The pencil’s tip moves slowly on the piece of paper, completing, not exactly on the starting point, an elongated, rounded-corner shape. “Is this a good bandage?” Sabina asks Barbie, her blonde doll with long and tangled hair. She answers something on the toy’s behalf and the dialogue continues.

Sabina is nine years old and a third grade student at School no. 2 in Jilava. Sabina’s world is split between school and a small, yellow walled one-bedroom flat, that her parents have been renting for six years. At the same table now used for drawing, she does her homework, eats or plays.

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Sabina takes a pair of old socks out of the closet and starts measuring one along the doll.

– “Mommy, are these socks good?”

– They are not good, baby”, her mother answers.

In her small hands, with dimples above her fingers, the scissors cut a well-established path through the cloth. “She always finds something to do,” says Alina, Sabina’s mom. “She cleaves, makes panties, or dresses for her dolls.” “And I destroy all the socks”, Sabina adds, laughing.

Elena Parlitu is 34 years old and makes a living by cleaning the hallways of a few apartment buildings in Bucharest. Sabina’s father, Marian, is a concreter and works from six in the morning until six in the afternoon. For fear of leaving the kid alone at home after school, Sabina’s mother takes her to work with her. “Mom sweeps a lot,” Sabina says. “Close to my mother’s work, there is a park and I go there to play. And sometimes, when she gets paid, she takes me to the amusement park. ”

Sabina cuts a piece of schnitzel and plays at feeding her doll. It’s lunch time and Sabina is sitting at the same small table, with a plastic casserole containing a chicken schnitzel, french fries and cabbage salad. Standing in the doorway, a little girl, with her hair caught up and black strands hanging by her ears, calls Sabina to come and play. It’s Nico, the neighbour across the hall. Sabina doesn’t seem to feel like talking to her. “She looks at me as I eat and she will crave,” the girl explains where her restraint comes from. “She has food at home, but not this kind and I don’t want to make her crave,” she continues to whisper. A few moments later, Nico sits at the same table and Sabina gives her some schnitzel pieces. Returning from the yard after taking out the laundry, Sabina’s mother takes another casserole out of the fridge and offers it to Nico. Both girls now sit at the table, sticking their forks in the golden fries.

In August, Sabina joined the United Way education program, at the community center they opened together with Providenta Foundation, at School no. 2 in Jilava. One of the project’s requirements is to provide a meal a day to the children in the programme. When there are absentees, the remaining portions are taken home by a child, on a rotation basis. Today it was Sabina’s turn.

The philosophy behind United Way’s community centers is that education is the only hope for a community to change. “But not by working with one category of beneficiaries alone, such as the children,” says Mihai Ciopasiu, director of Providenta Foundation and coordinator of the community center in Jilava. Bearing this in mind, the project includes a parents’ academy, where, among other things, parents get training courses related to children’s education, as well as a teacher training component. “It is an integrated approach”, Ciopasiu adds. It is these reasons that make Ciopasiu believe that the best place for such a community center is the school. “The parents are already there, you have teachers there.” And above all, there is trust.

In a gazebo, sheltered by the sun, several children gather around a cardboard board, with numbers on it. A mechanical bee makes its way between the numbers. On the back of the toy, among the yellow and black stripes, are four arrow buttons and one green “Go” button. Sabina holds a note in her hand. There’s a number on it, as well. With her hands covered by white rubber gloves, she presses the arrows to move the bee. Twice up, once to the left, once to the right, to reach the number on the board that corresponds to the number on the note. A couple of tries on, she succeeds.

“What does the child actually learn?”, says Ciopasiu. “He learns addition and subtraction, or the multiplication table through play, but he also learns that he can program a machine.” At the community center, the emphasis is on non-formal activities. Homework is not a priority. “It is very useful to do homework, but we want to offer children another perspective, to teach them, to open their eyes,” Ciopasiu adds.

After all the children in the group have practiced with the bee at least once, they return to class and another group takes their place. Before the pandemic, the 50 children in the project were divided into two groups of 25 and came to activities two or three times a week. Now, the groups have been reduced to 12, to respect social distancing, and the children come to the center once or twice.

On a chalkboard, its surface smudged by sponge wiped old inscriptions, Sabina writes: “2×1 = 2, 2×2 = 4, 2×3 =”. Next to her, an older boy helps her with the calculations. At one point, she gets a little stuck and the two start finger counting. The older student is part of the project’s mentoring program, he helps the younger ones learn. After number two, Sabina passes on to multiplication by three. Behind her, in the benches, the other children model a bunch of grapes in coloured playdough or color some drawings.

In the schoolyard, Sabina’s mother is waiting to take her home. The building they rent in, owned by the town hall, is not far from the school, both situated in the peripheral area of ​​Jilava. There are two schools in Jilava. School no. 1 is located on the national road. According to Mihai Ciopasiu, it’s where the children with a better financial situation study. School no. 2, where Sabina attends and where the community center is, sits further away from the town center. “It’s pushed to the side, on the road, through bumps. If you go from school and turn left, you enter the field. Whoever is in this school, somehow accepts that he is from the poor part of town “, says Ciopasiu.

In a few days, Sabina and her parents will have to move. All the other families in the building, likewise. The mayor’s office is planning a new project for that space and is evacuating them. Sabina’s family is among the luckiest, they managed to build a house on their own. It has two bedrooms, a hall and a bathroom, but it’s not finished. “Even if we’re not done, we have to move just the same,” says Alina.

Sabina and Nico will no longer be neighbours. A single child, Sabina took care of the little girl like if they were sisters. “She always takes care of her, not to go out the gate, not to…” says the mother. But Sabina contradicts her in terms of her desire to have a sister. “Ntz,” she snaps her lips, “if Mommy had given me a little sister or a little brother, they would have made me take care of her and I would not…” Have time to play, would probably be the end of the sentence, but Sabina’s mother interrupts her.

Whether she wants to admit it or not, caring for other beings is something Sabina just does. When she grows up, she wants to become a veterinarian. “Doctor of animals, roosters, dogs. To help them give birth to babies, to take care of them, to caress them, because I also have two cats and I play with them all the time ”, Sabina says.

Sitting at the same table, Sabina takes Andrei into her arms, starts playing and talking to him. He’s one of her two tomcats. He has a grey, fluffy fur and yellow eyes. The other’s name is Cristi, he’s white. She also made little costumes for the cats. Her dimpled fingers disappear and reappear from the long fur, in a repetitive movement of caressing.

“And that’s about all I know about my life.”

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.


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,, 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.