Moldova, Cobani October 2018
Aid Part 2: The final destination
Buckwheat and red beetroot
The elderly couple lives in just one room. The rectangular structure of concrete blocks measures eight by four meters. It is all they have at their disposal. There is a bed and a simple wood-fired stove, a bucket for water and another one used as a toilet. The room is dark and damp; there is a faint smell of urine. Vasile is blind and spends his day mostly here, on the bed.
When we enter I am embraced and kissed by his wife Tecla. It is such a joy for them to have a visitor. This short visit lightens up their day. Victor puts the food from his boxes onto plates. Today it is cooked buckwheat with beetroot salad and meatballs. The food is packed insulated so it is warm when it reaches the destination. There is a kind exchange of words in Moldovan and some laughter.
Tecla follows us to the delivery van.
Maryanna, Victor’s helper waits outside and we drive off but before we can a crying woman comes to us telling about her husband being ill. Victor has a listening ear and comforting words. And maybe a solution.
There are still 10 stops to go. The roads are very bad as heavy rains have washed away the pavement to the extent that some villagers can only reach their homes on foot climbing over the debris.
On the Rumanian border
In the tiny village of Cobani (some 2000 inhabitants) in north-west Moldova almost on the Rumanian border, Victor Zama provides many families (predominantly elderly) with a warm meal three times a week. He has taken me with him on his Monday round of food distribution. The first visit left me in dismay as it surpasses my expectation of what poverty for old people could look like. It is still warm en sunny now but I imagine this in a dark fierce cold winter.
I also have to think of my own mother of 88 who is looked after so well with all the social care The Netherlands has managed to organize (made possible by the taxes we pay).
On the road, he explains his work here and tells me heartbreaking background stories of those we visit. He knows the small community inside out. On the road, we greet the village doctor with whom he communicates frequently. Behind every door, there is an (in most cases) sad story. On every stop, Victor has a listening ear and takes time for a chat. Apart from the food, he himself is a ray of light in the mostly dark rooms. I am sure he would not like the comparison as he is a modest man but looking at the photographs while writing this story Victor seems like a visiting angel.
With Tecla and Vasile whom we meet on our first visit, the tragedy is physically living next door in a bigger and better house. They were childless and decided to adopt a child and raised her Their adopted daughter now refuses to look after them though she lives not more than 10 meters from them.
Every next stop is as impressive for me as the first. Some have it a bit better, some are even worse.
Fiodor lives alone has lost his fingers and feet in a work-related accident involving electricity. His sisters help him to keep the house clean and Victor provided him with some simple tools so he can get up, stand and use the toilet on his own.
Viorica (69) living with her son Ion (50). He is a former soldier who was discharged from the army suffering from PTSD and his body does not function anymore. Shell-shocked invalid from the Transnistria war he receives a pension of 10 E per month. His right arm still functions so the government feels he could do work, otherwise, the pension would have been 30 E. His mother is bent to bed. She has so much pain she cannot go around the house and openly wishes death would relieve her from her misery. Due to disability Ion cannot do any work around the house or look after his mother properly.
Simeon (82)is a former kolhoz president who cannot get out of the house on his own anymore (due in part to the high steps that once gave him status). He still has an aura of authority around him. However, his Sovjet savings are gone and now he also depends on Victor.
Dana is a young mother with two children from a previous relationship and two toddlers from the new one with a man that (again) does not look after the children.
Vasile lives all alone in a tiny damp house. He cannot move around on his own and mostly sleeps. Rats run around under the bed. Victor tells me to my horror one day a rat bit off one of Vasile’s ears.
He needs help with everything. Even getting a glass of water is too difficult so he has to wait for someone to bring it to him.
and just cannot look after themselves anymore. Varvara suffered a lot in Soviet times and is permanently in a lot of pain.
After the round, we return to the social center to have a quick lunch in the center’s kitchen. We eat the same food as we just distributed.
The start of Neemia
“Three years ago we decided to return to my village of birth and open a social center. I was giving a lecture to youngsters in Chisinau and all of a sudden it became clear to me I wanted to do this. Maybe it was a “calling” from God, at that time it was almost a physical experience. I knew what I really wanted and left Chisinau (the capital of Moldova) with my wife and three children in order to set up a community center. Our foundation is called after Neemia, a biblical figure that took on the task to save the people of Jerusalem when they were in a very bad state. One of the things he did was organize the building of a wall around the city so the citizens where protected. This is in a way what we try to do, provide some measure of safety and hope.”
