I had always dreamed of working in an orphanage overseas. It was on my bucket list and when I was 19, I went on my first trip overseas to Romania. I remember how excited I was to go. I thought of how fun it would be to work with the kids for a few weeks. I thought I had a fairly reasonable understanding of what to expect. Although I had never travelled outside of North America, I had seen the World Vision commercials and had watched a few documentaries about poverty. I wasn’t completely unaware of the hurting and need in other parts or the world…or so I thought.
When we stepped inside the first State run orphanage the first thing that hit me was the indescribable stench. The smell was unlike anything I had encountered before. It was the kind of repugnance that hit the sensitive spot at the back of your throat. The inside of the building was dingy, dark and run down. The ceilings were low. The walls were chipped and filthy and the lights although on, barely provided sufficient light. I looked up at the ceiling and noticed that most of the lightbulbs were burnt out. My excitement quickly turned to apprehension. This was not exactly what I had imagined. As we walked toward the nursery I was still hopeful that they would give us a grandiose and heroic task that would change the children’s lives.
We followed the orphanage staff worker down a dimly lit hallway. I looked down and squinted my eyes from the flicker of the florescent lights above. She informed us that we would start our work with the babies in the nursery. I was feeling claustrophobic as my eyes scanned the grimy, paint chipped walls. The place had the feeling like it was abandoned and that we shouldn’t have been there. I was trying to breathe through my mouth as my stomach churned from the unpleasant smell of the place. What WAS that smell?
We finally arrived at the last door at the end of the hallway. The staff worker opened the door and we walked into the nursery. The room was lined with what looked like 20 grey metal cribs. The cribs were lined up side by side and back to back. There was a small narrow path in between the rows of cribs with just enough room for you to sidestep around them. It looked like something I had seen at a chicken farm once. I stood completeely still, adjusting my eyes to the scene in front of me. There was not a bright colour, toy or stuffed animal in sight. Each crib had a baby in it, some had two babies in them. I was stunned. This was unnatural. All of the babies were lying in cribs all alone. The room was eerily quiet. In a room with 20 or so babies, I expected to hear crying. I asked the worker why it was so quiet in the room. She responded, “The babies learn quickly that there is no point to crying…no one is coming. They just give up”.
I swallowed hard. My heart struggled to process and keep up with the things my eyes were seeing.
I was in way over my head.
I was sure I could actually physically feel my heart breaking. I tried to take in a deep breath to calm myself but my throat was dry and tight. I gently leaned back to steady myslef against the wall. ” You can do this. Breathe in. You can do this. Breathe out. You can do this. Breathe in”
The staff worker began to explain that they needed us to feed all of the babies. She said that there were so many babies and so few workers that the babies were rarely held or touched. These children lay alone in their cribs all day. She then showed us the feeding system they used for the babies. There was a long piece of milk stained cloth tied to the side of each crib. She showed us how they would fasten the bottle to the piece of cloth and then slide the baby’s head under the bottle. The system reminded me of the water bottle attached to my hamster cage when I was a child. She explained that what the babies needed the most, was for us to pick them up and hold them as they drank their bottles. Some of the babies would go days without being held. She gave us a bin of prepared bottles and left the 6 of us in the room. It felt as if my feet were glued to the floor. How do you choose which baby you will hold? I walked over to the first crib, reached in and picked up the precious bundle. The baby immediately grabbed onto my shirt with both hands. Tears poured down my cheeks as I gently rocked the baby looking into his big blue eyes. He squeezed tightly as he sucked on his bottle. His eyes looked dark and desperate. Once we locked eyes, he didn’t look away. He was saying so much without actually saying anything at all. “I love you” I managed to whisper.
It was the only thing I could think to say and I quietly whispered it over and over. When he finished his bottle he nestled his face in deeper to the crux of my arm. I felt torn. I didn’t want to put him down but I could see the sweet baby in the next crib looking longingly at me. I bent over the crib and tried to gently lay him down. His grip on my shirt tightened. He wouldn’t let go. The tears came harder as I gently pried his little fingers from my shirt. I felt horrible. It felt like a betrayl. An impossible choice. I stepped over to the next crib and reached in. This baby immediately grabbed me as well. My hands were trembling. I was desperately trying to maintain my composure. I shakily raised the bottle to her mouth and began rocking her back and forth whispering the same message to her: “I love you”. We went from crib to crib, picking up and rocking each baby until all of the babies had been fed.
When we were finished, we walked out of the building and climbed into the taxis that were outside waiting for us. Exhausted, I slumped into my seat, put my head in my lap, and finally gave into the sobs that had been threatening to overtake my body. I was overcome with the grief and pain of what I had just witnessed. It felt as though my body and mind had experienced a short ciruit and had shut down for my own protection. I was unaware of time and space. I could not process what I had just seen and I could not imagine the possibility of moving from this moment to the next. I found myself longing for the comfort of my own mother. I wanted to crawl into her lap, have her rock me back and forth and whisper “I love you”. I wanted to go back in time to the moment before I stepped into that place. Back to the blissful ignorance. Back to what I thought it would be like instead of the reality of what it actually was. It had not been the exhilarating, rewarding experience I had expected. It was absolutely devastating- the worst thing I had ever witnessed. The reality of my privileged, sheltered upbringing overwhelmed me like a tsunami. I was changed that day. I have never seen the world the same way since.
There is no Hallmark Movie style happy ending to this story. We didn’t hold a massive fundraiser to renovate the orphanage. We didn’t magicaly find adpotives families for all of the babies. In fact, you could argue that we didn’t really “do” much of great significance. The really big changes happened in my own heart. I learned that the “happy endings”. don’t always come.
I learned that sometimes all you can do is walk deep into the darkness with another. I learned that sometimes the only thing you can offer is the simplicity of your presence. I learned that the only thing worse than facing pain is facing pain alone.
It’s human nature to assume that our life experiences are similar to the life experiences of those around us. It’s easy to forget the challenges that other people face, the obstacles other people are required to overcome and the lens through which they experience the world. If I learned one thing from my trip to Romania it’s that even when you think you know what other people are experiencing, sometimes you need to see it with your own eyes and feel it in your own soul.