In a Roma community in Romania, girls are learning to believe in themselves despite racism and poverty.

Inside the School of Courage.

On a sunny November day in Baia Mare, northwestern Romania, a group of 10 teenagers is visiting a vocational high school where students prepare to become hairdressers, nail technicians, waiters, or kitchen workers. 

Claudia Costea shushes them. She organized this field trip through her nongovernmental organization, Pirita Children, which works with young people in Pirita, one of several informal Roma settlements in Baia Mare. 

“If you finish your first eight years of education and apply to this school, you are going to learn skills, receive a scholarship, and find honest jobs for the weekends and holidays,” Costea says in the penetrating but kind voice of a former teacher. When the group says nothing, she nudges them: “Would you like that?”

Six girls and four boys nod or whisper: “Yes.”

“Great. Take a look around, ask questions. Try and think if you could see yourselves here. And you can make it happen,” Costea assures them. She also stresses that they can get a better paid job if they stay in school longer. 

But she also knows that this is something she can’t control. “All of them are already heroes for surviving in this community and waking up every day to go to school despite all the rejection and humiliation they have often received outside their settlement,” she says. 

“None of their families went to school so they have no role models. To ask them to struggle and go through high school would mean less money and food for their younger siblings.” 

Costea has known these teenagers since they were small children, when she was volunteering in their small community on the outskirts of Baia Mare. For more than 20 years she’s been working in social services, both in nongovernmental organizations and in the public sector. In 2020 she founded Pirita Children with the goal of ensuring the right to education and dignity for Roma children in a society still blind to most of their challenges. 

Life on the Margins

The community in Pirita is a prime example of social exclusion and ethnic marginalization. The first families came here in the 1990s from Targu Lapus, a town to the southeast of Baia Mare. At that time, the area between their improvised homes and the main part of Baia Mare was littered with the watered-down waste left by the region’s gold mines – hence the name of the community, Pirita, from pyrite, also known as fool’s gold. A second wave of families settled here in the 2000s, after being evicted from social housing in Baia Mare. 

Pirita lies on the outskirts of Baia Mare.

Only a few families have authorization for their homes in Pirita; the others live in constant fear of eviction, because the land on which they have built their shacks is largely private property. Without deeds or rental contracts, getting an ID and with it access to education, health, and social services has been a struggle for most of the people here. For more than 20 years, local authorities have acted as if this neighborhood didn’t exist. 

Nearly 70 families with more than 100 children live here without access to running water or electricity. Heating is improvised and fires are a constant risk. So are the rats. Adults earn a living by recycling iron, cardboard, and plastic they scavenge from the city dump, begging, or raising animals.

Pirita Children wants to make sure that every family here knows their rights and how to access them. The team – which now includes two teachers, a nurse, and a pediatrician – also tries to bring services as close to the community as possible, to get people accustomed to using them and build their trust in the public system. They offer a range of resources at Pirita, including an educational center, community showers, a medical office for young mothers and newborns, and an after-school club that provides meals for the settlement’s children. 

Over the years, it became clear that intervention needed to start early, especially for young women and girls. Romania ranks first in the European Union for the number of births to girls under the age of 15, and there are currently more than 16,000 registered underage mothers. These children often drop out of school early because of shame, social exclusion, or lack of support. Romania has the third-highest school dropout rate in Europe; in 2021, more than 15 percent of young Romanians aged 18 to 24 had completed only eight grades or less.

In the past year, Pirita Children has placed a special emphasis on services for girls. As part of those efforts, in a portable cabin at the entrance to the settlement, by the banks of the Sasar River and the railroad separating Pirita from the rest of Baia Mare, it hosts the “School of Courage”: a safe place for girls from the community to spend time together, learn about reproductive and menstrual health, or simply relax. 

A Room of Their Own

Pirita’s girls need an oasis because they are its most vulnerable inhabitants. They are the last to eat and the first to be sent out to carry water or fill gas canisters, the ones expected to take care of their siblings, and the ones who are married off early to make room for younger children. Many witness violence and learn from a young age that girls and women get hit. Living in crowded shacks, they have few places to sit quietly with their own thoughts. 

“We want the community to understand in time that the girls’ intimacy is important,” Costea explains. “That they should not be the last to eat the crumbs left by the rest of the family. That they deserve respect. And in this new safe space, nobody can deny them these basic rights.”

Girls as young as six come to learn and play.

The white cabin hosting the School of Courage sits on top of another where younger children have lunch, use computers, or play with puzzles. When the girls climb the white metal stairs to the place reserved for them, they can no longer see their shacks, scattered across the muddy field. Instead they pass pots of flowers placed on each step. Inside, they have a small kitchen, a dining table, sofas, a TV, books, pamphlets, and baskets of fresh fruit.

“They really see this space as their own,” says Costea. “They take great care of it, keep it clean, and personalize it.”

The girls helped decorate the space. On the walls they have pinned portraits of brave women from around the world, alongside photos of themselves from birthday parties and activities they shared here. They covered cushions in fabrics with traditional Romani designs. 

They also have mirrors, nail polish, hair brushes, and hair bands to give each other makeovers from time to time. They practice cooking their favorite foods and learn basic sewing skills to customize their clothes. Pirita Children provides a steady supply of menstrual hygiene products, shampoo, deodorants, toothpaste, and toothbrushes.

Forty-two girls between the ages of 6 and 18 take part in the program. “Here they can watch TV or search for information on the internet. We have colleagues from public institutions and volunteers who come and help with emotional support or health education,” Costea says.

The girls are entrusted with the keys to the cabin when no activities are scheduled and the social workers and volunteers are out in Pirita visiting clients. This enables them to lock the door, making sure no one bothers them when they study, watch clips on the internet and practice new dance moves, or when they laugh out loud at cartoons. 

