Ana Maria – From children’s village to university


Ana Maria, 22, grew up in a children’s village and has had sponsorship parents from all over Europe.

Now she is about to graduate from university – all she has to do is pass her final exam, on the fourth attempt.

The question is, what do her teachers actually want in order to allow her to pass. A perfect result, or a bribe?

The 69 bus stops every two minutes, but in rush hour traffic it takes ten times longer and the trip home to the old military district of Drumul Taberei takes over an hour.

Friends of Ana Maria have taken part in protests to demand cycle paths – a way of escaping the traffic jams. But until then, she takes the sluggish bus at 7 am every morning to get to work by 9 am.

On the bus, Ana Maria has got her nose in her text book. She is studying for the same exam, again and again. The final one of her degree. Re-sits cost her money. No much, but still. There is no specific grade she must achieve, instead it is up to the teacher. And the teacher keeps saying, “I know that you can do better, try a bit harder.”

At first, Ana Maria was convinced that the solution lay in finding out what the teacher wanted. So she did what everyone does, asked around in the corridors of the university. People that are looking for a bribe have usually made their preferences known. But her enquiries show that the teacher in question is of different mettle, and shuns students who try to take that route. Instead she is a moral guardian in a teachers’ flock of hustlers, just a completely normal perfectionist.

Ana Maria still has her book open on the bus. No one at university can tell her how many re-sits you are allowed.

As the residential areas start to dwindle, the 69 bus swings past the enormous city hall and into the hustle and bustle of the 3rd sector. Past the old town, past Herăstrău Park, past the university and up towards the heavily guarded Armenian church. Ana Maria gets off the bus opposite a small, two-storey, oriental hangout, with several private rooms inside.

This is Naser 2. Ana Maria won’t know how long she will be working today until she gets inside.  It might be until past midnight. Or she might finish in the middle of the day. She never knows in advance.

Big sister Gabriela is everything to Ana Maria. They grew up orphans in the SOS Children’s Villages compound in Bucharest. Now they have their own flat in the 3rd sector. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

  It has been 30 years since he left his childhood home in central Bab Touma, the most beautiful and vibrant area of Damascus, for the born-again country of Romania. Here in Bucharest, Naser wants all of the restaurants he opens to bear his first name. Even if that means absurdities like adding a digit to tell them apart.

In any case, Naser 2 is the most popular of all the Naser-named restaurants at the moment. It is here that Naser himself prefers to spend his time.  He keeps an eye on his staff and guests, while he plays games, organises receipts and orders ice-filled glasses of whisky.

Under former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian government had agreements with a couple of Arab states to accept their students. This tradition continued even after the fall of Communism. Several of Naser’s second cousins have followed him here.

Bucharest is the best place for medical studies, but 30% of the workforce leave the country straight after graduation.

The problems start after graduation. As high-level as the university educations are, just as steep is the descent to the underdeveloped Romanian employment market. All of his highly-educated second cousins have been given jobs at Naser’s restaurants, instead of doing what they are qualified for.

He describes it as a widely-known fact, that Bucharest is the best place for medical studies, but that 30% of the workforce leave the country straight after graduation.

“Most of the families I know here originally came with a relative who was studying medicine,” says Naser.

He is waiting for it to change. Doctors’ salaries is one of Romania’s biggest political issues, with a drafted legislative proposal to legalise bribery – known here as gratitude gifts – just for doctors, to make up for their difficulty in getting rich.

 Ana Maria works behind the bar. Just like her boss’s second cousins, she puts science ahead of all other knowledge. But in order to earn a living, she must also understand other types of clever.

Every day, Naser gives her 25.30 lei – about SEK 50. She spends 16 lei on cigarettes, but puts the rest in her purse to take home. Ana Maria and her older sister, Gabriela, share a flat, their life, everything. And take it in turns to study. One works full time, the other works part-time hours, and they finance everything together.

Which is why Ana Maria must pass the final exam. Only then will it be Gabriela’s turn.

Ana Maria has had various different sponsors since she was a child, through SOS Children’s Villages. The money will be paid out when she passes her final exam. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

Ana Maria’s appendix was throbbing away, but the doctor waited demonstratively. He had not received his extra little envelope.

