Orsi is 15 and has lived in Bögöz, a village in Romanian Transylvania, since she was born. Orsi‘s mother belongs to the Roma minority, her father is a Szekler, a Hungarian minority in the middle of Romania.

Orsi has a total of 7 siblings, 3 younger and 4 older. Until 2021, she lived together with her parents and 4 siblings in a small house in the middle of Bögöz. For many years, only one room in this house was habitable, in which all 7 people stayed during the day and at night. Her entire childhood was marked by poverty combined with cold in winter, hunger and lack of prospects. Her father worked as a shepherd in a nearby village and was only at home in autumn and winter. Due to his alcoholism, he terrorised the family during his presence in the form of verbal arguments and domestic
violence. The little money he earned was regularly invested in alcohol and cigarettes, so that the mother had to work alone as a day labourer to keep the family afloat. Orsi often has to look after the small children while the mother dragged firewood or painted walls for other families for a little money. Often the food was not even enough for a warm meal a day. „Despite having little schooling, living a life of hardship and struggling to survive every day, this mother has always shown an incredible love for her children,“ says Sandy from Germany, who has been coming to the village regularly for many years and always looks after Orsi and her family.
In 2021, her father died and left the family with huge debts.

When the basketball project in Bögöz started in 2015, we were first able to convince her brother, who was 11 years old at the time, to take part in the training sessions. At the time, he was the only Roma who trained regularly. With the help of the coaches, he was accepted by some of the players, but still often had to deal with prejudice and verbal attacks. During one of our summer camps, Orsi accompanied her brother as a spectator and watched from the sidelines during training sessions. In 2017, we invited younger children from Bögöz to our summer camp for the first time. Orsi was there and so were many other Romas from Bögöz. Orsi was happy, loved every moment, but was shy and reserved. She did not talk much.

Shortly after, we organised regular trainings also for the younger children in Bögöz. From that Orsi became a basketball player and only missed a few sessions. „Orsi loves basketball training,“ says Ida, her mother. „I am glad she goes there and I let her too.“ In the meantime, she has already been allowed to participate in several friendly games and smaller tournaments.
Her coach sums it up: „I remember the first time Orsi went with us to Kézdivásárhely, where she was supposed to play her first match against another team in their big sports hall with stands and a parquet floor. There is a moment shortly after she put on her jersey for the first time and enters the hall with it. She stands a little shyly on the floor, but looks down with pride at her jersey. I will never forget this moment. Katalina seems to have perceived this moment with similar intensity and pressed the camera shutter at that exact moment.“ Thanks to trained and unbiased coaches, it was possible to integrate both Roma and Szekler children into the basketball teams very quickly and with few obstacles. The social background does not play a big role here. The children quickly understood what team spirit means, even without their own or their parents‘ previous experience. Orsi has found her place here, is open-minded and has developed great self-confidence.

Orsi has been playing basketball in Bögöz for 4.5 years now. After we decided to train our own coaches for the future as part of our VALYOUNITY project, we quickly turned our attention to her. Early on, she had to patiently take care of her siblings. Orsi has also always been reliable and her enthusiasm for the sport was also known to all. So she also quickly liked the idea, even though she was sceptical at first whether she could do it at all.

Coach Levi, coach of the younger kids encouraged her saying, „Don‘t worry Orsi. We are taking this slowly and you have my full support.“ The messages in the parents‘ messenger groups show us that Orsi is also respected by the parents. For example, she regularly informs parents about the departure times from the hall in town back home so that parents can pick up the children from the bus in time. They regularly thank her for the commitment. A few weeks later, Orsi writes to the project leaders in Germany: „I feel very comfortable with the children. I like them very much. They are good children, listen well. There are days when they are less receptive, but we usually find a solution. Lately I have found very good exercises that the children like very much.“
Orsi has arrived. She has friends from different social backgrounds, she is accepted and respected and has enough self-confidence now to be able to counter if she is verbally attacked. Like all our coaches, Orsi gets paid for her time with the basketball kids. It makes her proud to have a job that she enjoys and that she can even use to support her family.
In the future we would like to educate Orsi more intensively as a Basketballcoach. We think that Orsi will stay in Bögöz as an adult. On the one hand, we see her as a coach for the Bögöz teams, and on the other hand, we can well imagine that she can and will take on other roles in the organisation of our project later on.

The young woman was lucky. On Friday, she had knocked on the door with nothing but two plastic bags in her hands and the small child in her arms, evicted by the child’s father. She needed a place to sleep, a retreat for herself and the infant son, one year old, toothless laugh, light brown fuzz on his head. There was no family or relatives who could have taken in the 19-year-old with the dark hair, narrow shoulders and faded clothes; after all, she had been a displaced person before. Since the age of twelve, since her mother had abandoned her in a home and made off. This time she was lucky. The small parent-child room in the convent of the Mallersdorf Sisters in Szekelyudvarhely had not been occupied. She was allowed to stay, for the time being.

Anything but gray: Sister Michaela in the monastery kitchen.

