Romanian orphanage survivor and Hope and Homes for Children Global Ambassador Alexandra Smart spoke to BBC Radio 4’s The Reunion programme this week, for an episode which marked 31 years since news reports about Romania’s inhumane orphanages first shook the world. During her interview with presenter Kirsty Wark, Alexandra reflected on the first three years of her life locked up in an orphanage. The programme was also an opportunity for her to reflect on the staggering progress made in Romania since 1990, and how the country is now on the cusp becoming orphanage-free. Here Alexandra talks about her remarkable journey, and why she won’t rest until every orphanage on Earth is shut.
Alexandra Smart is 33; a talented professional filmmaker; and lives happily in the idyllic Somerset countryside with her beloved pet Dachshund Odie. What you wouldn’t guess about Alexandra, is that she spent the first three years of her childhood warehoused in a grim Romanian orphanage. Her experience inside Bucharest’s notorious “Number 1” orphanage was beyond horrific. Distressed, ignored, rocking side to side in her metal cot – the first three years of her childhood were misery.
“My biological mother was just a teenager who lived at home with her parents when she had me in 1987, and Romania was a closed Communist state which was economically on its knees.
“With no support, she had little option but to place me in the orphanage next door to the hospital.”
When the former Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu came to power in 1965, he promoted population growth to boost the economy. Abortion was outlawed for women under the age of 40, and as a consequence the birth rate soon rocketed. Despite fertility being an instrument of state control, levels of poverty worsened, and large numbers of children were placed into a growing network of orphanages.
The conditions were shocking. Rooms rammed with urine and vomit stained metal cots. Children tied to the metal bars. No heating. Few staff. And zero hope.
“I was very young when I lived in the orphanage, and subconsciously I blocked out any memories,” admits Alexandra.
When Ceausescu was overthrown and executed on Christmas Day, 1989, Romania was in political and economic turmoil. After decades of tight media control, Western journalists re-entered the country. And it wasn’t long before they discovered Romania’s hidden network of harmful children’s institutions.
The world was shocked, and foreign aid soon flooded into the country to help the children trapped in orphanages. Some institutions were renovated, so the children could remain living there. Meanwhile, thousands of other children were put up for adoption. This included 700 children, like Alexandra, who moved to Britain with new adoptive parents.
Under its fledging democratic political system, Romania soon realised that even the most well-equipped orphanage couldn’t give a child with what it really needed to thrive – the love of a family. So by the mid 1990s the focus changed to closing orphanages and moving children back into families. And by 2001, a suspension on international adoption meant all children living in orphanages had the opportunity to be reunited with their birth families, in their native country.
“When I was three-years-old, Romania was in chaos, and it was a state of emergency for children like me, locked up in the orphanages,” says Alexandra.
“At the time people didn’t realise that 80 per cent of children living in orphanages weren’t actually orphans and had living families. Many could have been reunited with their families, given the right support and infrastructure.
“But at the time international adoption was seen as one of the only solutions.
“Like many of the people travelling to Romania at that time, my adoptive parents were shocked by the conditions they witnessed in my orphanage.
“My mother remembers how there was virtually no heating and how we were washed with cold water. My body was covered in thin hairs, which I’d developed to combat the cold.”
After moving to England, the damage of the orphanage slowly began to show in Alexandra’s day-to-day behaviour.
“My mother recalls me falling off of my swing in the garden with a big bang, but I didn’t cry. Until then, crying wasn’t a learnt behaviour for pain or distress. This is a common trait for many babies who grow up in orphanages. When they cry, nobody comforts them, so they learn to not cry.
“Not long after I came to England our Romanian friends visited and spoke Romanian to me, but it subconsciously brought back distressing memories and I smacked my head on our stone floor to stop them talking. My parents quickly learnt the familiarity of my birth tongue was too painful for me to hear.
“My mum also remembers taking me on a walk around a lake when I was four-years-old, but because I’d never seen a body of water before, I attempted to walk straight over the lake. The only water I’d seen before was out of a tap or hose.”
Alexandra went on to live a happy childhood in Wiltshire. And in 2002 she travelled back to Romania and made contact with her biological mother.
“It was an intensively emotional, and incredible experience to meet her,” recalls Alexandra. “I’ve been back a number of times since, including for a university film project, where I followed my adoption diary. This included visiting my old orphanage and meeting my grandparents.”
Today, Alexandra leads what she describes as a very lucky life. She says: “Some of the Romanian children who were adopted overseas were less fortunate than me. In the absence of transparent checks it wasn’t in their best interest, and it exposed some kids to further neglect.
“I was lucky to survive the orphanage, and to be given such amazing new adoptive parents.
“During the last year, the global pandemic has given us all time to reflect on the things and people that matter most to us. I’ve gone back over my own story, and its reinforced just how important family is.
“It’s also made me more passionate than ever to support Hope and Homes for Children and its global movement to shut every last orphanage on Earth.”
When Alexandra left her institution in 1990 there were more than 100,000 children locked up in 600 Romanian orphanages. Today, just 3,700 children remain in 134 institutions.
Alexandra said: “Romania is so close to shutting its last orphanage, and that’s so inspiring, considering the situation it was in only three decades ago.
“But I find it shocking that 31 years on from when I left my orphanage, there’s still 5.4 million children locked up in orphanages elsewhere around the world. In the 21st century, orphanages are not a solution.
“I was lucky enough to be adopted into a loving family, but today, more needs to be done to prevent children entering orphanages in the first place.
“Vulnerable families must be supported to stay together. And children in institutional care must be reintegrated with their birth families, or found new loving foster families in their local community.
“Because as I know only too well, children need families – never orphanages.”