Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Romanians Still Culturally Caged

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Romanians Still Culturally Caged

Article excerpt

Mention Romania to most Americans and they're likely to conjure up incongruous images of a megalomaniacal communist dictator and helpless, neglected orphans.

After the videotaped execution of Nicolae Ceaucescu and the fall of communism in December 1989, some of the first and most unforgettable footage of life in this Eastern European country were of the horrifying conditions in its 600 state-run orphanages.

In 1990, when foreign reporters first descended on Riul Vadalui, a home for handicapped children in Sibiu County in central Romania, they brought back reports of children sleeping in their excrement and fighting a losing battle with rats for food. The response to such reports and others was nothing short of spectacular. In 1990 and 1991, 1,250 Western humanitarian and religious groups came to these children's aid, sending money, supplies, and volunteers. By July 1991, when Romanian authorities began to regulate and limit the country's adoptions, 10,000 foreign couples had adopted Romanian children. Because of this aid, by 1992 the conditions at most Romanian orphanages had greatly improved. In the years before the revolution, the annual death rate at Riul Vadalui was 44 percent. For the past six years, that rate has dropped below 1 percent. Now, the children are properly fed, clothed, and all have their own beds. In the last six years, recreational, religious, and educational services have been added to improve the children's quality of life. How did it happen? But now that the basic needs of the orphans are being met, and most foreign aid workers have moved on to their next mission, the country must confront the deeper cultural problem that allowed children to subsist in these conditions in the first place. While poverty and a corrupt communist system were partly responsible for the widespread neglect of orphans, they don't explain why the thousands of Romanians who worked with these children were not moved to improve such inhumane conditions. Many Romanians are frustrated with their country's lack of progress. Eight years after the fall of communism, Romanians haven't yet fully accepted the demands of democracy and free-market capitalism. While the country lacks clear-cut prescriptions for its troubles, there is no shortage of diagnoses. Maria Topirceanu, Riul Vadalui's new director, says very little would have changed in the country's orphanages without foreign help. One of the most harmful cultural legacies of communism is the persistent belief that the government will tend to all social problems. Community-based social-service organizations are a brand new concept in Romania that enjoys little support from the government. Bogdan Flora, a professor of psychology at the University of Sibiu, says Romania needs to develop a culture of self-reliance. …

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