WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

What an expat can do to change the narrative back home

I recently returned to Italy, my home country, while waiting for my next destination abroad. What I have found is a terrible reality in which the official narrative is based on racism, discrimination, and prejudice. I have been wondering what I, as an expat, can do to contribute to counteract all of this.

 

Don’t you agree? You put a banana in her hand, set her on a branch, and you realize they are all monkeys”.

“They”, I gathered, were dark-skinned people.

This comment came from an exchange I overheard between a fitness instructor and his colleagues at a gym where I was doing some physiotherapy, last August. The instructor had barely finished a brief conversation with a dark-skinned lady before launching into this bigoted discourse.

I have come back to Italy to find a country torn by discrimination, mistrust, and a lack of solid values.

Racist and homophobic attacks of all sorts have been on the increase in the last years, but never before had I experienced such a recurrence in discriminatory acts in our daily lives.

From North to South, there has been an increase in physical attacks on migrants (some have been killed), verbal abuse, mocking, discriminatory measures to avoid employing foreigners, deny them housing, or even excluding them from school canteens.

Like all those in Italy at the moment who feel disgusted with this climate of hatred and violence, I have been wondering what can be done to counteract the terrible atmosphere that must be so frightening and intimidating to the many human beings who have come to my country in search of opportunities; and who, in many cases, have actually greatly contributed to the Italian economic growth.

In particular, because I have been an expat for more than half of my life, I feel it is my duty to find a way to dismantle the official narrative that painfully contradicts one of the most ancient and deeply rooted Italian values: hospitality.

Photo Credit Claudia Landini

I have been welcomed in so many countries in my life. I have never ever felt discriminated against or badly treated because of my background, provenance, skin colour, or for my role in those countries.

The openness that people of my host countries have repeatedly shown has allowed me to relate to them at a deep level, and to touch the commonalities each individual shares in life, and build on them.

In sharing simple daily routines with the people who welcomed me, I have felt accepted – and this has allowed me to destroy mental barriers that the fear of what is different often builds in our minds.

This is exactly what is happening in Italy now: some of our politicians are playing with the fear of the foreigner; a fear which many who have not had the chance to get in touch with diversity feel – and politicians build on it. They create a wall between “us” and “them”, and reinforce this gap by feeding stories of dishonesty, criminality, and profiting at the expense of “our” goods and capital.

How we go about destroying this gap has been a desperate focus since my return. As Cristina says in her article about the power of our stories, I know I have the responsibility to share my experience with my countrymen who have not set foot outside of their borders and are more easily swayed by racist narratives.

On one side, I am aware that I have to find a way to explain that by living abroad, I have discovered how much all humans have in common. Deep down, we all want the same for our lives: dignity, health, and a beautiful life for our children.

I also discovered, though, that a wide portion of the world population struggle to achieve this. Some live in conditions that our countrymen cannot even imagine. And I know that if I manage to shift the focus of the narrative from what is happening in Italy to what is happening in the lands where most migrants come from, I can hopefully help change some minds – or at the very least shake some of the arrogant foundations of bigotry.

all rights reserved © Cristina Baldan

Ultimately, if there is one thing I am absolutely sure of, it is that I deeply appreciate the need and drive for migrants to desperately seek hope for a better life. I understand this because I have seen what happens outside our borders; and I think about what I would do in their shoes.

This is the “difference” we as expats can develop within ourselves: having witnessed how the other half on the planet lives, we can advocate for a warmer, more welcoming, and humane approach to these people’s realities. And this, I believe, is not just simply a choice, it’s our duty in these troubled times.

Claudia Landini
November 2018

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The Power of Our Stories

Grasp a cup of tea and take your time to listen to this powerful TEDx: it worth, it is tremendously true in our society.

 

 

When people ask me where I come from, I cannot just say I come from Italy: it’s just not true anymore, I also come from Saudi Arabia, from Nigeria, from Australia, from France, … from each of the countries I have lived in and visited – because almost 20 years of life abroad changed me as a person, no doubt.

So, I start to introduce myself by telling my personal story.

And I realize that when I start to tell my story, people become intrigued by my life.

Well, let’s say they don’t see the hardness and the price we pay for it as expats, they see only the beauty and the sense of adventure. But most of the time, they ask for more details.