Sister Michaela’s bright eyes darken as she tells the story of the young woman who is now wiping chocolate from her child’s mouth with energetic tugs in the airy courtyard of the religious house. Next to her, two blond girls bounce on a seesaw, siblings; a few yards away, three boys in Bayern Munich jerseys from last season are setting up a big, new trampoline. They are all orphans. Their parents have abandoned them, usually at birth, sometimes years later. Like the young mother, they have found with Sister Michaela and the other nuns not only refuge, a bed, a shower and regular food, but also encouragement, respect and human warmth.

“We can’t always help,” Sister Michaela explains, shrugging her shoulders and pointing to the young mother. The nun, a small, round woman in a gray nurse’s uniform, her dark gray hair tamed under a dark cap, the furrows in her soft face not yet too deep, knows many, almost countless, of these life paths.

Mothers who are almost still children themselves, who are beaten, displaced and abandoned by parents or husbands – and who not infrequently later make the same decisions and abandon their own children.

Still, he said, it is easier today to find places of refuge for the abandoned and displaced. “There are more initiatives that take care of the women and children. We are now well connected. If we can’t place someone, we might be able to refer them.” Not to be compared with the situation in 1991, when the Iron Curtain fell and Michaela came to Romania.

Back then, dozens of children would have stood outside the doors of the church every day, begging, the nun says in a calm voice. Roma. It rolls softly when Michaela says Roma. The Upper Bavarian dialect of her native Deggendorf still makes itself felt, even though Michaela has lived for 24 years in Szeklerland, the area of Romania inhabited by the country’s Hungarian minority. At 42, she left Deggendorf, Bavaria, to set up the religious house of the Mallersdorf Sisters, a congregation of Franciscan nuns, after the end of communism meant the revival of the Catholic Church, whose activities had previously been severely restricted by the state. In 1864, the Mallersdorf Sisters settled for the first time in Sibiu, Romania. Meanwhile, the order is active in five places, running kindergartens, old people’s homes, schools. In Szekelyudvarhely, the sisters founded a kindergarten for members of the Roma in order to get the children off the streets.

“At the beginning, hardly anything changed,” recalls the 66-year-old, “everything was paralyzed. People hardly trusted each other anymore, she says; the compulsion for equality and the Ceaușescu dictatorship had left their mark not only on the streets, but also in the minds of the country. Only in recent years did progress begin to show. New houses would be built, old ones renovated and restored, there would be more stores, even tourists. “There are improvements,” notes Sister Michaela, “but many things are changing very slowly.” There are still Roma children who beg. There are still children who would first have to be fed, washed and deloused in kindergarten. Today, there are one hundred in total, who are cared for in four groups. In addition, there are practical support programs and a school for those who have outgrown kindergarten age. Here, the children are to develop self-confidence, a love of learning and curiosity, values that are not taught to them at home. “Many parents are illiterate, have never been to school themselves. For them, the children’s school attendance means nothing.”

She has found refuge with the Mallersdorf sisters: the 19-year-old mother, almost still a child herself.

Time and again, he said, children don’t show up because their parents see little point in schooling. “But we also see time and again parents who care very much that their children learn more than they do. They should learn to read, write and do math – everything they can’t do.”

While it used to be exclusively Roma children who had to be nurtured, today children from different groups visit the bright, colorful rooms, where they paint, do handicrafts or learn among mobiles and stuffed animals. However, the majority of the children still come from the most socially disadvantaged backgrounds. “Of course we notice that many parents would rather send their children to another kindergarten,” admits Sister Michaela almost apologetically, “but we don’t want to force anyone to send their child here.”

The baby milk packages are piled up in the hallway. Milupa, German label. You can feel the presence of the German motherhouse here in deepest Romania. Many of the donations that finance the convent come from Germany. At Christmas, shoeboxes full of gifts would arrive from Bavaria. The local sisters, mostly from Szekler, also learn German. Cooperation is nevertheless the top priority, emphasizes Sister Michaela several times, “Aid projects must always be rooted locally.” Otherwise, even the greatest commitment would be useless in the long term.

That the religious sister is pragmatic is also shown by her reason for moving to Romania: “A position became available, I applied and was accepted.” It just fell into place, much like her decision to join the order, which she made for herself as a child, quite unconsciously, as she says today. And yet, she pauses for a moment after the almost matter-of-fact review. “It’s a great gift that I was able to come here.”

A little boy throws himself at the nurse and squeezes his narrow shoulders under her arm. Lori is thirteen and has lived with the sisters since he was one year old. They had to raise the once-preemie with a bottle. His mother lived with Lori at the convent for some time, but she remarried – leaving the son with the nuns. The boy, with slanted dark almond eyes and a baggy gray Pokemon shirt, is exuberant, hyper, affectionate, scampering around and proudly displaying the contents of his nightstand. Soccer cards, toy cars, a poster of Lionel Messi, and a couple of car stickers that say Turbo. Turbo, that’s Lori, too, as he whizzes around the nuns.

