SINGURENI, Romania (Reuters) - US AIDS awareness campaigner
Patch Adams seemed to be making inroads with villagers at a
picnic for AIDS orphans in Romania.
Wearing the clown getup made famous by actor Robin Williams in
the movie based on Adams's life, he evoked gales of laughter
with his jokes, even though they had to be translated.
He enchanted the people of Singureni, a village with a
population of 3,100 located 40 km (25 miles) south of
Bucharest, by dancing to a Romanian folk tune with an elderly
"The role of a clown and the role of a doctor are very
similar--to give a vision for the possible and to relieve
suffering," said the 56-year-old doctor during his August
visit, which was sponsored by the Italian "Babies in Emergency"
"The foundation brought me to the children and I want to bring
them to you," grey-haired Adams told the villagers outside the
But entertaining a crowd on a hot summer's day in rural
Romania, and dispelling peoples' ingrained fears of the orphans
who became infected with the AIDS virus under squalid
conditions during the communist government of former dictator
Nicolae Ceausescu, are two different things.
"I don't want my six-year-old boy to have as school mate a
child with AIDS when he starts school in September," said
George Grejdan, a father of two and member of the village
council of Singureni, which means "lonely" in Romanian.
"We feel sorry for them (the children with AIDS), we have
nothing against them, but we don't want them near our
children," he said.
Most of Romania's 9,000 children sick with full-blown AIDS are
doubly cursed--by the disease and the isolation it brings with
Abandoned by their parents, ostracised by neighbours and barred
from schools, they live in orphanages, many of which are built
on side streets in remote areas, hidden from the public eye.
"I ask you to let these (AIDS-sick) children into your hearts
and let us show the world that love is bigger than all other
forces," Adams told some 200 farmers at the picnic in
Organisations and charities from across the world rushed to
Romania with aid after Ceausescu's overthrow revealed
orphanages packed with thousands of under-nourished and ailing
children left to die in rusty beds.
Poor sanitation, the lack of disposable syringes and unscreened
blood caused nearly 9,000 children to become infected with the
deadly virus. Almost 2,300 children with AIDS have died since
1985, when Romania reported its first case.
Health authorities said 240 children, born in the waning days
of the communist era in 1988-89, tested HIV-positive last
year--meaning more AIDS cases in the future.
"For 40 years I've been a free doctor for the poor and a
professional clown. I cannot imagine to refuse to care for
people," Adams told the farmers.
Wearing a yellow and a blue stocking, trousers in bright
colours, oversized clown shoes and a red gum nose, Adams hoped
to set an example to bring healthy and sick children together.
For one week, he played with the 30 sick children, aged between
three and 14, who live in three wooden houses at "The Family
Home" orphanage, built six years ago in the backyard of
Singureni's hospital for infectious diseases. It was an effort
to draw in the community, to show them that AIDS victims are
"Come and see my house," said Georgiana, a nine-year-old girl
grabbing a visitor's hand. In one building, called "The Moon
House," she jumped on a small cot, her face creased in a big
smile, shouting: "This is mine." "We also have a TV and a
kitchen with a big refrigerator," added Georgiana, walking down
a corridor to Sister Margareta's quarters--she is one of the
four Romanian Catholic nuns taking care of the children.
Although living conditions for most of Romania's 100,000
abandoned children, including those disabled and sick with
AIDS, have improved in recent years, their main problem remains
to find a way back into the community.
"The villagers can see that touching and kissing and loving
these children is not harming me but only strengthening me to
work for peace and justice and care," Adams said, while some of
the sick children played with his nose and his long ponytail.
"Fear and ignorance are keeping the villagers away from these
children. My wish is to open the gates and let life come into
the orphanage," he added.
But only minutes after applauding Adams's passionate speech and
laughing loudly at his jokes, most of the villagers said they
did not want their children to go near those stricken with
Grejdan said the local council refused to let the village
teachers go to the orphanage school--improvised in several
rooms on the first floor of the local hospital.
"No parent in the village wants our teachers to go and hold
classes with the children with AIDS," said Grejdan.
"An accident might happen and our children might be infected
too. You must understand it is not out of spite that we do not
accept these children to be around ours," he added.
Starting in September, when Romania begins a new school year,
the sick children will be taken out for the first time from
their enclave at the Singureni orphanage.
They will go to their own school, in a bright white-painted
two-story house in the middle of the village, some two km (one
mile) from their home.
The problem yet to be solved is to find teachers willing to
teach them. One of the village's primary school teachers, who
taught at the orphanage for two days last year, said he would
not go back.
"These children are less developed and very undisciplined. I
could not cope with them," said Adrian Dobra, who said he
feared getting infected. "Rumours in the village are that the
children stick people with a needle to get them infected too
and I do not want to risk it," said Dobra, father of two
"It takes more than an American to change our hearts."