Try sharing your own story, and you will likely see that in the moment you start a conversation, you will have an audience.

The way we use that audience is the space of our responsibility: we could just tell interesting or funny anecdotes – or we can choose to tell stories that give new insights into another country and another culture.

When I say that I lived in Saudi Arabia, I notice people have strange reactions: most of them tend to think that Saudi Arabia is similar to Dubai, so they reply with comments that seem to imply “you practically were on a constant holiday, weren’t you?” (Is that all people think about Dubai? Shopping and holidays, that’s it?).

Two or three people are a bit more informed and know something about the country. Their reaction is something along the lines of: “Wow! How did you cope there? It must be horrible for you as a woman.” And this is the moment I enjoy the most: I smile and say that for me it was a wonderful time, a great exploration of a new culture and an amazing experience, not easy, but great.

On the ground of their surprise, I start to tell a different story, the story of how I had been welcomed by Saudi families, how I met and discussed cultural topics with Saudi women and how I broke down so many stereotypes in my mind during my Saudi stay. And I did it just by sharing my daily life in that country.

Do we tell our expat stories? Or do we think they are not interesting enough?

Do we know how powerful our stories can be for society? Are we aware of our potential to help people understand those coming from other countries? We can add new stories to the overall narrative that can help reduce the “danger” of a single story.

We, as expats, can be witnesses of our time by telling stories that come from the places we have lived and build bridges across cultures and societies. Little bridges, not pretentious ones, but always bridges.

We can be powerful tools for society just by telling a different story: our own one.

 

Cristina Baldan
October 2018 – photo credit ©cristinabaldan

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“The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity, it makes our recognition of equal humanity difficult, it empathizes how we are different rather than how we are similar (…) Stories matter, many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize, stories can break the dignity of the people, but stories can also repair the broken dignity. (…) When we reject the single story, when we realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise”.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TEDx Oct.7, 2009

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Hate Hurts, an important project by expat photographer Cinzia D’Ambrosi

Cinzia D’Ambrosi is an expat Italian photographer who uses photography to connect, feel, understand and denounce. I talked to her especially on one of her most important project, Hate Hurts.

 

Cinzia D’Ambrosi left her native Italy at age 18, and never went back. She has lived in Iceland, Germany, Spain, and has her current home in London, though she is constantly travelling for her work. Cinzia has followed her father’s love for photography in becoming a photographer, but she has developed her very personal way of using the camera.

Cinzia believes that photography offers a unique way to connect to people, to enter their lives and get to know them from the inside. It can also act as a powerful means of denunciation, because it exposes realities that would be otherwise unknown.

hate hurtsPassionate about themes like injustice, racism, discrimination and violence, Cinzia lets herself be guided by her emotions when choosing the stories to document. “Once I discover something I believe has to be denounced, I work to gain trust in the people I want to photograph. I live with them, talk to them. This allows me to see their lives from the inside, and give the right angle to my photos”.

This is how Cinzia worked with war widows in Kosovo, with women at risk of home eviction in London and, lately, with refugees and asylum seekers. She was in Greece for a photography residency when the flux of refugees reached its apex. She witnessed first-hand the physical, bureaucratic and psychological violence these persons are subjected to.

I was living in Athens, where lots of refugees would flow every day. I witnessed so many episodes of violence on them. Police would beat them harshly. Activists of Golden Dawn (far-right Greek party) would arrive and add to that. This filled me with rage and a sense of powerlessness”. Cinzia decided to talk to the refugees and collect their stories.

This is how her project Hate Hurts was born. Hate Hurts witnesses what is happening today with these important migration fluxes. It collects stories of refugees who have been subjected to violence in their search for better life conditions. In describing what is going on in this area, and the degree of violence the whole process of seeking refuge in a safer land implies, Hate Hurts investigates and shows facts as they are.

When all this is over”, says Cinzia, “the project will have gone through all the injustice, violence and suffering these refugees have been subjected to, and hopefully, it will stay as proof of what must be avoided if we want to create a better world”.

