Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People
People on the Move
N° 98 (Suppl.), August 2005
Rev. Fr. Georg SPORSCHILL, SJ
Director of “Concordia” Project
The title of this congress has great significance: pastoral care of street children, not pastoral care for street children; in other words, street children are the actors in and not the object of our pastoral activity. This represents a magnificent foundation for a specific form of pastoral activity upon which we may here reflect together. Vatican Council II – with reference to the central core of the Church, i.e., the liturgy – laid down the principle of participatio actuosa. And, just as in religious functions, so in pastoral care everyone is called to participate actively. We are all subjects and not objects of pastoral care.
I will begin with some personal impressions on the situation of street children in Bucharest/Romania and Chişinau/Moldavia (I). I will then present the six stages of a pastoral care system specifically aimed at street children, explaining how it has been developed over the last 13 years by CONCORDIA in Romania (II). Finally I will present the new project “Casa Europa”, which aims to inform the Church about the positive experiences achieved in the pastoral care of street children, especially with the hope of transmitting them to young people (III).
I. The situation in Bucharest and Chişinau
Some personal impressions concerning the current situation of street children in Bucharest. There are certainly more than 1,000 street children in the city today, but no-one can give an exact figure. Cities throughout the country, depending on their size, also have a certain number of street children. A quarter of them are girls, and a third of the children are probably gypsies. Since the political turnaround, the situation has been improving year after year. Provision is made for a large percentage of the smaller children. The big problem remains young people between the ages of 14 and 24; people are afraid of them and look upon them without hope. What is needed here is someone like Philip Neri, Ignazio de Loyola or Don Bosco, people with joy, patience and ideas for activities.
The street children come from families with serious problems or from broken homes. They share stories of alcohol, unemployment, poverty, personal distress (children conceived outside marriage, parents separated and remarried). Many families are on the verge of ending up on the street if they cannot pay the rent. Children are beaten and forced to beg.
The situation in Romania is improving, chiefly thanks to greater openness and commitment on the part of the State. Collaboration with Churches and with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is welcomed. Following the political changes, people were not interested in street children. They were struggling for their own survival. Often they would say: how can I do anything for street children if I don’t have enough even for my own children? Since then, awareness and social sensitivity have grown and now street children have also become part of the political debate. One of the positive aspects of the development of Romania since the changes of 1990 is that the social conscience has grown. State-run homes have been transformed into small units, principally thanks to European Community aid. In this family atmosphere, teaching has taken a more important role. Social academies have come into being that have proved very successful among the young people. With various forms of material assistance from the west, the transfer of know-how and other exchanges can now take place.
There are more than a hundred private organisations in Romania that specifically concern themselves with street children. What is needed now is long-term professional social work, not just primary aid or intervention during catastrophes. Today, Romania needs material support, but it is also a country that can offer the west, as partners, capable young people and hope.
CONCORDIA is one of the biggest and most active organisations for street children recognised by the Romanian State. At the beginning of 2004, we moved into Moldavia. To use a biblical image: Having covered the first mile, we now want to cover the second (Mt 5, 41). Moldavia is northwest of Romania and borders on Ukraine. It is a bridge between the Roman and Slavic worlds and therefore has an important role to play for peace. Almost all the inhabitants speak both Russian and Romanian.
Today, Moldavia is an independent State with a Communist government and numerous political problems such as, for example, the conflict over Transylvania, a heritage of the Ribbentrop-Moltov Pact of 1940. A large percentage of the population is unemployed. Street children are not visible because the police keep strict order. The State-run homes are themselves a problem, each of them houses many hundreds of children in need of protection, and often they lack money even for the most basic necessities. Children in hospital are even worse off. According to official figures, there are some 50,000 abandoned children whose parents have gone abroad looking for work and food. More than a quarter of the country’s four million inhabitants have left. The Catholic Church has a total of 15,000 faithful and is seeking to rebuild itself. The Orthodox Church gives less emphasis to the element of charitable assistance. The consequence of all this is an atmosphere of desperation that drives people, especially the young, to leave the country.
The new CONCORDIA home in Chişinau welcomes 18 children. In this model house we instruct educators for a future project. With the collaboration of the wife of the head of State, we are building a “city of children” in Pirita. Money and construction skills have come from Austria, while our friends from Romania will supply the know-how. They want to transmit what they themselves received and learnt following the political changes in their country. Before Christmas this year, six more houses should be open, each with space for 18 children, as well as a health clinic. From this model, European openness, ecumenical spirit and the force of hope should flow into the country.
II: Six steps in a specific form of pastoral care
CONCORDIA was founded in Bucharest in 1991 to help street children. The Jesuits in Austria sent me to Romania for that purpose. Activities developed in collaboration with the Archdiocese of Bucharest and today involve 200 helpers, principally in education and professional training. Up to the present we have been able to help 1,000 children. We currently offer 500 places in our homes. What basic guidelines for a specific form of pastoral care can be identified in this story?
