Former Romanian street child Veronica Tatut had an emotional reunion with Snells Beach property manager Nadine Piclisan-Perrin last month.
Veronica decided to spend her honeymoon in New Zealand with husband Dani, repeat her wedding vows at a ceremony in Scotts Landing, and reconnect with Nadine, who ran a day centre and home for orphaned and neglected children in Romania, for 15 years.
Today, Veronica is a bright, articulate woman of 27 who has forged a new life for herself and her husband in Austria, where they both work.
But when Nadine first saw Veronica she was a waif of about eight, begging at a traffic intersection in the city of Timisoara while clutching on to her younger sister Ionela, who was about three at the time.
Nadine first became interested in Romania after seeing a television documentary on the plight of orphans there.
She first visited the country for three months in 1995, six years after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
She visited numerous orphanages, finding that children continued to be maltreated, neglected and abused.
Younger children would be confined all day to soiled cribs, with little attention or affection.
Aid poured in from the West – clothes, sweets, food and furniture – but all was quickly snagged by orphanage staff to benefit themselves.
“There was a lot of corruption and theft. Their attitude was they are orphan kids and they don’t matter,” Nadine says.
In 1998, Nadine returned to Romania to complete the practical component of a counselling diploma she was undertaking at Bible College.
She started to work alongside street children in Timisoara, paying young girls to translate for her out of her student allowance.
She says street kids were treated like stray dogs by most of the local populace, but she discovered a church where the children could go for food and have a shower.
It was there Nadine met and fell in love with her future husband Cerbu who was in the process of setting up an NGO – Association Mana (bread from heaven) – to help street kids.
The church members who supported the ministry were themselves poor.
“But everybody brought what they could – a couple of plates, a couple of spoons, three potatoes, a loaf of bread. They pooled their resources and started helping. That was the beauty of the ministry.
Missionaries did not come in with money, it was very grassroots,” Nadine recalls.
After establishing a street children’s day centre, the couple went on to set up a permanent home for girls, who were especially vulnerable to being raped or manipulated by older boys into becoming prostitutes.
Veronica was among the girls who came to live there after abandoning her home, fleeing two state orphanages and spending much of her time begging on the streets.
To protect herself, she disguised herself as a boy and went by the name of Alex.
Veronica says she had no future at home, where her mother and stepfather would disappear for weeks at a time. As a child of six, she often became responsible for Ionela who, on one occasion, fainted because of a lack of food.
Veronica says the home established by Nadine and Cerbu was a different world.
“They had bikes, they had rollerblades, we went camping. We got to eat three times a day and there were two bathrooms so everyone could have a bath,” she says.
Veronica lived there happily for the next seven years, though admits living with the rules could sometimes be a challenge.
Among the important lessons was learning that it was not okay to slap another girl around or humiliate her with words – normal behaviour on the streets.
Veronica left the home when she turned 18 and came to New Zealand after falling in love with a Kiwi volunteer, who worked there briefly.
The relationship did not last and Veronica returned to Romania when her visa ran out. She worked various jobs before meeting her future husband Dani and settling in Austria.
Meanwhile, Nadine and Cerbu resettled in Snells Beach so that their own children, who both have special needs, could benefit from specialist medical care.
Nadine adds that having established the home for girls, she feels they had accomplished what God had planned for them to do and the home is now being run by another family.
Veronica says it’s a joy to see Nadine and Cerbu again in New Zealand.
“They gave up all their young years when they could have had fun. Instead, they listened to God and started this thing with children who really needed help,” Veronica says.
“I feel the weight of the effort they have put into raising me up. I am the woman I am today because they were willing to suffer all the frustrations of bringing me up.”
From left, Dani and Veronica Tatut, and Nadine and Cerbu Piclisan-Perrin, following a wedding ceremony at Scotts Landing.
Veronica Tatut with husband Dani, is leaving her former life on Romanian streets far behind.