 

hate hurts

 

I asked Cinzia how she reaches refugees who have been subjected to violence. She told me she follows a precise methodology: she contacts associations that help them, contacts lawyers that protect them, and finds out whether any of them have gone through discriminatory or violent treatment. She talks to people and goes to the places where refugees gather – like the harbour in Athens, the bus terminals, etc.

She sometimes puts herself at great risk to talk to the refugees and photograph the harshest moments of their transitions. State police are not keen on having someone taking pictures when confrontation between them and the refugees arises.

Still, Cinzia continues her work. She has been collecting and sharing stories for her Hate Hurts project in Italy, Greece, Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Iceland. Hate Hurts has gained international support and several prizes. It is an on-going work that involves talks, discussion on the role of photography and is regularly exposed at different venues – it has recently been selected for the European Month of Photography in Bulgaria.

 

Article by Claudia Landini
August 2018
Please support Hate Hurts if you can

Photo credit ©Cinzia D’ambrosi

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Children’s Hope In Action: Improving lives, saving futures!

Nikki Cornfield is one of the Parfitt-Pascoe Writing Residents 2018. She is a British expat, yoga and meditation teacher, currently living in Australia. She blogs at https://nikkicornfield.com/. We thank her for this great article.

 

In July 2016 we joined two other families in Hanoi in the north of Vietnam to begin our adventure traveling south with Intrepid Family Holidays. Arriving in Hoi An, we were given the opportunity to visit CHIA – a grassroots charitable foundation for helping disadvantaged children in Central Vietnam. We donated packs of milk cartons and baby formula and were warmly welcomed by volunteer Jeanne Grant, who today is still generously giving her time as CHIA’s Marketing and Communications Manager. Jeanne Grant arrived in Vietnam on holiday in 2013 and after several more visits fell in love with it and decided to take long service leave from her job as a social worker and family therapist in Victoria, Australia, to volunteer her services at CHIA. “I was hooked and so excited to begin. I began the process of jumping all the hurdles at home to make my dreams come true.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela.

Jeanne and the CHIA staff

We knew we would be meeting children whose problems and disabilities would stab at our hearts; in Vietnam children with special needs are deemed ‘useless’ to their families as they cannot work or go to school to learn. But as we sat and played with them, their smiles demonstrated that these were the lucky ones: they stood a chance of having an education and a future thanks to Jeanne and the volunteers who came from all over the world to offer specialized care.

Life as a volunteer

Arriving back in Hoi An on 15th of January 2016, Jeanne secured herself an apartment and a motor scooter – “even though I had never ridden one in my life.” Her work began immediately at CHIA and her experience has proved “remarkable, fulfilling and so much more than I could ever have imagined.” Jeanne’s courage to start this new life and to give her time making a difference for these children and their parents came from her love of working with children and families, her love of traveling the world and a close family who supports her in everything she does. It’s this foundation of ‘home’ back in Australia that she says gives her the grounding to be able to offer her all in Vietnam and use skills acquired from 20 years of work with abused children. “It is a pleasure and honor to work with this great organization and the staff and children. The greatest satisfaction is that I can make a direct difference in a child’s life, which is an amazing feeling.

Chia children, staff and volunteers

Jeanne introduced herself to our group of five adults and ten children and spoke about the work that CHIA does, not just in the center but also in the community. As the children crawled into our laps for a cuddle or to show us a toy we all melted at the love we immediately felt for them. We were all moved to tears at the stories of just how difficult it is in Vietnam for families to survive and feed their children, let alone educate them. We were humbled at how much we have at home in comparison. In Central Vietnam’s Quang Nam province families are directly responsible for the total cost of sending their child to school. With most families surviving on less than $2 per day – yes that’s less than your average take away coffee -, it is easy to see that school fees and supplies are so huge that this large financial burden becomes unsustainable and children have to quit school. They are forced to work at an early age to help their family. Jeanne explained to us that if the child has learning and/or physical disabilities they cannot do this which leaves them abandoned at home, of no use to their families or society. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room at this stage.

A doctor from our group was emotionally stirred to help immediately and set to work assessing the children. The center relies on volunteer doctors to diagnose the mental and physical disorders in order for them to receive the correct care. We were inspired by Jeanne to act and do something to help this incredible organization, which had made her turn her world upside down to help “change the world of Vietnam’s children.

