Booman user Chamonix asked me to repost this article I wrote on Christmas Day 2004.
Below is the original article in its entirety.
Here in Romania it is now Christmas morning and I wanted to share with you a true holiday tale.
I got up at 6:30am this morning to take some pictures of the holiday lights but they didn’t turn out so well.
Later today I’m going over to eat a Christmas “dinner” at my friend Princess B’s house, so this article will be all I will write today. I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you the story of the three girls in the picture above.
I was walking downtown a few days ago. It was a cold day with a sharp breeze, and I was walking back home when these three kids came up to me, asking for some money. I opened my wallet and gave each of them a coin but they were insistant and wanted more.
In Romania there are many poor people and many times you can see children begging on the street. My friends tell me that often they have tyrannical parents who send their children out to beg for the family’s “income” because the children are more sympathetic. I myself have given coins to children on the street before but never have I stopped and actually taken the time to speak with them.
The girl in the center is the cousin of the other two, who are sisters. From left to right, they are ages 12, 12 and 11 respectively and yet all three of them looked so much younger because they were short, definitely less than 5 feet tall. It’s difficult to see in the photograph there but they were dressed in old, shabby and filthy clothing which was far too thin for the cold weather. And yet they were out there on the street all alone to beg for money.
I asked them if they spoke English and they told me the only phrase they knew, which was “I love you”. I therefore had to rely on my poor Romanian which most adults here have little tolerance for. And despite the cold, I ended up speaking to these children for nearly an hour.
The three of them live in a one-room house in a town about 10 miles from Cluj. The father of the two sisters is dead so they live with the cousin’s family, a total of 7 children and 3 adults in one room. The children paid a local man to take them to Cluj-Napoca in the morning at 7:00am and told me he would take them back to their town later that day, so they were desperate to receive enough money for their trip back home in addition to whatever else they could get. They told me they had to come to Cluj-Napoca because their town is so small and they could never make any money there.
They told me that they all attended school, which is out for the year, and that they studied as best as they could. I asked them what they would buy with the money they received and they told me quite simply, “food”. I asked specifically what, and they told me bread, potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic. No cookies, no candy, no holiday treats, just plain, simple food.
I told them to study not only English but also math, science and other subjects so that when they were their mother’s age (31) they would not have to send their children on the streets to beg for money. I also told them that they were good kids and that it wasn’t their fault that they were poor. I also told them that it was only by luck that I was born in the United States and they in a small town in Romania, that it did not mean I was better than them.
All of this may sound silly to some of you, but there are so many children on the streets of Romania and so little attention being given to them. I knew I could give them a little money and walk off back to my world but I also wanted to share with them some simple human interaction, to tell them they were good kids, that not all adults were indifferent to their fate. I don’t know if anyone in their lives tells them that they are intelligent, that they can grow up and be anything they want to be, that where they were born or how much money their family makes is no impediment to realizing their dreams.
The children told me they were ethnic Rroma, which in the United States is more commonly referred to as “Gypsies” (in Romanian tigani), although that is considered an offensive term. I asked them if they spoke any Rroma language and they began happily jabbering away to me in it. I know that there are some who have strong prejudices against their people so I told them that I was not one of them, and that for me it breaks my heart to see children on the street, shivering and asking for money when they should be at home playing and having fun with their friends.
I realized I had my camera with me and I asked them if it would be ok to take a picture. They were absolutely electrified at the prospect and ran to pose for me. After I took the first picture, I showed them what it looked like on the view screen of my digital camera and they were completely enthralled. They asked me to take picture after picture, which I did until my camera was out of space. They asked me if I had run out of film and I had to explain that it was a digital camera, something they’d never even heard of.
When I was pointing the camera at them, they smiled and for one brief moment looked like the happy, innocent children they should be. But after the excitement of picture taking was over, I could see that they were tired and cold and perhaps even a little frightened to spend all day alone on the streets.
It’s a very strange thing for an American, including me, to see children on the street all alone without any adult or parent to watch after them. And it was strange for me at first to spend time just talking to these children in my halting Romanian. But although we were on a busy downtown street, not one of the well-fed and well-dressed Romanian adults stopped or even give us a second look. I was near a shopping district and it looked like most of the people were heading into town to find some presents for Christmas. And yet here were three children, kids, on the street hoping to receive enough money just to buy food.
As I stood there and spoke with them, I remembered what my life was like at age 11 and 12. I remember a warm home, with a good bed all to myself and clean sheets and plenty of delicious food. And presents, lots and lots of presents, toys and games and maybe even books. And though I never considered my family “rich”, we were far, far wealthier than anything these kids could imagine. After they told me where they lived, they asked me where I lived and were amazed to hear I have my very own apartment all to myself. One of the girls asked me, “do you have a (separate) kitchen?”. To them, that was the true mark of luxury, a separate room to cook in.
I quit my last full-time job in America in June of this year and since that time have relied on the generosity of the readers of my blog. I live a simple, frugal life here in a country where prices are generally much lower than in the United States. And yet I realized that what I considered “frugal and simple” was actually quite luxurious – I have an apartment all to myself, I have a computer, a digital camera and a high-speed connection to the internet. On that cold December day, I felt it was rather chilly out but I was well-fed and wearing nice, warm clothes. I knew I could not even imagine what life must be like for these kids and I felt it was my duty to do what I could for them.
For those of you who have made donations to me in the past, I want you to know I ended up giving these children 300,000 lei, which is approximately 10 American dollars. Maybe to you this seems like a pittance, like almost nothing, but for these children it meant enough food for even a very hungry family of 10 to eat quite well for one day. That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? But ten dollars easily buys enough potatoes, bread, onions, carrots and yes even garlic to make sure everyone has enough to eat. It was my hope that perhaps it would also be enough so that the next day the children could stay home and be children and play with their friends or do whatever children do.
So, on behalf of three children you have never met, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have truly given a gift worth giving to those who need it most. And that is the best Christmas gift I think I have ever had the honor to give.
Merry Christmas everyone!
Peace on Earth, Goodwill Towards All