My name is Hannah Hughes and I have now been a part of Small Steps Project for 3 years. In that time I have worked assisting projects with the CEO and founder of the charity, Amy Hanson, in Nicaragua, Cambodia and Timor Leste. I have also done research in Central America and visited dumps in Honduras and Guatemala. I first got involved with the charity because I had seen people living in abject poverty around the world and wanted to do something proactive to help.
I was recently promoted to Project Manager and was given the responsibility to run my own project in Romania. We had a new volunteer, Kirstie Grego, who joined the charity several months ago and has been doing a great job so far getting involved in all aspects of the charity and researching Romania andthe dumps there. This project is an opportunity for me to put everything I have learnt into practice and train Kirstie as a Project Assistant. Our goal was to deliver boot distribution to over 1000 people and carry out 2 investigative trips to 2 other dumps and this is my blog about what happened while we were there…
In the weeks leading up to our departure, we were busy organising the logistics and delivery of aid to Romania. Huge thanks goes out to Glastonbury who sent 400 boots and to Protectoplast, Wellieboots and Jojo Maman Bebe, as well as socks from HJ Halls Socks. In Wales, Steffan from Reboot (a great charity that collects boots from festivals and makes products for the top parts to sell for fundraising and sends the shoes to places in Africa) collected boots from Glastonbury and Barfood and sorted them all for us! Mypper sorted and packed over 1000 pairs of donated gloves. Festival Recycling & Critical Waste were hugely helpful in the lead up to our trip to Romania letting us run free at Glastonbury collecting boots from both the public and artists!
We had identified Pro Rroma as a small organisation working with the communities working on the Pata Rat dump and Dutch Director, Bert Looij, offered to work with us to deliver the boots and gloves to the dump communities. They work to improve the living conditions of the Roma people and fight for their rights in society. Within Pata Rat and the surrounding camps there are 2500 people, of which approximately 1500 are children. The surrounding areas include Dallas, a nearby community of approximately 650 people; Costea, a camp on top of the hill by the dump where there are 450 people; Cantonului, which is 1km from Dallas and home to 1000 people; and the dump itself where 400 people live. In Dallas they have built houses for the residents and the residents can pay for materials and borrow building equipment if they want to make home improvements and this is encouraged by Pro Rroma, so that people take pride in their homes and their village. Pro Rroma have been tackling the issues of home security for the Roma communities and have been trying to improve access to medical assistance. It’s very expensive to join the medical system in Romania and we heard a story of a lady who tried to pay the ordinary fee of 3 months cost in advance, but was instead charged 3 years worth of the cost (which she obviously couldn’t afford). This is 12 times the standard amount someone would be charged and this was based purely on her ethnicity. Pro Rroma take a very hands-on approach to their work and they are on the dump daily, also delivering a regular feeding programme for the children twice a week. When we met Bert and his wife we saw that they were committed to helping this group and that they had formed strong bonds with the people living there.
Our first visit
When we first went to visit Dallas we were struck by how friendly the people were as they have a reputation of violence and petty crime but as we were with Bert I guess we must have already had them on side. Bert bought the land so that the government could not move the scavengers from there. They told him that they could not have numbers on their houses because they are not recognised addresses, and that they are not acknowledged by the government…Bert has done this anyway. He would also like to extend the land so that it can accommodate more families, if he waits for permission it may never happen and I would have to agree, we were shocked to hear that there is such blatant disregard for such a large ethnic group by the government.
In Dallas we met Anna, a long-term resident who has been living there for over 20 years. She is 89 years old and has no family. She still works on the dump every day and every time we pass her in the camp she waves and smiles enthusiastically. We also met many children, most of them barefoot and unclothed. I noticed that there was a lot of rough play between them, spitting at eachother and some of them have makeshift whips made from sticks and rope. On this first visit we met 3 pregnant women, all of whom would be giving birth and living with their newborns in the village. There was another woman we met who had 5 children, 2 of them had been found by Bert when they were very young and sickly, and were taken away for some years before returning to the dump and their family – the girls are both blind, and look pale and thin. We also met Salome, a Swiss volunteer who has amazingly swapped her western life for a small 1 room house in Dallas where she teaches and which she keeps open to the children all day everyday. There is another building in Dallas which is open to the community, owned by Pro Rroma. Each of the leaders has a key and inside there are kitchen facilities, two classrooms, and another meeting room that is used for daily prayer and group meetings. Before these classrooms were built and the introduction of primary lessons only 20% of the children were attending school, but since they have been running this figure has risen to 80% – no mean feat!
The Pata Rat dump is a 10 minute walk away. On the way there we passed several horses and carts carrying adults and small children. It is not uncommon to see pushchairs filled with trash and a small child perched on top. Pata Rat dump has existed for over 20 years and now spans an area of approximately 22 acres, with rubbish 20m deep in places and this becomes evident when your wellies sink into the rubbish up to your knees! The rubbish brought here comes from Cluj and the surrounding areas and there are sometimes up to 5 trucks an hour! There are 80 families living here in shacks made of wood, carpet and plastic sheets, right in the middle of the rubbish, and over the hill there is a lake with warm water which they bathe in and believe has health properties – highly unlikely as we were told that public toilets were emptied there earlier in the year and the stench was nauseating. There are so many dogs on this dump and we are told they have been known to bite and Romania has a huge problem with stray dogs even away from the dump and only last week a 4 year old child was attacks by a stray dog in a park in Bucharest. I’m also on the lookout for rats and mice as they are prevalent on this dump and have reportedly bitten the dump dwellers as they sleep and one bite to a babies or small child could be deadly. We met one lady who wanted to show us her house, which was infested with flies, and due to this she has developed a skin condition over her entire body that looked red, dry and extremely sore.
The inhabitants of the dump all have something they want to ask for and others are singing gospel songs while they work. This is the hardest working dump I have come across. Everyone is grafting even though it is late afternoon on a Friday. There are groups working together to sort the bottles by colour, as they will receive more money this way. As we wait while Bert talks to the children who ask ‘ Where is Margriet?’ (this is Bert’s wife who brings them food twice a week) I watch a small child, naked from the waist down, hair claggy with filth and his face smeared in dirt, precariously climbing a mountain of rubbish with bare feet to retrieve his ball. Some of the older children have found an old cupboard, which they set upright and then from it they leap onto an old foam mattress. All around the dump other mattresses are being burned for the copper inside – the fumes from this are very damaging, especially to young lungs. We also heard a story of a 14 year old girl who died last December on the dump; she fell from the truck and was crushed. She was not a registered citizen of Romania and so her body would not have been accepted for burial, so for days her body remained in the house and the family would continue to live and work and eat dinner alongside the body. A collection among the community was gathered and with some donation money the girl was given a proper burial.
As Bert rightly says ‘no matter how many times you see it, you should never get used to the way people live here’. We left feeling bolstered however, knowing that we will return in a few days with the boots and gloves that have been donated which are so badly needed by the hundreds of people working here.