The way out of Pata Rât

When asked what they would like to become when they will grow up, many children of Pata Rât say that they would like to be drivers of the garbage truck, because that’s what they see every day. The FDP Cluj team tries to help them see other worlds too.

It’s quarter to nine in the morning, and the Pata Rât landfill near Cluj is very busy: chariots and garbage trucks cross their ways on the dusty roads; the bulldozers climb on the platform and push the garbage up; some cows look for a piece of green land.

In the middle of this landscape, the blue gate of a former chemicals warehouse is the meeting point for the children of the community. Mothers come holding the hands of their 3-6 years old children, and the team of the Foundation for Peoples’ Development welcomes them with smiles. The children get on a microbus provided by the city hall and go to the “Țara Minunilor” Day Care Centre, which is managed by the Cluj Local Council; that’s where they will wash up, dress some clean clothes, eat and play until some time in the afternoon.

While the older ones are at the “Țara Minunilor” Centre, other children – aged up to 3 – go to the “ALMA” Center for Counselling and Support for Parents and Children. This is a mobile unit with several cases at the entrance of Pata Rât, where social-educational and informal activities are carried out. There are two main rooms in the cases: one where children aged 2-3 learn and play, and another one where activities are conducted for mothers and babies.

The women are involved in activities to learn methods that they would be able to apply later on at home. They learn the basics of hygiene; they receive guidance regarding breastfeeding or food diversification for their babies. A doctor volunteers at the centre once or twice a month. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the days for the workshops with the mother groups; Mondays and Thursdays are for one-on-one discussions with mothers, where they have a safe environment to talk about the problems they have and ask for support, depending on their needs.

After lunch, the school children arrive to the mobile unit, coming back from school; they get a hot meal and participate in afterschool activities. At the workshop we attend, they are happy blending colours on their palms and then spreading them on paper, guided by the Foundation team. On some days, they take mini trips to the central park in the city. The people of the centre noticed that, when asked what they would like to become when they will grow up, many children of Pata Rât say that they would like to be drivers of the garbage truck. And when they are to draw or mould an animal, many of them choose to make a horse, because that’s what they see every day. It is important for them to get out of Pata Rât as much as possible and get to see other things and to feel integrated in a wider community.

The Cluj branch of the FPD has 14 staff altogether. Eight of them do fieldwork as social and educational workers. One rule that they developed over time is to have two members of the team present for each activity, for their safety and the safety of the beneficiaries. The others do accounting, communication and other activities that complement the center’s activities.

Fieldwork is Monday to Thursday, and Friday is a day for meetings, when the team discusses the events of the week, issues and any possible solutions. Before the pandemic, they used to meet in person and, beyond work, celebrate birthdays or enjoy food together; but lately, the meetings turned online. They would now like to go back to the in-person meetings, even in a garden over a coffee, because these are important for strengthening the team.

Through all its actions, the foundation is present in the lives of the children, from birth to school, building like a spine for their education. The children enjoy interaction from birth until their school years, Laura Alicu, social worker with FDP Cluj for almost two years now, says. “If they don’t go through these stages, it’s very difficult for them to adapt in school. It’s very difficult to ask a child who is free and runs and does whatever he/she wants in a place he/she never leaves to go to class 0 and sit in a bench. It’s even difficult for them to muster the courage to go there.”

The current formula is the result of years of work, when the FDP Cluj people learned what the needs of the children and parents are and they adapted their methods. They started working with the Pata Rât children in 2014; at that time, they were doing activities for children 2-14 years old, whose needs were very different. “In time, we started dividing the programs, to have different people work with them and to have individualised and adapted interventions. We have focused on early education a lot, because this is the foundation – and we also focused on the relationship with the mums. In our view, these are the most important building blocks”, Paula Ciobanu from FDP Cluj says.

There are approximately 1,500 people, most of them Roma ethnics, who live in 350 huts and modular homes spread around the Pata Rât landfill. Many families got here as a result of evictions conducted by the local authorities; others came from other counties, to work as day labourers collecting scrap iron and plastics. Many of the huts have no electricity, and access to water is very difficult. After the main landfill was sanitised in 2019 – it spreads over an area equal to the surface of 27 stadiums –, the source of income for many of the Pata Rât inhabitants disappeared. The transfer platforms opened in the area, where waste should be stored before sorting, are fenced and they employ a rather small number of people. Given that, many families live on the children’s allowances.

A successful intervention in a community with so many urgent problems can only be an integrated intervention, the FDP Cluj members say. The support provided by the organisation is not limited to the children; it extends to their families too. Between 2018 and 2019, the organisation purchased solar panels and stoves for 27 families living in extreme poverty. Last year, they ordered barrels with handles for them, to help those who have no carts and vessels bring the water they need. The adults who go to the city with work can stop by the mobile unit and take a shower, get clean clothes or masks. The centre people help the pregnant women to schedule ultrasound examinations, since many of them have no medical insurance and don’t know where else to go for help. During the state of emergency, the team members brought food and hygiene products to the families.

“The girls help us, we are lucky to have them”, A. says; she lives in an area of Pata Rât called “Corturari”, a cluster of huts behind the former chemicals warehouse. She has 10 children, which she raises alone, as her husband died 10 years ago. “They take the children and bring them back, they wash them and give them clothes. And the ones who don’t go to the centre [“Țara Minunilor” – our note] they go here to the modular units.”

The centre is funded from both public and private funds. The Cluj Local Council provides a subsidy that covers about half of the expenses with materials (such as hygiene products and supplies for the workshops with children), human resources or fuel. Furthermore, the location of the mobile unit of Pata Rât is provided by the Social Services and Medical Directorate (DASM) of Cluj.

To support 15 children aged 3-6 of Pata Rât with care and education, a close collaboration takes place between the “Țara Minunilor” Day Care Centre, subordinated to DASM Cluj and the people of FDP Cluj, Cristian Iclodean-Lazăr, head of the centre, says. The fact that, before getting to “Țara Minunilor”, the children interacted with the people from the centre and there is continuity in their relationship with them is important. A member of the FDP team participates in the activities with the children of “Țara Minunilor”.

The collaboration has started in 2015, and only one formality was necessary: a partnership agreement signed at the beginning. Now, the relationship between the public institution and the NGO continues in the same manner, with as little formalities as possible, trying to permanently adapt to the children’s needs. For instance, when all the three washing machines of the centre broke, the FDP donated a professional washing machine, ensuring clean clothes for the children. Furthermore, when necessary, the coordinator of the centre helps the FDP people with transport for the children. From the view of the centre subordinated to DASM Cluj, the FDP serves as a bridge between the authorities and the community: “The FDP is in the community all the time, that is very important. And if we want to contact anyone in the community, we rely on them”, Cristian Iclodean-Lazăr says.

Now FDP Cluj is waiting for a decision of the local authorities, by which, together with another NGO, they will be able to use a space formerly used for waste sorting. There is also a project that includes building an indoor sports field. There would also be showers, locker rooms, offices and space for other activities. Beyond punctual help, the children in the community need continuity, and that’s what FDP Cluj offers them. For them, it’s a long, but certain way out of Pata Rât.

Text: Vlad Odobescu
Foto: Bogdan Dincă
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