Winter Into Spring
Jacodu Children’s Project Seeks to Improve the Lives of Children in Roma Communities
by Chael Needle
Photos by R. James Feaver
More and more, HIV/AIDS advocates and researchers are foregrounding the ecology of the disease—the pattern of relationships among those affected or at risk and their environment. It’s a counterweight to the maxim, “Everyone’s at risk,” as if transmission as a shot in the dark is its most salient feature. No, they say, it’s really not. Risk is not about a momentary lapse in judgment but rather about how outside forces, over time, shape our lives. Factors like oppression, war, and poverty intersect and set the stage for how our everyday worlds impact us and how we navigate our everyday worlds when it comes to sexual health, substance use, treatment access, and connecting to and staying in care. The fight against AIDS has become a fight against everything that strives to keep us down.
The effect has been liberating. Individuals living with HIV/AIDS, ASOs and NGOs, and scientists are understanding prevention, education, and treatment in a more complex way—one that addresses HIV not in isolation but within a framework of social, economic, political, and cultural factors. The question shifts from personal responsibility (“What did you do wrong?”) to public responsibility (“How have our environments limited our abilities to know and our abilities to act?”).
The answer is the key to empowerment, and Love Light Romania, a Romanian-registered NGO dedicated to HIV/AIDS services, has embraced this holistic approach, never focusing on a simplistic category, “children living with HIV/AIDS,” but rather on the possibilities that escape categories: children living…and taking the next step, if possible, toward their self-determined futures.
Hailing from the U.K., Jo Jowett and husband Ron Jowett cofounded Love Light Romania after they discovered deplorable conditions at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS while on an international aid trip. They made more trips and then decided to rearrange their lives, move to the Eastern European country, and continue the work of pediatric care.
The NGO was established in 2000 to respond to an urgent crisis that had been brewing for decades: Impoverishing as well as utterly careless policies under Communist rule and after created a boom in orphaned, malnourished children, who were then given blood to counteract poor diets. The blood was unscreened and many children contracted HIV.
The founders/directors created a residential home, The Sanctuary, for some of these children, offering respite, end-of-life care, daycare, and home care support as well. The nineteen-room house can accommodate twelve permanent residents. Healthcare is a priority, of course, but so too is a family environment. The wounds of the past are treated alongside the physical and emotional needs of the present.
The Jowetts’ experiences, and the people they’ve met, have led them to address other needs of the community. For instance, the Jowetts launched programs like the Jacodu Children’s Project. Started in 2010, the Jacodu Children’s Project helps the children, and, by extension, their families, in a nearby Roma community.
The Roma communities in Romania, part of the disaspora of one of the most persecuted and oppressed ethnic groups, are beset by dire poverty. According to European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights, ninety percent of the Roma in European countries live below the poverty line, and one in three Roma are unemployed. In the local communities around Love Light Romania, families live in squalor. The children of these communities are marginalized at school, or not even registered in school, and illiteracy is rampant. Begging for food is the norm.
The Project started four years ago with a monthly toiletry distribution. Individualized clothes were provided. Homes were rebuilt. Over time, as children’s material and social-skills needs were addressed, their emotional and psychological needs were tended, too. The long-term goal is educational, and a reading, writing, and arithmatic program has been started. Summer activities and excursions add to the confidence-building. These are a mix of Outward Bound, 4H, and student-film project experiences that provide a space for creativity and collaboration to flourish.
Romania may seem far off, and the pressing needs of these communities often never make it to light beyond their borders, but Jo has a way of marshalling new media to broadcast the work of Love Light Romania. She ongoingly posts “diary entries” on Facebook, complete with updates about the organization’s clients and images that capture moments, big and small. Short films of children and teenagers offer portraits of the triumphs and the struggle. A longer film, “Breaking the Cycle,” narrated by actress Miriam Margolyes, shows the empowering effects of nurturing and striving to replace generational poverty with productive futures. Together the media create a way to connect, to measure the progress, and to mourn and celebrate lives lost.
The Jacodu Children’s Project is currently seeking outside support for its winter delivery program. The aim of its drive is to supply 170 children in
the Roma community in Albest (that is, all of them) with a weekly food parcel for five months to see them through the winter. While Love Light Romania will be able to pack into the parcels some of the vegetables from its agricultural project, which also helps the Roma community, it needs help to sustain the deliveries from November to the end of March.
A&U had a chance to correspond with Jo Jowett about the crucial work of bettering the lives of children by allowing them to realize their potential.
Chael Needle: We featured you and the work of The Sanctuary of Love Light Romania in the July 2010 issue of A&U and you discussed helping orphaned children, all of whom were living with HIV/AIDS. You were talking about expanding to help children regardless of serostatus. Now you have started the Jacodu program. How did your initial work lead to this work?
