Saturday, December 31, 2011

Romania: My moment, part 2

I talked about my first, life-changing moment in my last post. The second one came our first day with the kids in Romania…

After a veeerrrrrrrrrrryyyyyyyy long journey (I think we traveled for almost 24 hours), we arrived in Romania. We had dinner, went to bed, then got up the next morning surprisingly well rested and ready to meet the orphans for a day at the zoo.

As you can imagine, after years of building up this moment in my mind, I really didn’t know what to expect, and to be quite honest, I was nervous. Would I be able to communicate with the kids despite the language barrier? Would it be weird talking through a translator? Would the kids like me?

All my questions were laid to rest the moment the kids piled out of their bus and ran to meet us at the entrance to the zoo. There were about 40 or 50 orphans that first day, ranging in age from five to probably 18. For many of them, it was their first time to the zoo; their first time seeing animals up close. What fun it was to see them wonder at how huge the cow was and laugh at the silly monkeys.

At first, the kids were tentative around us, feeling us out. Most of the orphans we saw the first day weren’t ones the Mission Outfitter team had met before (others we met later in the week have been part of the ministry for the last nine years, though), so there wasn’t a familiarity yet, and I’m sure the kids were wondering who we were and why we were there. After a few exhibits and one very bonding experience in the monkey’s awful-smelling house, the ice was broken.

One little girl caught my attention. She kept eyeing me, and I smiled at her. After a few smiles, she bravely came over, took my hand, and didn’t let go until we said goodbye that night.

Moment number two.

I have tears in my eyes now thinking about her. Again, I had years of expectations and ideas of what it would be like to spend time with Romanian orphans. But in that moment, it all melted away, and all that existed was that little girl and me. I had the feeling before I went on the trip that I would want to bring the kids back with me. I had no idea, though, the bond that could be forged. When I say that I left my heart in Romania, I really did.

The zoo became background noise as my new little friend and I got to know each other. Through the translator, I found out lots of things about her. She loves ice cream (all the flavors except banana), her favorite subject in school is music, and she’s lived in the orphan home for a little over three years (I wondered about that as you probably are now. I found out why a couple days later … keep reading). Her favorite word to say is “beautiful.” Even when the translator wasn’t with us, we found ways to communicate. Her English is impressive for a child her age, and she loves to sing. That was a fun was to communicate, since she knows quite a few English songs.

After the zoo, we went to a playground where we climbed on a jungle gym, played on swings and made s’mores for the kids. I enjoyed all the orphans that day, and included them in the activities I did with my little friend. But, throughout it all, she kept me right next to her; anywhere else wasn’t an option. And that was ok with me.

The whole group of us walked from the playground to the center of the town we stayed in, Târgu Mureș. Unknown to the kids, we were taking them to the GIGANTIC town Christmas tree. Some of them don’t have Christmas trees in their homes, so seeing this one was going to be a real treat.

On our way to town (a very cold, 40-minute walk), my friend and I walked hand-in-hand, singing Christmas carols. Sometimes, she knew them in English. Other times, she sang in her language and I in mine, both of us smiling at the new words we were learning. My appreciation for the power of music grew a hundred-fold that day. She showed me how high she could count in English (which was impressive), and then went over the names of colors, animals and other words she knows in our language. It was the best day I’ve had in years.

We arrived at the town square a few minutes before the lighting of the tree. The kids were looking around, wondering why we brought them there to see a big, lightless pine tree. Some I could see were disappointed—but mainly they seemed anxious to get out of the cold and onto our next activity, a fancy dinner at a hotel restaurant. All the adults knew what was coming, though, and kept saying, “just wait—you’re going to love this.”

The joy on their faces when that tree lit up—from the littlest boy all the way up to the oldest teenager—radiated brighter than all those Christmas lights combined. It was one of the sweetest moments of the trip.

