By Jeremiah Reed
Staff Writer 

Habitat Welcomes Romanian Chapter - Brevard NC


Transylvania County Habitat for Humanity officials welcomed some esteemed guests last week as two representatives of the Romanian Habitat organization made the 5,300-mile journey to the United States, visiting various American Habitat branches and updating them on the Habitat efforts in their home country.

Mario Demezzo, national Habitat director in Romania, and Ionut Ciolos, national program manager, stopped by the Transylvania Habitat's ReStore and met with local Habitat officials to discuss some of the programs in Romania.

Habitat's main charge is providing housing, and while many Americans are happy to rent their housing, Demezzo said home ownership is a point of great pride in Romania and an integral piece of the family unit.

"In Romania we have a saying, 'You are a person after you plant a tree, you have a child and you build a house.' So housing is very important," Demezzo said.

While housing may be of great importance, for many Romanians it may seem like an unattainable dream. Demezzo said 58 percent of the Romanian population (approximately 12 million people) live in over-crowded conditions and an additional 8 million people don't have access to running water or toilets.

Demezzo said the Romanian Habitat organization focuses on two areas, helping vulnerable groups and providing disaster risk reduction and response.

In speaking about vulnerable groups, Demezzo said lower-income occupations like nurses and teachers (who make between $250-$300 per month) comprise about 25 percent of those receiving service.

Demezzo said a majority of those in the vulnerable groups category are very hard-working people who simply cannot save enough money to ever escape their socio-economic situation.

"These people work long hours and they cannot do anything about their circumstances. They don't make enough to qualify for a bank loan and change their living conditions and their parents grew up like that, they grew up like that and their kids grow up like that. So it's just a poverty circle that they can't break," he said.

The Romanian Habitat agency is based in Bucharest. One of their biggest efforts recently was to help keep 180 children in housing and avoid being relocated.

Twenty years ago, a program called SOS Children's Villages came to Bucharest and wanted to construct 12 houses for orphaned children. SOS Children's Village started after World War II with the goal of helping children orphaned by war or other means.

At the time, Bucharest officials allowed the houses to be built in an area Demezzo described as a "junkyard" near the outskirts of town.

Romanian law forbids politicians or government entities from the giving of land or other assets outright, so they offered the land to be leased.

Today, Demezzo said the surrounding area has gone from junkyard to one of the more upscale, corporate areas of Bucharest. As city officials looked at the housing, they realized how much value was in the property and attempted to void the lease deal on the land, saying the housing was not in good condition.

Demezzo said residents of the units approached Habitat "in despair" and begged them to help renovate the units so they would not be forced to leave.

Demezzo said the project consisted of making various roof repairs, adding insulation to make homes more energy efficient and installing new heat systems in all the homes.

Not all Romanians are so eager to reach out for help. Romania has the third-highest percentage of gypsies in Europe, at just over 8 percent.

Demezzo said because of the history of persecution and deceit over the years, gypsies are extremely hesitant to approach outsiders and even more skeptical of promises to help.

Demezzo said Habitat worked to build a new community center for the gypsies that included an afterschool care service for the children as well as informational programs for adults to help them with financial management.

There is another ongoing effort to construct a community center in a very rural, poor community comprised of 80 percent gypsies with an unemployment rate hovering around 75 percent.

Demezzo said the center will be the first certified "green" building in Romania and has solar panels for electricity so there will be no maintenance or utilities costs down the road.

For Demezzo, the physical construction of houses or community centers pales in comparison to the emotional and spiritual benefits reaped by those so desperately in need of assistance.

"Habitat is not just about building houses. It's about communities. It's about families. And I believe that," he said.

The United Nations has decreed Oct. 6 as World Habitat Day. To celebrate, Demezzo said the Romanian Habitat organization typically conducts a "blitz build" – the construction of several homes over a five-day period.

This year's project is a little different. Demezzo said Habitat contacted a gypsy community living in public quarters that were originally constructed during WWII.

Demezzo said the roofs are in such poor condition that water constantly seeps into residents' units, ruining their belongings and rendering the electricity unusable.

Habitat Romania will be working to repair those roofs, at a projected cost of $110,000.

Demezzo said they also will be working to make a school located in a nearby community that is vulnerable to heavy floods more disaster resilient.

Demezzo extended an invitation for local Habitat officials and volunteers to visit Romania for the Big Build in 2015, when the project calls for the construction of eight houses over five days.

Ciolos said Habitat constructs approximately 30-35 homes per year across Romania, with 10 sites usually going on at the same time.

Usually, a team consists of 16-22 people per house but on a larger scale like the Big Build project Ciolos said there could never be too many helping hands.

"When you have a project and you build one house, the best size team is 16 people. But when you have a project with eight, 10, 12 or 20 houses, there are a lot of different jobs – painting, cleaning, labor and materials – and you can find other roles for people," he said.

Ciolos said all of the work is done by hand, though they do use some electric tools via mobile generators.

He added that while renovation of homes or units accounts for most of Habitat's work in Romania, the impact of constructing new homes for people is far greater.

Demezzo agreed and said while Habitat's charge is to build new homes, their main function in the country is to serve as a "bridge" between communities and work to bring people of different backgrounds together.

"We'll take gypsies and Romanians and put them to work together and strengthen their relationships... We take Catholics and Protestants and put them to work together and at the end of the day we see the theology of the hammer," he said.

"We are a bridge in Romania between those who have and those who have not, and we try to get those who don't have out of the circle of poverty," Demezzo said.

Aside from sharing a name – Transylvania is a large region in central Romania – the local Habitat branch shares some of its funding with the Romanian Habitat agency.

Every Habitat branch tithes a certain percentage of local funds to be used by agencies overseas. Transylvania County tithes 10 percent of profit made at the ReStore to Romania.

Demezzo thanked local Habitat officials and said he was very grateful of their continued support.

Representatives of Transylvania County Habitat for Humanity met last week with two members of the Romanian branch of Habitat to discuss some of their efforts abroad to provide housing for those in need. Among those pictured are Jan Dyselius, Jim Alderman, Ionut Ciolos, Aaron Alderman, Mario Demezzo (Romania), Sandy Blackman, Don Campbell and Ron Kolstedt.(Times photo by Jeremiah Reed)

"We wanted to thank you so much for your support because you're helping us in Romania. I'm a fundraiser by abilities and I know the value of personal relationships, so it's a pleasure for me to be here and say 'thank you' in person for helping us," he said.

Demezzo and Ciolos' stop in Brevard was part of a larger tour of America.

The two previously visited Philadelphia, New Jersey and Ohio, with planned stops in South Carolina and Orlando, Fla.

Demezzo said Western North Carolina reminded him of his country and said he was overwhelmed by the friendliness of people in the area.

"As we were driving, it did remind a lot of Romania and it made me even more homesick. The landscapes are very similar and it's just really nice. The people are also really friendly and hospitable. I love that about people here; there is a strong sense of community here," Demezzo said.


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2017