My Life Changing Experience

This week marks a year since the experience that changed my life.

On 21st July 2016, I sat in Manchester Airport, not quite knowing what lay ahead. Anxious and apprehensive, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. I was jumping into the unknown... head first... with stones in my bag.

I was flying out to Romania to work with an amazing charity called Love Light Romania; to live in the mountains for 10 days with impoverished Roma children suffering from HIV/AIDS.

If you're not brushed up on your history or politics, then you might not know that Romania has been a place of utter turmoil. Devastated in WW2, they badly suffered at the hands of the Soviet Nation. Enduring privation, Romania has the highest relative poverty rate of any country in the EU. As well as ranking first in the EU for the share of children who faced the risk of poverty and social exclusion, with a percentage of 46.8%. Meaning every second child in Romania is exposed to the risk of poverty and social exclusion. 

By taking the children out of the squalor that they were 'living', in and up to the tranquillity of the mountains, we provided an escape from the lives that they were bound to through no fault of their own. Providing new clothes and 3 solid meals a day, we ran countless activities including waterfall climbing, treasure hunts and sports days.

But the content is not the defining factor in this venture. It's what the whole experience means. I saw how these children lived, and no amount of preparation would have prepared me enough for visiting their village. Drinking from the same stream they defecate in, living in mud huts, surrounded by waste. The harrowing part is that these children were none-the-wiser. I remember meeting them and thinking "This can't be them? They're happy and playful?". But this ended up being the most saddening part of the whole experience. They had been dealt the worst hand, yet you would never know. They were the happiest, most grateful, compassionate and loving children I have ever met. And I feel privileged to have known them.

I would like to share 2 specific stories of that week. The first is of Flourine
He was probably the child I grew closest to whilst there. He was very much an outsider, even amongst the other children (boys mainly) for being effeminate. On the first night,
there was disruption as he was scared to sleep in the boy's tent and wanted to sleep with the girls. In the end, he was given his own tent. 
He very much clung to me and a few of the other volunteers. He plaited my hair, picked me flowers, and sang a lot. He taught me how to count in Romanian, and I taught him how to play snakes and ladders.
I often witnessed the other boys kicking him, and very much ostracising him from them. This was something we couldn't really do much about. You have to understand that this is a very different culture, and much less liberal to differences than the western world is.

Around halfway through the week, there was a more serious incident. A few of the children had gone to play in the river that ran through the camp further downstream. He had gone along but had hung back from going in. After eventually convincing him to go in, he had taken his shoes off and left them on the bank. A few of the boys decided to throw them into the river and they were consequently washed away by the current. This was Flourine's only pair of shoes. He wasn't fussed that he no longer had any shoes. Like this treatment was just a daily occurrence that he expected and was used to. A couple of us was distraught at this event. A fellow volunteer, the wonderful Chantelle, gave him her shoes to keep. I cried a lot. And I think he was surprised to see us so heartbroken over something, which to him was nothing. I remember sat crying, telling him "You are so so special. You always will be. They will try to bring you down because you are different but you are beautiful. You have changed me and I love you with all my heart". He couldn't understand a word I was saying, but I think he knew what I felt.

Towards the end of camp, we did a waterfall climbing activity. The water was freezing. Most of the children did not even attempt it. But Flourine did. I was so proud. He battled the current and temperatures to the top. It was like the whole week of building his self-confidence was encapsulated in that moment. He inspires me to never be afraid of who I am; my differences and my flaws. He is a warrior, and I love him.

The second is of Marcella. The youngest of the bunch, she was loved by us all. She was feisty as hell and made sure everyone knew it. Women are downtrodden in the western world, so you can only imagine the role that women play in a primitive society. She never let anyone stand in her way. With the biggest heart, Marcella was always there for the other children. On the final night, I held her in my arms as she sobbed into my chest. Despite the language barrier, we had built a relationship that was unlike any other. I think there was a mutual understanding and knowledge that we may never see each other again, but were forever changed because of this experience. 
She never let neither her age nor gender define her. We need more Marcellas in the world.

The work that Love Light Romania do is outstanding. Led by Jo and her family, the charity started in the late 90's and survives on donations as they have no help from the government. Their mission is to bring support to those suffering from HIV/AIDS and poverty-stricken families, by doing everything they can to improve their lives. Everyone at LLR are so passionate about breaking the cycle of poverty and providing opportunities that the Roma community would never have access to otherwise.

"We believe that every person has the right to a healthy life without discrimination. That there is always hope, where there is sickness or where there are children living a feral life in squalor. If we care for the children, educate them and give them opportunities, we bring opportunities for a brighter future."

The Roma community receives 0 help from the Romanian government or councils. They, and the general public of Romania leave these communities to fester. This only makes the work that Jo and the rest of LLR carry out even more poignant.

But not only is the Roma community changed... but so am I. Unless you have experienced this first hand, you have no concept of the multitude of feelings that something like this evokes. Arriving back at the Romanian airport to fly home; white tiles and 5-star facilities. You would never think that an hour down the road you would find such horrific scenes. I struggled a lot. Not just with what I had experienced, but adjusting back to my western lifestyle. It just didn't seem right. All my problems and issues suddenly seemed so irrelevant. A lot of tears were shed; mostly because I just couldn't bear to leave the children that had literally become my whole world in that microcosm of a week.

I am forever changed because of this experience. I will never again waste food, or pass a homeless person without giving them something, or be able to be content with my own life whilst I know others are suffering. I have dedicated my life to making a difference, in whatever form that may take, and will never settle for anything less than that.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart if you have taken the time to read this post. This charity is very close to my heart. To make a donation to Love Light Romania, click HERE. Or to get involved yourself, and make a much needed difference to someone's life, click HERE.

I would like to finish by adding some more personal pictures, taken on my phone that are far less glossy than the above ones.

All My Love

** Disclaimer: This post contains content and links belonging to Love Light Romania and R. James Feaver. Copyright of Deadly Is The Female.

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