A personal account by Claudia Janiszewski, President and Founder of OSAAB, of how she started the program in 1996, and the obstacles and challenges she faced in de-stigmatizing the abandoned babies in the eyes of Albanian society.
When I first heard about the abandoned babies in July 1996, I had been living and working in Albania for almost two years. I was working for ORT, a United States Agency For International Development (USAID) funded project providing job skills training to former political prisoners persecuted under the former communist regime. My husband was working for the U.S. Treasury establishing private banking in Albania for the first time in over fifty years. I never even knew the problem of infant abandonment existed.
After the fall of the Communist regime in 1991, the problem of infant abandonment arose for the first time. Babies were being left by mothers who came into the maternity hospital using false names, gave birth, and simply slipped out the back door leaving the baby behind. The maternity hospital was not prepared to care for them and left the babies in a corridor. An Albanian friend of mine, Dr. Eni Gorishti, told me about the babies and arranged for me and my assistant, Enkelejda (Enki) Hoxhallari, to have access into the hospital to see the babies first hand.
I first visited the hospital on July 2, 1996. At the time there were seven babies lying in rusty cribs on blood stained ripped mattresses. They didn’t have clothes or diapers but were wrapped in soiled, dirty muslin cloth. They rarely received any baby formula and were fed rice water to take away hunger pains and to temporarily ease their crying. Occasionally other mothers in the hospital would donate breast milk, however this was not very often. Babies rarely received baths due to a lack of hot water in the hospital. The plaster in the ceiling above the babies’ heads was falling. The windows were broken and there was no heat in winter. Bugs crawled into incubators that didn’t work. The babies were like zombies and had blank looks in their eyes. All were severely malnourished and were rarely held by the nursing staff.
The nurses viewed these babies as “throw aways” and had the attitude that if their own mothers didn’t care, why should they? The nursing staff was dealing with their own problems in their lives. Most had husbands who were unemployed and the women were the sole providers of the family. Their monthly pay was $60 per month. They worked 6 days a week for 8 to10 hours a day.
The babies were not named but were simply referred to as numbers, and remained in the hospital until they reached 6 pounds in weight. Then, if room was available, they would be moved to one of the orphanages throughout Albania to await adoption. However, to reach the six pounds was a struggle due to lack of proper nourishment. Babies remained in the hospital anywhere from the first two weeks to seven months of their lives. Seeing the conditions of the babies and the unhealthy surroundings that they lived in affected me in a way that is very hard to describe. The only saving grace from this horrible situation was Mira Asllani, an Albanian social worker assigned to the abandoned babies by the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. Mira tried to do the best she could with limited resources and truly cared about the well being of the babies. Mira went beyond the call of duty and would regularly visit various humanitarian agencies in Tirana asking for help with diapers and baby formula. Unfortunately the supplies were not consistent, and the babies would revert back to the previous conditions very quickly.
It seemed so simple to change this and to give these babies, at least for the first few months of their lives, some basic loving care and proper nourishment. I left Albania the next day for a vacation back in the United States. As the airplane was taking off and I looked back at the land I was leaving, I was overcome with emotion about these infants. It all seemed so unfair. They did not choose this for themselves. At that moment I became determined to do something about it. It was a moment in life that I will never forget. I didn’t realize at that time how much this would change my life. It seemed so simple to make things better for them. Little did I realize the obstacles that I would later face.
Once reaching the United States, I called my sister Jeanne Herbert who lived in California and explained to her what I had seen. She immediately sent me $1000 and told me to follow my heart. While in the U.S., I bought some pacifiers, baby bottles, clothing, diapers and baby formula for the babies. I returned to Albania on August 4, 1996 and went to the hospital the very next day. This is the day the program “officially” started. With additional funds donated through a women’s group I was involved in, additional supplies were purchased. Land O Lakes operated a USAID project in Albania, and the Project Director, Deborah Wagner, volunteered her evenings to help with the babies. She also enlisted the support of Land O Lakes employees in the U.S. to raise funds to ensure that the babies would continue to be provided for. Volunteers, consisting of foreign women living in Albania, as well as Albanian women, were organized to go to the hospital daily to assist with the babies’ care.