First step: Streetwork – a school of friendship
How do we contact the children? On the street, where they sniff drugs, where they are sexually exploited, where the law of the jungle prevails, where hunger cries out, where dirt, illness and misery dwell. We follow them. We are with them. The children take your hand and want to tell their story. They even invent tales in order to seek attention.
We undertake the streetwork in teams. Together with a social worker or an expert helper, three volunteers go out each day at the same time to well-known places where the children wait for us. There is usually a foreigner on the teams, who has come to Romania to help us, and there is always a young person who was himself or herself once a street child. This constitutes the greatest support for – and provides the best bridge to – the street environment. The street operatives take food and, if possible, seek to satisfy the requests of the preceding day. Maintaining promises and paying attention are important signs that underline the authenticity of the encounter. A friendship develops. The growing relationship is like the building of a house, a house in which the children find a home. At times streetwork can be dangerous, and it calls for great sensitivity. Nonetheless, everyone who goes onto the streets to meet the children is richly rewarded. They experience the feeling that they have the chance to save a life. Only then do their eyes open and they see how much they benefited from having a family, an education, health, a place to live. They receive friendship, as great as it was unexpected. For us, streetwork is a school of friendship.
Second step: social centres, with a system of small steps
What form does primary assistance take? The streetworkers invite the street children to a social centre. In 2002, together with the city of Bucharest, we opened the “Lazarus” social centre in which up to 100 street children a day come seeking primary assistance: showers, a clean change of clothes, a female doctor, healthcare and, if necessary, entry to hospital. The threshold for entering the social centre is low. The children receive a hot meal and, above all, find many people to speak to. The social centre houses a turbulent community that changes from day to day.
The social centre has need of solid structures in order to bear up against the impetuous confusion of its varied daily life. Fixed mealtimes are part of this solid framework. First of all, everyone must wash their hands. Before beginning the meal there has to be complete silence; followed by a prayer. Young people who have been at the centre for a longer period serve the food wearing white uniforms. Each table is decorated with flowers. Every evening there are games, and a film is shown. At 22.30, the lights go out in the dormitory. Anyone who has been coming for many days is given a bed in one of the rooms. The next step is a room for four assistants on the first floor. The assistants are the children and young people who have taken on a particular task: helping with the cleaning, in the kitchen, in the workshop, sewing, shopping, or in the bathroom. Assistants have the chance to earn points and to allow themselves one or two little luxuries. The door is open to everyone, and everyone gets the chance to do something and to put themselves to the test. Their first experience of learning how to do something! The future begins to open up!
Third step: houses for children with father and mother
What do the children most lack? Where do they feel at home? All the street children come from problematic family backgrounds. Their parents are distressed, separated, dead, ill, in prison, without work or money. Only terrible family difficulties drive children onto the streets.
Children who have flourished in the social centre, who have discovered stability and tranquillity, want to remain. Now other problems arise such as school, education, a fixed place in a room, a lasting community. We seek out places for them in children’s homes. Our own children’s homes have 8, 12 or 18 places. A small community is vital because it has to make up for the missing warmth of the family. Large children’s homes and barracks, as were used before, cannot satisfy the profound needs of street children. The most important thing is warmth and closeness, not discipline and order which must be relegated to second place. A community depends entirely upon one person who is the father or mother of the house or, if possible, upon both. Volunteers who live for a year with the children in a home are often more important than the paid director. Each house, each community, needs a person at its core, a person who shares his or her life with the children. Religious and laity who offer their lives for others are here recompensed a hundred times over for their sacrifice.
Fourth step: education – an elite to serve others
What prospects do the young people have? On entering a children’s home, the problem of education arises. The children must learn something, otherwise their energy will be used to destroy themselves and others. Street children often need to follow a “back to school” programme. Concentration and discipline, necessary conditions for frequenting school, have to be learnt. After all the lost years, we always seek to reintegrate the children into state schools. The age difference is often a difficulty, but being part of the school environment, and with children from families, is very useful. Our children find acceptance and children from families are exposed to social issues. After school comes the problem of professional education.
On the subject of professions, we often hear our children say that in the future they would like to help other children. Thus, they never forget to pray for the children still on the street. If they are cured by the community and, through education, attain independence, they will become vital components of society – an elite that exists to serve others.
Fifth step: work for the young
How do the children learn a profession? Our Farms for Children and Cities for Children have various workshops in which to learn a trade. The young people can follow an apprenticeship as carpenter, mechanic, fitter or baker. To this end, they have access to special teachers who, in collaboration with professional state schools, ensure that the completed studies are officially recognised. At the same time we have work projects for young people who, because of some disability, cannot find places in the public work market. The job study grant has an important role. For some young people, we have to find an ‘apprenticeship’ and after that a job outside our project. Each young person has to be found a job that coincides with his or her interests and capabilities. Apart from a very understanding employer, new accommodation also has to be found. For this reason we have set up social residential communities in which the young workers live independently and continue to be assisted with periodic visits.
