoy, said: "Children were half-naked, running everywhere.

They slept three to four in a bed and most of the bed linen was soiled and stained. In cots were babies some of them tied by bits of material to the bars. There was an overpowering smell of urine and sweat. Flies were everywhere, probably because of the excrement that was smeared over walls and floors.

"What was most noticeable and upsetting was that none of the children had individual care and attention. To control the children, the staff hit them and many of them walked around with sticks up their sleeves. One, I discovered, had an iron bar.

"On entering the nursery area, known as Orphanage One, we did what any loving person would do, we picked the children out of the cots and hugged them. Except they didn't hug back. They didn't know how to. So void of love and affection were they that they didn't know how to react."

Roxana, like any three-year-old, has little or no conscious memory of such grim days. But she does remember vividly enjoying the fruits of the efforts of Children on the Edge – which in Romania created an offshoot named Fundatia Cote, still funded by the UK charity – to improve life for the inhabitants of Halaucesti's homes.

In 1994, Orphanage One was closed and its inhabitants moved to a new residence that had been divided into small family units, in a nearby town, Pascani. Then visits were started by Cote workers to enable siblings in other orphanages to see one another during summer camps.

For Roxana, these opportunities to see her brother, Ionut, a year older than her and who remained at the Halaucesti complex, were a source of joy and lingering sadness. She said: "I had a big desire to be with him, to hold him. Other children would visit their brothers and sisters, and I wanted not to be alone. With him, I wasn't alone any more.

"But he was very reserved. He would hide from me. Not like a game of hide and seek, but because he genuinely didn't want to see me. I think maybe I reminded him he had a family who didn't want him."

Since its arrival in Romania, Children on the Edge has pursued a strategy of seeking to reverse the damage caused by the Ceausescu-era orphanages, which were deliberately sited in isolated rural villages to conceal the "shame" of their existence and that of their inhabitants.

Instead, Cote began to reintegrate its children, some 4,000 over 20 years, back into the society which had rejected them. Today, the charity concentrates on helping teenagers as they leave care.

Roxana and her fellow inhabitants in the Pascani home, whom she refers to as her "family", became the first "orphans" (it is a particular cruelty of the Ceausescu era that very few of this generation of lost children were actually parentless) to be put into mainstream schools, rather than educated within the walls of an institution. But while this may have been progressive, Roxana remembers her school days with a shudder. The playground would echo with cries of "Casa de Copii" as her classmates mercilessly targeted the new arrivals.

She said: "I started school when I was six. They would shout these taunts and beat us and trip us up. It was horrible bullying. They would go on about how we had nobody to protect us. I feel that I had a happy childhood, but only when inside the home. I was unhappy in the outside world."

Even today, the sense of stigma at being a "Casa de Copii" persists. Many of the orphans are reluctant to reveal their status to those brought up in families for fear of being judged inferior. Remarkably, Roxana bears no resentment to those responsible for her distorted upbringing, her playground persecutors, the carers who struck her with a ruler if she failed to do her homework to the required standard, and the mother who gave her away to the unfeeling state. Her mother, she later learned, was named Rodica, now 46.

With an emotional maturity beyond her years, Roxana has in her own way laid to rest the demons of her childhood. Recalling the first time she met her mother at the age of 10, she said: "She was still very poor and the social worker at the home gave her some money to take me out to buy me a cake. I was happy because someone was buying me a sweet.

"I didn't have strong feelings about my mother. I was most interested in the cake. As far as I was concerned it was not my mother, it was just a cake-buying person. Of course, I would get upset at how I was suffering so much, asking 'Why me? Why me?' I would put the guilt on my parents.

"A few years later, I asked my mother why she had left me. She explained about the poverty and my alcoholic father. But when I saw how much she was suffering by talking about it, I resolved to never ask her about it again. It must have been hard for her. I am no longer upset at my parents."

The process of normalisation led by Cote continued when Roxana and her comrades from Halaucesti were moved as teenagers to apartments bought on behalf of the charity in the city of Iasi, staying in groups of six with a foster mother or "mama sociale" to supervise them while they attended secondary school and became part of an established neighbourhood.

As Roxana put it: "When I moved to Iasi, I was determined that no one should know about my background. It was a new start. Then on my first day at school, the social worker introduced me to the class as a 'Casa de Copii'. My hopes were dashed but actually it was a new start. I was serious about my studies. And I also decided to take up karate. After that, there was no more bullying."

The system of living in supervised apartments has become the cornerstone of the charity's work as the children of the orphanages enter adulthood. Roxana recalls her flatmates throwing adolescent tantrums but there is no doubting that the scheme has been a success: some 25 per cent of these once tempestuous and damaged children have gone on to do university degrees.

Iulian Ghica, Fundatia Cote's manager, said: "Our greatest need now is to see the orphans into adulthood. Many still have big needs, they need to learn the basics of life, how to cook, how pay a bill, what to do in a job interview. Without continued support to become independent, there is the risk they could fall victims of trafficking or get into crime."

Halaucesti was finally emptied and bulldozed flat in 2006 and for Roxana, the future is bright. As well as planning a career in sports coaching, she is beginning to overcome her long-held reticence about revealing the nature of her childhood to university friends, and works as a volunteer with children in care.

With a nervous smile, she says: "I can understand their needs and worries much better than someone else who hasn't been in care. I hope one day to have my own family. They will be hugged and kissed like no other children. I have worked hard to make sure that what happened to me, won't happen to them."



The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.



* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand. www.childrenontheedge.org



* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. www.childhope.org.uk



* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes. www.barnardos.org.uk

CLICK HERE TO DONATE TO THE INDEPENDENT APPEAL

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup