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Easier to open the door of Parliament than the door of a city hall

Sorina Bunescu founded 15 years ago the Partner for You Association, in the Argeşean commune of Merișani. He has been struggling ever since to get the people of the place to get involved in debates and projects. On the other hand, they try to bring down to earth the local elders, those who always think they know better what to do. 

By Vlad Odobescu

About four years ago, Sorina Bunescu filed a petition with the Arges Prefecture. He wrote there that the mayor's office of Merișani commune does not debate on the local budget, as required by law. He knew that a petition that was not drafted would not be heeded, so he attached photos of the city hall bulletin board, print screens and other evidence. Since she founded the Partner for You Association (APT), 15 years ago, Sorina has learned that it is not enough to put a soul: you need to know legislation, to bring examples, to show all the ways that need to be straightened out.

After her approach, the city hall made a kind of public debate for the budget. At that first meeting there were only her and a citizen from the parish council, who had come to ask for the widening of the cemetery in the commune. It was a "simulacrum" of debate, Sorina recalls, but it was still a first step, because the institution understood that it had to tick at least such meetings. 

The following year there was no need for any intervention at the prefecture: in Merișani the budget was discussed, and there were three citizens in the hall. But then "very serious and beautiful" public debates began to be made, says Sorina. In the spring of this year there were four separate discussions, in the villages, in which the investment objectives were presented, and people could come up with proposals. About 50 people came, which is a lot for a commune. "I really like the change and to see that things change, no matter how unfriendly I am with the mayor. I can forget how she behaved, or how aggressive maybe I was. We forget, it's good that we are at this moment and we are happy," she says.

He learned over time that not only pressure, but also good talk worked, no matter how hard it was up there. Because after saying "thank you", in the next year things go easier, without getting angry and without having sleepless nights because the administration did not do I do not know what. 

Small and great injustices

Something of today's civic spirit came together in Sorina Bunescu's consciousness as a child. He was born into a large and poor family. On many days of the week he ate only jam with bread at school, and it was a holiday when he ate an egg. "And that very true and very hard feeling of 'I'm hungry' or 'I'd like to eat something else' was very overwhelming." People in the community would say to him, "Yes, your mother and father-you couldn't have fewer children?". He couldn't get empathy because he was carrying that burden. 

There were also the little injustices at school: he came from a poor family, so he had no place in the first bank and could not be given as an example, no matter how hard he tried. But he found enough ambition to be among the first in the class and went on to high school. At that time, teachers were guiding students to a high school that they considered appropriate, and she arrived at an industrial one in Pitesti, with which she had neither inclination nor in her sleeve. He eventually moved to Philosophy-History at Campulung, a profile that suited him. He then gave to the Law and did not take, but he gritted his teeth and went on.

He studied Philosophy in Bucharest and then worked for 5 years at the Pro Democracy Association. First he was a volunteer, then a regional coordinator on some public participation projects. First of all, from that period he was left with some skills related to how he can influence public decision-making and some relationships in the world of non-governmental organizations. She participated in some campaigns that were on her soul, including one to change the voting system, "a very smart job, but which did not come out to be as the Pro-Democracy Association thought". They went to Parliament at that time to ask for legislative changes and she remembers that the then President of the Chamber of Deputies sent her and her colleagues "on the belt" and told them that they had nothing to look for in Parliament to ask for changes in legislation. "Of course these things make you worse, but they also shape you, they also make you very much. You learn what is the attitude with which public institutions and political leaders look at activists." 

He created the association in 2006, after returning to his native Merishani. He says that he did not return to Merișani because he would have gathered frustrations and helplessness, but because he had accumulated enough resources and skills. "And I've done the two things you do in life when you accumulate a lot of skills: you get bigger and you go back home," she amuses herself. 

And after he returned, he asked himself, like all man, "What am I doing now?" So he decided to do what he knew, which was to stimulate change around him. He felt the need to work in a structure, so he founded this organization, which remained a family one. It's a small association where there are a few members and a few volunteers. "But it's an organization where I can work and that's what I've done." 

He found the community almost as he left it. 16 years of transition had passed over the Merishani, but the problems of his childhood and adolescence were unchanged. Although in time the association's projects have contributed to the growth of a civic attitude and there are citizens who say and do things through the commune and have a voice, and the approach of the local administration is different, it is of the opinion that there are some extraordinary changes even today. "In the sense that people go to elections and that's it. In the sense that people, when they have something to comment on, comment on the bench in front of the gate. There are people who have not built their habit to look closely at what is happening around them locally. There are people who watch TV at all kinds of debates, but less at the local level, which is where they should be most interested." 

There are essential things that need to change in such places in order for people to become interested in education, entrepreneurship or the environment. "I am very interested in community education, because I do not want my children to live in a community where education is poor. But people want roads: not necessarily with asphalt, but at least with stone. People want these little things at first. Or we haven't reached the level where we can solve these little ones or the infrastructure and dream of something else."

In small communities, where everything seems frozen, the need for organizations like Partner for You is huge. But it's also much harder to put them on their feet. "First of all, you start with zero allies. I'm trying to build around myself, I'm trying to tell people that they can make the change. And I happen to find people who want the same things as me: 'well, Mrs. Sorina, let's do it,'" she says. 

