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In 2005 I traveled to Arad, Romania to photographically document a Christian based charity known as “Oaza.” Established in 1995 to provide shelter and food to children living on the streets, the driving force behind this project is a woman named Laura Andres. Her vision for Oaza developed after witnessing the conditions under which homeless children in Romania lived. At that time Romania was emerging from years of oppression under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Homeless children, dubbed ‘street children,’ endured cold nights and hungry stomachs on a regular basis, often using drugs to self-medicate. Laura was determined to make a difference if she could, and hence, Oaza was born. Ten years later her organization cares for over 30 homeless children in 'family' homes, some of which have full time foster 'parents.'

While the idea of children living on the street is shocking to many Westerners, street children and orphans are nothing new in Romania. When he was in power, Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu forcibly relocated hundreds of people to industrial locations where they became factory workers. Vast numbers of children entered the equation when, in 1966, Ceausescu banned contraception and abortion in an effort to increase the fertility rate of Romania’s population. He also introduced a special tax that penalized men and women who remained childless after the age of twenty-five. Children born into this society were destined to become factory workers furthering the cause of Romanian industrialization. However, as families increased in number parents had an increasingly difficult time providing for their children. Invariably many were abandoned to fend for themselves. Following the collapse of Ceausescu’s regime in 1989 Romania struggled to move forward, but the needed infrastructure simply did not exist. As a result, many children remained – and to this day, remain – on the streets of Romania’s cities.

During my stay, Laura took me to visit some of the locations frequented by street children and homeless teens. On one trip we arrived at a settlement located beneath a bridge near railroad tracks. A number of young men and women whom I guessed to be approximately eighteen to twenty-five years old, were standing around, others were in makeshift beds; they were poorly dressed and looked in desperate need of basic resources. It was a scene typical of lost hope, and indulgence in whatever substance was available to block out the reality of their existence. They looked lost and viewed me with both curiosity and suspicion, their clothing appeared dirty and looked as though it had been acquired from rubbish dumps. Walking across the train tracks, I encountered a wall, behind which was a sea of bedding made of filthy rags. On top of these makeshift sanctuaries lay sleeping children. The conditions were appalling and made even more shocking by the fact that civilization was literally five minutes away.

As Laura and I continued to explore the street children’s settlement, I noticed that they had set up rudimentary cooking facilities. I could see a fire blazing with pots hanging over it, and it was here that I met Alexis (known as Bin Laden.) I began talking with him. He told me that he couldn’t remember when he started living on the streets, but thought he had been around four years old. He held a bag that contained industrial solvents and emitted powerful fumes that Bin Laden inhaled at intervals. During the short time I spent with the children it was apparent that substance abuse was common, most using solvents to escape the nightmare of their world. It is all to easy to judge in this situation, but when you have no hope, no dreams, or aspirations I would argue most of us would grip that bag and inhale deeply. Despite the prevalence of substance abuse, most of the older street children had taken on the role of parents to the younger ones, although there was no biological connection. I took photographs of those who did not object, but the older children did not want me to photograph the younger ones.

The children in Laura’s care have similarly tragic stories: all were abandoned and have suffered from physical, emotional and, too frequently, sexual abuse. With this in mind, I was amazed by how positive their attitudes were. They were remarkably upbeat and long to become educated. Unfortunately it is not possible to cover every child’s story, so I have chosen to touch upon the lives of just two. A young boy called Tutu and Laura’s adopted daughter, Claudia.

Tutu's Grandmother abandoned him when he was aged four. His mother had left him and his siblings in their grandmother’s care, but not long after they became street children. When Laura found him he was living in the children’s camp mentioned earlier, and his memories of his time there are ones of fear, cold and hunger. Once he was rescued by Oaza, everything changed. Now he not only had food to eat and a place to sleep, but was making friends and going to school. During his first few weeks there the staff noticed a dramatic improvement in his social skills and overall demeanour. When I asked him what he liked best about being at Oaza he replied, “I love Laura, I’m going to school and since I came here I’ve stopped smoking.”

Claudia’s story is almost a miracle. Ten years ago Laura received a call from one of the children living near the railroad tracks. They told her to come quickly because a young girl and her baby were being attacked by the father, who had just been released from prison. When Laura finally arrived the man was attempting to kill the baby by throwing her across the rail carriage, but with the help of the other street children they overpowered the man long enough to rescue the baby. The mother didn’t want her child and was happy for Laura to take her, so the malnourished, abused Claudia became Laura’s adopted daughter. In her new, loving environment she thrived and developed into a beautiful young girl who loves life and school. The bond she shares with Laura is powerfully inspiring and is a testament to the difference one person can make in the lives of others.

Martin Yeates lives in the county of Lincolnshire, England. He travels coast to coast and uses both digital and silver halide cameras. He has been passionate about photography for most of his adult life.

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