March 2014. Jo Jowett, a British woman in her 50s, is driving to Jacodu, a small village in the center of Romania. The car passes by dark brown strips of land with green patches, signs of early spring. She is accompanied by the photographer and filmmaker R. James Feaver. Jo feels excited, because the project she started in Jacodu four years prior has been producing results. “Before it was just sadness and helplessness,” she tells Feaver, who is filming her.
Jo, born Josephine, has never been looking forward to a typical life: getting married, having children, retiring. She was looking for more, and from an early age, a life of service was the most important to her, because of her faith.
Then she discovered Romania, a transitioning country rushing away from its past that left behind children living in state institutions and marginalized groups.
In 2002, the Medias Municipal Hospital in central Romania decided to change its policy on the abandoned children living with HIV and return them to their families. The HIV positive children had been living in a special unit within the hospital.
By then, Romania’s history with HIV was not in the limelight anymore. The Romanian Revolution in December 1989 led to the collapse of Communism and revealed a well-kept secret. Half of all the HIV or AIDS cases in the entire Europe came from Romania.
Some 13,000 children were infected with the HIV between 1988 and 1992 in Romania’s hospitals, according to doctors. Many of them were living in state institutions, abandoned by their parents.
But leaving the hospital and returning to their families was no option for some of the kids living in the Medias hospital. Families didn’t want them back.
Jo Jowett and her husband Ron felt that they should do something about it. They’ve started the Love Light Romania project. They bought a house in Ighisu Nou, a village near Medias, and opened the Sanctuary, a placement center for children with HIV.
After all, the reason they had moved to Romania two years before was Illiaz, a boy living with HIV in the Cernavoda orphanage.
Jo and Ron were introduced to each other by a mutual friend in 1995. They were both living in the Mid Wales, a region in the UK with an economy dependent on farming and small businesses. Ron, an introvert man with a passion for wood and practical things, was working as a carpenter. Jo, on the other side, has always been more outgoing and with a a lot of drive. She was a hotel receptionist with a large chain of hotels, and she previously had worked as a secretary administrative assistant in a care home.
Jo started fundraising for an organisation that was helping children living in the Cernavoda orphanage, and Ron soon joined her. Initially it was only in their free time. Then they started coming to Romania two times a year in the late ‘90s and gradually got very close to the children living there.
The orphanage had a section of children infected with HIV. Illiaz, one of the 24 kids living there, told Jo and Ron that he wanted them to be his family. It was a turning point for Jo and Ron.
In May 2000, they packed their things and came to Romania. They wanted to do more for the children with HIV and also give the little boy a home.
They bought a house in Ighisu Nou, a Saxon village in the Sibiu county, with a fortified church built in 1515. They first heard about the village in 1998, from a group of Romanian dancers who had a performance in the UK. Some of them were from Ighisu Nou. Jo and Ron offered them accommodation, and later paid them a visit in Romania. They liked the village life, and there were houses for sale. So when they eventually moved to Romania, they thought that the Saxon village was a good choice.
Illiaz, however, didn’t make it to his new family. His HIV became AIDS and he was too sick to make to make the journey between Cernavoda and Ighisu Nou. In June 2000, two months after Jo and Ron moved to Romania, he died.
They felt heartbroken, as if they had lost their own child. But in 2002, when the HIV unit within the Medias hospital closed, they realised they can help other children. Jo and Ron bought another house in Ighisu Nou and took the surviving Romanian children. The place become a placement center for kids with HIV in the Medias area.
They named the center the Sanctuary. It was a place where the abandoned kids with HIV could feel safe.
January 7, 2016. It’s evening and Jo is making the birthday cake for Imre. The young man, who spent the first years of his life abandoned in a hospital ward, turns 27 the next day. He has been a resident of the Sanctuary for the last ten years.
Jo has decided for a chocolate cake with white icing, a favorite at the Sanctuary. 13 years after its opening, the Sanctuary is not a placement center for children infected with HIV anymore. It is now a residential home for nine adults with learning difficulties who are living with HIV. Out of the ten children that Jo and Ron found in the HIV unit in the Medias hospital, three of them are still alive today and are in their late ‘20s. The Sanctuary also provides end-of-life care and runs a daycare support center.
Imre’s family abandoned him at birth. At some time during his state care, he’d been infected with HIV. The young man has speaking difficulties, but he mostly runs a normal life. He has a daily work routine at the Sanctuary. He loves swimming and being out in the rain or snow. He has been once on a trip to England. His best friend at the Sanctuary is a girl called Rodica.
All of the residents have been in institutions and have been damaged because of the neglect, Jo says. They have severe learning difficulties and are not able to find a job. But at the Sanctuary, they are part of a community and have daily tasks. They are also able to go around the village freely and safely.
For the young people living there, Jo is not the English woman. They look to her as their mom. Although Jo has started another project that takes a lot of her time, she still comes at the Sanctuary every Saturday and Sunday, and if she’s in the village, she drops by every evening. But her son Rob is now in charge of the Sanctuary whereas Jo and Ron focus more on Jacodu.
When Jo first arrived in Jacodu, she couldn’t get her head around on how the Roma people lived like that. How could they could let their children live with no clothes, filthy and dirty? Why did they not want their children to go to school, she asked herself.
Jacodu is a village in the Mures county, in Transylvania, with over 300 inhabitants. A Josephine map of the late 18th century mentions the village with its Hungarian name: Magyarzsákod. Back then, Transylvania was part of the the Habsburg Empire. Now, the population in Jacodu is still predominantly Hungarian, but some 500m near the village about 120 Roma people live in extreme poverty.
It was only when Jo got to know the people, to talk to them more, that she realised that they had no choice. That lifestyle was an inheritance, and the Roma people were trapped in a cycle of poverty. Parents hadn’t been to school so they couldn’t understand why their children should go to school.
Jo felt that it was not morally correct to turn your back to these people if you you were in the position to do something about it. She and Ron decided to put a project together for the Roma community in Jacodu. They initially provided the families with toilets and electricity, they helped rebuild their homes, bought clothes for the children. They’ve gradually understood that the long-term goal should be education. Only if kids went to school and began to experience life outside their community, they could break the cycle of poverty.
“All the activities were put into place to help the children to progress to another stage. They couldn’t take part in the zoo if the clothes weren’t clean and they didn’t have adequate clothing and footwear,” Jo says.
She soon realised that even if the Roma kids went to school, many problems remained in the classroom environment. Besides their illiteracy and the discrimination related to them being Roma, the classes were taught in Hungarian which they couldn’t understand. So children would be told to sit on a bench in the back of the class.
The Love Light Romania team launched the education program in the autumn of 2012, a sort of after school for the Roma kids in Jacodu. They could learn basic writing and math, and keep up with their peers in school.
Dorin, a Romanian man in his early 50s, was their first teacher. A patient man, with blue eyes and short gray hair, he explained the small children that the sound is a letter, the symbol corresponds to a sound and words are made of different sounds. He had to start with the basics. Some of the children didn’t even know their birthday date or age, let alone writing or reading. But they have gradually learned to write their name, read labels. Dorin has noticed that the teenagers were progressing because they were in a competition with each other whereas the little ones put a lot of joy in learning.
Jo and Ron now want to take on another similar project for the Roma community in Albesti, a village near Sighisoara. This winter they’ve been providing the children with vegetables. Jo has also launched a program where 20 of the teenagers who have never been to school are going to be taken to the learning skills program at the center in Jacodu. They want to get involved more, but they need funds. Love light Romania gets donations from individuals in the UK, trust funds or church groups. Some pay monthly, some donate once or twice a year.
In 2009, Jo and Ron went back to Cernavoda to revisit the orphanage where they had come so often at the end of the ‘90s. The place was now empty, and the remaining kids were living in smaller placement centers or foster families.
The place reminded Ron of Illiaz, the little boy who brought them to Romania. Back them, every time Jo and Ron would visit the orphanage, Illiaz would wake up at 6am and knock on their door to have breakfast with them. Then they would spend the whole day together.
“I personally wasn’t apprehensive of going back at all,” Ron says. “But when I was there I had to specifically exclude from my mind thoughts of Illiaz because I found that extraordinarly emotional.”
“That’s the sadness in my life,” he adds.
Jo feels that their suffering was not in vain. The kids were the inspiration to make a commitment to the mission. “I don’t think that Love Light Romania would be if it wasn’t for those children,” she says.
By Diana Mesesan, features writer, [email protected]