Site Visits to Slovakia and Romania, October 20 – 29, 2005
By Sister Joyce Meyer, PBVM, Executive Director
On Thursday, October 20, I arrived in Bratislava, the national capital of Slovakia. The Danube River flows through downtown and there are several beautiful, historic buildings and churches being restored, after they were left to deteriorate during the communist era. The city also has an excellent public transportation system and cell phone use is popular.
On my drive through Bratislava, I also noticed many dilapidated apartment buildings that were constructed by the past communist regime. Residents were housed together according to work they did. Having people in close proximity gave the government more control. Each apartment has electricity and heat but no air conditioning. The space is cramped and meant for a small family. Today, most of these apartments are occupied by up to four families, 7 – 10 persons, who do not earn enough to rent single-family apartments. Health conditions in most of the apartments are very poor due to over-crowding and lack of heat and electricity, utilities that many families cannot afford. Children are often ill and even though health care is available, people are unable to access it.
The economy of Slovakia is poor, but is faring better than other former communist countries. Most people work in factories or construction and receive low wages; there are few professionals. Unfortunately, the price of commodities and cost of living are equal to those found in the European Union. Unemployment is also on the rise, forcing youths and adults to seek work in neighboring European countries and send money to their families. Typically, men take manual-labor jobs and women work as house/street cleaners. Trafficking of young women has also become common. Many young women are enticed by crime syndicates that promise employment, but they quickly find themselves in compromising situations—their passports are stolen and they are “indebted” to their managers for travel and housing costs. The women are warned that if they try to escape, their families will be harmed.
My first site visit was to a kindergarten and after-school program that was started with a grant from the Sisters’ Fund in Fortuna, a suburb of Bratislava. The project is housed in the basement of an apartment building occupied by many Roma families. The Romas trace their roots to gypsies of Eastern Europe, who migrated from India hundreds of years ago. They were very mobile until communism forced them into regular jobs and apartment buildings. Families tend to be large, with 8 – 10 children, and are unemployed. The European Union requires that Slovakia must provide government subsidies for housing and education for the Romas. Unfortunately, most Roma families do not value education because their lifestyle does not call for steady employment and they are comfortable living off their small, government allowances. There are many conflicts between Romas and white Europeans who are envious of the benefits the Romas receive.
The Fortuna project is open to all children living in the apartment building, but it is mostly the white children who attend. The sisters hope that the kindergarten will provide the Roma children with the skills they need to help them move into regular, government schools. The sisters also have an after-school program for older children to study and learn computer skills because they do not have a quiet space to study at home.
On Friday, October 21, I met with two sisters representing the Conference of Women Religious. During the meeting, I gained many insights about sisters’ life. After the fall of communism, as congregations were being re-founded, sisters who had entered the convents secretly were required to change from wearing lay clothes and living in apartments to wearing traditional habits and living in large convent-communities. Those unwilling to make these adjustments left their congregations and either returned to lay life or continue to live as religious without belonging to a congregation. Many sisters are also semi-cloistered. Since communism, convents were returned to sisters in extreme disrepair and efforts are being made to renovate them. The convents house elderly and young sisters. One of the major works of the younger sisters is care for the older members.
In Slovakia today, sisters have a strong commitment of caring for children. After school study clubs are very popular and important missionary projects because they provide supervision for children of working parents. Sisters’ are also helping women cope with domestic violence. Most children are from white, single-parent homes, but they either live with grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. Because of overcrowded conditions, children frequently witness domestic violence among adults and are often victims themselves. Alcohol and drug abuse are very common as people try to cope with unhealthy living conditions, unemployment and lack of adequate nutrition.
I flew to Kocise, the second largest city in Slovakia, on Sunday, October 23. Kocise was also a beautiful city once, but it was neglected during communism and there are efforts being made to revive it. This region is more rural and many families continue to live as communal farmers. They belong to cooperatives, where they are able to produce more harvest and earn more income than they would as individual farmers. When the industries started by the communists were privatized, many people lost their jobs as the new owners hired family members and friends or European owners brought their own employees instead of hiring Slovakians.
After my brief tour of the city, we proceeded to Lavoca (pronounced Laboja), a town about two hours away near the Tatra Mountains. While there, I visited an educational center with a kindergarten, study room and adult education in the rural village of Spisske Pohradie. This project was started with the help of a grant from the Sisters’ Fund for computers and furnishings.
