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"Romanian orphans fight stigma by displaying talents"

Associated Press Writer
09-13-2005 12:06
BERCA, Romania (AP)

Magda Boros stands less than 5 feet (1.50 meters) tall yet she easily wrestled down a male comrade who towered over her.

Boros, 19, is one of a group of young people who live in Romania's orphanages and won an EU-sponsored talent competition that gave winners a chance to attend a summer camp in this region famed for its bubbling mud craters.

The youngsters are out to make a point: To overturn the image of Romania's orphanages, largely filled with abandoned children, as places that produce social misfits.

Romania's orphanages first came to world's attention after the 1989 downfall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In an effort to boost Romania's population of 23 million, Ceausescu banned birth control and abortion, which led to thousands of infants being left in state institutions.

Following Ceausescu's execution, televised pictures of malnourished orphans living in squalor, many suffering from AIDS, were broadcast around the world.

While the horrors of the Ceausescu era are long gone, the stigma of orphanages has largely remained in Romania. There are currently about 32,000 children in state institutions, two-thirds of them teens, down from more than 100,000 when Ceausescu was ousted. Authorities have been trying to place orphans and abandoned children in foster care or extended families. The 20 young people at the weeklong summer camp in Berca, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) northeast of Bucharest, represent the elite of Romania's orphans and abandoned children. The camp was part of a prize for youngsters who had won the EU-sponsored national talent competition called Edelweiss. Some of the children were champion wrestlers, others were information technology experts, while others had won acting, dance or writing prizes. They told their stories with pride, as they strode around what are known as the muddy volcanoes, a cluster of craters that spew a gray mixture of silt, gas and water from a depth of hundreds of meters (yards).

Nicoleta Zamfiriuc, 17, has lived in a children's
home since she was 10. She entered the first round of
the Edelweiss competition at a county level in her
home city of Piatra Neamt and was encouraged by an
actress on the panel of judges to carry on acting. She
later won first prize of the national competition for
acting in Bucharest.
"You know that we want to show people that we are
normal, and can have a normal life and a career," said

The youngsters all revealed a determination to
prove they can be just as smart, strong and talented
as children brought up in family homes.

"It is important for Romanians to see strong
children from the institutions," said Rupert
Wolfe-Murray, who is the press spokesman for the EU
children's rights project in Romania.

"All they see in the media are victims,
glue-sniffers, AIDS children, disabled children. It is
very important for them to show they are normal.

"Children who take part in the Edelweiss
competition see their horizons broaden, get to meet
government and EU officials and travel to EU
headquarters in Brussels. "It really improves their
self-esteem and it also opens all kinds of doors for
them," said Wolfe-Murray.

However, life remains hard for most children in
Romania's orphanages: Studies show they face
discrimination on the job market and in housing.
"You should never doubt the determination and
ambition of an institutionalized child," said Veronica
Serbov, 20, who left state care four months ago. "We
didn't have a mother behind us, pushing us on."

"Once we were on a bus with our carer and the
ticket collector said: 'Madam, aren't you embarrassed
to be with this bunch of druggies and glue-sniffers?'"
said Serbov. "People don't realize that children in
institutions are born with ambition and a strong will
to survive."

Serbov took up martial arts when she was 12 so she
could defend herself from being beaten up by boys in
the child-care institution. She was abandoned by her
parents when she was a baby.

"They were notorious alcoholics, and look who I
am. I think I've done pretty well," said Serbov who
wants to pursue a career in advertising. Her ambition,
she added with a grin, is to "win the world prize for
the best advert."

Boros, who weighs just 44 kilograms (96 pounds),
wants to compete in the Olympics. She has already
taken part in international junior wrestling
competitions and trains for more than two hours every

"I love sport, and I'd like to be a professional
trainer when I'm older," she said.

Florin Ionut, 18, lives in an institution for the
visually impaired. He was born with cataracts, which
he believes were caused by the Chernobyl nuclear
accident in neighboring Ukraine in 1986, the year
before he was born.

Even though he cannot see well enough to read a
normal book, he was the winner of the Edelweiss IT
competition this year and wants to work in computers
after he completes his education.

"I don't like complaining about life," he said. "I
try and hide my disappointments and show that I am
good at something."


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