Jo Jowett: In 2006 when one of the residents, facing the final stage of AIDS, was receiving specialist hospital treatment in another county, a lady called Mariana was introduced to us. She was infected with HIV and also in the hospital at the same time. She lived in Sigisoara.
One day she was able to leave to return home and Love Light Romania provided her with transport; it was the biggest surprise to find that this lady’s homecoming was to a rubbish dump, where she was met by her two young, dirty, scruffy and sad children. This was the then-three-year-old Cristi and his four-year-old sister Persida. What was amazing about that day was, when the children saw their mum, it was not HIV, rubbish, filth and children living in squalor that was witnessed, but the love of a mother to her family, as she arrived back to her shack that was surrounded by mountains of rubbish.
This was the start of becoming a care provider, for orphans from HIV-positive mums and also the work with poor Roma communities. In March 2007, Mariana, knowing that she was now in the final stage of her illness, left Persida and Cristi in the care of Love Light Romania. In August of that year she passed peacefully away in hospital, in the knowledge that she was leaving a legacy of a life filled with hope and opportunities to her two younger children. Seven years later, the orphans, along with seven-year-old Alex, also from an HIV-positive mum, now live a safe and prosperous life at Casa Mariana, a house that we opened in June 2013.
Mariana’s words that she did not want future generations of her family living in poverty among a Roma community, seven years later, echo around Jacodu Children’s Project. After her death, her eldest daughter Erica, remained in the family shack with her own growing family and regularly the cries of a newborn baby continued to be heard on the rubbish dump. To honor the wishes of a brave lady, dying of AIDS, Love Light Romania continued to support Erica and her children, with a view to eventually re-locating them to a new life. Erica explained about a small Roma community in a remote and very rural village, where there was the possibility of building her a house, [as] the Roma there were her extended family. With high expectations a visit was made and the association was introduced to Jacodu Roma community. Thirteen little shacks, made of mud, wood, mostly no roofs with just plastic sacks to keep out the elements. Fifty-three wild and feral children, ranging from newborn babies to teenagers, barely clothed, filthy from the dirt and the squalor—they lived with no basic rights, they lived with no hope, and this life they had inherited they would pass on to their children.
As it happened Erica changed her mind about wanting to live in Jacodu; she now has social housing in Sigisoara and Mariana’s shack among the rubbish is no longer. But Love Light Romania had been guided to a poor Roma community, where there was no hope and children were living in need. Jacodu Children’s Project, working with Roma, is now four years-old. The aim is to break cycles of poverty through education and an agriculture scheme. A milestone [occurred] recently when our first teenage boy was given employment, by the association, on finishing school.
And did Bubu, a client who called Love Light Romania “his true family for life” before he died, also inspire you to create this new project with summer camp and winter parcels? He seemed to share your same passion for creating a safe, nurturing space for younger people.
Bubu, a man in his early twenties infected with HIV, who, once diagnosed, was asked to leave the state institution that had been his home since being abandoned at birth, was another bright light that led Love Light Romania to a poor Roma community. He had no other choice but to go to his family home, where he was shocked to see the conditions of squalor, filth and hopelessness. Albest Roma community is made up of fifty-three families where there are 170 children. Not one of the children are registered at school, [and] once again the association feels guided to a poor community, where the experience of Jacodu Children’s Project can be used to bring light and hope.
In the film about summer camp and Bubu’s film about his last days, “confidence” is mentioned often. Maybe it’s obvious to some why this is an important benchmark for children to reach, but what difference does confidence make in these children’s lives?
Our service users with HIV share with Love Light Romania and it is evident to see, that, when they come to The Sanctuary residential home, they feel safe and peaceful. The residents can live a peaceful life, confidently day to day, because they are in an environment where they are understood. Feeling confident allows them to live a healthy and happy life with the disease. Many have been abandoned at birth because they come from poor Roma families; their suffering is not in vain when they shine a light back to the children who are forced to live in the filth and dirt.
For these children from the Roma communities, it is very important to provide programs to build their confidence so that they can function in a new world. They too feel safe in their Roma community where they are not treated with disdain and judged. These children need a helping hand and support for cycles of poverty to be broken, then they can stand with conviction in a new life.
Tell us how our readers and others may help with the drive.
If the appeal [to support the 170 children from the Albest Roma community] is successful each one of the children, weekly, from the start of November until the end of March, will receive a food parcel. Over all the year, $15 a month will purchase a regular food parcel; some of the vegetables from the agriculture scheme at Jacodu Children’s Project will be used, therefore making that self-sufficient and allowing two projects to be supported.
For more information, log on to: www.lovelightromania.com. Donations can be made to Association Love Light Romania via Pay Pal or via the Love Light Romania Aid Everyclick page.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.