The Community in Girisu de CRIS, Bihor county, learns to live and enjoy life together. An after-school program for Roma children in the area was the starting point for this.
It's easy to find M.’s house on Bujor street in the township of Girișu de Criș: its walls are painted in bright red. She has a backyard summer garden, a henhouse for livestock farming, a vegetable garden, and flowers in front of the house. She also has two dogs, as well as a few cats to give away, in case someone wants to have them. For the time being, A. and B., her daughters, have what to play with in the afternoon when they come from the after-school program.
For M., this place is more than she would have dreamed of a while ago. She was raised in a family with many children, at the outskirts of a village with dozens of houses built awry, as each owner wanted and was able to. She is now enjoying the peaceful atmosphere of this place, where she can properly raise her children. A. is in the sixth grade, B. is in first grade, and both are well-behaved and good girls.
M.'s mother, E., lives in the neighboring house, and helps her with the children. She grew up in a foster home, had no shelter for a while and carried her children with her on train platforms, under bridges and fed themselves from dumpsters. She didn't even think of enrolling M. in school, so she couldn't get hired anywhere: even as a janitor, she was required to have graduated the tenth grade. Now M. is almost 30 years old, is a day laborer wherever she can get work, so that she can bring some food home. That's why M. wanted at all costs that her girls go to school.
The woman found out about Dorcas Aid Romania in 2015 from some neighbors whose children were already in the association's after-school program. She asked "Mrs. Ioana", that is Ioana Ghiurău, the project manager, to enroll her daughter A. She was too young back then, but she waited another year and then joined the program. She stays with other children in a classroom and they do their homework, play, and have lunch together at the canteen. When Dorcas Aid Romania organized some literacy courses for adults in the village, M. enrolled, too: there were about 30 people at the beginning, but by the end, she and another four persons were the only left. For many adults it is complicated to keep learning, because they have to go to work or take care of large families.
The township of Girișu de Criș (Bihor county) is about 15 minutes away from the city-center of Oradea. In the 2011 census, the township had 3,588 inhabitants. Of these, about 1,200 are Roma, according to an estimate made by Dorcas Aid Romania. As in many other places in the country, the Roma Community has long been living at the outskirts of the township, separated from the life of the majority. Very few Roma children were going to school, and none of them had managed to finish the eighth grade.
The after-school program of Tărian – a village included in the Girișu de Criș township and where the only school in the township operates today — started in 2012. In the previous years they had organized – at the invitation of a partner organization, the Christian Center Betania Oradea – a series of weekly meetings with children from disadvantaged families and noticed that many did not know how to write and read. They thought that a consistent intervention could change things.
It was of great help that the Betania Center already had local contacts on which they could build, said Dorcas Aid Romania, Attila Daray. "Our principle is that we start working in a community if we feel that there is already an involvement and a possible partnership there. Maybe it is the town hall, maybe the school, a church or another NGO. We believe in local partnerships, because this is also a guarantee of sustainability and impact. Locals must be involved and be the driving force [of the action]," he believes.
In Girișu de Criș, Dorcas Aid Romania quickly found partners among the local actors. The town hall was an essential one. Mayor Ioan Pașca, now in his fifth term of office, summarizes the beginning of the relationship with the association: "I talked to Mrs. Ioana [Ioana Ghiurău - n.r.) about the project and I agreed to everything she proposed. She asked us: "We pay half the amount. Do you agree to pay the other half?" "Yes, of course. We will definitely pay". This is how simply it has started.
And the wish of the school leadership to make the project work has made a lot of difference, says the Dorcas Aid Romania representative. There were many children at risk of school dropout at the time, remembers the principal of the Tărian Secondary School, Adriana Paul. An after-school program was something new, at least in a small community, but it quickly took shape. They realized the program had to be hosted by the school and the classes need to be held by the teachers there, because it would have been uncomfortable for the children to change the environment and the people they work with.
At first, the program addressed children in primary school: there were only 25 children. Over the next few years, they extended it for children in the secondary school, because "absenteeism was rife" there too. In the early years, when one of the children was absent, they went to his home and inquired about him: "Why didn't he come?"
There are 82 children now in the after-school, of 9 classes (from preschool to the 8th grade). The program starts at 12 o'clock with the younger pupils. The older pupils finish classes later, so they start from 2PM. A meal break of 20 minutes is included in the two-hour program.
For these children a warm meal a day makes a great difference, because – says the principal – some have not eaten since yesterday at noon. But beyond that, it is important that children receive emotional support from those with whom they interact. "It is a long-term effort, because education needs time, financial and human resources," the principal added.
It's 1 o'clock and we are witnessing an after-school class, with preschool children. Children build sentences that start with "in summer". Someone says: "In summer, there is sun"; someone else says, "In summer, there is a beautiful weather" or "there are a lot of flowers". Even if there is a real summer day outside after many rainfalls, the children are glad to be in class.
During the pandemic, most of them could not take part in classes online, because they had no means, and the parents – many of them unschooled – could not help them in any way. Ioana Ghiurău and her project colleagues have created a system by which they aim to help them: "The ladies sent us the sheets, we printed them, we gave them to the children, they solved them at home as well as they could, and then they would bring them back. For 82 children we had a great deal of work to do, but it was the only way that children could be considered present and be graded".
