by Oana Dan
photographs by Silviu Panaite
It`s a hot August day. It`s so hot that if you stay under the sun for too long you start getting the feeling that you`ll become one with the concrete under your feet. This Thursday, around 5 pm, Bacau Street from the Bucharest neighbourhood of Ferentari is desolated. The only sound breaking the silence from time to time is coming from the heated tires of cars passing by. They`re screeching.
Despite the scorching heat outside, inside School no. 147 there`s a lot of hustle and bustle. The school is right at the end of city bus 117`s route. From here you can see some of the blocks of flats that make up part of the ghetto in Ferentari. Some mothers from the neighbourhood have already gathered and are ready to discuss about personal issues and needs and find solutions to them. We are at the Mothers` Club weekly meeting.
On the imaginary line connecting the three dots marked on the map, the destiny of many lives in Ferentari is at stake. Here, on the outskirts, people`s lives hop on a carousel of misfortune.
The meeting has not started yet. The women are chit-chatting in small groups. Irina Georgescu, a 25 years old girl, tall, slim, with long hair and green eyes goes from one group to another, announcing breathlessly the latest job `offer`: cleaning lady in a restaurant, assistant chef and pizza delivery driver.
`Is anyone interested? Or do you know anyone who could be? Someone looking for a job, maybe?`, asks Irina several times. Many are quick to point out relatives, neighbours and friends. Next come the details: work schedules, the salary, working conditions, the type of contract, if education is necessary. The women listen carefully and start calling their acquaintances in search for the best candidate for each listed job.
Since working with the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities (PCRM) Irina Georgescu has took up informally the role of counsellor for what some would call vocational guidance. Even though very young she has an extensive experience in dealing with vulnerable communities. Irina knows very well that one of the biggest problems for these people is finding a job. Therefore, relying on her network of acquaintances, she comes up every Thursday at the Mothers` Club, with new job offers.
But finding a job and getting a salary is often just the first step and not even the most difficult one when you come from Ferentari. People from the neighbourhood have harsh story to tell – one that debunks a widespread belief in Romania, that poor people from disadvantaged communities are complacent and sometimes even too lazy to work.
If you are from Ferentari and start looking for a job many barriers lie ahead – before and after employment. Everything originates in neighbourhoods’ living conditions, which are hard to imagine. Not having access to water, presenting yourself fresh and clean at an interview can be a real challenge, even an impossible one. Sometimes people from Ferentari might face medical problems. Feeling sick they cannot go to work. Since most of them don’t have medical insurance, they don`t get professional treatment so often end up sicker. The vicious cycles never end.
There are many cases in which people having to care for more children or other relatives cannot afford to work for eight hours straight; they need more flexibility. Another problem not to be brushed aside when you live on the outskirts of Ferentari is the distance from home to work. The public transportation costs and that cost can make a difference to whether you`ll eat that day or not. In Ferentari, the `short-term`- today, tomorrow – is always more powerful than the medium or long-term. Here reality forces you each day to make a plan on how you are going to survive the next day. This reality makes it hard to put up with the standard working obligations.
On top of that the level of education is very low in Ferentari. There are cases in which the employers are willing, at least verbally, to train people in extreme social situations, to take them from the level they`re at and teach them step by step. But in reality, many give up easily because they lack the minimum necessary education for getting a qualification. Without school papers they can’t access other forms of training.
On the list of reasons why access to the labour market is so hard for people living in Ferentari are employers` prejudices too. Even though we`re in 2016, in Romania social relations are still heavily characterized by discrimination – not just racial discrimination, but also the one concerning the social status. Ferentari is a mixed neighbourhood, but nobody having domicile here escapes the stigma surrounding it. When poor you get even fewer chances. People here feel it every day.
The countless social problems adding up in this place over the years need to be dig up and understood. You can think of it like peeling off the layers of an onion. But not everyone has the patience to do this, on the contrary. Given this situation prejudices are always more at hand. Being a Roma drops the quota on the imaginary stock exchange of the employers- `giving a chance` is rarely part of their business vocabulary.
