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In Romania, Safe Haven And A Ray Of Hope For Ukrainian Orphans With Intellectual Disabilities

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BAICOA, Romania — Seventeen-year-old Kyrylo gently rocks in his playground swing with a push on the plastic carpet that replaced the asphalt at this repurposed orphanage in central Romania, between the Southern Carpathians and the lower Danube River.

His blue eyes are glued to the thin book clasped tightly in his left hand, except to survey anyone who comes near, especially if it’s a stranger.

As soon as he realizes they’re not Ukrainian, he offers up in accented Romanian, “Hello, what are you doing?” He hardly waits for the reply before firing back, “Extraordinary. Magnificent. Wonderful.”

It’s a greeting-and-response he will repeat as many times as necessary — dozens even — always concluding with the flourish of those same three words.

And once there are no more new faces, Kyrylo returns to his book. Today it’s in his native Ukrainian; on other days, it might be Romanian, which he’s teaching himself on the fly.

“Extraordinary. Magnificent. Wonderful,” he repeats from time to time, in Romanian.

Kyrylo is among the oldest of the 70 Ukrainian orphans with intellectual disabilities being housed in Prahova County, some 200 kilometers south of the northern border with Ukraine and about 250 kilometers west of the eastern border with Ukraine’s Odesa region.

He and 26 other children from the Ukrainian public-care system are here at the Raze de Soare (Rays of the Sun) center in Baicoi, one of many state-run orphanages scheduled for closure before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February turned millions of Ukrainians into war refugees.

Similar numbers are in centers in the nearby communities of Posesti and Valenii de Munte.

Kyrylo (left) and some friends play on the swings at the Raze de Soare center.
Kyrylo (left) and some friends play on the swings at the Raze de Soare center.

Kyrylo and the other children were initially housed at an orphanage in Kiliya Noua, on the Ukrainian side of the Danube where it marks the border with Ukraine before draining into the Black Sea.

But all of them were forced abroad in the early days of the war, with Russian missiles raining down on Ukrainian cities far from the front lines and air-raid sirens a near-constant occurrence.

Their refuge is part of a network of public and private facilities in Romania accommodating an estimated 86,000 Ukrainians, most of them women and children, through a combination of state and NGO funding along with private donations.

‘Treated Like Royalty’

The idea at Baicoi is to give these children, who are as young as 6, a chance to continue their care and education in safety despite the grinding war at home, including with the help of Ukrainian teachers who regularly commute hundreds of kilometers to attend to children on both sides of the border.

“In the beginning, at the first party we organized [for the children], they got scared and started screaming when some of the balloons burst,” says Letitia Musat, Raze de Soare’s director. “And when they heard an ambulance for the first time, they rolled on the ground.”

But gradually, Musat says, a semblance of normalcy has returned for the children.

They got used to the Romanian staff and learned where their bedrooms were with the help of framed photos hung above the doors.

Many of the smaller children don’t speak at all on the recent visit, and some seem lost in their own thoughts; others light up in delight at the approach of a new face.

For all of them, female teachers commute from Ukraine, generally for a month at a time.

Framed photos above the doors have helped the children become familiar with where their bedrooms are located.
Framed photos above the doors have helped the children become familiar with where their bedrooms are located.

Some of the kids, like Kyrylo, are learning Romanian. He understands it well by now, and when he doesn’t he simply points to a smartphone for a Ukrainian translation.

Kyrylo’s swing mate on this day, Sasha, is also among the oldest of the children.

Sasha still recalls with joy the several trips the kids have had since arriving seven months ago, to the Romanian mountains or the Black Sea coast, and pesters Musat with questions about when the next camp will be. He doesn’t give up until she assures him it will be soon, and, satisfied, marches off in the orange soccer cleats donated by a local sports club that he won’t even take off, even for sleeping.

Lena, one of the Ukrainian teachers whose knowledge of Romanian makes her a crucial link between the children and staff at Raze de Soare, has her own family at home.

“We are treated like royalty,” Lena says, with tears in her eyes, adding that the children are seemingly adapting to their new home and eating everything on their plates.

No waste of food is allowed, Musat confirms, adding it’s “something that didn’t happen to us when we were kids.”

Ukraine’s Most Vulnerable

It is a community effort, she says. Romanians have poured out their hearts and provided clothes and other daily necessities. Companies and nonprofits have provided the funding for a sensory room that helps develop motor skills, and several study rooms.

Among its international donors is a global crisis-response organization founded by American actor Sean Penn called Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE), which has already disbursed nearly $1 million toward Ukrainian refugees in Romania since establishing a presence there in March.

CORE has contributed thousands of dollars’ worth of aid to Raze de Soare, including winter clothing, educational and recreational materials, and a television in conjunction with the Community Foundation Prahova, a local NGO.

It is also supporting the establishment of a space at the center for psychological counseling and speech therapy, and is considering future assistance to ensure dental care for the children at Raze de Soare.

“This project is part of a CORE strategy to focus its interventions on the most vulnerable Ukrainian refugees, such as people with disabilities and other marginalized groups,” CORE told RFE/RL.

On the eve of the war, Raze de Soare was preparing to transform itself from an orphanage into an emergency child-protection center once the last of its resident children was placed in a more permanent home.

But now, as a result of an unprovoked conflict that few of Raze de Soare’s children fully understand, it has taken on new importance, keeping some of the most vulnerable of Ukraine’s nearly 8 million refugees safe until peace can return following Europe’s biggest war of aggression since World War II

Search : https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-romania-orphans-disabilities-safe-haven/32117798.html

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