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Holding The Babies -- Letters From Romania


By Stacie Hansen

HOLDING THE BABIES -- A month ago, Stacie Hansen, a former teacher and traffic reporter at KJR radio in Seattle, left for Romania. Her goal: to work for several months as a volunteer in one of the country's orphanages. She'd heard and read the stories of the thousands of children, several with AIDS, several with handicaps, nearly all of them with minimal care at best, who exist in the facilities. Hansen wanted to help. So she left her job and her city to move to Romania, and now she's volunteering in an orphanage in Braila, near Bucharest. ``Holding the Babies'' is a chronicle of her work. Today we're presenting the first of the reports she's sent. We'll bring you others, in the Scene section of The Seattle Times, when we receive them.

An excerpt from a letter she sent with her articles:

Jan. 30, 1991 -- I've been a busy gal - am sending six or seven articles back with an American - I couldn't get them mailed.

I'm becoming more sensitive to the people, country daily. Isolating orphanage conditions is difficult. As is my fear of saying too much or the wrong thing. I have been told by nearly everyone here about anything that goes through the mail. One extremely knowledgeable Romanian simply said: ``It's not good for all of us.'' The fears (paranoia?) may be left over from pre-revolution, but I've also been told not to talk on the phone, mail may be photographed - good grief. And all from different people - betraying confidences or endangering these new friends is not my forte! However, if I can't send an article with a returning American, I may not send any - or they will be general.

It's sad beyond belief. I have enough smiles from ``my'' 70 children (at orphanage No. 2) to keep me OK - but saw at least 80 children in a ``handicapped'' orphanage in conditions pretty much depicted in what I saw (last fall on ABC's) ``20/20.'' Worst of all, things don't seem to have changed. Our (U.S.) parents don't seem to visit those orphanages - they choose the healthy, ``normal'' ones. And the attitudes have been hard to believe - the previous Americans to stay (where I'm staying) pounded the table saying (to their hosts) ``speak English!'' Also explained Americans' superiority. Fun to follow in those wakes.

More to follow.

Her reports:

-- I've been in Romania, in Bucharest, for several days now; it seems easily a month. There's so much to see and ask and try to understand. Rides through the streets and conversations with new Romanian friends leave heart and mind reeling. It's a history we, as Americans, cannot understand, imagine or feel.

This morning, waiting for our taxi to jump-start another, we discussed the housing and high costs of repair with our driver. (There are enormous concrete apartment buildings everywhere - all are filled with cracks, holes and broken windows.) Being tactful and gentle is constant, hard work. I delicately phrase questions and try to couch my reactions to sights and information. There we sat, amid rubble and stray dogs and laundry strung across balconies with our three money belts stuffed with dollars and lei. The driver explained it is very expensive to replace windows - 50 lei. That's roughly 48 cents. The average Romanian salary is 2,000 lei per month. Post-revolution, the cost of living has skyrocketed (quadrupling many goods), while salaries stay the same.

It's important to me to understand all I can to keep the existence of orphanages in context and, as I begin to feel what life in Romania has been like, not to simply detail the horrors of the orphanages themselves.

For example, one of my new friends, a warm, vibrant teacher, told us last evening of her ``volunteer work.'' The government required her to ``volunteer'' every weekend - Saturday and Sunday - to sweep streets. She did this - worked five days a week, stood in lines for foods and goods for her family, and ``volunteered'' every weekend - for 15 years.

Today, I visited my first orphanage. We drove the 3 1/2 hours to Braila (dodging many horse-drawn carts) to tour what will be my workplace. As calm and prepared as I tried to appear, tears began in the very first room. In orphanage No. 1 (of five here in Braila, not including the handicapped orphanages), there are four rooms full of babies. A few are alert, but I wasn't ready for how very ill they are. The first child I picked up spends his days pushed up on his front arms and cannot un-arch his back when held. He remained arched away from me. Many babies were wet (diapers aren't used) and had distended stomachs.

I really thought I should be here, but after that first tour, I don't know. The children need serious medical attention, and the overall situation is overwhelming and complicated.

This is a devastated economy - culture and people - and we are, in a sense, in mourning with the people. And after the death of a loved one, we need most a comforting arm around our shoulders and quiet help.

I begin work on Monday. I'll still play my lullabies and unload bright toys - and wrap and clean and cuddle - but I've developed a knot of reality in my stomach since that first visit. I'm not sure it will lessen.

-- If you've had toddlers, you know the meaning of ``bone weary.'' I'm learning quickly.

Today I completed my third full day as a resident of Braila, and as a worker in orphanage No. 2. (We're not sure how many orphanages are in Braila alone, but we recently saw a sign for orphanage No. 30.)

Life here is hard. All seems despair and tragedy, and much is hard to believe. I'm not sure I'd be OK, save for my time with the children.

I'm exhausted and not sure my back will hold out - but you walk in that tiny room and 15 toddlers head for you with such determination. (I laugh every time - it's like ``Invasion of the Body Snatchers'' - and some spark of strength returns.)

First, life here. Pork fat for breakfast, two rooms heated in the house, one light bulb in our room (they're not for sale anywhere), chickens in the back yard, and a hot bath once a week. (The tank has to be heated by wood.) Truly, it's as if time and the ability to repair anything stopped long ago.