Once you find a job you have to learn how to keep it. `Giving a chance` is rarely present in the vocabulary of those employed too – they need to become better at taking advantage of new professional opportunities.
There are many jobs for which Irina Georgescu finds the right people, but this doesn`t automatically mean the problem is solved. A new workplace often means new challenges for someone coming from Ferentari. Among these might be the fact that few find the courage to be transparent with their superiors about their situation at home. And `at home` might be the source of some of their biggest problems and misunderstandings.
We are talking about people overwhelmed by the constant poverty they live in, who didn`t have the opportunity to study because there was no money for clothing, food or transportation. These people never had a legal job in their lives. They lack the usual discipline acquired in time by going through the family-school-society route. Once they become part of the system it is very difficult for them to accept and adapt to the new rules. This is why some give up and return to obscurity.
After you take out of the box all the bad things and consider them thoroughly you realise. Truth be told in Ferentari it’s only after this that on the bottom of the box you will find hope.
A Reason for Laying Off
Cristina, a 30 years old brunette with a long and thick hair, dressed in the latest fashion, with perfect manicure and pedicure wants to enrol for the professional qualification courses and become a hairdresser or a beautician. It`s May and we are talking on Livezilor Street, overviewing a ghetto that seems ready to fall down on us. The temperature silently announces it`s going to be a hot summer, causing the smell of garbage to be unbearable. This end of the street is known for its broken-down buildings, lack of water and electricity connection.
Cristina has two girls – one in primary school and the other in kindergarten. She`s a single mom and finds it very hard to be away from home for several hours. Apart from that she gave up school before finishing the first eight grades. As a result she doesn`t know how to read and write very well. However in order to be able to enrol for the professional qualification course she has to comply with the request of having studied for at least eight grades. She also needs a medical certificate issued by the family doctor.
Cristina is fit for work, but like many from her neighbourhood she is not registered with a family doctor. She has never worked legally with a contract and she has never been insured with the social health security fund. You can say Cristina is almost a ghost in the state`s archives, another name on the long list of those holding just an ID card. The abyss opens up starting with her personal identification number.
Her only advantage is having previous work experience in the area she wishes to study. She used to work under the table at a beauty salon, but she was forced to leave because her boss had found out she was living in Ferentari, on Livezilor Street.
She vividly remembers how angry he was because she had told him she lives in another part of the city, in Rahova. Since she was working under the table there was no need for her to show him the ID. But when he found out where she actually lives the owner called her `dirty gypsy` and laid her off. The reason was that she could have sicken his clients. Until then, however, he had been satisfied with Cristina`s work.
An Unexpected Fortune
Maria, a swarthy mother of three, can also tell true and hurtful stories about discrimination. She has lived the same scene over and over again: she would apply for a job, she would be called for an interview and when the interviewer would see her she would be told the position is taken and that she would be called when new opportunities arise. Politically correct. But Maria knows there won`t be any opportunity again, because there never were. After the failed interview the telephone never rings again.
Maria has started to work when she was 16, at Flora, a cannery, where she worked during a summer holiday while she was studying at the vocational school. After graduation, at 17 years old, she got a job at Apaca in the apparel industry. Then, until 2001 she worked in a clothing manufactory. That year the factory went through a reorganization and in 2002 it went bankrupt. `It was fine there. I never had any problem because I am a gypsy. Actually, not even my colleagues thought I am a gypsy`, remembers Maria in a Friday morning standing in front of the Romanian Peasant Museum where she came with the children from the Alternative Education Club (another project of PCRM)
After that, the show began, continues Maria with the story, as she lights a cigarette. Since 2001 she has been looking for a job for several years. She was qualified, she was educated and she even asked for help at the Workforce Development Agency. She went to dozens of interviews. But it was all in vain. She was having already two kids and the only option for her to earn some money was to work under the table, just like her husband who was working in constructions.
