Two years ago, Marians best friends were Harry Potter and Alberto Neagu. They were also kind of the only ones. Harry took him away from the cramped little room where he used to read for hours and carried him along through the adventures of the magical world at Hogwarts. Alberto, a neighbour and classmate, stood up for him when children from Baicoi, far too often, told him he was fat.

Marian Dumitrescu suddenly started gaining weight around the age of fourteen. In a short time, he was over 150 kilos. It was too sudden, too unexpected a change for me,” Marian says. His thyroid gland problem also caused him to sweat excessively. This made me smell and the kids laughed at me. I isolated myself from the rest of the world, it was just me and my book.” Of the countless stories he read, he was most fond of Potter. Because, he says, he likes happy endings.

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Marian fills an empty ice tea bottle with tap water and puts it in his school bag. Through the open zipper, you can see the bright orange of his spiked sneakers. He says goodbye to his mom, who sees him out the buildings hallway and asks him to be careful not to get injured again. Hes been playing rugby for two years now.

Alberto talked him into it. Fed up with his friend getting insulted, he told him to go to the club with him, maybe hed manage to lose weight that way. Id go to gym classes in school, but, aside from that, I ran from anything that had to do with sports. I didnt like it. I felt ashamed, especially when running,” Marian recalls. Now, I cant get enough of it,” he says with a laugh.

The first training session was the funniest for Dumi, as his teammates at Aurora Băicoi nicknamed him. I didnt know how to do a single thing, but they still taught me!” Marian appreciates the fact that his coaches were adamant and helped him lose weight, that they made him go on, every single time when, on the verge of fatigue, he felt like quitting. He did not go on a diet, he just went to practice, two or three times a week. And he followed Albertos advice to fast for a full hour after training. He lost over fifty kilos.

His forehead and sideburns get all beady with sweat. His blue t-shirt is already wet. Marian and his teammates run through the cones, jump over fences, do push-ups and practice their passes, they soldier on, to properly complete their physical workout before the practice match.

If I weighed as much as Fernando…,” Marian says, as he shreds his legs with increasing difficulty. Fernando is a short, skinny teammate, with fast moves. According to himself, he weighs forty-three kilos.

The practice match is played by rugby touch rules – a sport derived from rugby, in which the players dont tackle each other, but touch their opponents with their hands. Marian plays defence, while his teammate Fernando sprints through the defenders of the opposing team to score a touchdown.

The field the boys are now playing on was a grazing site for cows during the 90s. The sporting facility was completely abandoned after the revolution and became derelict. At the end of 2011, Lucian Mircescu, a sports public policy expert with a love for rugby, founded the Aurora Baicoi club. Freshly returned to the country, he wanted to bring back the values he found in rugby to his own community. The club, which was founded with a sporting agenda, as well as a social one, is fighting against the precarious access to sports and educational services in the area.

We have kids from Baicoi, which is a pretty small town, from the rural area, areas right outside Baicoi, as well as five other communities on the other side of the national road. Of these, Floresti, Filipesti, Magureni are underprivileged, highly impoverished areas,” says Bianca Danita, the club manager.

In 2017, the clubs desire to also address the educational aspect materialized through the project proposed by United Way. In it, we saw the right opportunity for us to somehow move on to the next step and do something more for the children,” Danita adds. With the project funds, they renovated a space where kids now do their math and Romanian language homework, take part in informal activities or in reading and science workshops.

The community space is open to all children – the only prerequisite is that they attend school. Basically, this is the message we wanted to send with the community centers we created: yes, this is a space that belongs to you, the children, the communities, a space where they can enjoy themselves and feel safe, but they absolutely have to understand that even if sports and informal activities are more fun, they must go to school,” says Marcela Borteanu, deputy director at United Way Romania.

Danita adds that their model is not an unusual one, this is the way most rugby clubs abroad work. They have a space where they hold quite a lot of activities, they have many volunteers, the parents come in and create a safe space for the children, the well-to-do parents contribute toward helping those who are not as well off, they donate their time and energy. We tried to bring that here, too.”