It also made me think: How often in my life do I rush things? I always want to get onto the next bigger, better event, when God is saying, “Just wait here. I promise, something good is on the way.” Just a thought …

After taking about a thousand pictures (which I’ll share in my next post), we went to the hotel for dinner. Again, for us Americans, it’s no big deal to have a meal where there are two forks, three courses and more calories than we care to count. For these kids, it was everything. Eating out is unheard of for them, and eating at their houses is a simple, cost-effective thing. Excess isn’t part of their vocabulary. Eating till they’re stuffed? Probably never. It was so fun to teach them how and when to use the different utensils, and to see them shoveling the entire meal into their mouths, not willing to have even a crumb go to waste.

The best part, though, was what happened after we ate. The kids from each of the houses stood up and sang Christmas carols for all of us.

I like to think that I enjoy the simple things in life. But now gathering joy from the little things has taken on a whole new meaning for me. These children are experts at it, and they inspired me. They have so little; yet, to see them singing with such joy, you’d think they had the secret to all the riches of the world. How is that possible? I mean, when I say they have little, they literally have NOTHING of their own, besides the clothes on their backs. What I consider to be my greatest blessings in life—my family—they can’t even conceptualize. Yet they are grateful. Sweet. Kind. They certainly taught me a thing or two…

As the kids left that night and I said goodbye to my little friend, I had to hold back tears. I knew I’d see her again, so it wasn’t that. I was overcome with emotion. Fear at wondering what kind of life she’ll face. Sadness knowing that I would have to say goodbye in just a few days. Hopelessness at the Romanian government’s laws against foreigners adopting their orphans. But mostly, I was overwhelmed by this anticipation of the emptiness I knew would fill me the moment I said goodbye at the end of the week. I tried not to allow my emotions to take over, put a smile on my face, gave her a big hug, and told her I couldn’t wait to see her again.

And that was just day one.

Over the next several days, we spent time with different groups of kids at the ministry center. Mission Outfitter partners with a foundation in Romania headed up by an awesome young couple, Leandru and Claudia. They have a ministry center where they bring the kids each week to learn life skills, build character, play games and give them a safe place to go.

We also visited some of the children in their homes. It’s an interesting system Romania has now—it has come a long way since the 20/20 episode I saw so long ago. Several years ago, all the huge, institutional orphanages were closed and the children were distributed to houses around the country. The government hired a husband and wife for each house, and then filled it with the orphan children. The homes we visited ranged from five to eleven kids per home (most parents have children of their own that live in the home too).

Some of the homes were nice—not by our American standards, but at least compared to some of the others we saw. Some were cramped, sparse and didn’t feel very hospitable. It was quite a mixture, as were the house parents. You could tell that some cared about the children, while others don’t have pure motives.

Our team also got to visit two young adults who used to be orphans, but have since gone back to live with their families. What happens in Romania sometimes is that families will have a number of children, then decide later that they can’t afford all of them, give into some sort of addiction, or simply don’t want them, and so they give them over to the state. To me, these cases are some of the most heartbreaking. As if it isn’t bad enough to be an orphan in the first place, from birth, to know your parents chose you, over your siblings, to be sent away, must just pile rejection upon rejection and heartbreak.

The houses of these former orphans we visited can hardly be called that. They were cement slabs no bigger than my dining room, with flimsy walls and roofs that didn’t do much to keep out the cold Romanian winter air. Neither home had running water or a bathroom. Bathing happened rarely because the water source is so far away, and to use the toilet they had to go outside to the outhouse. There is so much more to the stories of the two former-orphans we visited (years of neglect, abuse and more), and I want to share them with you, but I don’t think doing so in a public forum is appropriate. If you want to hear their stories, though, send me a message, because I think it is absolutely vital for the world to hear what’s going on. How will change come if the truth is buried?

The next day, I was able to go to the house where my little friend lives. I was relieved to see that out of all the homes we visited, her house parents seemed the kindest, and though her walls were bare and her bedroom sparse, it was painted pale yellow and had windows in it to brighten it up even more. (I’m sending her things to put up on her walls for her 11th birthday next month). We played games and she gave me a tour of the house. Then we went downstairs to the kitchen.