The sister-in-charge has found it difficult to keep the Roma children in attendance full-time. Many children will pretend to be “sick” from school on the day their family’s welfare check arrives so they can receive treats. The children attend school regularly while their parents are working during the potato harvest and when their mothers are street-cleaning because they need supervision. The study room is popular with the older children because they enjoy learning computers. Once the adult education program is underway, the sisters hope to give the women income-generating skills in knitting and embroidery.
The village of Spisske Pohradie is very small and has many deteriorated buildings. Many Europeans are buying buildings in rural villages like this and renovating them into beautiful shops and hotels. A few of the buildings housed homeless squatters. This village was similar to the majority of the villages in Slovakia and is divided into “whites”—white Europeans and “blacks”— the Romas. The whites live in homes inherited from their families and the Romas live wherever they can find a place to squat. During communist times, families in the villages were able to keep their homes but had their lands confiscated and used as communal farms, where the families worked. The communist government built apartment complexes for the Romas. Some Roma families continue to live in these old apartments or newer government developments. The majority of Roma families prefer living in abandoned buildings or in shacks they have constructed from scavenged materials—so they can have distance from other families. Most of the make-shift homes are without piped water or electricity. Families wash themselves and their clothes in small streams or at public pumps.
On Thursday, October 26, I flew to Bucharest, Romania. As I drove through the city, I could see the beautiful remnants of the Hungarian Empire, but under communism, the structures were left to deteriorate. Romania was under communist rule for 50 years and is considered the least developed of Eastern European countries. The economy has remained primarily agricultural. While I was in the rural areas, it was common to see farmers driving horse-drawn carts piled with wood or straw—only 2 percent of the population owns cars.
The next day, Friday, I met with representatives of the Conference for Religious. The Romania Conference was highlighting the need for social justice and social services. After the meeting, I visited a kindergarten and hostel for young women that received a grant from the Sisters’ Fund for furniture.
Later that day, I was taken to a project for teenagers with HIV/AIDS and their families. The project received a grant from the Sisters’ Fund for operating expenses. The sisters provide the families with medicines, food, clothing and transportation costs for doctors’ visits. Without such aid, parents would not be able to care for their seriously ill children. Many of these families barely earn $1,500/year. The youths were infected with HIV/AIDS as newborns at the hospitals where their mothers gave birth. They are healthy enough to attend school, but usually drop-out and fall behind in their studies due to rejection by other students. The sisters provide tutoring and mentoring so the children are encouraged continue their studies.
Afterwards, I visited a feeding program for poor families. The sisters plan to open a kindergarten and initiate a program for home-nursing of the elderly, who do not receive assistance from the government.
On Saturday, October 29, I went to visit a home for adolescents with HIV/AIDS. The project was initiated by a former television personality from Italy when he became interested in children with AIDS in Slovakia. He adopted a young girl who passed away two years later; afterwards, he committed himself to helping as many other children as he could. He visited a children’s hospital in Bucharest where hundreds of children with HIV/AIDS lived and received permission to bring 60 of the children to a village he built. Seven sisters manage the village with eight homes for the children, ages 3 – 18. Many suffer from mental disabilities. There are four homes for boys, three homes for girls and one home for two small children who are cured of HIV but have no family to care for them. Each group of children has two or three adults assigned to their care. The children attend their own private school near the village.
All of these children contracted HIV/AIDS when they were abandoned at birth or placed in the hospital by parents who could not manage their physical or mental handicaps. The number of children was so large, that they were forced to share cribs, where they were tied in place and left to lie in soiled sheets. Because there was not enough food, many of the babies were injected with food supplements with needles that were contaminated with HIV.
Later that day, I gave a presentation on the Sisters’ Fund to representatives of 20 congregations. Most of the sisters were not familiar with the Sisters’ Fund and were excited to learn that our foundation could help them initiate their projects. I learned that the majority of the sisters work with orphans and abandoned children, the elderly, children and adolescents with HIV/AIDS and women. Many sisters also do home nursing, residential care, tutoring, day care for children with working parents and some manage neighborhood clinics.
My visits to Slovakia and Romania provided me with a clearer understanding of the challenges and issues faced by sisters emerging from the restrictions of communism. I believe the sisters will be able to address the serious social issues facing their countries with assistance from the Hilton Fund for Sisters.