Ellie has been part of two Camp Romania trips to the orphanage in Lugoj and studied English at Aberystwyth University. This is her memory of institutionalisation and of one young orphan in particular.
I want you to walk down a street with me, any street, pick one, find your favourite, it doesn’t matter which one. Maybe the one with the park where you walk your dog; or with the tree that you climbed as a child, or the one in Liverpool or London with all the big shops, which you wander into and leave with clothes you had no intention of buying.
Just find some concrete and your own feet and walk down it in your head. Ok, now look up and at the people that are around you, that old guy sat on the bench, the mum with her kids, that middle aged man trying shoes on in Next taking his wallet out of his leather jacket, the type you can tell is real and he wants you to know that it is too. Now, take that guy and shave his hair, take his jacket from him and replace it with a t-shirt that is too big and shorts that are falling off. Take the brogues off his feet and replace them with flip flops that are too big and barely stay on. Go right back to his birth; take him from his parents; don’t give him an education; put him with strangers, with what feels like a million other children. Children who don’t know how to play games because their imagination never grew… how could it ever have grown? Put him behind bars, into a prison that isn’t labelled as one…. and leave him. Do you think this child could grow up to be seen as anything other than an orphan? Do you think he could ever own shoes that fit never mind ones that he has gone out and bought himself?
I’ve met this man, this silent man that I barely spent two hours with. Yet he stood out to me. In his silence and in his fear he became a symbol of how these children have lived their lives. His fear was etched all over his face, a face that would fit in on a London high street wearing a leather jacket and fancy brogues because he looked like a perfectly normal guy. Yet he isn’t because he was never allowed to be. He stood out because he was clever and intelligent. This in a place where you have never been taught how to live, seemed to me an impossibility. We sat on a wooden bench in the Romanian heat surrounded by everyone he knew, surrounded by noise. Yet in silence we drew around his hand and coloured each finger in in different colours and patterns and everything I did he copied perfectly. Until his sketched hand was filled with a mix of stars, stripes, zig zags and dots.
As a child I was read to, as I’m sure you were too. I’d sit in bed and listen to stories as the words floated above the page enclosed by hard back covers and illustrated paperbacks, ‘The Faraway Tree’ became a part of my day to day existence. When we went for walks in Delamere forest, mum would always get us by pointing to a tree in the distance, ‘bet you’ll never guess what that one’s called’ and we’d fall for it every time. I read, and words were everything. Words became who I am and that’s all from my wonderful childhood. So that is why this man stood out to me because every word I read to him from a child’s book about nature he said back, he spoke for the first time I’d heard and, although, he may have had no idea what the words meant, he was trying. Maybe it was accidental, or maybe it was coincidental but he was there, trapped, lost, confused but there.
You won’t ever understand properly unless you are there. No amount of words can put such a place into perspective because it is so small that if you didn’t know it was there you would, quite literally, drive past it without giving it a second glance. But this place that shouldn’t have to exist contains every emotion within every individual, condensed down and suffocatingly obvious in the missing teeth and clothes too big; in the smell lingering in the air to the self- harm scars so deep you’re surprised that the child the arms are attached too is still alive. And I’m not saying I know everything about this place or that I ever will, I don’t and I won’t. I just know how I felt when I was there and I know that no one should have to have such an awful upbringing. But these children, who have nothing, who feel everything more prominently than you and I probably ever will, are filled with more love than anything I’ve ever witnessed in my life. They throw their hearts and souls into colouring you a picture or sticking a pound land fairy sticker to your shirt and then they smile at you… because for a few moments it’s as though you’ve given them the world. One they’ll happily give you back in exchange for a moments hug, for a second of security.