The Kindness of Strangers

It is my privilege to have been a patron of Hospices of Hope and our children’s projects for more than 16 years. I speak tonight on behalf of the most vulnerable citizens of Romania and all of Eastern Europe. I speak especially today of the children afflicted with rare or terminal illnesses and their families.

You have heard our hopes and plans laid out for the new Children’s Centre at Copaceni, close to Bucharest. You have heard Graham Perolls and Ileana Florescu explain why the Florescu family has so generously donated such an important property to the charity.

So why should anyone here in the United Kingdom be concerned about children in catastrophic situations in Eastern Europe, when there are also problems closer to home? Why does Eastern Europe matter to us?

Because, as events of the last decades keep showing us, we live in a connected world. Those of us who are privileged to live in free and democratic societies, who enjoy every freedom of speech and action, do have an obligation to help those who do not, those who live in post-communist or post-conflict countries still struggling with the aftermath of repression and war, with economies and health systems that are broken.

Almost all of us, a generation or two back, are likely to have links with ancestors who fled oppression and came to the West with hopes of building a new life in a safe haven.

But democracy has to be learned, structures re-invented after devastation, which is where most of Eastern Europe still finds itself. I could speak about geo-politics, and the need for a strong Europe, and I could elaborate on the largely dysfunctional health care structures in states that have been left near bankruptcy.

I could speak about corruption, basic drugs often unavailable, about patients who are simply sent home to die because there is no provision for end-life care, about the fact that many life-threatening illnesses are usually detected only when they are already in terminal phase. I could explain that no-one goes to the doctor because they can’t afford to, there is no preventive care or screening, and that our exceptional doctors are under-equipped and under-paid themselves. I could tell you about the individual and collective pain of so many families devastated by having to care for desperately ill family members, and especially children.

But I would give you some much more personal reasons why we must care, why we must be involved, why the Children’s Centre is an inspired premise, and why it deserves all our support.

I believe in the kindness of strangers. Like many people here tonight, I basically owe my life to the kindness of strangers. If I am here to speak to you tonight, and was able to grow up in the civil societies of Switzerland and Canada, and later return to my country of origin, Romania, it is only because of the kindness of strangers, people I never met and who never met me. People who were willing to risk position and their lives to help a three-year old to safety from the communist regime that had already sequestered everyone in my family. I never met those people, but I will never forget them.

The kindness of strangers is often what makes this a civilised world, the care and compassion we extend to those who are helpless and in need.

Most of us hope to lead a productive and useful life, and take for granted that it will end with dignity and grace and free of pain. But it is not always so in Eastern Europe. We will never be able to help every man, woman and child in distress, but it is within our power to help the children and those who care for them, to make what is left of their limited lives, a very great deal better.

We are not often given the chance to make a real difference in the lives of those most in need. This is one of them. And the example we set tonight will shape future generations, because they too, will believe in the kindness of strangers.

I thank you!

Princess Marina Sturdza of Romania