WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

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.

See our current challenge linked to this reflection.

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.

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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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How contact with local realities can spur your empathy

Our current challenge on What Expats Can Do is “Directly experience the lives and lifestyles of those different from us”. It made me reflect : How can we experience different lives if we do not have an entry channel to them? How can expats really become advocates for the lives and lifestyles of the people of their host countries?

 

mosquito net

In South Sudan photo credit ©Claudia Landini

We know that arriving in a new country and learning how to function in it is an amazing experience in that it defies our preconceptions, opens up a whole world of unknowns both on ourselves and our culture and the hosting culture, and confounds our certainties and expectations making us feel vulnerable, and in a way, new.

However, our contact with the local reality is often obstructed by circumstance and marked by disparities. We might – and we often do – find ourselves living in conditions that are much more luxurious and comfortable than those of most of the local population. This creates a barrier which makes it difficult to build relationships on an equal footing, but more so it prevents us from getting in real touch with all sections of society and learning about the reality of the more uncomfortable aspects of life for the people we are living amongst.

I personally have been very fortunate in this respect because my life abroad has been driven by my husband’s work for the Red Cross, within which I also worked at the beginning. I won’t use this article to talk in detail about this beautiful movement (you can find out more here and there), but there are three things that are important for me in relation to our current challenge:

  1. Whenever a foreign delegate of the Red Cross arrives in a new country, he/she fits in or works in collaboration with an already established local structure, with which he shares seven very simple but highly impacting principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. This means having a privileged entry channel into the new culture: Everyone involved shares the same values, intentions, methods and purpose, and this creates a base of commonality that serves to speed up the process of building relationships.

2. Working with the Red Cross means working for the most vulnerable, and acting on the basis of humanitarian principles. Local people know that when they welcome a foreign delegate, she is not there to make a profit from the country, but to work to alleviate the suffering of the local people. In my experience, this has made an enormous difference in how local people see the foreign person. And it certainly contributes to building deeper, long-lasting and fruitful relationships.

huila angola

In Angola, photo credit ©Claudia Landini

3. Working with the Red Cross means coming into contact with situations that would not be accessible otherwise. In my long experience abroad I have visited war zones, hugged malnourished children, evacuated dying people, talked to families who have lost their homes and all of their belongings, seen people discriminated and dying in solitude because they had AIDS, and visited villages where in the Internet era there is no power or even latrines.

Contact with vulnerable, marginalized or disadvantaged sections of society has been central to my life abroad. Through it, I have increased my capacity for empathy and become a more complete person. All through these years, I have approached my hosting cultures through the most painful and dire situations – epidemics, famine, wars, natural disasters. This has carved a path for me towards human suffering, and it is in shared suffering that the truest feelings and the most beautiful side of human nature can be found. It is in these kinds of situations that the best of human values are expressed. All through my life abroad I felt as if I was embracing the whole world, as if I was touching the real core of our times. And each time I was so privileged as to see with my own eyes and touch with my own hands the conditions of people who are exactly like me, but who were born on the wrong side of the planet, I felt my own humanity expanding and gaining value. Living in contact with people that struggle to rebuild a house destroyed by a hurricane or have to cope with discrimination and marginalization when struck down by AIDS or Ebola, has been the greatest lesson life abroad could ever teach me.

 

 

Claudia Landini
Jakarta, Indonesia
February 2017

 

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A skill for your life and for your job

Rachel Gillet declares that Empathy is the first of the 15 most important and most difficult skills to acquire for our life and for our job. Well, it seems we started with the right foot and that our challenges are getting us in shape for our life and for our work, too.

 

Empathy

“You can be the most disciplined, brilliant, and even wealthy individual in the world, but if you don’t care for or empathize with other people, then you are basically nothing but a sociopath,” writes Kamia Taylor.

Empathy, as business owner Jane Wurdwand explains, is a fundamental human ability that has too readily been forsworn by modern business.

“Empathy — the ability to feel what others feel — is what makes good sales and service people truly great. Empathy as in team spirit — esprit de corps — motivates people to try harder. Empathy drives employees to push beyond their own apathy, to go bigger, because they feel something bigger than just a paycheck,” she writes.