After a year of searching she started to receive unemployment benefits and then, she became pregnant with her third child. Two years after that she resumed the searches. There was no change; she was facing the same scenario playing over and over again at every interview. `I was so disappointed that I even tried to find a job as a cleaning woman, but again, the same thing would happen.`
In 2011, her youngest daughter, a second grade student at School 136 in Ferentari, came home and asked if she could go to the `club`. `Club? What club? `, asked the mother gobsmacked, thinking her daughter wants to go to a club in the city downtown. Then, she found out that an Alternative Education Club had just been set up. This was a place where children could go and do their homework, together with other artistic activities meant to keep the children in school for more years and prevent early dropouts.
Without a job and fearing that something bad could happen to her girl on the way home from school, Maria started to go to the Club and wait for the little girl. She was helping there with the cleaning, with attending the kids, and after a while they hired her as a cleaning lady. After couple of months, she was promoted to an educational assistant and crafts instructor. This helped her realise how much she loves children, working with them, encouraging them, be next to them and teach them how to handle things on their own. After years of facing closed doors from the society she lives in, Maria found her salvation and a new chance in an NGO initiative.
She has recently launched her career in the world of entertainment too. She starred in `Aferim`, a movie directed by Radu Jude, in the scene at the manor house. Wondering how come Maria ended up appearing in the movie? Well, a lady looking for kids to appear in the movie, came one day at the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities, saw her, liked her face and took her a picture. She was then asked to come to the auditions, where the film director asked her to read out loud the lines. All that she remembers is that she was shaking with emotion. She managed very well and this is how she ended up with a role in the movie. There, she felt like acting was her second nature and eventually, Radu Jude asked to collaborate with her for his next project, too- `Healed Hearts`, an adaptation of Max Blecher`s novel. The movie will soon be released on the big screens.
Maria is now free of the emotions she first felt when starring for the first time.
A Missed Opportunity
Mihaela, a downright woman, is looking for a job again. She is 37 years old, has 3 children – 16, 11 and 5 years old – and is already feeling the pinch again. She has never had an employment record, only on and off jobs on the black market, especially as a cleaning lady in restaurants and coffee shops.
She has only attended school for 5 years, but she knows how to read and write. When asked, she says she has eight years of education, but no official document to prove it. Mihaela has no qualification. Her finances are scarce. The first Thursday in August when I saw her at the “Mothers’ Club”, she had just gotten a few lei to buy potatoes for her children.
In springtime, Mihaela found a job at a coffee house in the centre of Bucharest, where she was doing the dishes as a kitchen assistant. After two smooth weeks, she had a conflict with a colleague and quitted her job. After managing the problem, Irina Georgescu from Policy Center for Roma and Minorities found another job for Mihaela, hoping that the first problem was just an incident.
Mihaela went to work for a few days, she seemed content, the salary was good and colleagues were treating her well. However, one day she did not show up for work or called to say she will be absent. The manager of the restaurant was upset due to her unreliability, and Irina, once more, sought to solve the mystery.
Had anything happened? Had there been a conflict? All she could find out from Mihaela was that she was in the hospital with one of her children who has gotten sick.
Irina did not receive any answer to why Mihaela had not called the manager to let him know of the situation. Mihaela had not attended the next few meetings of the Mothers’ Club and nobody knew anything about her. At the beginning of August Mihaela showed up again. She was wearing the exact same clothes she was wearing in June, when I saw her last.
She was hasty and avoided any detailed discussion over her life in the past two months. She seemed optimistic and confident, looking for a training course or a job for her 16 years old boy who had left the school due to an accident. She was interested in what job offers Irina had. After a week she was desperate and reached her limit as her husband had left her and she had no money. She was looking for a job again.
Solutions and Pseudo-Solutions
As one of the biggest barriers in finding a job is the lack of long-term education, and in order to persuade the teenagers attending the Alternative Education Club to go to secondary school, Policy Center organization, supported by Enel, the electricity supplier of Ferentari neighbourhood, established a scholarship programme in order to help children continue their education after they graduate from primary school.
As of September, the eighth grade pupils who find themselves at a crossroads in their life therefore, having a higher school drop-out risk, are going to have private lessons for Romanian language and mathematics. They will also be part of a coaching and mentorship programme to increase their self-esteem and confidence so that they can continue their studies.
