Jen_Tse_sewer child-18

Rats, fleas, garbage, faeces, and rainwater. Mihaela Jordan, 31, grew up in the sewers of Bucharest, and has long stopped noticing the stench.

“I’ve been cut, beaten, and so much more,” she said. Her voice was deep and worn, almost disembodied in the near pitch-blackness were it not for the single candle she held to her face.

This underworld is the hidden reality of Mihaela Jordan and her longtime friend Marius Nelu Tanase, who she met on the streets as a child. They are members of a generation discarded in the wake of the Romania of Nicolae Ceausescu, the country’s dictatorial communist leader whose regime collapsed in 1989.

Scar tissue from old cuts and burns cover Tanase’s arms. The burns, he said, happened accidentally while he was high on Aurolac, a type of glue commonly inhaled by Romanian street children to cope with the hunger and cold they are subjected to living rough.

“Nobody cares about me, so I fend for myself,” he said. “Nobody trusts me, so I don’t trust them.”

Even as he enjoyed his own lavish lifestyle, Ceausescu introduced policies outlawing contraception and abortion, and forced, through his public health policies and tools of oppression, women of childbearing age to have at least four children, despite his impoverished citizens’ inability to take care of them. The policies were meant to boost the country’s workforce and reverse low birth and fertility rates, but the economy to support this sudden influx of new mouths to feed never materialized.

As a consequence, hundreds of children from large, impoverished families ended up homeless on the streets. In Bucharest, many of them took to the city’s disused sewer tunnels, where excess heat from nearby steam pipes kept them warm. Some never left and even eventually they had children of their own in these underground warrens they called home..

“It’s been almost 25 years, and nothing is being done to help the sewer children who became sewer adults,” said Nelu Nica, an aid worker for Jubilee Romania, a Christian Ministry to outcasts in Romania, who has worked with the people of the sewers. “The government tries to clean up this disaster by blocking up the sewer holes, but that only hides the problem. These people just move on to somewhere else.”

Aid work by small, independent organizations still isn’t a solution, according to Nica. “There is a stray dog problem in Bucharest because people take pity on the dogs and feed them, rather than giving them new lives,” he said. “Aid work does the same for sewer people, but it’s the best we can do.”

But even the aid organizations are struggling. “So many of the ones we know of are closing down because the charitable donations have dried up that once came from overseas, especially America,” says Dendea Origel the director of Archway Romania a charity set up to help Romania’s abandoned children.

Nica himself almost became a casualty of the fallen regime, surviving his mother’s illegal abortion, attempt during Ceaucescu’s rule, that claimed the life of his unborn twin brother. Nica decided to devote his life to helping street people, and first met Jordan when she was a pregnant teenager on the streets.

He never expected to run into her again, many years later, still living in a sewer hole outside a metro station. The only difference was that by then she had had seven children of her own —two  have since died and the others live in foster homes.

Today, improved adoption policies help many children born in the sewers to escape their circumstances by being rehoused in healthy environments with foster parents. But their birth-parents, the first generation of sewer children, still are not themselves able to escape their wretched existence.

“I’m glad Mihaela’s still alive,” said Nica. “But it’s horrible to see her, because she’s still here.”

Jen Tse is a freelance photojournalist from Toronto, currently based in Copenhagen: