Thirty years ago on Christmas day, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s socialist regime was toppled. Ceaușescu took a harsh natalist stance during his reign: contraception was unavailable and abortion was illegal until 1989. As a result, the number of abandoned children surged. In the years following the 1989 revolution, horrific images of Romania’s orphanages — populated by children abandoned at birth — began to appear in western media.
Elisabeth Blanchet, then a maths teacher in London, was one of the many people who volunteered to help these children. She travelled to the eastern Romanian village of Popricani where, besides charity work, she photographed the children in the local casa de copii (‘children’s house’ in English).
She continued returning to Romania to document the children as they grew up. In her new photo book Ceausescu’ orphans, 30 years on, Blanchet reveals the hardships each individual child faced on their journey to overcome adversity.
Altogether, the stories show the last 30 years in Romania, characterised by extreme inequality, vast emigration, and a rural-urban divide.
Today, several charities, including JK Rowling’s Lumos, are fighting to improve social care in the country so that children can grow up with families rather than spend their lives in institutions. The Popricani orphanage is now a centre for adults with learning and physical disabilities.
Cătălin was abandoned at birth. When he left the orphanage at 18, he became a builder, working on construction sites in Romania’s historic capital city, Iași. A few years ago, he fulfilled his dream of moving to Italy. Cătălin is single and now lives in Rome as a construction worker.
Daniela grew up at the orphanage with her twin brother Daniel. In their teens, they found out they had nine other siblings who had also been abandoned at birth, but had grown up in other orphanages. Since then, they regularly meet up for big family reunions (although they have never been able to meet their parents).
Thinking about their life at the orphanage, Daniela remembers being beaten up by older children. “We were often sad,” she said. “I also remember the activities organised by foreigners who came. And the parties! I loved the parties,” Daniela says, her eyes lighting up.
After leaving the orphanage, she learnt to a sew and became a worker in a textile factory, where she stayed for 13 years until today. “I am very happy to have a job and I want to keep on working. I am also happy because I am strong and in good health,” Daniela told Elisabeth in her characteristically optimistic manner.
After leaving Casa de Copii, Constantin stayed in the village. He had built strong relationships with a neighbour — Bogdan Tănasă — who offered him a room to rent in his house just opposite the orphanage. He has been living there since and has become part of the family. Inspired by Constantin’s story, Tănasă founded Casa Share, a charity which builds houses for people in need. Constantin now works as a builder and a handyman for the charity. “I am very happy to live here in Popricani; this is where I grew up. I have stayed friends with the children from the orphanage who still live in the village. We are like an extended family,” Constantin says.
Ramona grew up with her younger brother Remus at the Popricani orphanage. At 18, she trained to be a baker and started working at a bakery in a village near Iași. She has now moved to Iași itself, working in a central bakery and sharing a flat with her older brother — who grew up in a different orphanage, and whom she met when she turned 18. Like Daniela, Ramona has both happy and painful memories from the orphanage. “We had a dedicated social worker, Mr Dan, who was very good to us. He helped us with school and continued to be like a father after we left Casa de Copii. But for other kids, it was more difficult. Social workers didn’t care at all and let the older kids rule,” she said in 2019. She is still friends with many girls with whom she grew up at Popricani.
After leaving the orphanage, Lacrimioara worked in a textile factory in Iași, where she lived in a small flat. Looking for a better life, she moved to Surrey a year ago, where she works as a cook at an industrial canteen and lives with her Romanian boyfriend. Despite being faraway, Lacrimioara still maintains a strong relationship with her female friends from the orphanage. They still call her Ciocolata (or “chocolate” in English) because of her darker skin tone, but she finds this an affectionate term of endearment. Says she has never felt discriminated against due to her race, but rather because she grew up in an orphanage.
Unlike most children growing up at Popricani, Radu was not abandoned at birth. Raised by a single, unemployed, homeless mother, he came to the orphanage as a toddler. His mother regularly visited him until was hit by a car in the early 2000s and died.
Radu is one of the few kids from the orphanage who went to university. With the help of a grant, he studied agronomy. In 2007, just after Romania joined the EU, he found a fruit picker job in Scotland. After a year in the UK, he went back to Romania, where he got married. He now works as a foreman in a sawmill, and lives in a flat with his wife and child in the town of Botoșani, in northeast Romania.
After being diagnosed with severe learning disabilities, Paul was sent to an institution for adults with disabilities when he was 18. He went back to Popricani in the mid-2000s, when the orphanage was converted to a similar centre: he now works there as a gardener. “Propricani is my home, I am very happy here. I love gardening and I can walk around in the village as I want. People know me and they are nice to me,” he says.
Geta became religious early on in life, and decided to become a nun when she left the orphanage at the age of 18. She was sent to a convent near Bucharest, in Ciorogarda. Changing her name to Sister Cristofora, she hasn’t stayed in touch with any of the children with whom she grew up with. “I have dedicated my life to God,” she says.