Enki and I would go to the hospital each day during our lunch breaks from work to feed the babies. The first time we started to hold the babies there was a look of shock on their faces. They weren’t used to being held or having a soft voice sing to them. A couple of weeks into the program, the nurses began to complain that because we were holding the babies, they now cried when they weren’t being held. The nurses were accustomed to the babies being passive and never crying. To them this was good as it meant their job was easier. However, now with the volunteers coming into the hospital and holding them, the babies were starting to respond to human touch. Training was given to the nurses on the importance of one-on-one contact with an infant in their first few months of life. They didn’t think the babies would know the difference between being held or not. ” It was just a baby, what do they know?” they would say. There were many days that I would go home after visiting the babies and cry. The nurses just didn’t get it. They were still very reluctant to hold the infants and would simply prop up bottles in their cribs during feedings. Nurses would have to be kept after to change the babies otherwise they would lay in wet soiled diapers for hours at a time. It was very hard for me to understand their lack of caring. Many of these women were mothers themselves. How could they be so cruel?
In March 1997, civil unrest began to envelop the country due to the collapse of pyramid investment schemes. The majority of all Albanians had invested their life savings into these Ponzi schemes on the promise of returns of high interest payments. The pyramids began to collapse. Large numbers of Albanians took to the streets. Armories were looted. Gunfire was heard 24 hours a day. The U.S. Embassy began evacuation procedures for American citizens living in Albania. I was concerned for the welfare of these babies. Who would make sure they received diapers, medical treatment and baby formula? I stood in the hospital hallway crying, as I couldn’t bear to leave the babies not knowing if they would be safe and cared for. However, at that point Enki and Mira said not to worry, they would make sure the babies continued to receive the provisions. Enki offered the cellar at her home as a safe place to store the milk and diapers. The feeling of relief that went over me was unbelievable. I was very concerned about finding a safe location for the supplies as most of the humanitarian organization warehouses were being looted and burned.
We immediately went out and bought as much baby formula and diapers as we could find and took it to Enki’s house. I left Enki extra money to buy more supplies if needed, as I didn’t know how long the unrest would continue, or if we would ever be allowed to return to Albania.
The airport was closed due to commercial flights coming under fire. The U.S. Marines flew into Albania the next day in helicopters. As we were boarding our bus at the U.S. Embassy to take us to the “launch site”, we had to say our good-byes to the Albanians who had become like family. I felt like such a wimp leaving them all behind. They couldn’t leave and were destined to stay behind with an uncertain future in a country of chaos and anarchy. I felt like I was abandoning the babies and the people that I had grown to love. The feeling of guilt still haunts me today. Whenever I hear the sound of helicopters, I freeze, and a passing moment of anxiety goes through my system.
Upon returning to the U.S., I went into a black hole period of my life. Nothing was exciting to me, nothing seemed fun. I just wanted to return to Albania and have my life as it was. Without directly realizing it, this cloud hung over me for almost two years. It was later described to me as culture shock or post traumatic stress syndrome. I could function on a daily basis but something was missing from my life. I kept thinking of the babies. Enki and I had kept in contact via emails and she, Mira the social worker and Mali, our project driver at my “real job”, assured me that the babies were doing fine. During the unrest, they continued to go to the hospital daily, at times under gunfire, with baby formula, clothing and diapers in hand. On one of those days, Mali’s car was stolen. Without “The Three Musketeers” I don’t know how this work could have gone on.
In July 1997, I decided to register the program as a U.S. Non-Profit organization. I knew that the only way this program would be able to continue financially is if I took it upon myself to make it happen. I called around to various law firms asking how to proceed. I was told it would cost about $3000 in legal fees to get registered and to apply for non profit status. I couldn’t afford that as the program was relying pretty much on what I personally contributed, as well as what I could beg off of friends and family. I did find a very sympathetic lawyer who registered us and created our bylaws. The organization legally became named “Organization for the Support of Albania’s Abandoned Babies (OSAAB)”. However, the task of getting the non profit status was financially beyond my means. I decided that I would take a stab at it and try to do the paper work myself. I did and fortunately, by the grace of God, the application fell on the desk of a very caring IRS Agent. Yes, they do exist! We got our tax-exempt status within 3 months and were ready to roll. Brochures were made and sent out to every living soul that I knew, pleading for support. Donations came in slowly but enough to make sure that the babies continued to have diapers and formula for the time being. I had many moments of waking up in the middle of the night worrying about where I would find more money for the next month’s supplies.
