The exodus of Moldovans for work abroad has left thousands of children without care. Charities and volunteers fill the gaps left by a cash-strapped state. Zoe Lomas recalls reading the article that would change her and her husband’s lives.
Zoe Lomas recalls reading the article that would change her and her husband’s lives. “It wrote that in Iasi County, during the pandemic, about 74 women gave birth and abandoned their children in hospital, and I started to cry,” Zoe said, referring to a region of eastern Romania near the border with Moldova. Originally from Iasi, Zoe showed the article to her husband, Chris. “We looked at each other and said, ‘What can we do?’” In November last year, with Chris’ business selling printers and photocopiers badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK couple took the decision to move to Moldova to help care for abandoned children.
Europe’s poorest state, Moldova has some 41,800 abandoned children, according to official data, many of them the unwitting victims of an exodus of Moldovans looking for work abroad. Most are left with relatives, but a small minority is abandoned altogether.
Some 300 are taken care of in 51 Baptist-run houses scattered across the country of 2.6 million people, who, like Zoe, speak Romanian. Zoe, 40, and Chris, 50, are now part of a team of volunteers, helping with fundraising, teaching and training. Living and working in the village of Pohrebeni, north of the capital Chisinau, the couple has an ambition to double the number of houses caring for abandoned children. “The trust has been broken for many of these kids. We want to restore it,” said Chris.
‘Still a lot to do’
With state institutions full to capacity, Mariana Ianachevici, executive director of the Chisinau-based NGO ‘AVE Children’, said Moldova should streamline the procedure of accrediting such non-state centres for abandoned children. The situation has improved, she told BIRN, but more needs to be done.
“Moldova has made enormous strides in reforming the care system,” said Ianachevici. “You can’t imagine what this field looked like 15-20 years ago, but there is still a lot to do until the final step.”
The state employs some 414 so-called ‘parental assistants’ to provide care for such children, but Ianachevici said it was not enough given there are more than 1,600 children without any form of guardian at all. “It is a small number,” she said.
At the end 2019, Moldova had a little over 583,000 under-18 year-olds, of which, according to Ianachevici, between eight and 10 per cent are in state or private care, either having been abandoned by parents who have left in search of work elsewhere or taken from their families by the state to protect them from violence or poverty.
Zoe and Chris said they had also established a charity to provide food for the poor, based on a project they pursued in the UK which provided food to impoverished families.
Zoe had visited Moldova before, in 2018, when she travelled to the country with a group of people from her parish.
She met a pastor who was working with prisoners and visited a foster family taking care of four abandoned children. She was struck by the effect of a caring environment on the physical and emotional health of the children.
“I looked at one of my friends and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Zoe told BIRN.
“I had a pain in my heart because I want children, but also [because of] the thought that those children are now left without a mother and a father.”
In November 2020, in the middle of COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, the couple travelled to Moldova on humanitarian grounds, meeting the head of the Baptist Union of Moldova and telling him about their plan to help, Chris recalled.
“And he said, ‘It’s a no-brainer, but don’t think that you will come here and get away with just looking after some kids. I’m pretty sure there is more that you can do.’”
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