The second problem is that in a small community the relationships are very close. The mayor knows you and starts patting your cheek: "We were friends, why did you start saying me on Facebook?" or "What got you to come to the council meetings?". Other times, the mayor reminds you, not at all subtly, that you don't have a permit to build the fence, for example. That wasn't her case, because before she started this project and immediately after she got married, she got all the permits and everything she could so that she couldn't be attacked that way. But there are enough people to whom the administration is cutting off the momentum very easily in such ways. 

You discover that if in Bucharest things move somehow and one or two you end up in the hallways of the Parliament with a problem, at the local level you do not get so easily in the hallways of a city hall. "Well, at the local level things are much harder to do and I felt how much the need was here for me and less maybe in Bucharest."

A public café in Merișani

The first event he organized was related to the organization of the sanitation service in the commune. He used a method very little known and used in Romania at that time: he called citizens and representatives of the authorities to a "public café" in which to discuss how each side saw a functional service. "And things happened: after the event the sanitation service appeared and it worked for a while even taking into account what people said at our public café."

Every mandate, the relationship with the public authorities starts well, but things go haywire at some point, when visions and interests break up, Sorina found. So it was with the mayor with whom he had collaborated for the garbage project: a few years away, he decided to demolish some fried houses in a Roma community, located on the public domain. Out of the blue, without any strategy that included the people who lived there. "And then the people in the community asked us, found us and asked for help: 'Mrs. Sorina, forget what she wants to do.' And we couldn't stand on the sidelines." He started a strong campaign, which lasted about a month, in which they also reached the Ministry of Development. From Bucharest came a response urging the mayor to access a line of government funding to build social housing. The local government did not access the funds, but neither did it demolish the houses. "At that point, the connection between us and the city hall broke and we got to the knives."

There's an almost unchangeable thing in this relationship with politics: people in office are very little willing to hear what citizens say, what opinions they have, what suggestions they come up with. "You as mayor have to go and ask the man 'what do you think?' or 'how do we do this?' That should be a practice. Not only is it not a practice, but there is also a hostile attitude, as if we are on a war footing."

Fires to extinguish

APT's mission is "to support communities in Romania, especially those in rural areas, for cultural, educational, social development, civic and entrepreneurial spirit". The organization does this by periodically analyzing the local community and drafting a community report, monitoring the activity of the local administration, monitoring the local elections, education for the environment, supporting children from the local community of rudar Roma, social economy projects and much more. 

Beyond these activities, APT has developed as an organization that tries to put out fires at the local and county level, and there are plenty of them. "We're more of an organization that acts because at some point it's needed, and then we are. That we move harder, that we do not always have resources, but at least on very serious things we try to have a reaction", explains Sorina.

For example, the association intervened three years ago, when the homes of six families in the community risked falling into a ravine. They started a campaign through which they tried to raise awareness among the majority community and the local public administration and to look for solutions. From an emphatic "no", after almost a year the city hall and the City Council gave in concession to the six families a piece of land of 300 square meters on which they could build. 

A few years ago, when she went with pregnant women or gynecological conditions to hospitals, Sorina found that at the level of the public system in the county there was no functional ultrasound. Whoever needed it had to go to private clinics. So he started a journey through the institutions. "We went to the County Council to ask for an ultrasound, the County Council said to us, 'Well, who are you to ask for an ultrasound? He didn't ask for the hospital.' After that we went to the hospital, the hospital said it didn't have it, we asked for it at the Health Insurance House, the House said that they would settle ultrasounds for pregnant women, but they never asked for ultrasounds for it." The subject came out in the press and eventually a donor was found, so that the women from Arges now have the opportunity to go to a public hospital for ultrasounds.

With the pandemic, the issue of education also became a priority: in the first months, when the children were staying at home and no one was reaching them, Sorina thought to print some handouts, to give them to work, at least not to look at what they had learned and to have a concern. This summer he made, with the help of a funding of about 6,000 euros coming through the Donor Circle, a project he had long dreamed of: "Workshops with talc", a series of meetings in which children played with letters and reckonings and could recover something from what the pandemic had started to erase.

With the funding, it's very complicated, because a lot of times the financiers want hundreds of beneficiaries, dozens of campaigns, questionnaires, leaflets, and APT doesn't have that capacity. The most recent projects they worked on were in partnership with a large organization in Bucharest. "There is a budget and God help that it is a budget that helps us to have gasoline money, to have money of a salary. But there are times, sometimes half a year, when we have absolutely nothing. And then we put it out of our pocket. It's not awful, because we know we're doing different things."

For Sorina, intervening in a social matter "becomes almost like a personal target, it becomes a personal suffering". He's just thinking about it, and sometimes he can't sleep thinking about how he can solve the situation. "What motivates me the most is the injustice. Otherwise, at the level of philosophy, I would like my children to live more cool than we are living now."

I ask her what she would do differently if she gave the time back. "That's because I would get married and go back home? That's because there would be a possibility that I won't go back home and leave," she asks with a smile. In the version in which she would return to Merișani, being married, she says that she would not do anything differently. He could never do politics, for example, because he finds it very difficult to be a mayor or a parliamentarian. In the other variant of destiny, maybe they would go to another country. "It's nice to go back to Romania, 'on one foot of the land'. But it seems so easy somewhere else, you know." 



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