“15 skills that are hard to learn but will pay off forever” – Rachel Gillet  Business Insider Jan. 7, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Cristina Baldan, January 2017

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Art to express empathy

Claudia relates on her visit to Dia.Lo.Gue, and art gallery in Jakarta, and shares a reflection on how art can spread empathy.

 

I recently visited Dia.Lo.Gue, a beautiful art gallery in Jakarta. While admiring the art exhibition, What Expats Can Do was constantly on my mind, and I could find lots of links between the art works and the issues I have been particularly careful about since we launched it.

Dia.Lo.Gue is a modern art gallery that regularly invites artists to express themselves around a specific topic. The one the current exhibition is about is “The sea”, and it was interesting to observe how this call had set young artists in motion in a variety of ways. Whatever piece of work they had created around the sea, it always had an element of empathetic observation and sharing.

This one for instance:

art work

 

It stages the funeral of the coral, the same way funerals are carried out in Indonesia: The corpse is laid on a carpet, his picture on the wall, and mourners come to pay respect.

Right in front, another art work was a praise to the women of Muara Angke, a neighbourhood on the sea, in the northern part of Jakarta. Muara Angke is known for its intense activity that revolves around fishing and preparing fish to be sold at the warungs (little stalls that sell food). While locals call it a “fishing village”, expats define it a slum because of the appalling living conditions of its inhabitants. In particular, according to this artist, of their women: They spend their days working under terrible conditions, and have nowhere to put their children, so they take them along and keep them on the spot the whole day, while they clean, cut and press fish. The terrible smell of dead fish fills the air, while these women talk about the hardship of their lives, the husbands who have left them, the children who get sick. The artist chose to represent breasts as symbols of motherhood. In this context, breasts have been dried up and are filled with clam shells, to explain how the inhuman work has replaced mothers’ milk, and therefore, life.

 

art work

 

On the other side of this work of art was a more cheerful but not less important one. The artist had chosen to concentrate on a certain era at the beginning of last century, during which a group from Makassar (Sulawesi) traded sea cucumbers with the Yoingu tribe from Northern Australia. Apparently it was a time of frequent and warm contacts, and what the artist chose to recreate is a symbolic composition that the Australian group put together to welcome the Indonesian traders: A closed circle made of stones symbolized unity, friendship and embrace.

 

art work

 

The last artwork also talked about the hardship of Muara Angke. It consisted of a carpet of clam shells, a wooden hut and a video. The idea came to the artist when she visited the portion of the Muara Angke where mussels are processed to be sold. They are boiled in huge pots, then spread on the ground, opened with bare hands and set aside to dry before being sent to the shops. Smoke from the burning wood to boil the mussels, vapors, high temperatures and clam shells fill the environment. The workers and their children sit on dirty and cutting clam shells, and to show this, the artist made a carpet on which visitors can walk, hearing the cracking sound of the broken clam shells and figuring the working conditions. They even build their houses on them, with whatever piece of wood they can find. The hut is a replica of these adobes, and the video explains what the imagination cannot grasp.

 

art work

 

A friend of mine who had come to visit me in Jakarta a while ago had been to that neighborhood and had showed me some pictures, like this one:

 

children working

Photo ©Jean Clauzet

 

Seeing this work of art brought back the memory of the shock I had felt when I had seen them. I decided I’ll visit the neighborhood in person after the Christmas break – as a way of nurturing my empathy and express it to others.

The stories these artists chose to tell through their works have obviously touched them to a certain extent. The inspiration sometime came from tragic and demeaning situations, more rarely from uplifting ones. In any case, they chose their art as a means to share what they witnessed. All through the visit I thought that what these artists do is What Expats Can Do: Observe with empathy, take in and give out to the world. They chose art as a way of communicating; we can choose any means we deem appropriate. What is important, though, is that we never forget that we are in a privileged position to observe things that our communities back home will probably never witness first-hand. It is our duty to talk about them.

 

Claudia Landini
Jakarta, Indonesia
December 2016

Photos by Claudia Landini

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In Danish schools, empathy is taught one hour a week. To have happier adults.