 

Nikki Cornfield
July 2018

To support CHIA please visit www.ChildrensHopeINAction.org

 

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How living abroad has taught me a few things about work

What Expats Can Do invites all expats to draw lessons from their experience abroad, and be a voice to help enrich the lives of individuals that do not have the opportunity to travel, and cannot witness firsthand what happens in the less fortunate areas of the world.

 

As some of you know I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia, until a couple of weeks ago. Like most expats that have advantageous conditions in their working contract, I had a maid. She was a fantastic woman who took care of me and my house with devotion and professionalism. Thanks to her I was able to devote a lot of my time to my work and all the projects I love.

Shortly before leaving Indonesia for good, she shyly approached me one morning. She was holding a threadbare plastic folder that contained a few recommendation letters, printed on worn-out sheets. She proudly showed them to me and asked me if I could add mine to her dossier. My heart shrank and I could not avoid comparing my situation with hers.

Ani has no LinkedIn profile, no electronic CV, no website, and no blog. All of her working history is contained in those few worn-out papers – and when an employer leaves, she can only hope they will find her another job or be motivated enough to recommend her on expat websites and mailing lists. Her whole working future depends on the willingness of her employer to put energy in this search.

The tools at her disposal, her independence, and ability to promote herself are not the only differences between her, and I though. While I can afford not to work and still live in perfect dignity, if she does not work, she does not eat. Like many other women in the world, she is the breadwinner. Her husband lost his job months ago and has not found another.

I am grateful for my expat life because it has put me in contact with the other half of the world, that part of the planet’s population that cannot afford not to work. And in order to work, they are often forced to adapt to dreadful and underpaid jobs, which many in our privileged positions would abhor.

Some time ago I visited the flowers market in Jakarta. There I discovered that many of the floral decorations used in weddings require a lot of ice to be kept fresh. Within the market there stands a little room where a woman produces and sells ice for this very purpose. She spends her days breaking ice blocks, putting pieces of ice into a machine that grinds them, and collecting the ground ice in big bags to be sold. For hours she is in that freezing little room, bent over ice blocks and filling bags with ground ice. She has one bare hand and a drenched woolen glove covers the other one.

Another thing I often observed in Jakarta (but this is true for so many countries in the world) is that trash collection is as lucrative as ever. I took this picture close to my house in Jakarta:

 

 

The mother of the child sleeping on the cardboard must rummage in the trash to find recyclables that she will sell to the “lord of trash”, as I explained here. She obviously has no one to leave her child with, so improvises a bed beside the trash on the street. I wish no mother on earth would ever be forced to do something like that.

Ani and her worn-out folder sent my mind spinning and I remembered another episode I witnessed in Lubango, Angola, in 1991. At that time we collected food donations to distribute in the war-plagued region, and stored them in a warehouse. When we were ready to distribute, we employed workers for the day to help us load the trucks and unload the food at various distribution points. The stock of food consisted of bags of wheat and cans of oil. I will never forget when a worker, who lifted the last cans onto a cement step where they were being arranged, used his hands to scrape a few drops of cooking oil and collect them into a plastic top that had fallen during the loading operation. I cannot describe what I felt and I do not even think it necessary.

What I want to point out is that when we do not get in touch with such situations, it becomes easy to forget they exist. But they do. This is my small contribution as a reminder to reach out to those who are not as fortunate as I am and don’t get to see all that I see.

 

Claudia Landini
Italy
June 2018

Photo credit ©ClaudiaLandini
except the head photo ©Jean Clauzet

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Getting close to people is a chance to practice your empathy

I consider myself lucky because my husband’s work (the main reason why I have been living abroad for almost thirty years) brings me close to a wide community of people from all walks of life. Wherever I have lived, I have easily made connections with a great variety of individuals and families. Fortunately, the mission behind my husband’s work has opened unexpected doors and led me to discover stories I would never have known otherwise.

 

Even though I have always had privileged channels to interact with people, I have always sought out opportunities to discover different ways of life and unique situations. I strongly believe that if we are to practice empathy, we need to actively get in touch with individuals and situations that we may not otherwise come into contact with in our daily routines, wherever these are.

