After a long day of de-cluttering my bedroom, I looked pleasantly at the perfectly clear white dresser… and then painfully at the eyesore in the corner- the shoes.
This cheap shoe rack had the fake appearance of a light maple wood- it was actually made of a cheap particle board- and matched absolutely nothing in our shabby chic black and white bedroom. This monstrosity took up a ridiculous amount of space, causing the rest of the room to feel unbalanced, but worst of all… it didn’t even hold the shoes we wear regularly! Those, our every day shoes, lay messily in a pile in front of the shoe rack. Of the 28 pairs of shoes in the shoe rack, perhaps only 4 had been worn in the last year.
The shoe rack had to go. Intent on dragging the rack out to the front porch to be given away, I dumped out all of the shoes and began to sort them into piles- trash, donate, or keep. As I came across a pair of transparent, hot pink, plastic mules, a cross between Crocs and jelly shoes, I wondered, Gosh, what was I thinking when I bought these?
But I didn’t wonder why I had kept them so long. They were from Romania.
The shoes were purchased in 2002, in a tiny boutique in Transylvania, during a last minute shopping trip for souvenirs on the day before we left. My friends and I had spent the past two weeks living and serving at a camp for Romanian orphans, located in the Pădurea Neagră, or Black Forest.
Although the forest itself was beautiful, lush with abundant greenery and winding creeks, the name “Black Forest” felt fitting for the deep sorrow I felt upon leaving the camp; however, the delightful orphan children who attended the camp probably found the name “Black Forest” rather ironic, since their one week at camp was the brightest week of each year, rich with happy memories.
I had traveled to Romania with a team of college students to run a camp for children from a local orphanage in Popesti. My friends and I had planned our weeks of camp carefully. We’d worked for months to plan games, activities, skits, and songs that would cross the language barrier and the cultural divide and bring joy to these children. We’d packed suitcases and duffel bags full of craft supplies, sports equipment… and shoes.
In our preparation for the camp, we had been in contact with the foundation that coordinated the camp, and we had asked if there was anything we could bring to the children.
Many of the children did not have proper footwear, which could be very painful in the cold Romanian winters. So we gathered shoes in a variety of children’s sizes. We committed to pack light to have enough room in our luggage for all the shoes we had gathered, and we flew across the world, eager to give away the shoes to the children.
On the first day of camp, there were butterflies in my stomach as I sat on the cold steps of the plain, large, two-story building that would house both the children and us for the week of camp. The dull beige paint stood in stark contrast to the thick, dark green trees that enveloped the camp. As the blue and red vans wove up the dirt road to the camp, I smiled and stood alongside my teammates, eager to meet the children we had prepared to love this week.
When the van doors slid open and the children jumped out, it was instantly clear that these were not normal children. Normal children take time to adjust to new people, but not these children. These children ran up to us, jumping into our arms, wanting hugs and attention. Many children wore uniforms, hideous multi-colored button up linen shirts and shorts, which hung limply on their bodies. Some of the more fortunate (or probably tougher) children had clothes of their own, mostly t-shirts and sweats.
True to what we had been told, their shoes were in need of replacing. Most wore the uniform shoes- thin, black vinyl, worn ragged with constant use. Some had white Adidas sneakers, the most popular shoes in Romania, so popular, in fact, that the word most of the children used for all shoes was “adidas” (pronounced “Ah-dee-dash”). Even many of the Adidas shoes were worn down in the heels and soles. These sweet, bright-eyed children deserved better.
The first afternoon, a couple of our girls worked out a system for distributing the shoes, while the rest of us started off the first day with a game some of the guys had devised- a makeshift slip and slide. My sense of logic and my training as a lifeguard told me that painters plastic, dish soap, and water sounded like a recipe for an injury, but all was quickly forgotten as I had the time of my life sliding on my belly, soaking wet, giggling alongside the children. The language barrier was less of an obstacle than I had imagined it would be. I guess I had forgotten that all children laugh in the same language.
They all cry in the same language too.
We had given out the shoes. We had watched the children rejoice and show their shoes off to one another. We had watched them tuck their old shoes away in their bags. We’d been thanked, “Multumesc!” And we’d felt that inner sense of fulfillment from giving to others... until we’d found out why the orphans have so little in the first place. In our American arrogance, we hadn’t considered the consequences of bestowing gifts upon these children, even just shoes. In our youthfulness, having been raised in California in the 1980s and 1990s, we could not comprehend that societies still existed where outright bigotry unapologetically reared its ugly head.
