Mihaela is surrounded by noise, wails and cries in a 4ft cot of 9 babies. She is just one of the many orphans I met during my week-long volunteering placement in 2011, abandoned due to being born into the poverty-stricken country of Moldova.
Moldova, a country landlocked in both time and Eastern Europe, has been subject to huge amounts of social unrest in the past twenty years, as their fight for freedom and independence blurred the needs of the civilians left picking up the pieces. As one of the poorest countries in the whole of Europe (with an average monthly wage of just £163), 2009 saw 30,000 protesters swarm the country’s capital Chisinau as a result of a parliamentary election in which Communists ruled with just over 50% of votes. Rumours of a rigged election surfaced, causing a violence to sweep the city with multiple attacks of parliamentary buildings and the deliberate setting of fires.
Moldova’s continuing social unrest is just one factor in the country’s poor status. According to UNICEF, one third of the working population have migrated, resulting in many children being left with just one parent or orphaned, leaving some with no alternative other than institutional care. There are more than 14,000 children in the care system in Moldova, along with approximately 138,000 children living without one or both parents. With factors such as poor housing, minimal money and limited social services weakening the ability of parents to care for their children, family breakdown has become more common, resulting in a huge increase in ‘care’ children.
So why am I telling you all this? You probably know nothing of Moldova, save the odd England football match. Yet this is a country that remains close to my heart as in the summer of 2011, through the volunteering organisation Service for Peace, I witnessed first-hand the awful conditions of the orphanages, institutions and most importantly, the children trapped inside.
We arrived in the capital ready for our week-long volunteering placement at the local orphanage, which cares for children up to 7, and the institution, which cares for children from 7-16 years of age. We also got the opportunity to venture into the rural areas of Moldova, where, according the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), there is a 79% poverty rate, almost three times as high as urban residents.
Statistics continue to shock, with only 37% of households having an indoor toilet and over 40% living without running water- instead relying on a local well. The streets lack simple drainage systems, causing flooding to occur daily, usually accompanied by waste and excrement. As you venture towards the rural side of Moldova, children run barefoot outside muddy slums. Return to the capital and the urban landscape is littered with blocks of flights with grey cracked stone, boarded up windows and a sense of hopelessness – the only sign of modern culture being the small McDonalds squatting in the middle of a busy junction.
The orphanage was where we made a difference that week. I’ll paint a picture for you: a musty smell, an endless maze of whitewashed corridors, lines of small wooden beds, constant wailing and noise and closed doors, behind which were children we weren’t even allowed to see.
I’ll let you question as to why this was, despite the fact we’d already had to bribe our way in- through essentials such as nappies, pasta and second-hand clothes. As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. I was allocated to one of the baby nurseries, in which I immediately met the stench of unchanged nappies and the confused babble of wails, cries and whimpers. Two local nurses bustled from each baby to next, thrusting one towards me with vigorous nods of the head.
This was when I met six month old Miheala, abandoned at just a few weeks old on the doorstep of the orphanage. Looking round, we took in the multiple cots in the room, filled with up to nine babies at a time, with thin, threadbare blankets to line the hard wooden base. The carelessness of the nurses as they, in a haste to attend to the next baby, picked up each by an arm or the front of their baby-gro and dropped them back into their cots without blinking. Thud. We eyed the stack of baby clothes in the corner, stained with sick, blood and faeces. These babies were allowed one nappy per day. In England, this borders upon child abuse. In Moldova, they simply can’t afford them.
Even two years on this still haunts me; poverty like this isn’t going to go away on its own. Sharing this story isn’t pleasant and that’s the point. Young people elsewhere have it much worse than us, something to think about next time you can’t afford the latest Topshop ‘must have’.