“The central point is a newly built meticulously clean one story building with a kitchen, community room, office and facilities for showers and washing machines. In this social community center, we cook and do laundry for those who need this and do not have the possibility to do washing by themselves.
Together with a tiny part-time staff of three we also provide for the after-school care of children of families in need so they can do their homework, have clean clothes, have a proper meal and can take regular showers. In winter we provide coal to the elderly as heating is a problem for them.”
“This was the first step for us, a place children could come to and we could use as a base for everything we do. We can support some 100 to 150 individuals.
What is your motivation to do all this?
“ Life has been good for me. I had a good education, traveled and had a good job where I could earn good money. Like my brothers, I could have left the country and earn good money elsewhere. However, I decided that what is important in life is to use all the talents and material goods I received for the benefit of those who are in the deepest need of help.”
“It gives me deep satisfaction every time to give Vasile, the blind man, a glass of water. It is the first thing he asks me to do.”
Don’t you ever get frustrated or angry?
“If I did I would already be consumed by these feelings. I have to accept what I cannot change even if I do not like it. We would like to do more but the means are by definition limited. For the meal distribution, we work on a rota so sometimes we skip a family to be able to provide another. We best look at what we can achieve and progress step by step.”
Have you ever been threatened?
“Actually the community was very suspicious when I arrived here and started the community center. Why is he doing this, is there a bigger scheme with money involved people asked themselves. I sometimes organize some outings for the kids where we also give some religious education and this was met with great resistance from the (Russian) Orthodox church. The mayor told me I could not do this without formal approval of the church. The way this message was delivered was rather threatening.”
What is your religious background?
I am a member of a more liberal and forward-thinking movement in the Orthodox Church (in this case the Rumanian branch). My wife has been working with Youth for Christ. We try to reform or so you will modernize the church from the conventional ways. The attitude is people go to church and there it all happens. The believers come and the church does not come to the believers. Luckily there is now a new pope in Cobani and we are very glad that on our request he now visits once a year those elderly that cannot come to church. It is heartwarming to see how much they feel better after they have received absolution. It provides them with hope as a lot of them are in such a bad state they would rather die, but without absolution, this would be a threat to them. Actually, that is what a lot our work is about: to provide hope and to give a perspective in life.”
How do you get the funding?
“We have donations from some smaller charity organizations. My two brothers live in the USA and help us with their gifts and also with some money they gather. There are two charity organizations from the UK and the Pro-Visie foundation of Nico Swart has helped us with buying washing machines, vegetable seeds for the gardens of those we support and also they had the great idea to provide walking sticks … This is a story on its own as it proved to be very difficult to import them due to import regulations. So we now buy them locally.”
“All in all our budget is around 28000 euros per year from which we can pay some staff (a cook, administrator etc.) but it goes predominantly to direct aid. We have no state support and we advise those who want to support us to visit us and come and see. Working with foreign NGO’s and bigger help schemes from e.g. Unesco and foreign governments requires a lot of paper-work and we just do not have the capacity to fill in all the forms, write programs according to many different standards. I would have to do it myself and prefer to be involved in the direct helping process. For this work, we would need nearly a full-time person. Luckily the private donations keep us going but it is often a mystery how we manage to get through the year and will do our work next year”.
It strikes me that at least in part you provide for needs that in the western world the state looks after. What is the role of the state?
“Yes, that is true. We have very good contacts with the local municipality who provide us with addresses of those in need. There are no state programs to do what we do but the attitude towards our work is positive.”
Note: In other programs sometimes the state takes over the activities when they run. An example of this is the decentralized activities for mentally handicapped Somato.
How do you see the future?
“We have many ideas of course. We need a new stove in the kitchen so we have more capacity for cooking. Also, I would like likewise oriented people to be able to meet here in the afternoon and evening. It is very useful for mothers with young children to exchange ideas and talk. It would be a kind of social café. I already run meetings with young people to discuss taking responsibility for one’s own life and for others. The sense of community has deteriorated a lot in the last 20 – 30 years. Another idea is to give some courses in starting your own business. Everybody tells me: just give me a job but I just cannot. Starting some economic activity on your own is a way out and I try to educate villagers on how to do this. It requires a change of mentality, however. And as for money, I am confident that one way or another we will find a solution somehow.”
“In the meantime, I am already happy with being able to continue to do what we do now and make sure Vasile gets his glass of water.”
Read more about the Pro Visie Foundation and the difficulties and rewards of providing small scale aid on long-distance here: Because it is possible