It is called “Klassens tid”: children learn to listen to others, to have a multi approach to problems, and to develop a strong team spirit. All of this while sharing a cake they have made in class.

Empathy is the ability to identify with the feelings of others, to step into someone else’s shoes. It is a crucial personal skill, especially when working with others and within a couple relationship. Being empathic is something one should ideally learn within the family as a child; however, some think that children are losing this ability, and will therefore be less happy as adults.

More narcissism, less empathy

A recent Michigan University study, carried out on about 14 thousand university students showed that the young today have roughly 40% less empathy than their peers in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with a marked increase of mental troubles and depression. Some believe that this is due to the fact that our society has become much more narcissistic (self absorbed) than it was 30 years ago. A completely different example comes from the north, from the land with the happiest inhabitants in the world, according to the “World happiness report 2016”. In Denmark empathy is a compulsory lesson at school once a week, between the age of 6 and 16. It is called “Klassens Tid”, or “class time”.

empathy in denmark

Photo credit: StartupItalia!

Listening to the others while eating a cake

This is how it goes: children discuss among themselves their individual or group problems. If someone has a problem that she can’t solve alone (let’s think for example of bullying), this hour is her opportunity to be heard, to receive endorsement and encouragement from the others through their listening. Gradually the children learn the importance of mutual respect. After listening, the group will discuss the problem, considering all points of view and try to find a solution.

The children are not afraid to speak up, because they feel part of a community, they are not alone.

Creating a welcoming atmosphere that puts everyone at ease is the basis for this hour: only in this way can children feel free to express themselves and feel free to think; to be able to see things in an  objective light. During Klassens Tid, while listening to their classmates, the children eat a cake they have made together. (here’s the recipe). This increases the sense of family in the classroom.

These lessons have taken place in Denmark since 1870, and in the 1990s were officially introduced into the national school curriculum. They are not only useful to the children, but also to the teacher, who, by listening with the students, is able to create a more inclusive and warmer learning environment.

Empathy can be taught

It is certainly not easy to measure the effectiveness of the “empathy lesson” on adults. There are many reasons why Danish people are amongst the happiest in the world: high income, an equal society, excellent welfare in health, education and socialization. But even with these conditions, the Klassens Tid continues: it seems then that Danish citizens not only recognize the importance of empathy, but they believe that it is not something one is or isn’t born with, but rather it is a skill that can be learnt and should be taught. Children need to practice empathy just as they need to practice math or sports.

 

This article was written by Italian journalist Carlotta Balena and originally published in Italian on StartupItalia!

December 2016

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What I saw today – Not Just A Number, International Friends Play&Share

I don’t know if what I saw today matches our current Challenge, but for sure curiosity was what pushed me to jump into my car and go to “International Friends Play&Share” event. I already knew about the project and its importance, but I had never visited them. Curiosity is what you need to go out of your comfort zone and create connections in real life.

 

I joined them at their usual weekly meeting.
There was a medium-sized community hall.
There were carpets and toys on the floor.
There were hot drinks, cakes and snacks.
There were women, of different ages.
And there were their toddlers.
There was also a grandma accompanying her daughter, and there was me, a middle-age woman, whose children are definitively too old to participate.
A diversified group of women.
A young one, who clearly knew how to handle toddler educational activities, was leading the games.
And then, more toys, interactive games with children, music, singing in three or four different languages, dancing, and even a singing exercise for the adults.
A very pleasant and enjoyable hour.

children paintingIt could have been an ordinary well organized expat playgroup, like many I used to go to with my children in the past and in other countries.
In this group there were 2 people from Finland, 1 from Australia, 1 from Italy, 1 from Syria, 1 from Georgia, 1 from South Africa.
Two of them were refugees, but to anybody entering the room while we were playing with the children, it would have been difficult to understand who was coming from where.
All barriers were left outside the door: you don’t need cultural norms or a specific language to play with a toddler… just a carpet, some toys, materials to touch and manipulate, music, dance. That’s it.

The magic is done!

