Andrew Hoskins - General Journalism Projects in Romania
As the boy and I made eye contact, I detected a toughness in him that greatly surpassed his years. He could have been the leader of the pack had he chosen, but instead he mostly sat quietly among the bunch, when he wasn’t roughhousing with his buddy, another child in the group.
The lot of us sat under a tree in Preshmer, waiting impatiently for an American companion of mine and a Romanian teacher to pick out shoes for the children from a nearby shop. It was a bright and dusty day, and the children were restless. The group had been unexpectedly placed under my care, and I had decided to sit under the tree in the hopes that the group would follow my lead instead of running around the open space surrounding the tree and nearby storefronts, potentially getting lost. My plan was working, but I could tell the group’s patience was running thin.
I looked back at the boy. He sat next to me on the ground, legs criss-crossed with one knee up, and a hard look in his eye. We spoke, as we had frequently done that day, but not with words the other could understand. He spoke no English and I spoke essentially no Romanian, so we had to settle for pretending we knew what the other was saying and still making the most of it.
Back into the group I looked, spotting a girl who I had been speaking with as well during the day, also without understanding. Out of the group of about 12 or so, she was undoubtedly the most feisty.
Another boy came up to the group from off the street and was offering the children a handful of something from out of his pocket. He was about the same age as the group, but markedly dirtier than the others and missing teeth if I remember. In his hand he held several short strips of clear plastic, which he would offer to the other children nervously. I am still not sure what they were, drug paraphernalia perhaps, but I can’t imagine so. These children were all under 10 years old, so what he was doing remains a mystery.
He was making the children uneasy. The feisty girl was making a cigarette-smoking gesture with her hand and mouth at me when the plastic-offering boy was near, making me think he was offering some sort of smoking devices to them. I said “no” to her repeatedly, but this quickly began to upset her so I eased up.
The boy continued to hover on the outskirts of the group, sometimes walking up to the children and other times hanging back a few yards away, and we all kept an eye on him. Finally, through circumstances I can’t remember, the group and I decided to stand up and migrate a few dozen feet toward the shops, where my American companion Liz and the teacher were still picking out shoes. The plastic-offering boy followed us, and things began to get worse. An argument broke out, and the feisty girl pushed him clear to the ground. Almost just as quickly, he got up and kicked her in the rear. I placed my hand between them, but the plastic-offering boy was in tears by this time. A few moments later he was gone.
And such was my most memorable experience of my time as a journalism volunteer for Projects Abroad in Romania. Looking back I have found myself wondering what became of the tough boy who sat next to me, and what will become of him. I remember hearing dark stories about Roma life in the towns surrounding Brasov, and know life gets incredibly difficult for them.
It has been nearly a year since my experience in Romania, it is now April 2016 and I was there in June 2015. But the experience still feels fresh at times as I write about it. I never thought I’d find myself in the above situation, but that was the power of the experience. It placed two cultures together, an American and about a dozen Roma kids, and allowed us to see what the other was all about for a few hours.
My advice and encouragement to future volunteers is this: If you see something you can make a difference in, do it. If you see an injustice that could be fixed, write it. Tell the story. You may go into the experience expecting the trip to be a certain way, only to have it be turned upside down on you. And I mean that in a good way. You will be faced with difficult things, or maybe difficult decisions. But do not be afraid to act.
My colleague Liz, who was mentioned above, did what she could to make a difference, supplying the shoes after getting to know these kids for weeks before I arrived.
Projects Abroad puts you face to face with real people with real needs, and you do not know what kind of situation you will enter, so be ready.