children of silence 1

I went to Bulgaria to look at the work of the Cedar Foundation,a charity run by some good friends of ours who have a passion to see abandoned children moved out of orphanages and into high quality, community-based care. As part of my trip I got the chance to look around a couple of orphanages. This is the first of two posts about some of the children I met.

The orphanage is a bit tatty outside but the inside is clean and bright with freshly painted walls. A lot of overseas donors have invested here and it shows. There is equipment to help some of the disabled children and the grounds are reasonably well maintained.

Nevertheless, there is something that bothers me. As we walk through the rooms, I try to put my finger on what it is. Despite the colourful furnishings and the jolly pictures on the walls, something is very wrong.

It is only when we reach the babies’ dormitory that it hits me. Eight babies, all awake, lie silently in their cots. I have a sudden flashback to when my own children were that young. I know only too well that a wakeful baby in a cot might burble for a bit if you are lucky, but sooner or later that child is going to yell to be picked up.

There can only be one explanation for the silence of these babies, and that is that they have long since stopped expecting anyone to respond to them.

I walk over to a gleaming white cot where a little boy of about 10 months is lying quietly on his side. I crouch down and smile through the bars. His limpid brown eyes barely flicker. Slowly I push my hand towards him and stroke his finger. Suddenly his expression quickens and he sits up and looks at me. Then his face cracks open into a miraculous smile. I notice his two top teeth are just pushing through the gum.

I reach down and pick him up; he snuggles into me. The director of the orphanage tells me his name is Stoyan*. He arrived aged three months and weighing only five kilos. I bury my face in his wispy brown hair and inhale the delectable smell of baby. He is plump now and his fat fist grips my little finger.

The group I am with is moving on. Reluctantly I turn to put him back in the cot. As I prise open his hand to release my finger, his face crumples.

Now I am leaving the room and it is no longer silent. Stoyan is wailing, a high, heart-rending cry of distress. And I, like every other adult he has ever known, ignore it and walk out of the door.

For the rest of my stay in Bulgaria, I am haunted by the memory of Stoyan, and of the other children in that room. The twins who were abandoned by a woman who already had six children. The little girl with a kidney problem who was going to have her photograph taken for an adoption magazine. ‘Wish her luck,’ said the carers, cheerfully.

I am ashamed to remember how my children’s yells used to irritate me. On the flight home, a girl in the seat behind me cries on and off for the entire three-hour journey. I am no longer annoyed. I have understood something about crying children – that their distress is a sign that they are healthy and that they expect, rightly, that when they are upset, someone will respond to them.

*names have been changed