Financial aid or goods scholarships are currently considered, conditioned by attendance and results, so that the most stringent needs of these children are met. Neglecting these needs contributes most often to an increased school drop-out. In parallel, their interest for the Technical Energy College shall be stimulated by informing them of the professional prospective in the field.
For the children in Ferentari the most near at hand and suitable option for a future potential job is without any doubt the Technical Energy College, located in Giurgiu area, in Bucharest.
There are currently 100 pupils from Ferentari who study here out of a total of 800. With a profile of a Vocational School and a 4-years curriculum like any other secondary school, the college trains future electricians, mechanics, but also specialists in tourism and nutrition, as well as in electronics and the field of automation. In the last few years, according to the deputy director Dina Ghergu, the job market in these fields has been relatively constant. However, the big issue is that the graduates are not willing to get a job, says Mrs. Ghergu. A few years ago, due to the economic crises the job offers were scarce. Nowadays, the offer has increased. What has increased is the graduates’ interest to work. The deputy director believes the mass-media roll-models, family background and the neighbourhood companions are to blame as they create a setting from which youth learn that is futile to work for a career and that you must be cool and get rich overnight.
The Romanian educational model, in general, is vitiated by the confrontation with the decreasing expectations of its graduates.
The most challenging period, Mrs. Ghergu says, is the 9th grade when pupils are vulnerable towards environments outside school. Because families living in Ferentari neighbourhood face many challenges and survival becomes their only concern, the risk that the parents are not interested in the school performance of their children is even higher.
Nicoleta Borcea, the spokeswoman of the Municipal Employment Agency of Bucharest, confirms that without graduating from primary school is next to impossible to find a job with an employment record. For example, in order for the local employment agencies to register someone to receive professional mentoring, training or professional reconversion so that they can find them a job, it is compulsory to hand in three documents: identity card, certificate of graduation and medical certificate they are fit for work. In Ferentari there are persons who do not even have an identity card.
Nicoleta Borcea representing the Professional Advice and Information Centre, with the office in Piaţa Naţiunilor Unite, talks about active employment measures and lists the ones that her institution is currently implementing: job fairs, awareness campaigns in the deprived areas, improve the employability of people from vulnerable environments, mediation, vocational guidance.
Less than 10 km away, in Ferentari, all these active measures seem alien and completely useless. Mihaela is ransacking her brains over what food to put on the table today for her children, Maria is helping the pupils from the Club to catch up with school, and Cristina is keeping an eye on her girls playing in garbage.
From Monday to Friday, at 12 o’clock, a short and joyful fellow is unlocking the iron gate on 8 Olari Street, Bucharest. His name is Adi and he is 27 years old. We are not in Ferentari anymore, this time we are in the centre, close to Universitate. A new working day has started at Share Café, a bar-restaurant where Adi is a barista.
He is rushing through the long patio all the way to an annex that used to be a stable. The main building, a century old historical building, is in the right side of the patio. The Bar is at the back, where the stable used to be. Adi turns on the lights, prepares the packs of drinks for the coming day, squeezes 20-30 kilograms of lemons for lemonade and chops ginger. In the meantime, the other colleagues begin to arrive, the waiters, the chef, and maybe even the first clients. Adi helps with anything that is needed, serves on the terrace, and even assists the chef.
Even though he does not have a certified qualification yet, he has been a barista since he was 15 years old when he dropped out of school and began helping his father who was working in a bar. That is when he was initiated into the mysteries of making cocktails and, as Adi recalls, it used to be much easier as the drinks were not that complex. Since, he has always worked, especially in the field and on a contract base, except the times when he worked abroad and another one when he worked on the construction site of the National Theater in Bucharest. There he worked as unskilled worker. “I was making mortar, carrying bricks, things like these, digging, cleaning. I was earning 45 lei for 8 hours working day.”
