A Commitment to Children in Romania

02/14/2015 05:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2015

They are called the decret generation. During the Communist era in Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu issued Decree 770 in 1967 making abortion and contraception illegal except under certain circumstances. The Communist leader wanted to radically increase the population of the country. People with money or political influence found a way around the regulations. But those who did not expect or could not support their new babies often dropped them off at the nearest orphanage.

That was the fate of Vasile Mathe, a soft-spoken man who works as a school mediator in a small Transylvanian town outside of Campia Turzii.

"Until I was three years old, I was raised by a lady working in the maternity ward," he told me in an interview in Cluj where we sat in a café with his friend and translator Dan Iepure. "She wanted to adopt me. But it was impossible because my mother wouldn't agree to the adoption. We had to wait until I was 10 years old. So, I was sent to an orphanage because of this disagreement with my mother. I ended up staying there until I was 19 years old."

This experience has made him more philosophical than bitter. It has also engendered a lifelong commitment to children. He has worked as an educator at an orphanage. He attained a degree in psychology and worked in NGOs devoted to education and Roma rights. He has used his artistic skills to inspire children in hard-luck situations. And he works as a mediator in a school attended largely by Roma, trying to stand up for the rights of children and of teachers. Given the power dynamic, however, he finds himself more frequently siding with the children and their parents.

"My goal was to persuade the parents to keep their children at school," he told me. "For that, I needed to stay there and to listen to them. I never blamed them for not sending their children to school. Together with them, I tried to find a better solution to help them to send their children to school. So, even though people sometimes took advantage of my kindness, I said to myself that in the end they will stop that and tell me the truth. Working with the Roma children who were already going to school, I managed to convince the others also to send their children because of the good results at school. It didn't happen all the time. But I did manage to bring some of the other children back to school, and I was satisfied. It was a beginning."

It's not easy work, however, largely because many of the teachers are not on the same page. "For me, the big problem isn't Roma people," he continued. "It's the teachers. The teachers are not prepared to invest more effort to give Roma children an education. The children are a bit more difficult because of that. The children have a lower competence. They feel inferior. So, they already are psychologically ready to quit school. The teachers have developed different methods to use their authority complexes to make the children quit school. I started to talk to the teachers to stop those methods. They should stop telling the children that 'next time, I'll fail you.' The teachers said that the reason for scaring the children is to make them start to learn. But, in fact, the mediators were telling them that this is not a good technique to mobilize children to start learning. These are children who are repeating classes many years in a row. They didn't manage to gain academic knowledge, and they're behind. And they are disturbing the class. Another factor behind the community children quitting their school is that the teachers use all kinds of physical and emotional abuse. The children might not even realize that they are being abused, but they all react in some way."

The teachers at the school responded to the monitoring program Mathe tried to put into place by effectively kicking him out of his office. He ended up conducting his parent-teacher meetings and after-school programs outside, in the school courtyard,

"But all of these children's activities were supported by the mayor and the local council," he concluded. "I told the mayor that all these problems threaten to break out into a social plague. If the town didn't come up with an action plan for the future, the Roma people population would start developing increasingly criminal behavior. Finally the mayor agreed and offered to provide support for the actions I wanted to do. I don't want the Roma population to sink into a worse position. I want to improve the school situation and involve real people in this work."

The Interview

Tell me a little bit about just yourself: how old you are, where do you live...

I work as a mediator in a school, and I also work for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), focusing on democracy, politics, and Roma people. I also work directly with Roma people. At NDI I've done some of the training to prepare the Roma people for their political interactions. I've also monitored the campaign activity during the elections and afterwards. I graduated with a master's in psychology from university. I'm also getting a master's in social work. My thesis is based on surveying people.

The school is here in Cluj?