Lori has found a home with the Mallersdorf sisters, as have two sisters whose mother left them with the nuns. The girls are so smart, Sister Michaela raves. And they have a role model: the eldest of the three has just finished school and wants to go to university, to study.

Text: Valerie Präkelt

Valerie was in Romania for the first time this summer with basketball and helped where she could as a coach and companion. She wrote down her impressions right after the camp. We wanted to let some time pass before we put the text on the blog, to let our own memories sink in first. Because we are sure: Everyone who was in Bögöz this time, whether for the first, second or thirtieth time, has taken a lot of impressions and memories with them – and you usually have to process them first. But of course we don’t want to deprive you of Valerie’s text. Et voilà.

In no time at all, the plane takes us to Romania, where the heat is even more oppressive than in Germany. Everything is different here – the cabs are faster, the voices louder and the traffic busier. At least in Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Two days in the “Paris of the East,” the former stronghold of dictator Ceaușescu, before it’s time for me to go to Bögöz camp. This is my first time and I am now on the train to Sibiu, where I will meet the rest of the group. Five and a half hours on the train for just 280 kilometers – five and a half hours that show what makes Romania tick: People travel together. People chat, share food (or seats), laugh, and sometimes even shout at each other. And: A seat reservation is not worth much – on your feet, lose your seat.

The cab driver who takes me from the train station to the airport in Sibiu no longer has any teeth, but still gives me a laugh as a “German”. With the group united we go then in the bus to Bögöz, off into the Szeklerland. If it weren’t for the fact that horse-drawn carts keep coming towards us at regular intervals, we could also drive through the Tolkin Shire – it’s so green. The exception: Instead of hobbit caves, there are numerous Bracht buildings along the roadside – but most of them are unfinished. Meaning: The houses are inhabited, but not finished. The plaster is missing, sometimes even the window panes. We still haven’t found out why this is so.

Irenke will cook for us the next week, clean up after us (we wish it were different) and even take care of us. As one or the other has noticed, we took turns over the week with a nasty gastrointestinal virus, which we almost affectionately christened day virus – so long he harassed each individual.

What did I hope to get out of going to Bögöz? To be honest, I didn’t think much about it beforehand, too much stress at university and at work. Being at Irenke’s farm meant complete deceleration at first. At first. Because then the camp started, 30 children who play basketball differently well, speak different languages and all need attention – and of course deserve it.

Two excursions have had a lasting effect on me: The Visit to the Roma village and the Visit to Reni’s farm.

The Roma village was a culture shock for all of us and, quite honestly, we adults threw not only the children but also ourselves into the deep end. In the village it was dirty, the majority of the inhabitants naked. Several family members always live in the huts, without running water. The villagers drink from the river (yes exactly the one whose bathing probably gave us the gastrointestinal virus). It is dusty and insanely hot. But we are welcome – although we didn’t bring any presents. A young mother lovingly shows us her baby, a pretty, still completely toothless little thing. It is a culture shock – and that in the middle of Europe. We arrived in cabs, escorted by the police. There is no bus connection to the village (more about the visit is here). After the visit, we discussed a lot. Was it right? Did we do disaster tourism? What did our visit bring to the Roma village? And above all: What has remained with our children? Have we been able to reduce prejudices or have they perhaps only increased?

You can believe us that after the visit we adults not only talked, but also argued a bit. Personally – but this is my opinion – I wish that we repeat the visit next year, but without the police and cabs, but accompanied by Tobias, a German, who has been taking teenagers to this very village for years and doing programs together. The next day we talked about the experience together with the children. I believe that the children learned not only to appreciate their own belongings, but also that there is more than one way of life and that poverty does not necessarily mean unhappiness. Because the inhabitants of the village were really not unhappy – there was singing and playing.

A special excursion was also the visit to Reni’s farm. I am still impressed that Reni and her family spend the night on the farm every night and in case of emergency they even chase away the one or other bear or wolf. Reni is one of the kids who always brought good humor to the camp. While we Germans like to whine (and in this camp, unfortunately, often do), the Szekler camp participants sometimes seem to me to be a bit more mature. There is no whining, if you fall down, you get up. But well – what is a cut against a full-grown bear.

I was impressed once again this week that children can communicate even if they don’t speak the same language. I hope that next year we will be able to deepen this bond even more and that we will be able to push the project forward in such a way that we will be able to facilitate even more joint activities between the Szekler children and our German camp participants. Since yesterday, most of us are back in Munich, and it feels like I have been away for an eternity. I’m sure I’ll miss the German-Hungarian chatter soon (I’m still enjoying the peace and quiet) and look forward to seeing everyone next year.

Lastly, a story Sandy and Katalina told me today: As you may have noticed, István, a Roma boy who lives diagonally across the street from Irenke’s guesthouse, also attended the camp. Although István is very quiet, you immediately take him to your heart. At the end of the trip, especially we caregivers fought with one or two tears, because it is just so wonderful at Irenke’s place. Not only we: Allegedly, Ida, István’s mother, also cried. Out of gratitude, because her son was allowed to participate in the camp.