The deeper we went into Mofleni, the more apparent the desperation became. Each successive turn transported us further away from the commercial comforts of Craiova, the major metropolitan city mere kilometers away. Roads became more uneven, the homes more downtrodden. Elderly figures peered suspiciously from the doorsteps of ramshackle buildings, and children milled about discarded garbage accumulating into piles beside the road.
We turned onto a narrow street near the center of the gypsy settlement. It was lined by a series of tightly-packed houses – no more than an arms-length apart. The block was bustling with activity. A group of men unloaded a horse-drawn cart packed full of plastic bottles, and a woman in an ankle-length dress swayed side to side while she lugged two heavy canisters of water. We continued past them. Our destination was where the road dead-ends — at the last open parcel of land before the skeleton of a large, abandoned factory. It is the place the Rena family calls home.
On their isolated property, the family of ten sleeps in a single-room building, constructed with a thatched roof and cinderblocks with noticeable gaps between them. The lack of insulation makes it especially cold during winter, when temperatures can reach negative twenty degrees Celsius. In such times, the Rena’s sole line of defense is the 5 foot tall stack of firewood they had piled next to the house’s entrance. This last winter was especially harsh.
A foul stench rises from a nearby irrigation ditch. It’s filled more with trash than with water. A couple of mangy dogs pick their way through the remains, but there’s not much there. Food is rarely wasted in the impoverished neighborhood. The few chickens and the pig roaming the yard are off-limits; the Renas can’t afford to eat them. It’s much better to wait and sell the animals, because the family can feed themselves longer by spending that money on fruit and bread.
In the corner of the yard, four of the younger kids played on a swing, laughing and taking turns pushing each other. Their clothes and feet were matted with dirt — the Renas have no running water. The rest of the family was seated towards the front of the house, only the parents using stools. They were enjoying a respite from the bad weather. It had been raining the past couple of days.
Mr. and Mrs. Rena watched us wearily when we first approached; it was clear they weren’t expecting us. But they eased up a bit after noticing Mario, the NGO worker who had taken us there. Mario is a frequent visitor at the Rena household. As the community’s sole mediator, he serves as the link between Roma parents and the local school system. It was with his assurance that the Rena parents consented to allowing me ask a few questions about the family’s experience with schools in Mofleni.
Six of the Rena children are enrolled in primary school. They range in age from 4 to 12 years old, and attend class 4 days a week on average. Mr. and Mrs. Rena are proud of their accomplishments; many of the community’s youth don’t make it to 8th grade, but the parents are confident their children will finish primary school.
The school the children go to is segregated, composed of about 90% Roma students. However, Mr. and Mrs. Rena don’t believe there’s any discrimination. They like the teachers there. On occasion, some of them actually visit the home and give lessons right in the community. Sitting in on these lessons, the Rena parents have been impressed by what their children have learned. When asked about the sort of things they hoped the kids would take away from their education, and they told me “we want them to be able to read and write, and to know how to buy and sell things at the store.” They value school as a means of learning practical social skills.
Still, the Rena parents are faced with one major regret. Their children will not be going beyond the 8th grade.