Historian and author Dr Tessa Dunlop, who worked at a Romanian orphanage in the 1990s, shares the story of how the people once abandoned there, are now opening their doors to people in need of shelter
Image: Alamy Stock Photo)
The woman in the photo is wearing a Steaua Bucharest football shirt and there is
joy in her face as she hugs a wide-eyed Ukrainian boy one day shy of his seventh birthday.
Cleb has fled with his mother and grandparents from Ukraine ’s Irpin, where they were confronted by armoured vehicles and travelled for days before arriving in Siret, a small town on the border with Romania.
The photo is touching, especially if you know Lenuta Gavriluta’s background. The 43-year-old was abandoned at birth and grew up in one of Romania’s most notorious orphanages.
Under Nicolae Ceausescu’s wicked regime, the most vulnerable children – those deemed to have neuro-psychological problems – were dumped in Siret’s army barracks, hundreds of miles from the capital Bucharest.
It was the country’s biggest orphanage; at its height more than 1,000 children were holed up behind its walls.
The story made headlines all over the world, Anneka Rice arrived with British TV cameras and a year later I volunteered there on a student gap year.
Mid-winter it felt like arriving at the end of the world; a town with a dark secret looking on to the vast expanse of Ukraine.
Back then, Lenuta was 13, fending for herself amidst hundreds of orphans, all dressed in cast-off clothes with shaved heads and physical quirks that come with cruel incarceration from the start of life.
Now, 30 years on, it is this same girl who immediately responded to the current Ukrainian crisis.
“I understand,” she says. “I had my own war, I did not have a life like others. I said to my friend Rodica, ‘Let’s come up with an idea’.”
I am talking to Lenuta on WhatsApp and she is bursting with pride, likewise Rodica Marginean, who grew up in the same orphanage.
“We said, ‘Let’s invite the refugees so they can be warm!’” says Lenuta.
“It is still cold here in north Romania. Some Ukrainians are in tents. We said, ‘Come and stay with us and have a bath!’ We sleep in the living room so they can have our bedrooms.”
Rodica stops and stares down the phone. “Where we lived before was terrible but now we have really good conditions,” she says. Today these girls live in sheltered accommodation, the School for Life Foundation, and are almost fully independent.
Once part of a horror story, they are proof if the politics are right and support is there, life can come full circle.
The registration hub in Siret receives up to 7,000 refugees a day – a lot in a town of 8,000.
Families with nowhere to go can find respite with Rodica and Lenuta at their Foundation.
Some stay for an hour or two, others a night, a few for a week or more. Lenuta and Rodica earn money doing errands and with this they’ve brought shawls and sweeties for the refugee children.
So far more than 200 Ukrainians, four cats and one dog have been welcomed in their home.
Ilena sits on Lenuta’s bed with her son Cleb and his grandfather Vitalyi.
They’re interviewed on Romanian TV. Ilena tearfully explains how her family left Irpin. She tells how days later a bomb fell near their house.
Lenuta made sure Cleb got a cake on his seventh birthday. For her first 20 years, there was no birthday cake.
“We have four rooms with activities and everything,” says Dana Petru, who also grew up in the orphanage.
She explains how she uses English phrases with the Ukrainians that she learnt after the 1989 revolution. But there’s one thing the girls don’t share.
“We don’t tell them we were orphans,” says Lenuta. “They’ve been through enough.” The Foundation’s director Elena Harasemiuc explains many of their Ukrainian guests do find out but the takeaway fact is not the women’s pasts, rather their kindness.
Among the refugees was a family of nine from Mariupol, with a disabled child and a hamster. Their mother Ania was grateful for the peace and quiet after so much horrific bombing.
Another couple said: “We can’t believe Romanians could be so kind.”
This is border country where rivalries run deep but war has trumped that. Elena says: “They leave amazed. We are a transit stop for them.
“On they go to France, Germany, elsewhere in Romania and Bulgaria. I am proud of the girls and of Romania.”
Unlike many of the people who grew up as orphans in Siret, Lenuta, Rodica and Dana are basically independent.
Tibi Rotariu is head of Siret’s adult psychiatric hospital that provides a home for some of the others. He says: “A long period of institutionalisation has detrimental effects on the development of a child. Many need supervision for the rest of their life.”
Siret has an extraordinary resilience and the community is helping with offers of food and accommodation.
Thirty years ago, press packs and volunteers flooded the town and it responded accordingly – in the early 1990s it was the only place in north Romania you could buy Western beer and a Snickers bar.
Tibi was a teenager then. He translated for foreigners in the orphanage. As well as helping to co-ordinate the local response, he is now translating for Ukrainians.
He says those who grew up as orphans associate foreigners with kindness. Lenuta agrees and Dana adds: “When the refugees come I hug them.”
These girls grew up without hugs and it’s deeply moving to witness the joy they’ve found helping others.
Their Facebook pages are full of photos with refugees and pictures drawn by Ukrainian children: love hearts, flags and messages in English, Romanian and Ukrainian.
Lenuta says: “The little ones are frightened, they are affected by the war. We understand. We went through something bad too. It’s good to help.”