Valeriu Nicolae

Valeriu's students play soccer at one of his afterschool programs. Courtesy of the European Policy Center.

When Valeriu Nicolae approached a school director in Bucharest to ask about using one of her classrooms, he was told to look elsewhere. The director had no interest in allowing him open a Roma learning center on her campus. Not only was he approaching her with no government support, but providing facilities for gypsy children wasn’t exactly at the top of the school’s priorities. It seemed like Valeriu would be sent packing. But then the Roma activist did something the director did not expect.

He blackmailed her.

The school director made the mistake of soliciting Valeriu for a bribe. “She shouldn’t have asked me what was in it for her” he said, the sides of his mouth curling up into a mocking grin. It was the only time I saw him smile all day.

His ploy had worked beautifully. After threatening to sue the director for extortion, Valeriu demanded a room where he could run his after-school program for Roma children. His learning center can now be found on the third floor of school number 136.

But the Roma activist was just getting started. Valeriu also had his eye on the gymnasium behind the school, which he wanted to use to provide sports activities for Roma kids in his program. But its construction had come to a total halt; the school didn’t want to complete the project because they were required to staff the facilities with paid teachers. In other words, they didn’t want to pay to use it.

Again, Valeriu decided to take matters into his own hands. He went to the offices of the Education Board and demanded accountability for the EU funding that had been earmarked for the project. He discovered that no one there was keeping tabs on the gym’s construction. When it came to the money, the project was a mysterious black hole. Sensing corruption, Valeriu petitioned the board to follow through on their obligations. Construction on the project quickly resumed. Now that it’s been completed, the school still refuses to staff it. Valeriu is its sole maintainer.

Valeriu’s tenacity in securing the two facilities has paid off. Together, the learning center and the gym make up the foundation of the NGO he founded in 2009 — the Policy Center for Roma and Minorities. It’s a vague sounding name considering what the program actually does; The NGO, and indeed Valeriu himself, are essentially the parents of 212 Roma children.

I first met Valeriu Nicolae outside the gates of school 136. When he arrived, he was dressed in athletic shorts, a tank top, and pair of spotlessly clean Air Jordan sneakers. Surrounding him was an animated group of Roma children, but he didn’t seem to be paying much attention to them. He barked a couple orders and they went scurrying.

At 42 years old, Valeriu is a bit on the shorter side, with a bald head and a pair of tired, sunken eyes. At least in my presence, he looked perpetually annoyed. After he saw me sitting on the steps, he told me to meet him upstairs. The children would show me where to go. “Wait” I said. I put out my hand to introduce myself. “Yes I know who you are” he replied. His handshake was limp, and his eyes focused off to some unseen point in the distance. It was clear his mind was attending to more important things.

I followed his directive and went up upstairs, where one of the children showed me into the “Club.” The room was like its own miniature school house all rolled into one. At the entrance, bookshelves made up a small library, containing everything from children’s books and JRR Tolkien, to a few outdated manuals like MS DOS for Beginners. A line of PC’s along the back wall formed a computer lab; crates of toys were available for the young children; and a classroom space was produced using some desks and a blackboard. Across the middle of the room stretched a large rug, upon which one eager group of children sat cross-legged, working on a coloring book. Near them, I noticed one of the adult assistants using a cotton swab to check a girl’s mouth for cold sores. It seemed like the “Club” was a one-stop student support center. It’s probably the only one of its kind. It’s exclusively for Roma and other minorities.

Ranging in age from 6 to 17, the Romani children in Valeriu’s program are drawn from one of the most dangerous, drug-riddled neighborhoods of Bucharest. Almost none of them have any parental oversight. Day to day, they live on their own.

“Most of their parents are either drug addicted or in prison…they really just don’t give a fuck” Valeriu said.

Valeriu joined me in the Club, where he summoned me over to an IMac where he played a youtube video that his organization put together to show conditions in the slums the kids came from. The footage was alarming. It depicted some of the kids’ siblings strung-out on heroin, and passed out on mattresses in rooms with crumbling concrete walls and plastic bottles filled with urine. At one point, a man was shown rocking back and forth in the fetal position, talking to himself. “That’s one of the boy’s uncles.” Valeriu said. “He used to be normal. Now he won’t talk to anybody except me.”

As I watched the video, it became evident Valeriu’s “Club” offers a safe environment and learning materials that the 212 kids would never have had access to without him. The space isn’t the only incentive kids have to participate in his program, however. Valeriu puts on cultural programs like theater and dance shows, and has convinced famous sports stars and Roma musicians to visit the kids.

Plus, there’s the gymnasium.

Valeriu already runs his organization like a coach, and his tough love really comes out on the basketball court. I visited during one of Valeriu’s regularly-scheduled athletic training sessions, which kids in his program are required to attend twice a week. I followed him into the gymnasium behind school #136 — a clean, mostly empty facility sporting a full-sized basketball court and bleachers.

Valeriu started the afternoon’s session by handing out free t-shirts, hats, and backpacks that were donated to the program from organizations like Fifa. The children smiled in appreciation. One-by-one they accepted the gifts from their coach and humbly thanked him before falling back into line along the edge of the basketball court. I was amazed at their discipline. There were about 30 kids there, and only one man running the show. But there was no question who was in control.

With one bark, Valeriu silenced the room. Basketballs stopped dribbling. Kids ceased talking. They stared at their mentor for further instruction. Lay-ups and passing drills were the next exercises.

I watched as Valeriu split the kids into different groups by age. With a sharp vocal command he started the drills. Then he went between each of the groups, observing and directing their movements as to make sure everything was running efficiently. There would be no cogs in his well-oiled machine. The one time I saw a couple kids messing around, teasingly throwing basketballs at one another, they were immediately reprimanded. They couldn’t escape Valeriu’s monitoring eyes even though they were clear on the other side of the room.

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