How I met Portocala by Simona Filip

Last year I worked on a project involving institutionalised youth and Romani people. I met Portocala and this changed all my opinions about them.

The interphone keeps ringing, and on its screen you can see teenager faces. Noisy groups of teenagers enter the building; I can hear their laughs and teasing. They go up the stairs slowly to the fourth floor where I am waiting for them in the lecture room having no expectations. It is my first meeting with youth from placement centres and I do not know much about them, or their behaviour, nor how we will interact over the next three month. This is how long the qualification course that I coordinate will last. My colleagues from the project team funded by European money kept warning me that many children have issues. A few days before meeting them, I am ashamed to admit, I was having fun in the office reading their personal documents. I was going through their registration papers and I was finding exotic names, “gipsy” names, as I called them without any remorse. I would meet Portocala now, one of the ones with exotic names, at the introductory meeting of the “Worker in the trade” course.

The “Worker in the trade” course has been one of the three programs of professional development offered for free within the project “Iasi County Centre for Social Inclusion” during 2014, aimed mainly at young people who would leave the child protection system. Web designer and security agent courses were organised within the project. The target group for the courses were Romani people, disabled people, and victims of domestic violence, single parents and people from families with more than two children. In total, over 100 institutionalised young people got a qualification in one of the three jobs and got grants upon completion. Less than 5% got a job in the field they trained for.

Portocala got among the last on the fourth floor because she helped Cornelia and Iolanda to climb up the difficult stairs. She did not like coming alone anyway. Cornelia is disabled and Iolanda can barely see. Nevertheless, Portocala, who does not have any physical disability, needs to rely on someone when she goes out of the placement centre. “I am not coming on my own, I am not familiar with the streets”, she told me the day before, on the phone several times. “I’m coming if Ionut’s coming. Have you called Iolanda? Or anyone else in my room?” I am a bit puzzled that someone who was born here and lives here is not able to identify a building after many indications, but I got used to it after a few weeks and would not wonder that too many people living in placement centres do not know the world outside. Later, reading Portocala’s personality profile, done by the project councillors, I’ve found out that she does have general difficulties in making decisions, she is insecure, afraid of making mistakes, fear of getting involved and taking responsibility.

Portocala, 22, looks identical to the way she looks in her ID photo, a lost child. I have her photo clear in my mind – jet black and shiny hair which she sticks to her forehead, a full mouth and red cheeks. She has a heavy set, covered at all times with loose trainings and T-shirts printed with Italy, England, Mickey or Minnie Mouse. She swings her arms and her walk is manlike She calls me “lady”, although there are only 5 years age difference between us.

She and others seemed surprised when she entered the classroom, seeing the chairs, tables and flowers. Many young adults seemed surprised by a room which they do not have at “Holban”, the placement centre. “It looks better than at Holban”, Portocala and Mihai tell me. Mihai is the one who coordinates “all from the multifunctional”, feeling sad and certain that I will label those from the centre as soon as I hear the name of the school. I think most people in Iasi know that Holban is an integrating school centre, where children with disabilities, Romani and disadvantaged groups learn. It is also known as “multifunctional school” and when I admitted that it is for the first time I hear of Holban, thinking it was a school like the rest, I saw Portocala was glad that I did not label her.

After everybody gathered, I have distributed agendas, pens and forms to fill in. In the group, there were some who would introduce themselves on their own, others who would start talking about anything without being invited, and there were others whom I would ask questions. Some had problems filling in a simple registration form and others were exceptionally gifted and were on the course to study Medicine.

They made groups according to the placement centres and they communicated only with those within the group until the end of the course. After 3 months, some managed to make new friends with people from different centres. They were in this together and they did not differentiate between themselves, based on ethnicity, age or disability. Some young people from the centres outside cities were envious of those from the modern ones, where the social workers were younger and closer to them, but generally I saw that they were being supportive of each other and helpful.

During the three months of training, I tried to get more information about Portocala from herself, but did not succeed. We did not become friends, although many times she gave me the opportunity to see that she is friendly towards her friends. Laura, one of the adults working at the centre, whom Portocala is attached to very much, told me that she was one of the children you could rely on. She would let everybody know if a course would be delayed. Portocala helped me once too, when I had to phone everybody in the group I was teaching to let them know when the graduation exam was going to be. After talking to Portocala, in the next 4-5 minutes everybody would know. She was talking very sweet to me and when she was asking for extra agendas about once a week, I would give them to her without questioning her.

Halfway through the course, Portocala did not show up for three consecutive days. The trainer asked me to find out what is going on. I have found out that she was away in a camp together with an organisation which militates for Romani rights. I have excused her for the missed days and I have waited for her to come back again to the course. Since she continued not to show up, I tried to contact her to discuss about the recovering the missing lectures. Talking to her on the phone seemed strange. She seemed that she did not know who I was or what I was asking her. Recently, I’ve found out that she is suffering from adjustment and behaviour disorder, but the diagnosis is not fixed yet.

In the following period, I worked with the others and I forgot about Portocala. She came back one day to the course, just like it happened too many of her colleagues, who were losing their motivation along the way.

“It is a bit difficult doing the post high school training”, she told me as if going to school is a way for time to pass until she would have to leave the placement centre. “But how do you feel about the Trade worker course? Are you going to finish it? There is not too much to go till the end”, I have pointed out thinking more about fulfilling the indicators of the project rather that Portocala’s fate.

Her answer was a question” “What about the bursary?”

In her personality profile, which I read after meeting Portocala, I found out that she has distorted views and irrational expectations regarding her career. The 1200 RON, representing the bursary that all course graduates were receiving, were motivating her. She felt that this money was helping her more that the graduation certificate which would show that she is able to do a job, which would allow to support herself. The certificate was more important in the long term than the bursary, which one could easily spent in a few days. She was not the only one for whom living the moment was the most important. Most young people were stuck, not being able to plan their future at all.

On 24 May 2014 Portocala had a happy moment. It was the graduation exam day. I still remember how she jumped off the chair when she read her exam question. She said that she has been studying that one all night long. She passed the test with 9.75 and I was very proud of her. It is then when I felt that for such moments it is worth all the hassle that programs funded with European money come along with. After exam, Portocala kept asking me about her diploma. I would tell her that she could come anytime to pick it up, but she never came.

I tried to get in contact with her, but I was sent to the placement centres (just like what is happening to the youth who live there) where I was told she was moved to. Last time I saw her, was at the end of the project conference, six months after the exam. She was tasting from all the food available on the table, asking the catering company what all the different dishes were. She ate quietly in a corner and when she finished I went towards her. She was seeing through me and I realised that she did not recognise me, so I just stayed to observe her and to understand how lonely she must feel.

This year I have tried again to get in touch with Portocala and I have collected more pieces of puzzle about her identity. She has been abandoned at birth in the maternity unit and has spent all her life in placement centres. The social workers at Holban centre, where she still is, have found her family several years ago. They live in Ciurea, next to Iasi and keep trying to establish a connection between them and Portocala. The mother, the grandmother and a brother are Romani people who respect their customs and traditions and would like to meet her. Portocala does not want to keep in touch with those who have abandoned her.

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