In time, the after-school became a gateway to the rest of the community. After they started working with children, the association has started to learn about people's actual problems and has tried to help them: they assist the illiterate to have legal access to electricity, they go to hospitals with those who don't know where to ask for help, and they have also organized adult literacy courses.
In early 2019, Dorcas Aid Romania has established the Sukhar Center, a tailoring workshop for women in the area. The idea of the workshop came to Ioana Ghiurău as she walked through the community and talked to the Roma women. She asked them what they would like to do and the idea of sewing was the most often encountered answer. The representatives of the association realized that it could bring useful skills both for those who would like to get hired at some point in the textile factories in the area of Oradea, and for those who would like to create pillows or bed linen for their own household.
The township hall offered them several classrooms on the ground floor of the former school in Girișu de Criș, which closed down because of the small number of children. Besides the actual space of the workshop, they have a bathroom, an office and a mini-kitchen in which, about once a month, women cook together. In another hall they have organized a club where children meet once a week and learn songs, games, things other than school homework.
They started the workshop from scratch, because most girls are completely illiterate. "Some have done very well and now know how to make a product from A to Z. Others not so well. But it also depends on how much time they have," explains Ioana Ghiurău. They initially received some sewing machines from the Dutch mother organization, and over time, Dorcas Aid Romania managed to provide some domestic sewing machines, and afterwards some professionals ones. There are between 15 and 20 women coming two hours a day, and during the pandemic period, they were divided into three groups to avoid overcrowding.
Some of them have already got a job since then. D. is 53 years old, is the oldest woman who comes to the workshop and has been coming here since the beginning. Nine months ago, she got hired at a hypermarket in Oradea as a janitor, for a net salary of lei 1,390.
It was the first time she had a job. Previously, the only income she had was the social aid, because one of her four children has health problems so she could not work, because he had to be kept under constant care. Now he's 17 years old and he's better, and she believes this is because he started to go to the after-school program. "He was actually treated more with school than with medicines", the woman says. As her child started to be in a better heath state, she could afford to go to work.
She keeps coming when she has spare time, because she likes what she does and "can enjoy a moment of relaxation with the girls. This is my place of refuge. At home, we either don't have time, or we have worries and problems". They drink coffee together; they talk about their children and their families.
Beyond that, she says it’s good for her to master a profession. If at a certain moment she can no longer go to work, with a sewing machine she could work from home and top up her income.
Her daughter, I., comes to the workshop, too. I. haven’t been to school at all, but now all three of her children go to the afterschool. At first, only her boy was going, and when Ioana Ghiurău went to visit her family, she found that the boy had two sisters, aged 8 and 11, who were staying at home. "But what about them?" the association's representative asked. "Well, Madam, it's hard to give them to school," the girls' mother answered. The younger one, L., was helped by the association with clothes and school supplies and got enrolled in the first grade, because she could catch up with school, and the elder one, A., started to go to the afterschool. "She came every day, without being absent once. She learned to write and read, she got glued to the teacher," says the project manager. Because during the pandemic only the enrolled pupils could enter school, A. is now going to school in Oradea, with the help of the "Second Chance" program. This year she has been doing school both online and offline, according to possibilities, and she did two years of school in one. By next year, if she continues, she will have already finished the fourth class.
The workshop will also go on. Dorcas Aid Romania wants to set up a social enterprise, through which it can offer local jobs. But this will depend on orders and on the creation of a market in the area. For the time being, as an NGO, they participate in fairs with products created in the workshop and can receive donations from them. They are currently in a testing process to see what and where the demand is.
The current workshop project ends in December 2021. "Until then we want to develop a business plan, to see if it could work, and if so, under what conditions: With how many people, what turnover we have. We can send orders to Oradea and Cluj, but it must function as a social enterprise, that is to say a business that has social impact, as well. For now, the social impact is a priority", Attila Daray says. They would also like to make a "social farm", where young people can learn to take care of a vegetable garden, and the town hall promised to help them with a land.
For the projects in Girișu de Criș, the association works with three persons employed full time at local level, with 7 teachers – in collaboration agreements, and with a person paid part-time at the headquarters in Cluj.
At present, about half of the money used for the projects of the association is fundraised from Romania and half of the money comes from the Netherlands. Dorcas Aid Romania owns a company whose profit goes into projects. There were years when they got EUR 60,000, but last year they had only EUR 20,000. For the rest, expenditure is covered by sponsorship and contributions from the local budget.
Almost 10 years have passed since the beginning of the project in Girișu de Criș. There are changes that can easily be measured, such as the level of school attendance of more than 90% and the fact that more than 60% of children are never absent during a school year. Mothers bring their children to school and they pick them up.
Relations in the community have also changed, but they are more difficult to measure. The Community is more united now, and on the township festival day, people gather together, which is something that never happened before. Roma children get on the stage with others, women at the workshop work all sorts of objects with materials given by the town hall, people from the community participate in cooking competitions. "We are all in this together", says the mayor.