That evening, my friend Nicole and I stumbled upon a beautiful little blonde girl, Csilla (prounounced Chee-luh), crying in the hallway. The name Csilla means “bright light,” and this little girl became my bright light in the black forest, with her glowing eyes, her cozy hugs, and her contagious smile, but on this night, I got to know Csilla as we dried her tears and tried to understand what was wrong. She had changed back into her old, worn out Adidas, and we eventually figured out that her new shoes were gone. Through a translator, we discovered that a worker from the orphanage had taken the shoes. We could not understand why an adult would take away a child’s shoes. The translator, a caring Romanian teenager, seemed to somehow understand, but helped us confront the worker anyway. The worker explained, matter-of-factly, that Csilla’s shoes would fit her daughter, so she had taken them. I stood there, speechless, unable to find words to respond. Nicole, who had helped coordinate the shoe distribution, asked the woman, “Will you return Csilla’s shoes if we give your daughter some shoes?”
The woman had no intention of returning the shoes, and the irony of her explanation never left me. I sense the translator attempted to soften the tone, but indignation is clear in any language. “Because,” she scoffed, “I already gave them to my daughter. She’d be disappointed if I took them away!” Clearly, Csilla’s disappointment didn’t bother her.
We realized we should have given the workers’ children shoes in the first place. We had not realized that these workers were not paid well and often envied the charity bestowed upon the children. Sadly, we had also not realized that an intense bigotry exists in Romania. The orphan children are of Romani gypsy descent. The Romanian people hate gypsies. The gypsy people are second-class citizens, and being orphans makes these children even lower. As gypsies, and orphans, they had no rights and no one to protect them, and stealing from these children was not considered a wrongdoing. We later learned that a hierarchy existed within the orphans as well. The stronger children stole from the weaker ones, and only those willing to fight for their possessions got to keep them.
Nicole and I helped Csilla pick out replacement shoes and made sure all of the other workers had a chance to grab shoes if they wanted them, and then we retreated to the privacy of our bedroom, where we burst into tears together.
As the week went on, Csilla and the others stopped wearing their uniform shirts and began happily wearing the shirts they had tie-dyed at camp. We spent the mornings playing games and doing crafts. In the hot, humid afternoons, we had free time, where we lounged around in the shade, played soccer or basketball, or took groups of kids to wade in a nearby creek. Csilla must have been a tough little girl, because she was one of the few with a bathing suit of her own.
In the evenings, we sang songs together and taught a Bible lesson. During these times, Csilla would often climb into my lap and nuzzle her way into my arms. I had never been the type of young girl who babysat or proclaimed my love for kids, although I imagined I would have my own someday. While other girls at church volunteered in the nursery and let the kids climb all over them, I happily steered clear, but when Csilla or little Florin climbed into lap, I felt so perfectly warm and fuzzy, as if I could stay like that forever, like everything was right with the world. Now, as a parent, I recognize that feeling as the same warmth I feel when my own children climb under the covers in the morning to cuddle with me.
Although I had only known her a week, Csilla felt like mine. I loved her so dearly, and it hurt so much to think that she had no mother or father to go home to each day, to hug her and love her with that powerful unconditional love of a parent. Everything in my soul wanted to drag her home with me. On the last day of camp, she pointed to my engagement ring and asked, “Ai un sot?”
I had an idea what she was asking, but I looked at the translator who confirmed, “She wants to know if you have a husband.” I told her I would soon.
Usually, the translators quickly translated the questions the children asked us, but this time, the translator responded sharply, directly to Csilla, without translating to me, but Csilla insisted she ask me. The translator looked sad as she gave in and said, “Csilla says, ‘Will you come back and get me when you are married?’”
I cried as I held her close and whispered, “I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t.” She didn’t need it translated, but she held me close and cried on my shoulder. As much as I wanted to bring her home, the government would never let me. Romanian adoption had been closed to foreigners for some years.
Then Csilla did something that forever changed my perspective on love. She reached into her hair and unsnapped a little metal clip. It was red, chipped in some places. I hadn’t even noticed it in her hair that week, but she probably wore it daily. She handed it to me. “Keep it. Please don’t forget me,” she said.
I’ve kept my promise. I have never forgotten her. I have remembered all of those children. Ten years later, as I moved about my room, de-cluttering and simplifying, I opened my jewelry box and went about trashing crooked bobby pins and broken costume jewelry. I spotted the little red hair clip. I quickly scooped it up and put it in my bedside drawer, where I would see it every day and think about Csilla.
I think about my pile of unused shoes. Many are covered in dust from years of sitting in the shoe rack. As I stack the “keep” pile on a shelf in my wardrobe, I gaze at the variety of shoe choices- my tall black boots for cold days, my black leather sandals for warm ones, my soft brown TOMS, my purple Converse All Stars, my sturdy brown hiking boots. Romania probably still has orphanages full of little children whose shoes are falling apart.