Imagine what it’s like traveling in a dilapidated Volkswagen van on the outskirts of Bucharest, Romania. The run-down automobile is being driven by the owner of a local orphanage. After thirty minutes, you pull up at the site of an abandoned factory, when the driver informs you that we have arrived at our destination. You are told that this is the site of the “Gypsy Village” that you will be working in. With the rugged environment and harsh circumstances, you start to wonder exactly what you were thinking when you signed on for this volunteer experience…
Strangely enough, this is precisely what happened to me one summer in high school. It wasn’t until after this experience that I realized the true purpose of the trip. My mother grew up in Romania during the Ceausescu regime. She experienced all of the eastern bloc poverty (including food and fuel rations for fourteen years) and none of the “proletariat glory” that communism had promised. My father was raised in a modest household in Hammond, Indiana, where his father worked two jobs, one as a bus driver, to support seven children. Because of the adversity my parents experienced, they highly value education, hard work, and humility. They have spent their lives living out these virtues and, for the majority of my life, have worked to impart to me a deep understanding of the importance of humanitarian values and education.
The van drives a little bit further and arrives in front of a primitive cement structure that measures approximately seventy square feet. The driver gets out of the van, calls out in Romanian, and a family with six ruddy-cheeked children emerges from the shack. The children smile and hold my hand right away. Even though I don’t speak the language, they ask me questions and want to play. One boy in particular stands out to me, with his bright blue eyes and broad smile; his name is Marius, and the owner of the orphanage tells me that he has severe epilepsy, and that there is no doctor or clinic that will provide him with medical care. This news came as a shock to my system, and hit me very hard. Surely there must be some organization – WorldVision, Doctors without Borders, Unicef- that would be willing to offer some sort of support. According to the owner, there is none.
As that situation weighed on my mind, I spent my days at the orphanage cooking, cleaning, and assisting a group of sixty or so Burmese refugees who had arrived earlier that month. When I returned to the United States, Marius’ story stuck with me. For as long as I can remember, my parents have been telling me that I have an obligation to help other people, and to leave the world better than I found it. After my trip to Romania, I understand this message quite clearly, as I have decided to orient my life around accomplishing this goal. I am now studying to be a doctor so that I can work in impoverished areas and find ways to extend human dignity and respect through education and healthcare. By participating in programs like the International Humanitarian Law Action Campaign through the American Red Cross, I am hoping to accomplish this same mission in my own community, so as not to exclude any individual from the same life-altering experiences that led me to believe so strongly in the value of a humanitarian education.
Author: Maria Monberg, Youth Volunteer, American Red Cross
*This story was submitted for the Humanitarian Education Storytelling Campaign launched by the American Red Cross and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.