Her older sister waits at the other end of the 69 bus. Bucharest was built to accommodate 100,000 cars, but is now used by about a million private cars. The number 69 drives back past the city’s largest hospital. Ana Maria had her knee and her appendix operated on here, when she was a teenager.

The first operation went better than the second one.

Ana Maria’s appendix was throbbing away, but the doctor waited demonstratively. He had not received his extra little envelope. 500 lei – about SEK 1,000 – cash in hand.

From her hospital bed, Ana Maria sent her older sister off to sort out the money. Both she and her sister have always studied science. Religion, superstition, astrology – popular subjects among other Bucharest locals – they simply dismissed.

When their mother died, Ana Maria gave up on God. When the surgeon went on about his 500 lei, she gave up on the idea of studying medicine too. Having to demand an envelope from an appendix patient felt too dirty.

She changed track to the simpler physiotherapy studies. That way she can get away from healthcare and work as a massage therapist at a spa if the bribery situation does not improve.

Towards the end of the summer, a debate erupts about legalisation of the so-called “gratitude gifts” for doctors – an idea that was drawn up by politicians before it was stopped from being submitted as a draft legislation. Nevertheless, everyone I meet has an opinion about the gifts. Regardless of whether it is a patient, a nurse, a qualified doctor working as a bartender or a practising doctor. Ana Maria defends the proposal:

“How can they survive without it?” No one can justify their salaries. The system has made itself dependent on supplemental incomes.

But with the way the bribery system is now, without legalisation, she could never consider working within it. Being on the other side of a paused appendix operation, waiting for an envelope of money.

“In Bucharest, you are always waiting for something.”

Something is being built in Drumul Taberei. Huge cement mixers jostle with construction cranes. Ana Maria views the site with a certain degree of scepticism. Residents have now been waiting four years for a promised underground station. Perhaps it really will be completed this time, and put an end to her dependency on the 69 bus. In a dark courtyard, behind a row of former military houses, she hangs out with her older sister and their little dog.

“In Bucharest, you are always waiting for something,” says big sister Gabriela and shrugs her shoulders.

Ironically she notes book titles down on a napkin. These books will help me to understand.

The authors are Gigi Becali, George Copos, Adrian Nastase, Sorin Ovidiu Vintu. Convicted financial criminals and leading figures in local politics or the private sector. They wrote their books while they were in prison.

Gabriela was born in the same year as the revolution. She has grown up with the repercussions. She asks me to Google photographs of the authors’ faces as they are heading into prison. If I could just see their expressions, I will understand that they are pleased. They know that they will be VIPs in prison, write their books and then come out again. More time is needed, explains Gabriela, for a new system.

Soon she, and post-Communist Romania, will be turning 26.

Gabriela earns a living from web design, from recycling and selling jewellery online and from managing various companies’ social media accounts. And she is also waiting for Ana Maria to pass her final exam. After that she wants to study history of art. But it also depends on Ana Maria’s sponsors, she explains sweepingly.

Sponsors? I stop her and look puzzled. So she gives me another napkin. Ana Maria wants to show me an area in the southern part of the city that explains her and her sister’s Bucharest.