This is the reason I am so happy and grateful for an event I participated in while recently spending a month in London. InPractice is organised every three months by the Royal Academy of Arts and the idea behind it is very simple (as stated on the RCA website):

“At this event we invite disabled artists and creative people at risk of exclusion from the art world to share their practice with others”

The actual atmosphere and energy this event generated goes beyond words.

 

inpractice

 

One by one artists with different kinds of barriers took the stage. They had ten minutes to talk about themselves and present their work. Some had severe physical disabilities; others came from a history of mental illness or depression; and some had difficulties I couldn’t even pinpoint… but none of this actually matters. What matters is that they were all present to share the one thing they had in common: their love for the arts.

 

 

Some of them did this by sharing their stories and explaining how their challenges led them to art or how art allowed them to overcome their challenges. Others simply explained how they work, and the content of their pieces of art. No matter what and how they decided to present, all through the event I felt a wonderful sense of connection to their stories. I was profoundly moved by the chance to stop for a moment in my healthy and privileged routine to listen to these people.

 

inpractice

 

Listening to these artists and exploring how their suffering has developed their art, or how despite their suffering they have managed to produce amazing things, has been deeply heart-warming. All through the event I felt grateful for this protected space where we were given the opportunity to open up to these artists’ stories and empathetically connect with them. They made us laugh, cry, inquire, and applaud – but mostly they opened up and allowed us to walk, even just for a little while, in their shoes while trying to imagine what it means not only to make art but also to live with physical or mental disabilities.

 

Claudia Landini
Back from London to Jakarta, Indonesia
April 2018

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The essential role of humanities in our times

“Now, as then, we must value the humanities even in the midst of conflict and division. Only through the humanities can we prepare leaders of empathy, imagination, and understanding—responsive and responsible leaders who embrace complexity and diversity. Our institutions must also play a leadership role by making the treasures of the humanities widely available. It is our responsibility to prepare the leaders of tomorrow, and to elevate and protect “the heritage of the human experience” that we all share.”

Source: Why we need humanities more than ever

 

For years I have been convinced that training in science, technology and economics is essential to prepare the young to the working world. Humanities certainly are interesting and important, but I always considered them as accessories.

My life abroad has changed this assumption.

While reading the above article, I found myself reflecting on which process I instinctively learned to set in motion when I have to face a relocation in a new country, and I want to find out more about the people living there. Despite my initial beliefs, I never start by investigating the scientific development and the technology level reached in the country. I certainly look into the economic development level, but this is an aptitude I learned from my university education that allows me to quickly understand the possible life style of population in function of the economical infrastructures available.

However, if I want to find out something about the people in order to be able to connect with diversity, I spontaneously start from literature. I read books, preferably novels of local authors. Literature tells me about a way of thinking, it tells me stories, it gives me hints on habits and ways human interactions are managed in that country.

humanitiesThen, if they are available, I go to exhibitions and local markets to find art crafts: art, and especially photography, makes me understand the feelings and the way local people interpret reality, it tells me about their lives, it is a mirror of how they see and go through life events.

And if in this journey through humanities I meet something I cannot relate to, I focus on it and make an effort to know more about, because most of the time that is the place where the difference is hidden: it is a part of humanity I do not understand yet.

With time and repeated culture shock, I realized that scientific discoveries, the level of technology and the economic development obviously give a lot of information about the people and their lifestyle, but they alone cannot illustrate cultural differences.

I wouldn’t know what I would do without humanities in my expat life: it is one of my most powerful tools to face culture shock. How many people should I get to know and how long would it take me before I can gather enough information to start understanding something about local culture? How can one neglect this aspect of human nature and think of being able to quickly build bridges between cultures and countries? Where there is no reciprocal understanding, communication becomes difficult. Education of new generations should stimulate this practice to open up to other cultures through humanities.

 

Cristina Baldan
June 2017

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FIGT Conference 2017 – What Expats Can Do presentation

This is the presentation Cristina gave at the Families in Global Transition conference in The Hague in March 2017.

I will start by sharing my feelings, so that we can practice empathy straight away: I need your empathy to help me, since this is the first time I speak in a conference and I have to do it in English (apologies to have to make you suffer for more or less10 minutes).

Without repeating information that is already available on the website, I would like to introduce you to what is behind the project What Expats Can Do.