In September 1997, Americans were allowed to return to Albania. My husband and I went back to finish our work and to check on the babies. When landing at the airport, it felt like I was returning home. We stayed for two weeks and during that time I purchased as many supplies as I could afford. Enki, Mira and Mali continued to take the supplies daily to the hospital and assured me the babies were doing OK.
In January 1998, my husband and I moved to St. Petersburg, Russia for my husband’s work. I continued to orchestrate fund raising via email and made contacts on the Internet. I was able to go back to Albania every couple of months from Russia to buy more supplies. By then I became certified as an infant massage instructor and gave courses in massage to the nursing staff and volunteers, emphasizing the need for the babies to be touched. The nurses were slowly coming around but they still wouldn’t hold the babies during feeding times and would continue to prop the bottles in the cribs which resulted in the babies having extreme gas. Getting the nurses to cuddle and coo to the babies was still a long way away.
During one of my visits in the summer of 1998, the heat was unbearable. Not an air conditioner was to be found in the country. It was at that time that I had one of my emotional meltdowns and had reached my limit with the nurses’ lack of caring. The babies were sweltering in heat at temperatures well over 110 degrees by 9:00am. However, the nurses insisted on layering them in heavy clothes, which resulted in the babies having infected blisters from heat rash over the majority of their bodies. I couldn’t understand how they could be so uncaring. The babies’ necks and sides of their faces were red and blotchy from the milk that had spilled when the bottles were propped up during feedings. The nurses would not wipe the milk off, and the wetness would later turn into a rash due to the moisture from the milk and the heat in the air. I flipped out and they were shocked. I have always tried to remain pleasant to them and not get in their faces too much. After all, this was their hospital, I had no medical background and they were there for the long haul. They didn’t work for me nor did we pay them. I needed to find a way to give them pride in their work and make them care about the babies. Yelling at them wasn’t going to help, but sometimes I couldn’t take it anymore. When was the light going to come on? I would leave the hospital most days and just weep out of frustration and the unfairness of it all. It wasn’t the babies’ fault that their mothers left them. They deserved better from society. I knew I couldn’t give up, nor did I ever consider it. My giving up would be the same as their mothers who gave up because they couldn’t handle the pressure from society of being unmarried and having a child. It seemed so easy for the mothers to dump their babies in trash cans on the streets or just to walk out of the hospital, never looking back or wondering what would happen to their baby. They had been abandoned once before and I was determined they wouldn’t be abandoned again. Where I got the energy and determination, I don’t know.
My husband and I moved back to Colorado from Russia in August 1998. I continued my campaign for fund raising but times were tough. I felt like the world didn’t care about the babies. I continued to rely heavily on friends and family to drum up support.
In February 1999, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver wrote a story about the program. I received a barrage of phone calls from people wanting to help. It took me by surprise as I realized people really did care. Elementary schools organized fund raising bake sales for the babies. I went around to church groups, schools, anybody who would listen, telling my story and showing slides of the babies and the condition they were in when I first found them, and the conditions they were in now. The wonderful people in Colorado raised a few thousand dollars. Not a lot of money by most organizations’ standards but enough to keep us going for a few more months. I talked to various TV stations about doing a profile on our organizations but none were too interested as it didn’t seem “newsworthy” and “where is Albania anyhow?” they would say.