At Aurora, Marian has made new friends, he discovered people who accepted him for who he was, and learned that there are people he can trust. He went on training camps with the team and felt they were united. This motivated me to push harder, in order to get to where I am now.” He thought hed come, lose weight, and then quit. But I started to enjoy it way too much, I started making the cut for matches.”

His mother always attends the home games. She only missed a couple of them when she wasnt feeling well. Shes a diabetic who retired early, on account of her illness. After Marian suffered a shoulder injury, shes become more concerned. Especially when Im at an away game, if I tell her the game will end at a certain hour and I finish a bit later, she gets very scared when I dont answer her calls,” Marian giggles.

His father practised boxing in his youth. Hes now a construction worker in England. He comes home about once a year, but Marian says they talk on the phone a lot. Hes been cheering me on and hes proud of me. To me, thats a plus.”

The kids who used to call him fat are now happy for him, too. His classmates started talking to him more. Ive gone to parties, they started inviting me to birthdays. That never happened before. And I liked it a lot,” Marian says. I was happy I could finally become integrated into the community.” Marian is not resentful of the ones who made fun of his weight. The truth is, in a way, I thanked them, because their insults motivated me to push harder, to prove to them that I was good, that you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it.”

Marian, who turned sixteen on August 5, is aware of the fact that he got into rugby late and that it would be difficult for him to build a sports career. After he graduates from high-school, he wants to enrol into the Military Academy or study accounting, since hes in an economy-intensive class. And he also wants to stay close to the club. I would like to keep in touch with the club. Id like to keep attending practice, for fun. Or to help out the newcomers. For instance, we also have a couple of new guys, I helped teaching them to pass the ball, to kick it, to tackle.”

The team at Aurora Baicoi also wants to keep on helping him. Yes, he wants to go to university and well help him out. I dont think his parents would ever afford it, but, the same way we helped out all of our children attend university throughout time, well be helping him, too, when the moment comes,” says Bianca Danita.

In the small two-room flat on the ground floor, a tiny dog he got as a gift from his family, slightly over a year ago, awaits him. Marian takes her in his arms, sits down on the couch and goes on slowly patting her. Were he to live in a house with a garden, hed adopt all the stray dogs.

Documenting this material was made possible through the help of the United Way Foundation and the financial support of the Globalworth Foundation

“Education, the core of community change” is one of the main educational problems undertaken by United Way România. Its core goal is to support 12 day centers founded by United Way România, which work as community hubs.

The program, funded by the Globalworth Foundation, prevents school dropouts in poor urban and rural communities, where the children’s education is not the top priority, but rather the daily struggle to find the necessary resources for survival. Its integrated approach consists of actions focusing on the child’s needs. Parents, teachers, volunteers, and local NGOs work together to solve the issue of school dropouts, which is not the child’s problem, but the problem of the entire community.

The 12 community centers in Urlați, Fundulea, Băicoi, Jilava, Pădureni, Cluj-Napoca (Pata-Rât), Timișoara (School no. 20) and 5 communes in county Timiș (Sânandrei, Mașloc, Carani, Șemlacu Mare and Bucovăț), have benefitted 2,700 children, 2,160 parents and 540 teachers, throughout the program’s five-year span, in over 1,700 educational activities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ioana Moldovan is an award-winning freelance photojournalist, documentary photographer, writer and published author based in Bucharest, Romania.

Her work has been published by The New York Times, ESPN, Al Jazeera English, Huffington Post, BBC, Der Spiegel, Libération, Deutsche Welle, Open Society Foundation, LensCulture, Radio France Internationale, Slate.fr, Decât O Revistă and Vice among others. She has also worked on multimedia projects funded by the European Commission and Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

In 2016 she took part in the Eddie Adams Workshop and was awarded The Bill Eppridge Memorial Award for Excellence and Truth in Photographic Journalism. The U.S. Embassy in Bucharest presented her with the “Women of courage” award for outstanding achievement in highlighting truth through photojournalism. In 2018 she was selected and attended the Missouri Photo Workshop.

Ioana Moldovan was one of the ten Eastern-European photographers selected for a Masterclass in Documentary Photography by the Dutch NOOR Photo Agency.

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