Matei is 13 years old. He was born on August 22, 2002. At least this is what his parents told him. He has no proof, since his birth was never registered. To the world, Matei doesn’t exist.
Matei is Roma, born in Bucharest to a family that used to live in a caravan and travel from one city to another in order to sell rugs for a living. Because of their itinerant lifestyle his mother and father lacked the permanent address needed to acquire ID papers. Additionally, if parents are without papers (as Matei's mother was during his birth), their children cannot be registered.
On the day he was born, Matei's mother left the hospital without any documents proving she gave birth to Matei. To make matters worse, his family never declared him to the city council, a necessary step toward receiving a birth certificate.
To the world, Matei doesn’t exist.
Unfortunately, Matei is not an isolated case. Iancu, his cousin, was also in the same situation until the last year when a non-governmental organisation dedicated to Roma issues helped him. This was only possible because his parents had money to pay for all of the papers, but many families don't.
For the past couple of years, Matei and his extended family have lived in a village in Transylvania. He has three brothers and three cousins. Both families and his grandmother live in a rented two-room house. All seven children are being helped through sponsorship by World Vision Romania. But for Matei, as far as society is concerned, because he has no documents, he doesn’t exist. Legally, he can’t go to school, or to a hospital, and nobody can prove that he is a real person.
Matei needs surgery to correct a problem with his tongue that affects his speech, but without a birth certificate he can't go ahead with the intervention.
Matei needs surgery to correct a problem with his tongue that affects his speech, but without a birth certificate he can't go ahead with the intervention. He has also never received his allowance from the state - approximately $20 USD per month - money that would help him buy school supplies, medicine or clothes.
Eva, his grandmother, says her biggest concern is that child protection services will come to take him away. She was left to care for all of the children after Matei’s father was arrested for driving without a license, an offence that could mean six to eight months in jail. Though his father has a birth certificate, he has no permanent address or ID papers and therefore no drivers license.
"Here, everybody makes fun of me. Children tell me that I don’t exist and that they can do anything to me because I don’t matter,”
Eva is desperate to keep custody of her grandchildren. “We take very good care of all our children, we send them to school and help in every possible way. We managed to solve the problem for Kathy, Matei’s mother. Now she has ID papers and we also managed to find the hospital where Matei was born. Now we only need the money to pay the taxes for the birth certificate”, she says. The tax, about $150 USD, is more than the family earns per month on carpet sales, but World Vision Romania is working to provide financial help.
Today, Matei is in the sixth grade. His favourite subjects are English and Romanian. He likes to read and has a very good vocabulary for a child his age. But his education is uncertain, and he is only allowed to attend school because he is a good student.
“My teacher and school principle ask for my birth certificate every month...they keep on telling me that I can’t go to school anymore without this document," Matei.
“My teacher and school principle ask for my birth certificate every month,” he says. “They keep on telling me that I can’t go to school anymore without this document. My godmother helped me go to school, in the first grade. The principal told me that if I’ll bring the certificate, I’ll be able to continue my studies. Unfortunately, I never managed to solve this problem...I told my principal that I’ll do everything that I can to [get] a birth certificate. I won’t be able to finish sixth grade without the ID,” he explains.
From his grandmother's point of view Matei can quit school, because “[a sixth grade education] is enough for him”. But Matei wants to study! His dream is to be able to take his driver's license test, which requires a basic level of literacy, or about eight years of schooling. Driving is an occupation is an important way for Roma men to earn income, so many families allow boys go to school for this reason.
"I won’t be able to finish sixth grade without the ID," Matei.
“I would like to go to high school in the city if I’ll have the ID papers,” says Matei. “In the city nobody will make fun of me and it’s easier to integrate into the community. Here, everybody makes fun of me. Children tell me that I don’t exist and that they can do anything to me because I don’t matter.”
Currently, World Vision Romania staff are working closely with the family to try to resolve all the problems and to help Matei acquire a birth certificate. Hopefully his situation will be resolved within the year. Unfortunately, because many members of this community are reluctant to declare themselves Roma, or list other nationalities, there are no official statistics on the number of children/adults without ID papers.