The X-ray of a dying town: Bălan

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In a world of constant motion, there are still places where time and evolution belong to a different dimension. The decreasing population in the town of Bălan (Harghita County) has no helping hand or even some helpful thoughts when it comes to marching alone through emigration, towards future.

Only children, a small number of grandparents and not enough parents make up today the population of Bălan, a town near Harghita Mountains, that is considered unique in Europe for being a main protection centre dedicated to the brown bear. In an otherwise natural and healthy background, the situation is becoming concerning since the natural and economical resources continue to diminish whilst inhabitants either leave the area or their age give up to the passage of time. Only 5000 residents out what it used to be 16,000 are still here today and just 250 have a job, needless to mention of the decreasing living standards.

Up until the 70’s, Bălan was part of the Sândomenic commune, but once it became a mining centre, the territory was placed under independent administration. The mine is no longer active today, the industry once capable of sustaining the entire town does no longer exist and the locals struggle with great difficulty on a daily basis until they eventually choose to leave the country. Bălan’s geography stretches from its first to its last building flat like an enclave of Sândomenic, like a Vatican near the Hășmașul Mare Mountain, but poorer and poorer as the days go by. Once the copper mine shut down in 2000, even the nostalgia for the prosperity during the communist era faded away. Back in the day, Bălan was well known for its workforce and vitality.

When neighbours become parents

For many years now, Romania can be taken for a country where everyone leaves from as soon as they can. Bălan is one the towns that has fallen victim to the emigration current and as a result, paradoxically, families are now torn apart by their own desire to create a better life for themselves. Parents choose to work abroad, but they leave the country by themselves, without taking the children: “Some of them left and their children remained in Bălan under the care of a family member, but there are more unfortunate cases where the children were left with one of the neighbours.”, says Loredana Ivanov (foto).

Furthermore, not only are the young ones are left with people looking after them, but their education is also compromised. One of the schools has already closed its doors due to lack of students and the impossibility to provide heating in the classrooms, whereas the other school is already struggling to create a suitable environment that can provide the school materials needed for its students.

After school” in Bălan

The concept behind the term that defines children’s activities after finishing their classes has also started to become popular in Romania. However, not every school can adopt it. Three years ago, some volunteers initiated a project for the children in Bălan, as an alternative to the everyday struggles the children face on the streets. Luckily, an idea of teaching useful things to the children did arrive, by using extracurricular activities materialised by afterschool sessions meant to develop abilities such as glass painting, origami or handcrafting, but also covering poetry and homework sessions.

The beginning seemed easy due to the high involvement of the project’s initiators: they used to do volunteer work and also had access to funds that allowed them to purchase the required materials. However, the resources diminished during the following year so the volunteers themselves had to bring over crepe paper, pencils and watercolours from home. Some support from the church did follow, but unfortunately, there is no support whatsoever at this point.

Selling religious icons to support the children

Afterschool classes motivated children to learn how to paint icons on glass. Loredana Ivanov (foto) – born in Bălan and now living in the UK – offered to sell some of their glass paintings during the “Dor de casă” Festival, which took place in the spring of 2015, in London, in the hope that she will contribute to the continuity of the project. All money was used towards buying colours, brushes and gold leaves to restart painting classes.

However, it is not only about the shortage of the materials this project faces or the limited supervising staff, but also about the need of a proper working space.

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Football team coached by a fireman

The town of Bălan can take pride in its young football team comprising of players with passion for the game, as well as in its consistent coach that truly believes in their talent. There used to be two teams until some years ago, juniors and seniors, but the coach left for personal reasons. The children’s talent and passion for the game caught the eye of one of the volunteers, a fireman by day, who commutes to be there for the children during the practice hours and for the local tournaments. Furthermore, thanks to donations, children are happy for the equipment they now have and for the fact that they no longer have to play football wearing the same shoes they would be going to school with. Their satisfaction pushes them forward and drives them to win game after game, after game, in the local tournaments.

Anyone could help

The children’s ambition and their commitment should not go unnoticed among those around that can get involved in the two projects and, although resources are scarce, imagination and ideas can be limitless. There are many different ways to help: either by doing volunteer work, donating the necessary materials for activities, purchasing the children’s handcrafted objects or by submitting a project to attract proper resources: “As long as the centre is running, there is a warm place for the children. I mean this in the simplest way possible. A warm place during winter and a proper one during summer, where they can get involved in beautiful activities so they are kept safe from dangers”, added Loredana Ivanov (foto). She also speaks of transparency and underlines that all activities are not-for-profit, all money going towards sustaining the young craftsmen.

The football team can indeed be supported with cheers and applause, but also with material incentives in the form of sporting equipment: “They need continuous help because balls get punctured; trousers, socks and training shoes get worn down. Let’s try to show our support for real and not just like a drop in the ocean. Let’s make them feel important. Help them grow up like normal children, through education, sport and creative activities, like children coming from families with decent incomes or families from developed cities would.”, said Loredana Ivanov (foto).

Bălan is not an isolated case

The town of Bălan has seen its fair share of highs and lows, but now it faces the loneliness of poverty and perish. Here, no one is asking for anything without giving something back in return; whether it is glass icons or trophy cups won in sporting competitions, they always try to give something back. “If nobody gets involved, who knows, maybe the next Nicolae Iorga, Eminescu, or George Enescu does not stand a chance. Once he is born, the society and poverty here might quickly drown him out.”, added Loredana Ivanov (foto).

Anyone is entitled to at least a modest childhood, one filled with satisfaction, games that develop and keep you safe from danger, a healthy education provided by people who wish to commit and get involved. Children should not be responsible for their families’ day to day worries, but only for their own road in life. Let us learn to care for those around us!

Author: Adelina M. Salomia. Photography: Daniela Vițelaru