Christmas in Romania


Fourteen years ago this week, Romanians celebrated their first Christmas in freedom in more than 40 years–observing, simultaneously, the birth of the Christ Child and the death of a brutal Communist dictator: Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed on December 25, 1989.

How has freedom changed Romania?

“Life is still very hard for many, and people are still very poor,” says Mary Ann Bell, chairman of Romanian Christian Enterprises, a faith-based nongovernmental organization serving Romanian children. The crime rate is low, yet the abortion rate is the highest in Eastern Europe. The dreaded Securitate is gone, but human-rights problems still plague the teenaged democracy.

When Americans think of Romania, two images typically come to mind: gymnast Nadia Commanici (now 42) and orphans. Americans were horrified by the terrible pictures on television of Romanian orphans tied to iron cribs, ignored except at feeding time, literally starving for love. In 1989, the orphans–some 300,000 strong–were the offspring of Ceausescu’s demand that all Romanian women produce at least five children. Many parents, unable to support them, left these children at orphanages. Few were adopted, and many ended up on the streets, in prison, or dead.

Poverty, not tyranny, breeds today’s crop of abandoned children. While there are only 30,000 of these “orphans”–a big improvement over 14 years ago–their treatment is a matter of concern to the European Union, which Romania hopes to join in 2007. Responding to those concerns, Romania shut down its huge orphanages and instituted a vast foster-care system–a decision that some see as well intentioned but potentially disastrous. According to some observers, many families who take in orphans are spending the accompanying government stipend on themselves instead of the children. Tragically, adoption-agency corruption has led to a moratorium on international adoptions of Romanian children–one that has yet to be lifted.

But there is hope in Romania, as well. Romanian Christians are working to bind up Romania’s festering wounds and–after decades of oppression–are relearning how to be salt and light in the surrounding culture.

Among them are those who created Romanian Christian Enterprises in 1994, partnering Romanians with Americans to assist abandoned and orphaned kids. RCE operates one of a handful of schools for disabled Romanian children, consulting weekly with American educators. They also run a domestic adoption agency, placing orphans into Romanian families. While awaiting adoptive parents, the children live with Daniel and Monica Cucuiat on their farm outside Arad in a household that includes a nurse and tutors. If adoptive parents cannot be found, the Cucuiats offer them a permanent home.

Because few families can afford to adopt, RCE offers a Romanian version of Habitat for Humanity, offering no-interest home loans to families willing (and qualified) to adopt. Romanian and American volunteers then roll up their sleeves and help build or renovate the homes.

One Romanian family has adopted three abandoned girls through RCE; another adopted twin boys with terminal hepatitis B. “Such sacrificial commitment from people with few financial resources speaks highly of the future of Romania,” Bell says.

Some of RCE’s work is cutting edge. Physical therapists at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., put their first international tele-medicine link into Darius House, RCE’s rehabilitative home for abandoned children with special needs. Over the Internet, in real time, American doctors and therapists can observe Romanian children and offer treatment recommendations. It’s a labor of love; none of the Americans accepts payment.

Typical of the children they help is seven-year-old Otilia, who was abandoned first by her father, and then by a foster family that jettisoned adoption plans when Otilia was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Otilia arrived at Darius House when she was four. In this loving environment, she received schooling and physical therapy. She now studies piano at a school for musically gifted children. Washingtonians had a chance to meet Otilia at a recent fundraiser for RCE at the Romanian embassy, where the little girl performed on the piano. (Another family has begun the process of adopting Otilia.)

Facing outward to help the sick and suffering is a dramatic change for Romanian Christians. Under Ceausescu’s persecution, Romanian churches had “a fortress mentality; they grew internally, but could have little impact on the culture,” explains Bell. Today the followers of Christ–Romanian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and evangelicals–are slowly growing into a public role, bringing justice and mercy to their neighbors.

Progress is desperately slow, “but it does happen when freedom is there, creating an environment for people to think and create, and allowing small NGOs like ours to do the work of God–to care for the poor and the needy, adopt the orphan, and help families in poverty. None of that could have happened before the Revolution,” Bell maintains.

It’s a reality that should be heeded by those who began complaining, merely weeks after major combat operations ended in Iraq, that the American-led Coalition (which includes Romania) was taking too long to “fix” Iraq’s massive problems–or that Iraq’s problems could have been repaired without freedom.

Fourteen years ago, on a succession of cold December nights, Romanian Christians lit candles against the darkness of tyranny. Today, by serving tyranny’s most helpless victims, they give witness to the Light that came into the world 2,000 years ago: the Christ Child whose birthday they–and we–celebrate this week.

Anne Morse is a freelance writer in Virginia.