Iuliana Miu, PhD in Literature, 26. Location: Herăstrău Park. "I lived in Paris for a while, when I was studying, but missed Romania every day. I feel like there's more life here. My circle of friends here has a different kind of bond with each other than I managed to establish with my French friends. We usually sit outdoors, in one of the beer gardens. I'll definitely stay in Bucharest if I find a good way to earn a living."
  • Iuliana Miu, PhD in Literature, 26. Location: Herăstrău Park. "I lived in Paris for a while, when I was studying, but missed Romania every day. I feel like there's more life here. My circle of friends here has a different kind of bond with each other than I managed to establish with my French friends. We usually sit outdoors, in one of the beer gardens. I'll definitely stay in Bucharest if I find a good way to earn a living."
  • Raluca Banica, 24, Stylist and Retail Assistant. Location: Piaţa University. "I work with fashion, I style artists, I organise music videos, plus I sell clothes during the day. Most of my acquaintances do the same kind of things, it's fashion and music, but our audience is mostly Romanians. The scene hasn't yet had time to grow outside the country that much. In a number of ways that's good, it means we can take more of a risk and experiment without interruptions, and Bucharest can develop something of its own. This is a good city to establish your own ideas in, and if you can just manage to find some kind of extra work, it's cheap to live here. But you have to split the rent with someone else, to make it work. I'd like to stay and expand the culture here."
  • Marius Murgu, 30, Police Officer, with his daughter Teodora Catalina Murgu, 7. Location: The marketplace in Obor. "I grew up in Obor in Bucharest, have lived here my whole life and now my children live here. We live right next to the market and I come here with my daughter almost every day. Obor's market used to be known for selling a combination of stolen and legal goods, but it's not like that now. Now, this is the best place for poor, normal people to buy food. The market used to be so much bigger, stretching out across several blocks. But it's shrinking now. It's in better order now. Being out with the children in Obor feels better now. I feel that Bucharest is getting better and better, and is going to function better when Teodora is my age."
  • Madalina Hondru, 26, Dental Nurse. Location: The marketplace in Obor. "I used to work in Palermo, in the fishing industry. Italy is like a more positive version of Romania. The language is similar, the culture is similar, but the people are a bit happier, the sun is a bit brighter. Unemployment is worse in Sicily, but salaries are worse here. There's a fifty-fifty chance that I'll leave my country. I don't know where I'll have chosen in ten years' time."
  • Diana Dutu, 23, Dental Nurse. Location: Herăstrău Park. "I walk through this park every day, but it's busier here at Easter, Christmas and during all of the festivals. That's when Bucharest's parks really come to life. I want to carry on living in Bucharest in the future, but a few things have to change. Public transport is free for me at the moment, because I earn less than 1,000 lie (SEK 2,000) a month, but the problem is that all the metro carriages and buses are always full. You can't get where you're going on time."
  • Dobrita Adrian, 32, Musician. Location: Piaţa University. "The crossroads here at the university is perfect for sitting doing nothing for a whole day. Anyway, my day doesn't start until after sunset, when I go to performances and clubs. I mainly sit out here to see if anyone I know goes by. I've lived in Bucharest since I was born and probably will do for the rest of my life. If you go to other places, like Budapest, beer costs twice as much and food is 10 times more expensive. You can't live a laid-back life there."
  • Milena, 25, works in marketing. Location: Obor underground station. "I work with blogs and social media and travel a lot. So Bucharest is good. No other European city is this cheap to live in. If you earn your money somewhere else, you can have a good life here. But there's no way I'll still be living here in ten years. I'll be in Barcelona, Berlin or Paris."

Among the high rises, office complexes and shopping centres, a kind of miniature version of Astrid Lindgren’s Bullerby unfolds before me. Even more bizarre is the fact that the area is fenced in and heavily guarded. Hanging on the railings are painted wooden boards. A childish drawing of planet Earth. Flowers. Cheerful colours.

The napkin from Ana Maria and Gabriela guides me.

The address leads me to the south of the city, where SOS Children’s Villages has a compound. Personally they do not want to accompany me and be photographed. They have already had enough photo sessions here.

The sisters' sponsors come from all over the world and have always remained anonymous, except for their first name. The sisters have been photographed every year, to attract new sponsors.

There is speculation among the children in the village about which children have been chosen the most times and who, therefore, will one day receive the most money.

The idea of Austrian organisation SOS Children's Villages is that donors, around the world, invest in specific children for different lengths of time, who they save money for and with whom they correspond. There is speculation among the children in the village about which children have been chosen the most times and who, therefore, will one day receive the most money.

While the sisters were growing up, the solution to this quest for information was to wait until each upcoming holiday season. Just before Christmas, each child was asked to write Christmas cards to their sponsors. Ana Maria had to write twelve thank you cards, Gabriela six. So many people, somewhere around the world, donating money to them, putting their photos on the fridge, and knowing their names. They understood that the little sister would be twice as rich as the big sister.