Yes. I never had parents. I'm part of the decret generation. The decret was basically a decree during the Ceausescu era forbidding abortion. Until I was three years old, I was raised by a lady working in the maternity ward. She wanted to adopt me. But it was impossible because my mother wouldn't agree to the adoption. We had to wait until I was 10 years old. So, I was sent to an orphanage because of this disagreement with my mother. I ended up staying there until I was 19 years old. It was a big orphanage in Gherla. I graduated from high school there.

Then came the revolution of 1989. Right after that there were new academic opportunities. They started up colleges that had been closed during the Ceausescu regime. I chose to pursue a psychology degree. I also wanted to graduate from the arts college. But I couldn't because I lacked the financial means. The psychology course was a bit easier - you just needed to attend the classes, the seminars.

For two years I worked in a metallurgical factory in Campia Turzii in order to earn a living. After the revolution, I could change my job and do something I liked. So, I took a job as an educator in the center at the orphanage. And then I worked in a glass factory as a painter on glass. I really enjoyed that. It's still a hobby, though I stopped doing it a year ago. I'd like to start up again, though.

When I started at psychology college, I thought I'd do this kind of work for the rest of my life. This is the work that I'm best suited for. I like to speak and interact with people. I'm not married. It's because of social discrimination, because of my past, because I was raised in an orphanage. That has been a challenge at every step. Especially during the Ceausescu regime, the orphanage was not a good place for children. Because of that, families in the area were very protective of their children. They kept their distance from the orphanage, from both the staff and the children there. In time, I managed to acquire knowledge and gain the respect of others because of my behavior. Even so, people have stereotypes and prejudices about me. That's why I'm not married. Instead, I occupy my time with research on psychology and ethnology. During the development of NGOs in Romania, I started to get involved in NGOs as a counselor and an educator. In the other NGOs I got involved in activities such as art. I've also spent a lot of free time with children. So, that's my professional and personal history up to now.

I want to make sure I understand the chronology. You spent two years in the metallurgical factory, and that was before the revolution?

One year before and one year after. Then I left. That kind of work wasn't in line with what the future was about to bring. The factory was going to be closed because of the changes in the regime.

And when were you painting on glass?

That was between 2002-2005. I've also continued to do this in training workshops with children in the orphanage. The children were then able to sell their work at an exhibition to earn some money. Most of the money they earned they could keep, but some of it went into the materials. It was also a way of teaching responsibility, because they were responsible for their materials. I spent a couple of years working like that. Many children in the orphanage were interested, and there were hundreds of children in the orphanage. I also worked for a while in a children's institution, where I did a similar workshop. For a few years, I collaborated with the art teacher from this club, and we put together our own personal exhibition. I gave three interviews on this topic.

Now I want to make sure I understand the geography. Do you currently live where you grew up? Or was the orphanage in a different place from where you live now?

It's the same city. I currently live in a small apartment. Campia Turzii is about 40 kilometers south of here. There's a population of about 20,000 people.

And is there a large Roma population in the town?

Yes, and it's rising from year to another. It has become more and more populated by Roma people and their children. I work next to Campia Turzii in a small village where Roma children represent 70%, and the percentage is still rising. There's a discrimination problem because the teachers cannot adapt to the Roma culture.

The teachers are not Roma?

No. Most of the children are repeating classes or dropping out of school. They're dropping out very early. Most of them finish only four grades. I wasn't there for very long before I discovered this problem. The teachers somehow arrange the exclusion of the Roma children. Roma children are a bit more difficult to be educated. And the teachers don't have the professional and personal competences to interact with the Roma children. They have competence only to teach their specialty. I get involved from both sides, as an impartial mediator. I'm interested in protecting the rights of the children and the rights of the teachers.

But there are consequences to this decision not to take sides. I have to bear a lot of professional stress. I even submitted my resignation. But because of the mayor's request, I finally changed my mind, and I'm still there. The Roma people and the people in the village asked me to go back in the village and also continue working with them. I agreed to go back. The mayor said that he would support me. The mayor finally heard from intermediaries about this problem at the school. So I was accepted back at the school, but the teachers in the administration council cut my salary.

That's crazy. How did the teachers do this?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.