Everything started one year ago, while I was sitting on the other side of this table and TheManThatIWillNeverThankEnough, Christopher O’Shaughnessy, was talking about the critical mission of the expat community.

I lived abroad for 16 years, in 8 different countries, faced some serious cultural shocks. I quit my job and threw away my master degree and my career in order to pursue this kind of life, (I would say without being totally aware of that at that time). I am the stereotype of the expat spouse who sacrificed her social identity on the altar of mobile life. For several years I had been thinking of how I could recycle myself and how my experience could add a valuable contribution to society, apart from being a spouse and a mother. Everything I was considering to pursue, implied starting from scratch, and my experience not being evaluated enough. And that hurts, it really hurts, doesn’t it?

Then there was that man, TheManThatIWillNeverThankEnough, saying something that was touching me deep inside. It was a simple concept: as expats we have gained skills that the world desperately needs, and one of them is particularly important: the ability to feel and create empathy and bring hope to other people.

All through my life abroad, I was aware I was acquiring special skills, but I had never thought those skills could be useful for society. That was a new concept, a new way to see my life experience.

So, I started to think. And talk. I involved Claudia and the Expatclic team, my expat friends, I practically bothered everybody. I worked on this new concept, and my reflections were more or less the following:

Expats are generally not considered as a RESOURCE in society. Companies consider them a resource, but society doesn’t.

 

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Immigrants are considered a social entity and it is understandable: their goal is to settle down, they have a significant financial impact on society (positive as an economical resource, negative for the cost of integration), they tend to integrate their families in the host country. There are governments’ programs to deal with their integration so that they can give their contribution to society.

Expats are generally not considered as a social entity or, if they are, it is a kind of temporary consideration, strictly related to the nature of their assignment (military members, diplomats, executives, etc.). Outside of this role, they practically don’t have a social identity, their families are considered only as “accessories”. It is understandable: expats don’t bring social issues or problems with them, their financial impact on society is limited or controlled. Their integration in society is not an issue: they will not stay for long. In some countries expats communities are also “physically” confined inside specific areas to keep them separated by locals.

And this is a waste. It is a huge waste of potential, because mobility is globally growing even if in different ways; the global expat community is growing.

An expat family IS a precious resource for the local society.

Why? For the following reasons:

  1. Our cultural level is generally high, partly because many of us have a high level of education, but also because during our traveling and migrations, we open ourselves to different cultures and we acquire new knowledge on the way (history, geography, antrophology, …)
  2. We are raising TCKs that are mostly educated in international schools, with a high awareness of the value of diversity, the ability to understand the perspective of others (as Anne Copeland brilliantly illustrated this morning) and the capacity of perceiving very naturally how the world is ruled and works.
  3. We gain special SKILLS and we learn how to practice EMPATHY.

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To better explain this concept, let me tell you about an experiment done by a ceramic teacher in an art school and reported in the book “Creative Confidence” (pag.123) by Tom and David Kelley:

A clever ceramics instructor divided his pottery class into two groups during his first session. One half of the students, he announced, would be graded on quality as represented by a single ceramic piece due at the end of the class, a culmination of all they had learned. The other half of the class he would grade based on quantity. For example, fifty pounds of finished work would earn them an A. Throughout the course, the “quality” students funneled their energy into meticulously crafting the perfect ceramic piece, while the “quantity” students threw pots nonstop in every session. And althought it was counterintuitive to his students, the best pieces all came from students whose goal was quantity, the ones who spent the most time actually practising their craft”.

Like in arts, it is the repetition of the creative process that develops human skills.

Apply this concept to the migrating process and think of how many times you went through:

  • overcoming cultural shock
  • helping your children integrate in schools
  • finding logistic and social solutions
  • finding ways to communicate and deal with different cultures and different kinds of people, with different values systems.

We are definitively EXPERTS in this field !!! Consider all of this, not only from an individual point of view, but as a community of people (our tribe!!!).

Maybe we are not considered socially, but we know how to deal with diversity and find workable solutions.

We know how to deal with diversity and find workable solutions.

Can you feel the importance of this?

In this historical moment, with all the things that happen around us…

Do you realize the responsibility we have towards future generations, towards our children?

The world desperately needs our skills in its societies.