Two years ago he tried his luck in Germany where he worked for a Turk for eight months, but he quitted due to the low salary of 30 Euro per day. Last year, following the recommendation of a friend, he went to Great Britain with a private-sector recruitment agency. However, he was more inactive and since the costs were high, he came back home after three months to work again as a barista.
In his free time, which means outside those 12 working hours, Adi meets with his friends from Ferentari, friends who are also busy working during the day. Two are hairdressers, one is a football player and another is a driver.
Because it has never been hard for him to find a job, Adi believes that he is a fortunate person and that it is enough for someone to be willing to work as there are enough offers on the job market. He is however disappointed that in Romania it is hard to buy a house and a car and that you only work in order to survive another day.
In the evening, when the terrace gets crowded and Adi runs from one client to another, at the nearest table to the bar, where there is a dark brown small and agitated dog formicating around and another light brown one, big and idle, you can find Oana Turcan and Alex Rampelt, two of the managers of Share Café. Opened last summer with European funds, the coffee shop is structured as a cooperative that has six members.
The funders do not have a governmental background. Oana, for example, is a social worker at ALIAT (the Alliance to Fight against Alcoholism and Drug Addiction) and has experience in working with vulnerable groups. She says that opening a coffee-shop has been a continuous learning process, especially because from the start she wanted to hire people who are downgraded, whom she wants to give a qualification at the work place.
Initially they hired two gypsies, two who left school early, two vulnerable women and a disabled person. There are only two people left from the original staff, but they have kept the original social-economy model and they currently have 8 vulnerable people hired. The average salary is approximately 1.500 lei.
„The idea was not only to hire them, but to also secure a future, a qualification, experience, employment contract, a pension, even if they are not currently thinking about it.”, says Alex Rampelt, the owner of the two dogs, a guy who grew up in the house and patio where Share Café is today. From his point of view, the hardest thing is working and communicating with people.
„We have had all sorts of experiences, pleasant and unpleasant, we had to fire two of them, and we even had discussions about the fact that the food must turn out the same on both shifts.” However, strengthened by patience, communication is fundamental because many coming from a vulnerable background need someone to support them and to explain what it takes to have responsibilities.
Alex Rampelt is convinced that „the instability at the work place comes from the lack of education”, because “many live from hand to mouth, they have not attended school much, and they are not used to being on time and having a programme.” The manager of Share Café concludes: „I find it hard to understand how someone reacts when you don’t have a roof above your head constantly or something to eat”.
View from Bus 117 Terminal
While a real involvement of the governmental authorities is lacking, NGOs such as Policy Center for Roma and Minorities carry out pioneering work in Ferentari, trying different solutions until they find the one that works.
Irina Georgescu is looking for solutions to make the job market more reachable for the people leaving here. She is aware that the network she currently has and used so far in order to find job opportunities cannot run on a long term. A consistent and ample programme is needed, which can become reality only with the cooperation of the employers.
There is hope coming from a recruitment company along which the organization stars a campaign in September in order to look for potential employees for a few tens of unqualified work job offers.
Change does not come overnight, not even over a few days and nights. Finding a job partially solves the problem, but people need assistance after they get hired too, in education, housing, health, and long term psychological counseling until they become self-sustainable.
Finding a job is only the first step.
We leave School no. 147. Two hours have passed and there are still 40 degrees outside. The air is burning. There is still no one on Bacău alley; there is no one at the bus 117 terminal. The only sign of human presence is a small bundle of garbage in the bus station – some torn clothes, a broken toy, bags, poles, food leftovers, a slipper, and a kids bicycle without frame and wheels. In the horizon, across a few blocks of small houses, the faded blocks of flats arise on Livezilor alley.
The nightfall is hot and overwhelming like a Sunday in which the only tangible feeling is ones loneliness, when everyone else is locked inside the house with their family while you are heading without a direction to nowhere. Here comes an empty 117 bus. The moment we get in the bus, the doors close behind us. The driver moves off. There is air conditioning inside. Around the corner we lose the sight of the outskirts of Ferentari neighbourhood. Someone scrawled down the back of a chair “work my brother” and left a phone number. The last 2 digits are already dull.