The experience of voluntary work in Romania
Fluturel’s eyes are of an intense brown. The boy’s spirit is curious. He loves exploring the world around him and doing it in the company of others. He’s fascinated by sounds: on rainy days, he’s left enchanted for long periods of time listening to the water falling down the gutters. On sunny days, he drums on the bars of the window. I met Fluturel last July, while volunteering in a small corner of Romania close to the Ukrainian border. He’s been living in a hospital annex with about thirty people, after the roof of the Cămin de bătrânii he’d been welcomed in, collapsed last winter. Cămin de bătrânii could be translated into English as “home of the elderly”, although being accepted into a resident, in Romania, isn’t dependent upon the accumulation of years. It’s enough that the wheel of one’s life has stopped spinning, for one reason or another.
Someone could enter the Cămin at a young age, either because his family cannot (or does not) want to take care of him anymore, or because he’s lost his family. It would then be the very environment of the institute itself that causes his life to grind to a halt, promoting ritualistic and repetitive behaviours. The conditions aren’t precisely hygienic, and this doesn’t particuarly help anyone. The staff, underpaid and lacking motivation, generally observe the dynamics of this small community with disinterest. This keeps any and all gestures of solidarity and mutual help surprising.
I don’t know Fluturel’s age. He’s about twenty years old. He doesn’t speak at all. After spending just a little time with him, one begins to wonder why walking comes so unnaturally to him. Did nobody ever take care of him? Does his difficulty walking depend on mental or physical illness? Does anyone here take him around for a walk? On finding out that there’s a hand to hold on to, he’s up and about, all eager to walk and brimming over with the desire to discover new things. There’s no need of words. All that’s required is holding on to a relationship together. Fluturel loves having his back rubbed, and relaxes as I hum the same tune. His face cracks up with a smile and a laugh of happiness. Day after day, he grows to trust those accompanying him. His manner becomes more docile, accepting the distraction we represent from the fixations he sometimes gets entangled into without screaming his discomfort.
One might wonder what a few weeks of volunteering a year can do in the lives of people like Flutarel. The situation here isn’t comparable to that metaphoric standing in front of a glass wondering whether it’s half full or half empty. It’s more like seeing a few drops of serenity falling down into a sea of problems. It’s a small and limited experience that comes to an end and passes away. Yet there it was. How it impacted those whom we tried to help always remains hidden from us, veiled and mysterious. As regards to my meeting with Flutarel and his companions, it’s continued to live on in my heart. All that I have lived on this experience – gratitude, impotence, serenity, anger, amazement, etc. – was a gift, was truly “a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing […] poured into your lap” (Lk 6,38).
Who knows what Fluturel is doing right now … I imagine him clinging to the net that separates the bătrânii, the elderly, from the rest of the world. That world that’s so normal, so correct, that it has confined them to a few square meters of space. I imagine him called or reprimanded with that name, Fluturel, which, in Romanian, isn’t even a person’s name. They call simply call him Fluturel. Nobody knows what he’s really called.
That said, Fluturel is a word related to “butterfly”, of which it could be the diminutive or a term of endearment. Discovering this connection was wonderful. As a name, “Fluturel” truly does, I believe, have something to do with the desire for life and freedom which shine through that young man’s eyes. Whatever the reasons he was given that name, it’s an affectionate name. And considering that he lives in a place where the vocabulary in moments of crisis includes words like “cage” and “ropes”, or verbs like “immobilize” and “isolate”, the colourful beat of a butterflies’ wings isn’t really that small a thing.