The bus doors open and, with each step down, the nostrils fill with the pungent smell that comes to shout “welcome to Dallas.” The foot steps on the beaten and dusty ground, and the eyes meet  the pile of barracks, placed as if it were the result of repeated dice rolls. A thick cloud of dust rises from a truck on a nearby ridge. A few steps and Denis is home.

He shares the eighteen square meters, surrounded by orange pressed sawdust boards with his mother, two sisters and one of his brothers. His other brother lives with an uncle. Denis puts down his backpack and gives his younger sister what is left of the bag of chips he started at school. Denis’ home is in Dallas neighbourhood, in Pata Rat, Cluj-Napoca.

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Denis is a fourth grade student at the Traian Darjan school, located near the community. It is a segregated school, with over 98% Roma students, almost all the children from Pata go there. He looks small for a ten-year-old, eleven in April, but his fragile constitution hides a huge amount of energy. He likes mathematics and Romanian, but most of all he likes to draw. He’s been doing it since he was five. “I like to make portraits of girls and less of boys,” says Denis, adding that he draws inspiration from his classmates. He also draws cartoon characters, Sponge Bob having a special place in his works.

Religion class is next. The students, under their schoolmaster’s supervision, await the other teacher in the classroom. He’s late. They start playing broken telephone. They play about three rounds, the teacher still did not come. The schoolmaster allows them to go out in the school yard, to spend time outside, in the open. They play thief-police, tag, hop around in some chalk-drawn squares on the asphalt. The bell rings. The religion teacher still didn’t come.

Since 2019, Denis joined the United Way education program implemented in Pata Rat together with the FDP Association from Cluj. Apart from him, 65 other children benefit from this program. The philosophy behind United Way community centers is that education is the only chance a community can change. Unlike other centers built in the schools where the children study, the center for the Pata Rat kids is in the heart of Cluj. “We are talking about a segregated community, a community that is forever kept aside, children who are kept in a segregated school,” says Alexandrina Kiss, director of the FDP Cluj branch. “Therefore we set out to make a community center for children who are from the periphery, in the center of Cluj. Because practically, this way, they have the opportunity to come from there, from the outskirts of town, to the city center. That envelops going by bus, learning that you need to use a ticket, how you should behave, that is, all the skills they will later need. ” “We wanted for them to come to the heart of the city, if the city does not necessarily go to them and segregates them”, adds Ada Gabor, office manager Timișoara, United Way Romania.

But the pandemic messed up their plans. Traveling by public transport became complicated, so they had to scale down the activities in the center to one day a week, on Friday. The rest are now taking place in a mobile unit, a few containers put together, across the road from Denis’ house in Pata Rat.

Arriving at the mobile center, first thing, Denis washes his hands. In the other room, a debate is underway: whether children should have a mobile phone or not. The kids are divided into two teams, one bringing pros, the other cons. Denis takes a seat at the pro table.

“Mommy, I want a mobile phone, mommy, I want a mobile phone,” Denis has been pleading to his mother for a while now. “There’s no way I can afford it,” is her response every time. All Larisa can do is lend her phone from time to time. “He drives me crazy with his TikTok,” she says. “I give him my phone, but he wants his own, to have all the time, not only when I can dispense of mine. For the moment, I really can’t afford it. I really can not.”

Denis has two TikTok accounts, one on his mother’s phone and another on his sister’s tablet. The first one has 107 followers, the other one only 36, because he doesn’t post there very often. He also received a tablet from school, but rather late. In the meantime, it got stolen. Denis put his drawings on TikTok, but they didn’t get as many “hearts” as when he posted videos of him dancing on Jador.

On YouTube, he learned how to take care of Pufi, the three-year-old puppy Denis took from the street. “She was on the street, dirty and all. And she was halt, that is, she was walking like that. I bandaged her and took great care. I watched on YouTube how to do it, how to heal dogs “, Denis tells me.

Denis asks for a sheet of paper and starts drawing. The pencil moves quickly in his hand, one moment leaving black lines with the tip, the next wiping them with the eraser at the other end. With his left hand fingers, he smudges the drawing now and then. Two large eyes with bushy eyelashes appear on paper. “Mommy, could I ever go to drawing school?” Denis sometimes asks Larisa.

– “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

– Garbage truck driver ”, one of the children from Pata Rat once replied to Alexandrina.

“For them to be able to dream of something, they have to see it,” says Alexandrina. “If he never left that community, that’s all he saw. You can’t dream that you will become an astronaut if, I don’t know, the TV only catches certain programs or, at school, the teacher doesn’t get to tell you about the solar system or about the difference between an astronomer and an astronaut. And then you are stuck with driver on the garbage truck. ” Or “someone, sometime,” as another little girl once replied.

In this context, the part of having special guests who talk to children about various professional interests or hobbies, is a very important one in the program. “The idea is that I want this child to desire as much as possible and reach their potential,” says Ada Gabor. “Our goal is to help him have that vision, to overcome this ‘I want to become someone someday’, and to pinpoint: I want to become a doctor, I want to become a teacher, I want to become a lawyer, I want to become a tinsmith or hairdresser. Anything.”

Denis wants to be a fashion designer. He confessed it to his mother. “My first passion was to be a chef, but after that I realised that I like drawing more,” he tells me. At the age of nine, he made pancakes on his own. He makes his own omelette or fried eggs and would eat french fries with fried eggs every single day. When there are no eggs, the Rollton soup comes in second. Around Christmas, he helps his mother with the preparations, as he likes to make rolls with ham and cheese.

Nowadays he spends most of his time drawing. And nothing bothers him more than when someone messes with pencils or notebooks while he is drawing. “Whatever you do to him, he doesn’t care much. But if you put a hand on his pencils or his notebooks, that’s a disaster “, says his mother.

Larisa always encouraged her children to go to school and keep learning. She herself did not have the chance to learn to read or write, but she believes that without school they won’t accomplish anything in life. That’s the most important thing. If they don’t have an education, they have nothing. “

But this in not an opinion unanimously shared within the community. “The need to obtain material resources now is greater than the need to continue their education, because it’s now they have nothing to live on and fail to see that if they go to school and learn, their chances of getting a better job, a higher salary, increase. There is no ability to predict. Neither the parents, nor the children have it ”says Alexandrina. At the school where Denis studies, about 20 students finish the eighth grade. Out of those, only two or three go on to vocational schools. The ones that go on were all part of the education program.

“The problem is that being old enough, when they’re in the eighth, ninth grade, they can be used to bring in some revenue, to collect waste from the landfill,” says Ada. “And this brings material benefits to the family, so they are not encouraged.”

“Denis is to become what he wants,” says Larisa. “It is his decision, not mine. So whatever he likes, that’s it. Fashion designer, that’s his biggest dream. ” However, her determination to support him comes with the regret that she cannot afford to send him to an art school. The family income consists of social welfare and the children’s allowance. “I do not have the possibility. The cost of transport – now it’s a bus that takes them and brings them from school – for other schools you need to pay the school fund, the classroom fund, I don’t know what else is needed there. The supplies are much different than in a normal school. Of course, they are very expensive, I can’t afford it all. “

– “Denis, you are daydreaming!

– Yeah, well, I want to go. So it will be.

– Ok then, if you say so, so be it. “

*the names of children pictured in this story have been changed, to protect their identity

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

“Nesting a brighter future for children” is one of the main educational programmes 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.