The orphanages. They range in staff and conditions, and although my concerns about my ``orphanage'' are immense, it is relatively clean and well-staffed. It's hard to write this, but I'm encouraged by the spunk and resilience of ``my'' children, and the workers who genuinely care for them. Yet I'm numbing myself to some things I cannot accept, now or ever. The children spend a lot of time wet, head to toe (diapers aren't used), the lights go out (black) at night, and all is done on a strict schedule: 6 a.m. we change beds and change children; 7, they sit at little tables and eat; 8 to 10, they ``rest'' in their cribs (actually, it's not a time for rest; they're simply alone and awake); 10, they eat; play time until noon (my happiest time); 1 to 4 p.m., naps. I haven't yet worked an evening shift. Their lives are en masse production, yet I marvel at their quick smiles and gentleness. They rarely hit me or each other; nor am I ever without four children somewhere on my lap and three more crowding in.

But the waves of sadness flow frequently. This morning I walked in to see 17 toddlers herded into a few cribs, wet from head to toe, mostly crying, while the other cribs were changed. I wanted to apologize over and over to those little faces as I passed by, changing crib sheets. And even under those conditions, I sneak in a few bars of some song or a tickle as I pass by, and am rewarded (reassured) by quick smiles. They're amazing.

Please contrast these conditions with the immense kindness shown us by the workers. (Beki - a co-worker from the U.S. - and I are forced to break when the other workers don't, to be served a hot lunch.) They are interested in everything about me; endlessly patient with my Romanian (or lack of it). I'm working hard at these relationships. Beki, in her wisdom, reminds me we are here only briefly; the workers remain. We must work within the system.

It is a system and these are institutions. The children are Ceausescu's victims, but (and this is new to me) so are the workers. One woman and 17 toddlers is simply an impossibility. Pre-revolution, it was 40 children per worker. I cannot justify the treatment of the children, but my compassion now extends to the workers.

Sometimes I feel swallowed up by it all, the smelly rooms and time the children rock themselves and knowing this is one orphanage. But children are just so amazing. The comfort me in many ways.

I already have my favorites. ``Gregoray,'' a k a ``Bruiser'' to us - a strapping 3-year-old who loves my ``la la'' (tape recorder). Marianne, a tall 4-year-old whose eyes light up when I can show her anything that's new. Daniella, a tiny 1 1/2-year-old who sits quietly by herself, too cute to be real.

The hardest is feeling they're on the ``brink'' somehow, the sense that they're so ready to burst into full blossom, or . . . and there are a few ``ors'' - to skittle sideways if you try to touch them. My heart hasn't broken, but like a salt block, it seems to be chipped away at daily.

I have fewer answers than before I came (ignorance is such bliss), but find my days full of unexpected delights.

-- Before I came to Romania, the only information I saw or read about the country's condition regarded adoptions. There have been thousands of adoptions in response to several reports on ABC's ``20/20'' and personal stories of happy endings in national publications.

Unfortunately, the situation for current adoptions is becoming very complicated; there's a need for adoptive parents-to-be to be prepared for increasing difficulties with the government and orphanages themselves.

I also believe we should really think through the overall impact and consequences.

My happiest moments so far have been seeing children in the arms of American couples, ready to go ``home'': couples from New Jersey and New York with newborns at the U.S. Embassy; two Seattle couples with three 5-year-old daughters-to-be. Especially after seeing the babies lying in the orphanages in need of so much attention - these moments are indeed bright spots for me.

But the issue is far greater. Because of the length and expense of adopting Caucasian American children, hearing of the thousands of babies here in Romania had me worried; they are, in essence, a national resource, a valuable commodity. I feared Romanians would believe we cared just long enough to ``get'' a child and leave. Our American dollars and their value here would create concerns that a black market for babies could open up.

It seems to be happening. Two weeks ago a television special showed babies being ``sold'' in a transaction. Prices for translators, taxis and homes to stay in are rising sharply. Americans are paying $40 a day for a car and drivers - roughly 4,000 Romanian lei or two months' salary for the average Romanian. Americans wanting babies is big business.

Complications are enormous. One pediatrician from Seattle visited five orphanages in one day and was ``shown'' only one child. I've been to two of those same orphanages; there are 50 toddlers in the one, 80 ``handicapped'' 4- to 8-year-olds in the other. The laws change frequently and, according to the U.S. Embassy, sometimes without it being informed.

I believe this isn't cold-heartedness, but a reaction to the waves of foreigners, their behavior, and a system that can't cope.

I'm torn. I see the children lying alone and can only think, ``We have to get them out of here.'' But I question our approach. Parents ``shop'' and often have been interested only in the brightest, healthiest children. Those are few and far between. The years of institutionalization show. In Romania, two years ago, even salaried families couldn't find meat or purchase clothing. Imagine how the orphanages fared.

So far, there have been many successful adoptions, but they happened quickly and in a chaotic manner. Now the whole process may be shutting down. Perhaps the Romanians are saying, ``Enough.'' One couple, here to adopt from Seattle, told me to inform a friend coming in March to adopt, simply: ``Don't.''

Maybe it's too late. I regret deeply that we haven't shown at least equal attention to the country and its orphanages as we have to adopting its children. When one child is adopted and conditions remain the same for the other 39 children left in that room, it's harder for us to convince the Romanians that we care for all their children.

Maybe if we'd come over looking for the child that needs us most, the adoptions wouldn't be shutting down.

But they can't stop the process; nor can we slow our efforts for the remaining children. There are so many. They rock themselves and spend hours in wet clothing. It's a pivotal time right now, and with the Romanian government in disarray, the future is unclear. Let's move quickly but delicately.

Stacie Hansen's reports from Romania will run periodically in the Scene section of The Seattle Times.

1991 Feb 24