Global Observations

The astonishing story of the HIV kids that survived in Romania

by Glynnis Rengger

A visit to Bucharest takes us to some rather exceptional NGO’s – Romanian Angel Appeal and Hope for Health. We remembered images of terrified children, severely institutionalized with chronic illness, found in Romanian orphanages after the revolution.

Incentivized to have children as a means to increase the population and too impoverished to care for their kids, thousands ended up in institutions in conditions too horrible to imagine. Devastated by the images, Olivia Harrison founded the Romanian Angel Appeal to assist orphanages in the country. With this act, George Harrison’s wife mobilized the international artistic community and volunteers and funds poured in and the rest is, as they say, history.

But that’s only one part of the story. The way we heard it was – back in the day blood transfusions and antibiotics were considered to be a key way to restore health to these kids. This practice (multiple uses of needles and untested blood) led to thousands of kids being infected with HIV. Then and still today, HIV and AIDS remains taboo in Romania. No one thought they would survive. But about 50% of them did and are now in the mid to late twenties. Severely discriminated against, impoverished they find themselves dependent on grassroots organizations for their basic care.

Mary Veal who is President of Hope for Health a Romanian NGO working inside Victor Babes Hospital has a unique story. An American moved by the stories, Mary arrived in Bucharest in the early nineties to offer her help. She has never left and today countless young HIV adults rely on the organization she and her compassionate staff run for their daily sustenance. We spent a really moving afternoon with a group of their patients painting small clay pots which ended up coming home with us. Each of their stories left us with a confusing set of emotions – mostly frustration at the lack of formal support they receive from a system that created their problems. As someone commented -“a drug addict gets better support from the government than we do!” I guess the story that hit me the hardest was the beautiful girl, maybe 22 years old, who had navigated her way through the most unimaginable hardships in life and still managed to get a secondary education. Smart, motivated, incredibly resilient – all major assets to any employer – she is unable to find employment because most job applications require that she declare her HIV condition. That means she’s going nowhere with the current stigma still associated with HIV / AIDS. Nowhere fast.

What then shall we do?

As much as I argue for sustainable philanthropy, this visit and my recent visit to the orphanage in Dala township have reminded about the criticality of grassroots’ work around the world. In my ideal world, some collective should form that enables these true heroes and their work to be easily identified and the rest of us to donate time, money, skills, resources in a way that all that is given reaches the intended audience.

As I ponder this and I will be back on this topic, I urge you to send any excess anything (cash, food, clothing, toys etc.). Trust me they need it. Connect directly with Hope for Health and with the Romanian Angel Appeal or Mary directly on her email to see how you can help.