04 December 2017

A remarkable young man


No one cared for Ionut as a child but he travelled the world to care for others. 

Ionut is a remarkable young man. He grew up in the Romanian orphanage system, where he suffered a terrible childhood. Since leaving institutional care, he has harnessed his resilience, empathy and compassion to ease the suffering of others through volunteering. Today, on UN International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development, we would like to share Ionut’s story with you. Watch the video or read his story below:

Warm, friendly and softly spoken, there’s nothing about Ionut Ursu today that would make you suspect how tough his life has been.   

Ionut spent his childhood in Romania’s notorious orphanage system, emotionally neglected and physically abused. Now in his mid-twenties, his life is dedicated to taking care of other people. He’s a qualified first aider and a volunteer paramedic for a charity in Bucharest. He hopes to train as a nurse and, one day, as a doctor. In April 2015, Ionut’s determination to help others took him to the other side of the world, to care for people injured in a massive natural disaster.   

These would be impressive achievements for a young man with a supportive family behind him but but they are especially remarkable given that Ionut’s own start in life was so bleak. His mother abandoned him in hospital when he was 5 days old. He doesn’t know why. All he knows for sure about his family is that his biological father is dead, nothing more than that.  

With no one to care for him, Ionut began his journey through Romania’s harsh and loveless children’s institutions. Some of the orphanages housed as many as 500 children at a time, ranging in age from babies to young adults. All, like Ionut, were denied the individual love and attention they so badly needed.     

One of Ionut’s clearest memories is being taken from the baby institution to the main orphanage.   

“All the staff were in white and they all carried long sticks. I remember thinking they looked like shepherds and we were like the sheep, just animals,” he says.  

Ionut soon learned what those sticks were for. Staff would use them to record the children’s supposed misdemeanours. When the tally on the stick reached a certain level, the stick would then be used to beat the child in question.  

“My darkest memories are when I was very young. Before I was 11 I cried all the time and wet myself a lot because I was so scared and unhappy. The staff would get angry and take me to the bathroom and wash me with very hot water and the floor mop,” he says. 

As Ionut grew older, he remembers climbing out of the windows of the institution to go to the local market with his friends to earn money by doing odd jobs.   

“If felt like we had some freedom then and we could buy food and sweets to share with the younger children,” he explains.  

“There were four of us who would stand up to the staff and try to protect the younger children – especially those with HiV. We shared our food with them and demanded that they got their fair share because often there wasn’t enough and the young and the sick children went without. We got beaten for speaking out.”  

Ionut himself was wrongly diagnosed with HiV so that the institution could claim more money for his care. He spent years believing he was going to die.  

Inevitably he finds it very painful to remember those times. “I could work with an army of psychologists and it wouldn’t erase these memories from my mind,” he says. 

“After one beating I wanted to throw myself off a bridge and another time I thought about jumping in front of a train but I realised that there were other children who were suffering even more than I was and that this was not a solution to the problem.”  

“The only good thing I learned in the institution,” he says, “Is how to defend people who can’t defend themselves.”  

Ionut’s drive to help others means his life today has structure and a sense of purpose that’s rare in young people who’ve grown up in orphanages.  

“It’s hard now when I run into people I knew in the institution, living on the streets, taking drugs, even ending up in prison. It’s because they grew up without any access to the outside world and then at 18, they are told they have to go and they have to live in a world they don’t understand – like living in the wilderness and then being sent back to civilisation with no skills to cope.” 

The neglect and abuse experienced by children who grow up in institutions  causes lasting damage. When they leave, with no one to support them, these young people often struggle to make their way in the adult world.   

This is why the help that Hope and Homes for Children in Romania offers to young care leavers is so crucial. When Ionut left his final institution and moved to Bucharest as a student, we helped him with living costs, course fees and equipment.  Perhaps even most importantly, for a young man with no family of his own, our staff were able to give Ionut practical advice and emotional support.   

“Hope and Homes for Children feel like family to me. I can talk to the social workers about my life, my work and my studies. We are friends and they have become part of my world.”  

In 2014, Ionut’s determination to care for other people took him on an extraordinary journey. He was so moved by the plight of people in Nepal, injured and destitute as a result of the massive earthquake there, that he decided to fly out to Kathmandu to help with the relief effort. He sold his only valuable possession, his laptop and his phone, to buy medical equipment and a plane ticket. #VolunteersActFirst

“As soon as we landed, we were surrounded by injured children everywhere pleading for help,” he remembers. “Children who had lost their families, families who had lost their children – the need was so great.”  

It was very difficult to reach the wounded as the earthquake had destroyed the roads. At one point, Ionut joined a group of aid workers who trekked for six hours with heavy packs of medical supplies to reach the wounded in a remote village. He stayed there for a week, helping to triage injured people and then travelled back to Kathmandu and spent a further 22 days, helping surgeons who were operating on brain and spinal injuries. 

“They worked from 6 in the morning until 8 or 10 at night and I witnessed some very traumatic scenes. It was truly a life or death situation all the time,” he remembers. 

Even in Nepal, Ionut was determined to show his support for Hope and Homes for Children.  

“I took my Hope and Homes for Children t-shirt because it’s colourful and I thought the children would like it. Wherever I go in the world, whatever happens to me, I will continue to carry Hope and Homes for Children in my heart. Because of what you do for children who went through what I went through, I will never stop supporting you. I will always raise my hand and tell people about Hope and Homes for Children because we need every voice we can get to carry our message across, that children need families, not institutions.” 

We are enormously grateful to all our amazing volunteers who help us with fundraising, administration and raising awareness for Hope and Homes for Children. As an organisation however, we do not support volunteers working in children’s institutions. This blog by  our Director of Programmes and Advocacy, Dr Delia Pop, outlines the reasons for our stand against “voluntourism” in orphanages: It’s good to volunteer, but not in orphanages

Every pound you donate to Hope and Homes for Children before 27th December 2017, will be doubled by the UK Government as part of our End the Silence campaign. These matching funds will be used to help thousands of children in Rwanda and Uganda to leave silent orphanages and grow up with the love and protection of a family. Please go to www.endthesilence.com and donate today.