UKRAINE – September 9 2022

Ukrainian children in Romania. Interview with Rodica Marinoiu

Rodica Marinoiu is the director of the SOS Children’s Village in Hemeius, Romania. A social worker by training, she joined the organization in 2008 as manager of the family strengthening programme. Today, she is managing the work of 32 staff who work in four programmes: alternative care, family strengthening, youth programme and foster care. As of 2022, Rodica is also responsible for the humanitarian action programme in Bacau for people affected by the war in Ukraine.

Why and how did you get involved in the emergency response for Ukrainian children and families?

All of us here in Bacau and in the entire Romanian association of SOS Children’s Villages immediately got involved. For me personally, all it took was the first image of people fleeing the war and going towards the unknown. It is one’s own social responsibility to engage all resources to help because that engagement means making things right. For me, getting involved in the help for Ukrainian people was natural, it wasn’t forced or asked for. People needed help and we could help.

I have my own child and there are many children in our programmes who see me and my colleagues on daily basis. We want them to grow up with a strong sense of social responsibility. To inspire that, we have to walk the talk. We have to be a part of the good experience. We have to be part of the solution.

What kind of assistance was offered to the Ukrainian people in Hemeius?

A few years ago, we moved the Romanian families from the SOS Children’s Village in Hemeius to the city of Bacau. We had six empty houses in the village that we immediately opened for Ukrainian families. Some of our houses are quite big and that allowed for several families to stay together. We have moms who knew each other from Ukraine and they preferred to stay in the same house. This gives them an extra sense of security, and that’s what we want. We want them to feel safe and have time to compose themselves.

How is the local community reacting?

In May, the Mayor of Hemeius called me asking if integration activities were ever going to be on our agenda. We began with a joint event for Romanian and Ukrainian children and families. I wanted to involve both children and young people from the Romanian programmes of SOS Children’s Villages and from the local community. So, I reached out to local partner organizations who work with young people. We mixed Romanian and Ukrainian children and organized a Day of Good Deeds. They went to poor Romanian communities delivering in-kind support and creative workshops for the local children. I am proud to say that all Romanian and Ukrainian children and young people who we invited showed up despite the day being a bit rainy. They were welcomed by the local communities with bread and salt, as it is customary.

One of the activities was themed ‘childhood can colour anything’. All children were given black t-shirts and colourful powders. The winning Ukrainian Eurovision song was playing. The children splashed colours all over the dark t-shirts bringing life and happiness to the grim reality. It was a magical moment that left all adults in tears, thinking of the fragility of our lives, of all the people who lost their homes, and of the need to help each other.

The day was very emotional for everyone. This increased the trust of the local community in SOS Children’s Villages and motivated us to organize a summer school programme which aims at promoting integration and mutual acceptance.

What is the summer school programme?

The summer school programme is a two-month long programme from 01 July to 31 August that takes place every working day from 8 am to 5 pm in the SOS Children’s Village Hemeius. Monday to Thursday the children and young people have educational, creative and sports activities, and Fridays are scouts’ days – they go together outside the village for various joint adventures.

We have two Ukrainian teachers involved along with two Romanian teachers. The young people are mainly involved in the organizational work but they also sometimes take part in the activities. There are many Romanian children involved who are not part of the programmes of SOS Children’s Villages. The aim is to bring them together, foster integration, mutual acceptance and understanding.

As I said, the motivation for the summer school was the event on 1 June. But, I have to admit that I struggled with the concept of the summer school because I am lucky enough to not know war trauma. None of my colleagues do, again luckily. We had to find a way to offer a range of activities which are supposed to make Ukrainian children feel safe, secure and comfortable, while making the topic understandable for Romanian children. So, we decided to find a common ground by basing summer school’s activities on a popular Romanian story that deals with the trauma of leaving home. The story is called Enchanted Forest and tells a story of a girl who loses her mother and has to travel in rough conditions to find safety. Incidentally, a movie based on the story is filmed in the Dendrological Park that is located just behind the SOS Children’s Village in Hemeius.

I have to emphasize that my colleagues and I really put a lot of efforts in coming out with ways to approach Ukrainian children without pretending to know what they went through. To do it otherwise is simply not fair and is doomed to fail. I saw a drawing one Ukrainian child made of guns and explosives. They came from occupied territories and have witnessed shelling, shooting, killing maybe. All we wanted was to create a programme that would have them smile and laugh and play freely and safely.

We cannot solve the situation in Ukraine, but, we can give them moments of happy childhood. Maybe we cannot help them cope with their traumas right now, but we can give them the opportunity to reclaim their childhoods. At this point, that is good enough for me. And I can tell that their parents feel the same.

Seeing the children engage in the programme every day, I often joke that it’s not Enchanted Forest we have here, but Jungle Book. And that’s great, because so far, the laughter we hear and the enjoyment we seen in the summer school programme exceeds our expectations which can only mean we’re doing something right.

How are the parents from Ukraine who live in the SOS Children’s Village doing?

We are individually seeking opportunities for all parents depending on their situation and wishes. Some still have jobs that they do online and we make sure to have stable, fast internet connection to enable their work. Others expressed a wish to find local jobs, so some found employment in local restaurants and factories.

We also employed two people in our village. One father who is very skilled in all construction work offered his services free of charge right away. After about a month, we hired him and he’s our colleague now. One mother also got immediately involved in housekeeping, so we hired her too.

The Ukrainian families, as much as they all want to go back home, do not want to lose any time. Their children are in online schools and we support them with an after-school programme in the local primary school with a Ukrainian and Romanian teacher to give them all the possible education opportunities. Two children are already attending the local kindergarten and two attend music lessons in the nearest music school. We must not forget that all children lost almost two years of regular schooling in the pandemic, so bringing them back to regular school curriculum, for however short the  time, is essential.

You said they all want to go back home, but finding employment or enrolling to school seem like longer-term stay in Romania. How does that fit in the picture?

Again, this was a natural process. Hiring and having Mykola and Hanna as our colleagues does in no way interrupt their plans of going back home when the circumstances allow for it. But they live in the village here and now. They can help and we need them. It’s much easier to have colleagues who can speak the language of the people who live here. In addition, having them work gives them a purpose. When Mykola came, he went around fixing things with our village master without anyone asking him if he could help.

When the war started, all the families that came first were mothers and children. Then we had several families where fathers were also in the picture. These were families where the dads were either over 60 years of age or had three or more children, as the Ukrainian regulations allow for those men to leave the country. Frankly speaking, having Mykola and other men in the village added to the feeling of safety for all Ukrainian families. Mykola experiences the village as his home. I know I don’t have to worry about who shuts the gates because he is on it all the time.

Are there any problems?

Of course. We work with people. It would be dishonest to say we don’t have problems. But we work through them and try hard to find solutions. That is why we employed a Ukrainian teacher who is also a psychologist to help us understand what we need to do.

Being so involved in the response to the war in Ukraine, how are you personally handling the situation?

Honestly, I would have been more affected if I couldn’t do anything. If we, SOS Children’s Villages, didn’t do anything, I would have been affected and it would have been bad for me personally.

Right now, we need to look at our learnings and experiences. We need to organize ourselves and our further response depending on how the situation develops.

I am proud of the fact that SOS Children’s Villages Romania was there from day 1. When I see children from Romania and Ukraine hugging, I get goose bumps. I am so very proud of all my colleagues and all the work we have done.

I know we are doing the right thing.

Interview by Katerina Ilievska