At this point of our reflections, we faced two questions:

  1. Are we really AWARE of our potential?

I personally don’t think so.

Claudia and I have been talking about this with friends and people since last March. People usually say “Yes, it is true, I never thought about that”, because this is mostly an aspect they never rationally considered before.

Then, assumed that we are becoming aware of this, the second step is a conscious assessment that if we have such a potential and richness in our cultural and social luggage, we have a responsibility to share it, especially in a world that needs to hear words of hope now more than ever.

 

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Second problem, honestly speaking, with the kind of life we have, between one move and the other,

  1. What can we really and practically DO?

We need to find WAYS to value our contribution and get into ACTION, we need to create spaces where to share and transform our community into a social resource.

Something must be done.

And at this point … What Expats Can Do was born and answering those 2 questions is the main goal we have at the moment.

 

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Linguistic empathy

What is linguistic empathy, and why is it important to practice it?

 

According to a survey of the Ethnologue, there are 7,099 distinct languages in the world, but only 23 of them account for more than half of the world’s population. Mandarin and Spanish rank first and second, but it is English, with its third place on the scale of most spoken languages, which is widely regarded as the lingua franca in most business and human interactions across countries.

Every language is the expression of a culture. Even little heard of languages like Angika, Glaro-Twabo and Tremembé stem from the repeated verbal interactions of the population that speaks them. Every single language in the world has its own particularities, grammatical structure and colloquialisms or slang. Some are common to most languages, some are not. Some languages do not have words for colours, others do not have the past tense. Some need to be reinforced by gestures; others rely only on voice tone.

What must never be forgotten is that language does not only come as a set of sounds and organised terms, but that it tells the story of a whole culture, conveys the feelings, frame of mind, pace, habits and codes of a cultural group. And it should be approached as such.


When a person speaks or writes in a language he has not mastered perfectly, he resorts to what is more familiar to him in terms of written and oral expression. He will transpose the structure of his native language and apply it to the other. When seeking for examples, he will refer to his own experience, and depending on the culture he comes from, he might resort to long words, colourful gestures, or convoluted phrase constructions to make himself understood.

To be understood. Think of a person who lands in a new place, and does not know its rules: What she’ll need is a space to express herself and be taken in. Language is the first vehicle to communicate with people when a culture is still unknown, but it takes time to build the ability to use it in a satisfactory way.

As expats, we know all this. We have both been in a new place without knowing its language, and have welcomed dozens of newcomers into our social circles, who could hardly express themselves. We are used to speaking, reading, writing and listening to foreign languages and going beyond the pure meaning of words, because often-times we don’t know the meaning. We encourage people to express themselves freely when they have not mastered a language, because we’ve been there. We have experienced what it means not to be able to express ourselves or to be understood, and we can therefore practice our linguistic empathy.

Linguistic empathy means never to forget that behind a language lies a culture and a human history, that has influenced the outcome of the use of that language. And that if we stop at what we hear with our ears or read with our eyes, we probably miss what the person is trying to say.

Practising linguistic empathy means never saying “I don’t understand, this is not how you say it in English”, but asking oneself where does the person who speaks come from? What could he possibly be wanting to say? What would he tell me in his language, what is he communicating with his body, eyes, posture, or perhaps in the overall content of the article he wrote?

Practising linguistic empathy requires us to always be connected to the whole of our human experience. It means listening and interpreting using all we know about the culture that person comes from, or the particular situation or experience she is going through.

It requires a lot of creativity, warmth, energy and motivation. And a lot of love for human interaction, and of hope for a better world.

 

Claudia Landini
March 2017

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The Penny Wirton School

The Penny Wirton School is a very special Italian language school for new migrants, founded by writer Eraldo Affinati and his wife Anna Luce Lenzi. The school is special because it provides a simple and efficient solution to the problem of linguistic integration of immigrants and is managed entirely by volunteers.

 

penny wirton school

Founder Eraldo Affinati with some students

The concept is simple and effective; whoever has a bit of time can become a teacher and help an immigrant to learn the language. Lessons are conducted one to one allowing the teacher and student to establish a personal relationship and the learning can progress at the student’s own pace. This method and the fact that it is run exclusively by volunteers, makes the school a meeting point between immigrants and locals, creating a common ground for integration that works beyond linguistic, social and cultural differences.