In April 1999, the Kosovo refugee crisis began and the world suddenly knew where Albania was. Over 500,000 Kosovars entered Albania fleeing the Serbian induced ethnic cleansing. Enki, who by then had become our part-time Country Director, called me in Denver on April 1,1999, telling me that women were coming into the hospital from Kosovo and giving birth. She wanted to know if we could help them even though they weren’t abandoning their babies. They had no clothes or even diapers for their newborn babies. Many women had given birth on mountaintops and came to the hospital anemic from the loss of blood. Their babies were sick due to exposure. I ensured Enki that we could help, even though I hadn’t a clue where I would find the money. I called the Rocky Mountain News and asked them to please run a story on the Kosovo refugees and how we were trying to help. The Denver Post ran a story as well. The morning the stories ran, we became bombarded with TV and radio media wanting a piece of the story. I was unaccustomed to this and my immediate reaction was to run and hide to avoid the constant inquiries. However, I also realized I had to ride the wave, as their interest wouldn’t last for long. At one point I thought, “The hell with them. Where were they when we weren’t newsworthy?” That thought passed pretty quickly. Due to the media exposure, over 400 people called the OSAAB hot line in a two day period, wanting to help the abandoned babies, as well as the women and babies from Kosovo. My faith in humanity was restored!
My husband and I returned to Albania on April 21,1999 with the money we raised to buy supplies for the babies. It was a heart wrenching experience to talk to mothers with newborn infants whose husbands were missing and presumably dead. Serbs had destroyed their homes and they had nothing but the clothes on their backs. The second morning I was in Tirana, it began to rain heavily. I looked out the window of the hotel and began to weep (I obviously do this a lot as you can see). The thought of these babies leaving the hospital and going to live in tents in camps, in the rain, was so sad. What a way to begin life. When NATO stopped bombing and the refugees returned home, we had provided care and supplies to over 700 newborn infants and mothers in a three-month period. Our little itty-bitty organization was the sole humanitarian agency providing care to newborns and their mothers in both maternity hospitals in Tirana.
In August 1999, Project Cure, a humanitarian medical relief agency located in Denver donated a forty-foot container of medical supplies for the abandoned babies and for the general use of the maternity hospital. The container had a value of over $350,000 worth of supplies and equipment. OSAAB needed to raise $8000 to pay the shipping costs. With support from various businesses and community groups, such as the Rotarians in Colorado, funds were raised and the first shipment left Denver in August 1999. The Denver Rotary Club also donated funds to ship two more containers. The next shipment left Denver in March 2000 and another was sent in December 2000. The effect that these supplies have had on the care the babies receive is phenomenal. Hospital staff is now extremely attentive to the babies’ needs and the quality of medical care they receive. Through these supplies, the hospital staff has been given the tools to be able to do their jobs better. They realize that these supplies are coming to them because of the abandoned babies. I nonetheless, do not EVER let them forget this. When the hospital staff thanks me, I tell them to thank the babies. In fact, I make them go and kiss the babies!
In October 1999 I was offered a job to return to Albania to work for my former employer, ORT, to work on a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supporting Albanian Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) through technical assistance and grants. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to return to Albania working in an area for which I felt such compassion, as well as having the chance to continue my volunteer work with the babies in the hospital on my free time in the evenings and weekends.
Also in October 1999, the Milagro Foundation, created by musician Carlos Santana and his wife Deborah, gave OSAAB a grant of $10,000 to partially cover the costs of diapers, baby formula and medical care for the babies for one year. Having this grant enabled me to spend more time working on program development in Albania rather then freaking out about where I was going to find the money to buy more diapers.
In May 2000, the U.S. Department of Defense, through the U.S. Embassy in Tirana’s Security Assistance Program, allocated funds to renovate the abandoned babies ward in the hospital. The previous conditions of the room were dismal to say the least. A baby friendly environment has now been created. New cribs were made, and a swing was donated along with rocking chairs. The organization Divine Inspirations in California donated handmade angel dolls which now adorn each crib as a symbol of guardianship. The falling ceiling was repaired, and a hot water heater, tiling, cabinets, changing tables, etc. were installed. The effect that these renovations have made on the care the babies now receive, as well as the morale of the nursing staff, is indescribable.