My dream is that each parish should have such a residential community with four or at most 12 young people. Work projects within parishes would also provide an important contribution, enabling former street children to find a place among us and giving them a chance to show that they know how to achieve something. For each parish, a residential community of young people in need of special protection would represent an excellent school in which to learn and improve relations with its own children and young people. Young people, not children, present the greatest challenge. Who is to take care of the hordes of young people still on the street? Where can the young people positively accomplish the change from the family to the world, from child to adult?
Sixth step: gratitude is the guiding light
Where are young people needed? Through all the steps of this pastoral care system, the street children always ask us: Where am I needed? Who listens to me? Who loves me? Where can I take on a responsibility? We have to be creative. Our children fight over which of them is to light or put out the candles in the chapel. It is considered an honour to begin the mealtime prayers with the sign of the cross, to wear the white uniform of a kitchen monitor, the red uniform of the workshops, or the blue uniform of the cleaner. It is then that the children have a role; that they feel needed and appreciated.
We principally depend upon the collaboration of young people in order to be able to continue to follow children who are still on the street or in difficulty. Children who have grown up want to demonstrate their capabilities and their strength. Where can they do so in our communities and in the Church? Where are they called to collaborate? An important part of our project is the CONCORDIA Club. Every Saturday those we used to help and who have now become independent and integrated into the world, come together to maintain the bond with their community, especially in order to be able to help others younger than themselves. Such membership must never cease. We would like to accompany our children throughout their lives. For us this is what it means to be a Church.
I was truly surprised to see what significance religious functions and prayer have for street children in Romania. The move from the street to some form of order, such as is necessary in a house, is often difficult and calls for much patience. However, it is easy to create communion between street children with songs and prayers. I have often heard my children say that they do not know their father, or that they have lost their mother, but that they have a Father in heaven and Mary is their mother. My children give me great satisfaction every day with their prayers and their intentions but, above all, with a gratitude that I have never seen in richer and more-protected children.
Every evening, the children in our houses recite a prayer they know by heart. All the words of the prayer come from the children themselves. It is a prayer for friends and benefactors.
Good Lord, you love me.
You protect children
On the street and at home.
For this, I thank you.
And I thank you for our friends,
For the teachers and benefactors.
Many of them live far away.
But they are our friends, and so they are close to us.
I pray to You for everyone who helps us
If they too have children,
They must raise them with love, and always keep them close.
So the children don’t run away.
Good Lord, when it is dark protect them.
When the day comes, give them Your love.
Ensure that Your guardian angels are with us tonight
And accompany us, and all children, tomorrow.
Another prayer that almost all children in Romania know goes like this:
Angel, guardian of my life,
Given me by the good Lord.
Never leave me alone:
Teach me how to be good and true.
Make me grow, I am yet small.
Give me courage to be strong.
Be with me always.
Protect me from evil words.
Good Lord, I thank You
For the angel at my side.
Gratitude is the guiding light of CONCORDIA, or rather CONCORDIA is a school of gratitude that we must all attend.
III: A new project: CONCORDIA Casa Europa
CONCORDIA has been working in Romania since 1991, and in Moldavia since 2004, to help children in difficulty. Two hundred young helpers, more than 1,000 children and young people assisted, and many friends and benefactors in central Europe, all bear witness to the fact that CONCORDIA has become a bridge of hope between East and West.
The Casa Europa project is another step towards a form of European and Christian friendship that does not turn its back on want but faces up to it. The successful experience in the pastoral care of street children should serve as an example. Gifted youngsters and students (following their Degree) learn about European Integration through encounters and shared social commitment. The aim is to create a social elite in Europe’s eastward expansion. The already-existant CONCORDIA network will grow and a new centre is being built.
Youth centre for European meetings in Bucharest
At the end of 2006 a house of some 2,300 square metres will open in Bucharest offering space for 120 young people. Infrastructures for a youth hostel, guests, seminars and sporting activities are being prepared. Half the young people will come from the east (especially Romania, Moldavia and Ukraine), and half from the west (especially Austria and Germany). Various intensive programmes will be offered, including the following basic elements:
Interactive language courses – especially in German, English, Romanian and Russian – are the first step towards better mutual understanding.
Culture and knowledge of the country: social commitment, exchange programmes and excursions in Romania, Moldavia, Poland and Ukraine will help to develop inter-cultural experiences.
Political and social education: programmes presented by experts on European studies, inter-cultural communication and management will serve to form an elite for European integration. Some initial practical assistance such as EDV and basic economic knowledge will also be offered.
We are now on the lookout for building blocks. Who wants to participate? Who wants to contribute their own experiences, or to gather new experiences? Who wants to send young people? Who understands financial support? Help to build the Casa Europa for our young people!
“He who saves a life, saves the whole world”. On this traditional biblical motto, CONCORDIA has founded its pastoral care of children. The youth of east and west should come together under this banner and, in mutual exchange, receive new hope to carry into the Church and the world.