A Hero at 15

It’s early August and, in the courtyard of the Pietrișu village, Samuel or Samu, as he introduces himself, steps carefully between the apricots that had fallen on the grass and squints to check his phone. He only raises his eyes from the phone when I tell him about the interview. His eyebrows go up, he starts giggling slightly, and his traits gather even more to the center of his face: the nose, a little crooked, his eyes, brown and almond shaped, his mustache, rare and childlike. “I feel I must have done something heroic. Nobody ever interviewed me before,” he tells me.

In fact, Sami was the hero of the village football team, where he has been playing for some years now. It was a few months ago, in training camp, during a match where the Bucharest team had been dominating the field with a 1-0 lead when Sami managed to tie the score:”I took my T-shirt off and ran the court three times. One boy started crying, it was very emotional.” They still lost the game, with a final score of 2-1 for the other team, because they were younger, but it was the best result the village players have ever gotten. ”Five teams from Găujani played and didn’t score at all. We got the best score, others lost the game by 6-0, 5-0.”

Sami is from Pietrișu, he’s 15 and the youngest of seven siblings. When he doesn’t play football, like he sometimes does even at 2 am, you can find him about one kilometer away from his house, singing in the Adventist church choir. Music isn’t necessarily his passion and he doesn’t think his voice is special, but everyone considers him the head of the choir. Without him, it just doesn’t work, his friends tell him. Whenever he can, Sami fulfills his role in various events around the country with devotion: „We’ve been to Șerbăneasa, we sang and it was great. We had a nice time, also in Pietroșani. We travel a lot all around the country.”

With support from the church, he is also the hero of families that he helps, together with other churchgoers, with food, clothes, and even phones, as was the case last Christmas. On that occasion, they offered a hundred gifts to families in Giurgiu, and they contributed with money so that a child could receive a new phone from Santa. He remembers the boy cried tears of joy for minutes. Whenever they have no money to donate, they all raid their closets in search of good clothes they don’t wear anymore and they give them to other children.

Sami doesn’t call himself neither a hero, nor an activist. But in all this running around, with all the singing and giving, he realized how important getting engaged in the community is: “I’ve been involved for years. It’s never been a burden, but a habit.” If you make yourself room next to him when he tells you his story, you still see the same teenager wearing a white T-shirt with ripped jeans, but now the eyebrows push his forehead up, enlarge his enthusiastic eyes and his arms fly around his body, away from his phone, just like exclamation marks: “For example, in two months we raised 500 lei. We went to Giurgiu, we bought food. It was crazy. And we gave it to a family in Pietroșani. They burst into tears and wanted to kiss our hands. These are the cases we take. We are their gifts.” Today, Sami is a guide for the other participants, the ones from Bucharest. He shows them the village and introduces them to the local families. “Hello, we’re the ones who camped by the kindergarten, an NGO from Bucharest. Do you have children? Are they in school?” It’s Petrișor and Mihai, two other boys who came here for a week to have a close look at the issues people in Pietrișu face.

These few days, Sami has been doing what he loves best: “to be a dynamic man.” For the past couple of months, ever since summer holiday started, he only went out a bit: “at 9 pm I go out and have a juice, then I go back home.” But the camp keeps him active. It included team building games, but they also played football on the court, boys and girls alike. “I liked all activities. The most fun I had was on the football field, we could be ourselves, we screamed a lot.” He was also impressed that all participants are friendly and “nobody speaks badly of anyone else. I like it. We don’t offend each other. There’s many nice Roma,” he says. We’re a team and we work together, it’s not like in school. “There you’re on your own. You hit someone; you pay for it the following day. Their dad comes and beats you up, you have to take it.” Sami also tells me that his favorite class, apart from Physical Education, is Romanian. The teacher spends five minutes on the lesson, and then asks them about themselves, about what they want to do and how they are. “I liked her class the most, but now she’s gone because of the children. Because kids are bad in our school, always out to make a scene. For example, there’s a lot of racism. If there’s a visit from school inspectors, for example, I’m told not to come to school. Why? ‘You’re not very bright, Sami, and you’ll make a fool of me in front of the inspectors.’ Would you feel like going to school then? I don’t know. ”

There have been several conflicts, but he moved on. Despite this, he says he doesn’t really like it at school. There’s too much theory and nothing practical to learn. Always talk that they’ll also do things differently, but that never happens. “In Physical Education the teacher would promise we’ll do something, but we don’t, because it’s cold. We don’t have enough heat, but we’re lied to and we believe it.” This year they were asked for money for buying a football. Every pupil contributed with 15 lei, a total of 100 lei, but the teacher came with a plastic ball that broke immediately. When he told the teacher it’s not fair, Sami said the teacher started hitting him. He went to complain to the school principal, asked her to do something, but she told him to try and behave, so that it wouldn’t happen again. Even the Roma pupils discriminate against each other. They’re less than the non-Roma, around 10-12, says Sami. “The girls don’t talk to us, nothing. If you so much as look at them, they call you gypsy and say you better stop staring. You’re left speechless, that’s how it is here.”

Sami has almost finished eight classes. He was supposed to be in high-school by now, but half a year ago, following a conflict with a school mate, he got a low average on account of his behavior and he was bound to fail the school year. He and his colleague started the fight after Sami asked him to stop stealing energy drinks from girls in school. “I told him Gabi, stop stealing, boss. It’s not nice, and from the girls, even! Pick on the boys, steal from them. And he slapped me. I, in turn, punched him twice and he fell down. I don’t know how I hit him harder. His mom came to school and asked for Radu. I’m him, I said. So she came and beat me up and I took it, what could I do.” He wanted to keep helping, like he does when he offers gifts in neighboring villages, but he has to do the 8th grade over. When they heard about this, his parents didn’t hit him or anything, but they decided he would stop going to school altogether. Yet, Sami continued to go. This fall, he starts the 8th grade over again. His dream is to get his driver’s license and travel abroad to his relatives who live and work in the UK or Spain. He doesn’t know for sure where, only that he later wants to learn about mechanics at a professional school.

“I’d like to be a mechanic, I love cars a lot.” He wants to graduate ten classes, “because there’s that law that says you can’t get a driver’s license with less than 10 classes.” He hopes to join the high-school football team and get his driver’s license and then, to leave the village.  “I graduate at least 10 classes, and then I go work in the UK. It’s obvious, I think. To pay to go to high-school in Romania, and then earn 1300 lei a month, or go to the UK and make 4000 lei a week. Doesn’t matter what you work as, you collect garbage, just an example. You recycle trash and you earn 90£ a day, like my uncle. I also have relatives in Spain, so I have places to go, anywhere I want. I have two more years in high-school for the driver’s license, because they passed that law. I get the paper to show and that’s it. I’m out of here.”

Story written by Oana Barbonie, seen by her and Tiberiu Mihail-Cimpoeru in the summer of 2017.

Check the  from camp last year:

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