The DOD allocated additional funds to construct a laboratory on the hospital premises on behalf of the abandoned babies. In June 2000, the DOD allocated more funds to build a training room for mother-child care at the hospital. In September 2001 construction of an administration building on the hospital premises was completed. DOD also sent two containers of medical supplies and equipment for the babies and the hospital. All of this has been given to the hospital on behalf of the abandoned babies. Major Sean Scott was the initial overseer of this project in Tirana and was, in my opinion, an angel sent from above to help the babies. Not only did Major Scott support this program in efforts to renovate the hospital but personally enlisted the help of his family in Washington State to raise funds, knit hats and booties and collect clothes for the babies. I will forever be grateful to Major Scott for his efforts as they have made a profound positive impact on the way the babies are now perceived by the hospital staff and Albanian society in general.
The U.S. Embassy in Albania has also been extremely supportive of this program and our initiative to bring about awareness of infant abandonment in Albania. In May 2000, the U.S. Ambassador hosted a round table discussion on infant abandonment and the work OSAAB is doing to address this problem. Albanian high-level government officials, as well as the First Lady of Albania, and the Prime Minster’s wife, attended the round table. Albanian news media covered the event, which in turn has helped to de-stigmatize the babies in society’s eyes. The hospital staff has seen how the Ambassador has focused his attention on the babies, which in turn has made them realize these babies are not the “scum of the earth” as they previously thought.
Babies are now clean, not a snotty nose to be found in the group. Diapers are changed on a regular basis and the cooing and cuddling heard from within the room by nursing staff brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. Bottle propping is a major no-no. Nurses interact with the babies now and not only hold them during feeding times but play with them while they are awake. The nursing staff have become like a second family to me and are extremely grateful for what OSAAB has done to improve their working conditions. They now have pride in the work they do. Nurses in other parts of the hospital now fight to be able to work on our team. The nurses renamed the ward “The Angel’s Cradle”, which they felt was much more “comforting” then “The Abandoned Babies Ward”. This initiative, which they took upon themselves, confirms to me that we have made a difference in sensitizing society, as well as the medical community’s attitude about the babies.
As mentioned before, one of the biggest hurdles I have had to overcome with this program is getting the hospital staff to care, as well as members of Albanian society. A fantastic group of volunteers work in the hospital daily to help care for these children. This is remarkable in itself, as volunteerism is an unusual event in Albania. Under the former communist system, Albanians were forced to work on community volunteer projects. After the fall of communism in 1991, Albanians wanted nothing to do with the former regime or anything that resembled the past. Slowly, volunteerism is coming back into play. In August 2000, IREX, a USAID media project in Albania, completed filming of a documentary on OSAAB and the Albanian volunteers titled “Heroes of Albania.” People like Enki, Mali and Mira were shown as symbols of the future of Albania. The film began to be shown on television stations throughout Albania in August 2000 and still continues to be shown monthly. The film has made a tremendous impact on the way society views abandoned babies, adoption and volunteerism in general.
OSAAB has made great strides in providing care for the abandoned babies, and we have made steps forward in convincing members of Albanian society to accept these children.
OSAAB has a Board of Directors who are very committed to ensuring that this program will continue financially for an indefinite period of time. Continuous fund raising and awareness campaigns are vital to ensure that the babies will always be cared for. It is an ongoing effort and requires a permanent commitment on the part of OSAAB and its partners.
Life is good right now. I feel very strongly that this has been my destiny. I no longer have nights where I wake up with anxiety attacks about where the money for supplies is going to come from. It is still not easy to keep finding the resources to keep the program going, but through the support and dedication of all the people who believe in our cause, I am able to breathe a little easier these days.
On a personal note, I wake up each day feeling that I am the luckiest person alive. So few of us get to find out why we were put on this earth and what our purpose in life is. To be able to have stumbled on to something, purely by accident, that moves me so deeply and with such conviction and passion is truly a gift, a gift that I will forever be grateful for receiving.
I feel very proud of the ownership that the hospital has taken of the program and the changes in the attitude of society towards the babies. So much has changed over the past eighteen years. I vividly remember the early days and the obstacles that we had to overcome. It wasn’t easy…. but we did it!!
The End..…For Now
In December 2002, OSAAB President and Founder, Claudia Janiszewski, was awarded the “Presidential Civil Merit Medal and Decree” by the President of the Republic of Albania for contributions she made in strengthening non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Albania and her work supporting abandoned children.