“We have lunch together, we play and we relax. I am happy with my friends here,” says 14-year-old Maricica. At home, she adds, “my mood goes down. But here I am happy with my girls.” 

Having the keys to their space is also proof of reciprocal trust: the girls are not guests of the School of Courage, they are responsible for it, and have the power to close the door if they like.

Women and girls of Pirita with Claudia Costea.

Freedom to Ask Questions

Reproductive and menstrual health is an important part of the School of Courage’s mission to empower girls to make their own informed decisions. Cornelia Butcovan, the nurse who works with young mothers in the community, now holds weekly talks there about what happens to a woman’s body throughout her development. 

“I have great respect for all the children in the community and their mothers,” she says. “They lack a lot of basic things we take for granted, but children here definitely do not lack love. … Most of the mothers I am in touch with in the medical office also have teenage daughters and they lack the time and knowledge to talk to them about reproductive health and contraception. Many others are teen or very young mothers. I am glad the girls are eager to learn more about their bodies and they have a safe space where they can ask questions.”

Many of their questions concern menstruating, the nurse explains. “This is a taboo topic in the community. They hide menstruation from everybody. They only have themselves, as a group of girls, to talk about things they are curious about.”

Butcovan says that some of the girls recently came across a YouTube channel run by a feminist Roma organization, E-Romnja, which provides content about reproductive health in the Romani language. “It is super useful to have this in their native language, much easier to follow and understand,” she says. “The videos helped them open up to us and to trust that they can say and ask anything and no one will judge them.” 

The girls had all kinds of questions: how do you know it’s the right time to have children? What do you do when you’re pregnant? How do you prevent it? As a result of these conversations, Butcovan says, some of them have told her they plan to start using contraception. Pirita Children and the local authorities are now working together to try and provide options for these young women.

Daring to Expect More

All the work that Pirita Children has done throughout the years – installing showers, distributing hygiene products and clothes – has contributed to something clearly visible in the School of Courage: “Self-image matters to them,” says Costea. “That is progress. They care how they are perceived. They don’t want to show up unkempt at school. They want to be treated well, to be praised. They expect nice words because they’ve been receiving them here.”

Melania Medeleanu is president of the Zi de Bine Association, a community fundraising organization that ran a funding campaign for the School of Courage. Over the years she has seen many poor communities in Romania, she says, but on entering Pirita she was overwhelmed. “I didn’t believe such places existed. … I can’t even begin to imagine how much courage it takes to dare to hope that you’ll get out of there.”

She commends Pirita Children for “working to raise their self-esteem to help them imagine a better future.”

Costea notices the impact of the organization’s work in small changes in the girls – like the way they recently asked to go on more field trips outside the settlement, to hike in the mountains or swim in the local pool. “They really feel the need to see more around them and have a taste of life outside of the community,” she says. “Relaxation and self-care have become important values for them.”

Sometimes self-care takes courage. In the winter of 2022, a 14-year-old girl from Pirita was told she had to get married. Her parents took her to another village and left her at the would-be husband’s house. She didn’t know how to get back home, but she had no intention of staying. She ran away and called Costea for help, describing her surroundings.

Authorities were alerted and police returned the girl to her parents. They talked to the family about the consequences of their actions, warning them that they could be imprisoned for forcing her into marriage. Her family has stopped their pressure, at least for now. Word gets around fast in Pirita, so other families with daughters are also aware of the intervention. 

“This is what our safe space has led to,” Costea believes. “Actual courage, because this was a critical situation and she knew she could trust us and that we wouldn’t let anything happen to her.”

Limits on Choices

Marinela Rata Panaite, director of Dream Project, an association which organizes support groups for underaged mothers, says that a project like the School of Courage can have real grassroots effects on mentalities and self-esteem. “This project will definitely have an impact in the lives of these girls,” she says. 

But she also cautions that you can’t apply a single solution to a problem as complex as underaged motherhood, which is deeply rooted in transgenerational poverty. 

“I see girls in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, saying, ‘I got married because I was starving at home,’ ” Panaite explains. Providing health and reproductive education is useful, of course, but a marginalized community needs multiple specialized services to fight systemic poverty. And most importantly, Panaite believes, the reality of the girls’ lives needs to be acknowledged. 

“We don’t actually know what it is like to be kicked out of your parents’ house and forced to marry somebody because they can’t care and provide for you any longer,” she says of herself and other volunteers. “We don’t know what it is like to not have a choice.” 

‘You Could Be in Their Place’

Back at the high school, Costea points to the students absorbed in practicing manicures and pedicures and tells the visiting children, “You could be in their place.”

As they walk down the long corridors and peek into the classrooms, the middle-schoolers from Pirita are focusing on their feet, trying not to draw attention to themselves. But the girls’ eyes sparkle when they enter the hairdressing lab, where a student is combing and dying extensions in neon colors. The teacher is young and friendly, the pupils seem relaxed. 

The group from Pirita observes a hairdressing lesson.

“I thought it was beautiful,” Maricica said afterwards. She dreams of finishing her education and having a house. Last year she was selected to take part in UNICEF’s Romanian Children’s Board.

“They were so beautiful and nice,” she says of the high-school students. “I saw girls from Craica too!”

In other words, Maricica saw a few Roma girls from a different community in Baia Mare. She seemed amazed that they were going to high school. It made it feel less impossible than before.

Ana Maria Ciobanu is a reporter in Bucharest who writes about social equity. In 2022 she launched a narrative podcast about the memory of Roma slavery, produced by DoR. 

All photos by Mircea Restea.