At this point, the house parents served coffee to us visitors, and we sat around the table. My friend was next to me, holding my hand, and Leandru was translating for us. The little girl’s house parents told us that all the kids had written letters to St. Nicholas to ask him for things. We began to go around the table and ask the children what they’d asked for. A new toy. A pretty shirt. Soap. These were the answers we heard. When we came to my friend, we heard that in her letter, she asked St. Nick for one piece of candy. And also that he’d help her to be a good girl. Once again, I fought to keep my emotions under control. One piece of candy? And help being good? You have to understand, this girl is the sweetest, most pleasant little girl you can imagine. What help could she possibly need in that area? Can you imagine an American kid asking Santa for one piece of candy and help being good? Better yet, receiving one piece of candy and actually being thrilled about it? It’s mind-blowing.

I then found out the reason she has only been at the orphan home since she was seven: Her mother gave her to the state three years ago because she either couldn’t or didn’t want to be her mother anymore. There was never a father in the picture. The little girl often writes letters to her mom, but has never once received a response. She often asks why her mom doesn’t write to her.

I didn’t feel like my heart could take anymore. How could a mother not want this precious child? It’s not my place to judge, and I try so hard not to, but I can only imagine that her mom must be in a very dark, desperate place to give up her daughter and then make no effort to maintain contact. And the poor girl must feel rejection each day as she hopefully runs to the mailbox for letters that never arrive.

Again, I had to fight and pray hard for control over the tears springing to my eyes. And the whole time I was hearing her story, she sat there next to me, squeezing my hand so tightly. I wanted to gather her in my arms, cover her ears, and bring her home with me.

When we left the house, she walked with me all the way to our van, which was parked a couple streets away. I hugged her tight and told her I’d see her the next day for the Christmas party.

On our last day in Romania, we threw a huge Christmas party for the children, and really, they threw it for us just as much as we did for them. There were probably close to 100 kids there that we’d seen throughout the week. In addition to my little friend, I’d gotten close to a little boy and several of the older, teenage girls. It was so fun to see them all one last time to celebrate Christmas together. Each of the homes put on a performance of some sort. It was so much fun to watch them—even in Romanian and Hungarian, the message of joy they were sending was clear. After their skits and songs ended, we gave them each bags full of Christmas presents. Nothing extravagant—toiletries, a shirt, pencils, stickers—but talk about grateful, excited kids. I’m not sure, though, if they were more excited about the presents or the pizza and cake that followed! Pizza and cake are both delicacies to them—again, it was so fun to see them indulging, almost guiltily at first, and then voraciously after that. One little boy had his plate held right up to his face, shoveling every piece of pizza he could in it.

Of course, my little friend held onto me all night, and we did everything together. She drew me pictures as we sat together for me to take home. I look at them often. I wore a scarf to the party that she loved, so at the end of the evening, I wrapped it around her neck and told her it was hers to keep, a reminder of how much I loved spending time with her and that I was back in America, thinking of her and praying for her every day. She told me she loved me, and I about fell apart right there.

The end of the party came too quickly, and we had to say goodbye. When I say it is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do in my life, I’m not exaggerating. I barely held it together as I said goodbye to all the kids, especially the ones I’d grown close to. But how would I say goodbye to one I’d come to love? I didn’t know it was possible for that depth of emotion and bonding to happen so quickly. But my trip to Romania was full of lessons of things I didn’t know or realize were possible. That was just another one.

It’s funny. I went there to be a blessing and to bring joy to the lives of orphans. And I believe that happened. However, what I couldn’t possibly have anticipated was how much of a blessing those kids would be to me. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of them, prayed for them and pondered what I can do to help them.

I’ve had my moments. Now, what will I do with them?

I certainly don’t believe my first trip to Romania will be my last. But I also don’t feel as though going there will be enough for me. I want to do more. I want to be an advocate for these children who can’t speak for themselves. I don’t yet know what form that will take, but I’m committed to not be a person who goes on a mission trip and comes back all fired up, but that fire burns out.

No. What happened for me was the fanning of a long-simmering flame. It’s going to keep burning until I’ve done everything I can to help the precious children I met on my trip.

I’ve had my moments. Now I have my mission. Sound too dramatic? We’ll just see about that.

My next post will be full of pictures from the trip.

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