The NGO that Ian Tilling established and ostensibly runs, Casa Ioana, helps abused women and their children, especially those with associated housing problems. The women gain much needed safety and security at Casa Ioana and the organisation’s talented and dedicated staff help the women get their lives back together.
By Douglas Williams
Over 80% return to a “normal” life after the 12 months that they stay with Casa Ioana. At any given time there are upwards of 150 people being looked after by Casa Ioana but there is also a waiting list of 200 other abused and homeless women the majority of whom have children.
Tilling arrived in Romania less than a year after the revolution, a concerned individual here seeking to help, deeply affected by the news and images he was seeing on his TV back in southern England. In England he had been a senior detective with the police in a major port town.
Reminiscent of the children in Africa, flies congregated around the eyes and mouths of the children
Tilling and a friend drove a couple of vans packed with donated goods all the way from the UK. He was struck by the beauty of this country but working in an orphanage to the south east of Bucharest proved harrowing: “All the children had potbellies and I could not help likening them to the images of starving children in Africa. Reminiscent of the children in Africa, flies congregated around the eyes and mouths of the children who either seemed to enjoy the attention they were being given or were too lethargic to brush them away with their hand.
“My duties were simple, I needed to interact with the children and keep them clean. Both tasks were nightmarish. Each time I attempted to lift a child out of their cot, they would become very agitated and scream uncontrollably. I quickly realised that what I was actually doing was trying to remove these frightened children from the security of their own little worlds, a world that only they had shared year after year without change. How do you keep a child clean when he or she has diarrhoea? Sorry let me rephrase that, when he or she has diarrhoea and has only a thin piece of cotton to serve as a nappy.”
The culture shock that I had experienced going from ‘west’ to ‘east’ was small compared to the amazement of returning.
Returning to England Ian recalls: “The culture shock that I had experienced going from ‘west’ to ‘east’ was small compared to the amazement of returning. I had left a capital city with few shops and outdoor food markets for a small town crammed with supermarkets bragging dozens of varieties of pet foods; a monochrome city to a town bursting with colourful advertising and bright shop-dressed windows; futureless children with carefree kids enjoying life to the fall. I had to go back. I had no idea why or what purpose would be served by returning, I simply knew that it was impossible to resist the lure to return.” There followed a year of back and forth before Tilling settled here in Romania full-time and has lived here ever since.
Compact, tanned and healthy looking Tilling is a long time vegan. Jovial, genial and unassuming his default setting is busy and yet totally unfazed. His phone continually rings as events he is organising or central too come together, trips to the UN and European policy setting organisations are set up, and certain delicate diplomatic negotiations are manoeuvred.
By ’94 the original charity Tilling had set up collapsed mainly as a result of the political turmoil of that time. His personal life went into something of a tailspin as well. He found himself in the depth of winter divorced, broke and living in a tough neighbourhood eating little but drinking plenty of cheap wine “wallowing in self-pity and refusing to acknowledge a future”. He was repeatedly told to “Go home and get a life” by the Brits he knew here.
He didn’t heed their advice and the next spring a thawed out Tilling set about creating a new charity, Joanna House, which soon became Casa Ioana. Later that year a fledgling relationship blossomed into a fully-fledged love affair and soon after marriage, and Tilling’s life had most definitely taken a turn for the better. Volunteers from around the world flocked to help with Casa Ioana and the organisation went from strength to strength. The first Casa Ioana proper opened in 1997.
He was repeatedly told to “Go home and get a life” by the Brits he knew here.
Since then there have been a series of highs and lows, some prosaic like the centre being gutted by a squad of thieves, others more regal with the visit of the UK’s Prince Charles.
Getting up to present, Tilling explains: “About five years ago, Casa Ioana witnessed more and more families losing their homes and ending up living on the streets. We were regularly confronted by parents who were able to find emergency night shelter but these local authority sanctuaries would not accept their children. Recognising that the system was failing these families and encouraging their breakup at a time when a family needed each other most, Casa Ioana decided to concentrate all its efforts on this new phenomenon.”
Although at times frustrated by the “political class” and the endemic “corruption” Romania is now home to Tilling, he has no plan to leave. He feels safer here than anywhere he’s been and he sees a real shift in attitudes towards helping others – a shift in a good way.
“I hate it when those who have a great deal, fail to help those who through a lack of opportunity or choice have found themselves left behind. In all my experience, I have never yet met a homeless person who has told me that he or she has adopted that way of life.”
For more information on Casa Ioana, how you can get involved or donate see www.casaioana.org/eng