We have decided to introduce this beautiful project because it shares many values and elements with “What Expats Can Do”. We believe there are common points that can create links and teachings, and hopefully, inspire the creation of similar projects in other parts of the world.

Reading the constitution of the Penny Wirton School, we were struck by some particular aspects.

“Those who teach at the Penny Wirton School are special people”

penny wirton schoolTeachers are individuals, with different beliefs and experiences, who give their time to this project for their own reasons, however, “in the end they are all driven by the same desire to give”. This reminds us of our challenge nr 2: The discipline to challenge our own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what we share with people rather than what divides us.

Diversity is therefore something that marks each one of those participating in the school, not only the students coming from different backgrounds and countries. Even from a professional point of view there are diversities: anyone can teach the language, included those who have never taught before or whose work is not related to teaching.

Every teacher is

“genuinely interested in the stories of his students: whoever they are”

Interest in diversity and curiosity regarding others are common elements in all success stories involving migrants, no matter where. And this reminds us of our challenge nr 1: Developing curiosity for strangers.

Everybody is welcome at the school at any time. The school is open the whole year round. The capacity to efficiently welcome everybody at any time probably depends on the teaching method: “the strength of each lesson lies within the personal relationship that grows, in different ways, between the teacher and the student”.

The teacher is a person who has “the capacity of establishing a contact with the people he meets” The gift of empathy is at the centre of the teaching method: one to one lessons, because “every person is different and must be considered as such”. Again this links to one of the challenges we suggested, The ability to directly experience lives and lifestyles of those different from us.

 

penny wirton school

 

This project was started in Rome 10 years ago, and has been so successful that today there are 22 schools in other Italian cities. We asked Anna Luce Lenzi, co-founder of the Penny Wirton School, to describe the elements that made this initiative a success.

_____________________

The Penny Wirton School was created in 2008 to teach Italian to immigrants. The big challenge was to teach to young people coming from different countries, who hardly understood each other in a simple Italian. It was necessary to intensify the teaching of the language, to look the students in the eye and encourage their learning. We found it easier for some (Albanian, Moldavian, Romanian), and less so for others (Afghans, Egyptians).

penny wirton schoolOur school is based on a kind of freedom which is unthinkable in institutional structures, the freedom that comes from a direct personal relationship, one to one or in very small groups, made possible by the many people that are willing to teach for free: both students and teachers are volunteers. There are no classrooms, no marks. The only grade book used is to describe the work being done. We register attendance, not absence. We write down names and activities of the students, to allow every teacher to follow the student’s progress. The only style is the contact, the relationship between student and teacher, who sit side by side and “study” each other reciprocally.

In order to facilitate this process, we must start by looking for and establishing a rapport between students and teachers. Being professional teachers or well-intentioned volunteers is not enough: What is needed is, above all, the interest and capacity of adapting to the individual circumstance of the immigrants.

We make it clear that our primary aim is the teaching of the Italian language and we do not provide any other form of assistance. It is however obvious that the most important teachings are about respecting each others dignity; the chance to sit close together and understand each other; a mutual interest in each other as people and a continuous exchange of ideas. In the Penny Wirton School, people of different age, background and cultural conditions are welcomed in the same way: the one to one contact takes place in big large rooms, where you can learn and see others learning, where you have difficulties and see others having them: No one is blamed and each one advances at their own pace.

It is a sort of inner freedom that spreads and permeates the school and the persons in it. We put a lot of energy in explaining to the volunteers that they must not approach teaching with the classical concept of school. What is favoured here is the contact, the interested gaze, and the smile of one who feels understood and understands. Sometimes, after the first period, the volunteer does not feel able to teach a method without explanations and formal classroom structure, and leaves. However, in most cases the satisfaction and the happiness between student and teacher are reciprocal: Enthusiastic volunteers call other volunteers, satisfied students bring friends: This is why the school grows and develops with the strength that comes with volunteering and an open heart.

Anna Luce Lenzi
Italy
February 2017

Article collected and organised by Claudia Landini and Cristina Baldan

Translated from the Italian by Barbara Amalberti

Photo credits: Penny Wirton School

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