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How has life improved for children after the fall of the Iron Curtain?

Vulnerable children in Romania and Bulgaria no longer have to endure terrible conditions in orphanages
Vulnerable children in Romania and Bulgaria no longer have to endure terrible conditions in orphanages

Before 1989, life was tough for orphaned and abandoned children in Eastern Europe. Conditions in orphanages were often shocking, and only began to change after the fall of the Iron Curtain. 25 years on, we look at how many vulnerable children in Romania and Bulgaria now enjoy a happy childhood in SOS Children's Villages.

After 1945, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe formed an alliance, and closed off from the West. In the East, the ideal society was built on communist values, while in the West capitalism reigned supreme. The Iron Curtain refers to this ideological divide as well as the physical barriers between the two regions.

In the 1980s, this division began to be contested by Eastern Bloc countries, and by 1989 the Iron Curtain had fallen – epitomised by the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. Eastern European countries became independent and democratic, and their borders and economies opened up. For many, it was a welcome change which helped to bring prosperity.

“No one cared for you, no one protected you”

Upon this stage of world events is a lesser-known story of how these changes affected children. While the Iron Curtain was still up, orphanages in countries such as Romania and Bulgaria could be traumatic places. Overcrowded, inhumane and often abusive, children in these institutions experienced a cruel childhood.

Bulgaria Orphanage. Photos by Dr Rossen Kolarov
Inside a Bulgarian orphanage in 1988. Photo by Dr.
Rossen Kolarov, who helped to found the first
SOS Children's Village in Bulgaria in 1990.

Fanel was abandoned in a Romanian orphanage in the 1970s when he was just an infant. He recalls the terrible conditions:

“I have no good memories from the orphanage. We were many, perhaps 300 children. We never had enough food. Children were always fighting. At any point in time, you could only count on the fact that you have nothing and you're worth nothing. No one cared for you, no one protected you.”

Children abandoned in orphanages

The orphanages in Romania were one symptom of the totalitarian regime of Nicole Ceausescu, which ended in 1989. Anca, an SOS social worker in Romania today, explains why so many children were abandoned in orphanages while Ceausescu was in power:

“In the sixties, Ceausescu banned contraception and abortion in order to rapidly increase the population. Food was scarce. People queued for hours for flour, sugar and oil. Many parents, unable to feed and care for their children, began leaving them in orphanages. This was so common, that it became socially acceptable.”

Across the border in Bulgaria, children in orphanages grew up in similarly neglectful conditions. In 1988, Dr Rossen Kolarov visited an orphanage in the country:

“I was shocked with what I saw. The children had few clothes, the bedrooms were stacked, the bathrooms filthy. The children were in bad health, the caretakers indifferent to their needs. Still, many children stayed even after 18 because their other option was the street. They had no one.”

A new model of care

Dr Kolarov was so shocked by the appalling conditions of the orphanage that he decided a caring alternative must be created. After learning about family-based care in SOS Children's Villages, Dr Kolarov helped found the first Children's Village in Bulgaria in 1990. “We knew we were starting something great; something that will change children's lives and will shape the care of parentless children for good,” he says.

SOS child Bulgaria
Today, SOS Children's Villages offer a caring family environment
for vulnerable children growing up in Eastern Europe

Since that ambitious beginning, SOS Children in Bulgaria has grown and is now considered “a synonym for quality care in the eyes of the public”. There are now three SOS Children's Villages in the country, as well family strengthening programmes and a nursery.

A real childhood for the first time

Plamen was one of the children who moved into the newly built SOS Children's Village Trjavna in Bulgaria. For eight years, he had grown up in an orphanage in Dren. Life in the Children's Village was full of firsts for Plamen. It was the first time he could call someone mum – in the orphanage all staff had to be called “miss”. It was the first time he shared a room with just one child rather than twenty, and the first time he learned what it's like to be loved: “I had no idea how a real childhood should be like until 1993 when I came to live with my (SOS) mum.”

Silviya Lulcheva, actress and ambassador of SOS Children's Villages Bulgaria, often says: “In orphanages, children want you to take them. In SOS Children's Villages, children want you to stay.” Plamen often uses this quote when telling people how he felt about his home in SOS Children's Village Trjavna. “Whenever a new person would come, no matter the reason, we wanted him or her to stay and share the love and happiness we found in our SOS Children's Village.”

The challenges of caring for traumatised children

There are many happy stories in Romania too, where the first SOS Children's Village opened in 1993. There are now three Villages across the country. For some children, the transition from a cruel orphanage to a caring SOS family was difficult. It often took time for them to develop trust and realise that they were safe and secure in their new home. Many had fears of abandonment due to their troubled pasts. Through specialised support and the loving care of an SOS Mother, these children soon began to flourish.

Iulia, who became an SOS Mother in Romania in 1993, describes her experience in SOS Children's Village Bucharest:

Co-worker and child playing in CV Romania
"Life here doesn't compare with the orphanages", says
Fanel, who grew up in a Romanian orphanage and now
works at SOS Children's Village Hameiusi
“I've raised 16 children and lived a thousand lives with them. Through their stories, every day I learn to be a better person. I've learned that you need time to step inside children's traumas, to make children feel safe and secure. The most difficult part is to gain children's trust. Only long-term relations with a parent can instil trust with a child. Only then they can speak what's in their heart and find emotional balance.”

Beautiful new home

Remember Fanel who was abandoned in a Romanian orphanage as an infant? He's now 38 years old, and the housekeeper at SOS Children's Village Hemeiusi, Romania. He loves his job and can relate to the children there – many who have come from orphanages. 

“One boy, Catalin, was six when he arrived at the Village. He had suffered a great deal of abuse. He cried and punched walls. For a long time he talked only to me. He started calling me tati Fanel (papa Fanel). I told him now he has someone who loves him. He has a home, a mum, a family. I asked him to give his new life a chance. He's an adult now, studies and lives in the youth home. He still calls me tati Fanel. I'm very proud of that.
“The life children get here, in the SOS Children's Village, doesn't compare with the orphanages. I don't wallow over why I didn't have this chance. I'm happy that even in my job, I can still help children accept the Village as their new beautiful home, because indeed it is. I know the difference.”

Better care for orphaned and abandoned children across the region

As well as Romania and Bulgaria, there are SOS Children's Villages in many other countries in Eastern Europe. These include:

  • Czech Republic, where the first Children's Village in the country opened in Doubí in 1970. There are now three Children's Villages in Czech Republic, offering a sanctuary and a new home for children with no-one else.
  • Poland, where in 1983 our first Children's Village opened in Bilgoraj, near Lublín.
  • Hungary, where we opened a Children's Village in Battonya in 1986, with two more built soon afterwards. 
  • Estonia, which became independent from the Soviet Union in 1990, and the following year we opened our first Children's Village in the country. 
  • Russia, where our first Children's Village was opened in 1996. Today there are six Villages in the country.

25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, orphaned children in Eastern Europe can now hope for a caring family home in an SOS Children's Village. Each child in our care is supported by child sponsors. Will you sponsor a child in Eastern Europe today?