Journal from the field #4, June 2, 2011
Dr. Aronson in Bulgaria, May 28-June 2, 2011
After a week of meetings dedicated to interim care planning, foster care, group homes and domestic adoption in Ethiopia and Africa, followed by a week of meetings with government officials in charge of the future of orphans and vulnerable children in Bulgaria, I am reminded painfully of how children essentially can end up lost in rhetoric and good intentions. Agencies are well-meaning, but slow-moving and bureaucratic. Funding is scarce in impoverished countries where millions of orphans are stuck in limbo... down the cracks and lost and anonymous.
Three thousand children enter Bulgarian orphanages every year because there is no change in culture. Roma women have no education and access to family planning and gender issues for Roma women are paralyzing. Women who have five and six children may be left by their husband, and fathers and brothers may decide to place those children in orphanages so that the mother/wife can remarry. There is no prenatal care for poor women in Bulgaria. There is no support of breastfeeding. The stigma attached to being Roma looms large in Bulgaria and many Eastern European countries with large numbers of gypsies. Everyone knows why there is abandonment, and now is the time to try and prevent it and provide social services and education to impoverished women around the world. Then and only then will children be helped.
I am proud of the work of WWO, but am troubled by slow progress and increasing numbers of orphanages and orphans, as we crawl to solve the problems of millions of children living without families all over the world. The U.S., world governments, aid organizations and NGOs are all poised to make a difference, but there is confusion and a lack of strategy. There is often competition when there should be none. We can all have a role and we all bring different solutions and skills to the table.
My role and the role of WWO in the politics of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) are clear. I am fortunate to be a pediatrician and a former teacher of young children. I know the science of early childhood development and have experienced over two decades of observation and medical care of orphans who have been lucky enough to become part of a permanent family through international and domestic adoption. There are no more lessons to be learned. The work is clear. It is time to move faster and smarter and money will finally be the important part of the equation. I told many people this week that WWO is not asking for money when we meet with governments and other organizations. We bring creative ideas and money to the discussion and we are eager to make things happen.
We are able to raise awareness and WWO is designed to move the agenda forward. That is our niche. We must stand for action now. It is a lonely fight sometimes, but the cost to children is too high to back off and take easy ways out.
I am reminded of the delicate and simple truth about orphans when I meet them face to face. Stanislav is a year of age and he is puny and frightened. He is a little creature not able to look at you for too long. He becomes uncomfortable and skittish when I gently touch him and sit by him quietly. He starts to rock rhythmically and as the rocking speeds up, he looks furtively for his Baba. She comes and picks him up and he nestles in her bosom and then in a moment smiles at her and feels safe. He is an unregulated animal with no inner soothing skills. He is in a "fight or flight" mode and his Baba rescues him. It will take years to help him feel safe. That is so unfair and unproductive. There are so many creative ways to help our sweet and tender babies who are suffering everywhere... all we need is hope and hard work.
On my long trip home yesterday, I decided to watch a movie and found a wonderful film that made me cry and laugh, but more importantly it inspired me to keep working and advocating for children. The movie, which was recently nominated at Cannes, is called "Lessons of a Dream." This German film, directed by Sebastian Grobler, is a based on a true story about Konrad Koch, an Oxford-educated English teacher who was hired by a German secondary school to teach the German boys English in 1874, when Bismarck and Germany ruled the world. Konrad Koch, a visionary teacher, ends up using football (soccer), which was well-established in England, to teach the boys English and sportsmanship. He, of course, gets into a lot of trouble with parents, administrators and other teachers as he advances his progressive curriculum. The boys become egalitarian and learn the value of "fair play," which is Konrad's highest priority.
Konrad is eventually fired, but then through some miracle, a government delegation arrives to assess the value of football, and at the same time a friend of Konrad's from the UK brings a football team to play Konrad's boys. The village gathers and attends the game. The German team wins the match, and the German government delegation supports football at the school. Historically, it takes well into the 20th century, the late 1920s, for football to be universally accepted in Germany. The story is beautifully acted by the boys and I was inspired by Konrad Koch's fight for fair play, creative teaching and the use of sports as a dynamic way to build character, self-esteem and independence in youngsters. Indeed, this is the brand of WWO in its work with children without families or with fragmented families around the world. The courage of the boys and their teacher was remarkable and I was reminded, once again, how courageous our work is finally. We stand for principles and we persevere and never give up.