When Gabriela, as an adult, was discharged from the Children’s Villages system, as an adult she also received a much lower sum than the children who had written more thank you cards every Christmas. The organisation had added extra money to her total, so her disappointment would not hurt as much. The sisters are now waiting to see how much Ana Maria will get.  The money will be paid out when she passes her final exam. It is only after all of their studies that Children’s Villages considers them to be complete adults.

Outside of Bucharest, the sisters own a piece of land. An inheritance from their mother. A large sum of money could be converted into a house there. Amounts like that can be earned abroad, they reason, not here in the city. Or perhaps the money from the Children’s Villages sponsors will be enough. But there is no way of knowing in advance how much we are talking about. So they wait.

The part-time waitressing job steals a lot of her time. Ana Maria does her studying on the commute. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

Ana Maria’s colleague in the bar at Naser 2 is called Nimer. He came to Romania ten years ago from Nazareth. I lounge across the bar and buy tea glasses. Nimer has got an idea, but he has to wait until he can make it happen. When his boss, Naser, is not looking our way, he scribbles CAFFE NIMER on the back of a receipt. Something a place of his own could be called. There is a solution.

You can apply for EU funds – a term that Bucharest locals mention every other minute – for any business that has the slightest multicultural characteristic. A standard Arabian café would be perfect, Nimer is certain of it. The funds can finance 80% of it. The problem is that Nimer also thinks he has to give a few hundred euros to the guy who is writing his application for him. Fixer money he calls it.

So it is best to keep waiting. And writing on receipts. Asta esta, he says in Romanian, that’s how it is.

The worst thing is feeling that she is keeping her big sister from her studies.

I ordered all of the books that Gabriela listed on the paper napkin and take them to Naser 2 while Ana Maria is on shift. She has just re-sat her final exam for the fourth time, but has not received her results yet. She waits.

The worst thing is feeling that she is keeping her big sister from her studies. Gabriela has an idea that they could try to move to Canada together, and both earn money once she has passed the exam. But never anywhere in Europe. Europe just feels like the kind of place where a lot of people try and a lot of people fail. She earns 700 lei in the space of a month at Naser 2. She is convinced that there are similar workplaces in every European country. Asta este.

At first Ana Maria wanted to be a doctor, then a physiotherapist. She has hopes for a Romanian healthcare system in which bribery isn’t necessary. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

There is some irony in the fact that Ana Maria told me her life story in what, to a Swede, sounds like Romanian clichés: Orphanage, bribery that alters a career path, sponsors sending money to an impoverished child abroad. And yet she talks about them with a sort of distance. It is something that everyone has expected and also learned to deal with.

When we say our goodbyes at the 69 bus stop, she tells me that a date has been set for the opening of the underground station back home in Drumul Taberei. Yes, it really is true. The metro really is going to start running.

Translator: Laura Åkerblom

SOS Children’s Villages has a lot of Scandinavian donors

SOS Children’s Villages is one of Europe’s most established aid organisations with a lot of Scandinavian donors. The idea is that a private individual or family sponsors an entire village or individual child in that village from an underprivileged background, for whom they thereby become a “sponsor”. Sponsors can also follow the development of that child or village for as long as they continue to support the project. Each sponsor receives a newsletter every year about “their child” together with a recent photograph to show how the child is progressing.

SOS Children’s Villages: “You can’t select the child yourself.”

Elisabet Stahlenius, acting General Secretary for SOS Children’s Villages Sweden, dismisses reports that sponsors are able to select children based on their appearance in photographs.

“You can’t select the child yourself. Children are allocated according to which region the sponsor has chosen to support. However, the number of sponsors per child in a village may vary, as the number of donors fluctuates all the time. This happens naturally, when you have donors supporting the project for different lengths of time. And we can’t prevent anyone from donating either. There are, for example, people who bequeath to their sponsorship child, even if we don’t encourage it. Photographs are only sent out once a child has already been allocated to a donor, and the children should preferably not be aware of how many sponsors they have, apart from when they are writing Christmas cards.”

“We recommend that donors save up for the entire village instead,” says Elisabet Stahlenius.

The sisters in our article nevertheless felt that they had been selected for several sponsors. This could be because in the Romanian village, it is possible to donate funds to a savings account for a sponsorship child, and that these therefore vary in size.