What I saw today was a group of women enjoying an hour of their time with their children, leaving their complicated lives outside the door for a while, relaxing and connecting with other women, most of them never met before.

Empathy is possible, it is real, it happens.
It happened this morning at “Not Just a Number”, it happens every Thursday morning there.
We can make it happen every day in our lives.
And it is not so difficult.

Cristina Baldan, November 2016


 

International Friends Play & Share
www.notjustanumber.org
Emma and Poyer, both expats, are the souls behind this project and I asked them introduce it to you.

As newly arrived expats, we met in September 2015 at the Maastricht International Playgroup along with another dear friend, Christa Somers. This weekly gathering gave each of us a firm grounding and social outlet as internationals in this new environment. It allowed us to feel welcome, supported, and comfortable as we began to find our way in this new town.

We discovered we shared concern about the welfare of newly arrived refugees and together we envisioned welcoming refugee families into the fold of the international community using the playgroup concept. Our idea was supported by comments from a very active local social entrepreneur and Syrian refugee, Nour Khatib, who is a board member of the local refugee support NGO called Not Just a Number. He told us that while there were several local NGOs supporting refugees, none had managed to facilitate connection between local Maastricht community and a particular subgroup of the refugees living at the local shelter – namely mothers with young children.

what-i-saw-today2These women continued to be socially isolated and had little reason to leave the refugee shelter except to shop for food and clothing. Most of their time is spent indoors, caring for their young children without the aid of their own toys or care items, such as pushchairs/buggies and highchairs. We believed the playgroup concept would be a good way to reach out to these women and children. It also held promise of a way to pass on things like clothes, toys and baby-care items – things that are readily available from international families in our networks who are often on the move.

With the help of a large group of supporters — mostly parents of students attending the United World College Maastricht — we set ourselves up in the football clubhouse next door to the Maastricht Asiel Zoekers Centrum and began running weekly playgroup mornings from December 1stGrowth of the playgroup was rapid and it wasn’t long before people waiting to access the donated items overtook our comfortable play space. Our solution was to separate the arms of the project, thus creating International Friends Play and International Friends Share. We scheduled separate days and recruited a new team of volunteers.

International Ffriends Play is now a calm environment where mothers can enjoy a hot drink, snacks and a chat while our children play. The inclusion of music classes has injected high energy and fun, and serves as the perfect ice-breaker for new visitors. Professional musician Jana Debusk has brought great enthusiasm and a wealth of knowledge, sharing songs and rhythms from around the world through her collaboration with the Funikijam music program in New York.

International Friends Share attracts an average of 50 visitors every Monday within a 3-hour ‘shopping’ period and we pass on about 600 donated items within that time. About 12 volunteers help to run this event and collectively they work over 70 hours in that single day. Re-sorting the messy aftermath occurs on Tuesdays, with another team of about 6 collectively working 20 hours.

The wealth of wisdom, skill, and diversity on our volunteer teams has ensured the success of these projects and ongoing support of refugees in Maastricht.  Our shared commitment to serve community holds us firmly together and it is the broad skill set we can call on that ensures results. Our expat members have purchased supplies, shared freighting resources, provided multiple language translations for flyers and posters, given clothing and household donations, rejuvenated old discarded bicycles, fetched, carried, sorted and re-sorted many tons of clothing and most importantly they have given greatly of their time.

Our expat community is now an integral part of the cultural experience that is shaping the social integration of hundreds of refugees seeking a new life in the Netherlands.  In turn, our lives have been enriched as we each discover that we are all cut from the same cloth and by working together we can flourish.

 

Emma Bendall and Poyer Conforte
Co-founders – International Friends Play & Share
Not Just a Number
www.notjustanumber.org

 

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The empathic civilization

Francesca sends us this recommendation for the book The Empathic Civilization, interesting food for thought from sociologist and economist Jeremy Rifkin. Human beings have many things in common, including a deep-rooted instinct for social relationships and the ability to form a new consciousness, both global and collective. Simply the act of reading an account of this kind means testing our preconceptions about human beings and trying to consider events and phenomena from another perspective: one that views our fundamental nature as human beings in a different way. Here’s what Francesca has to say.

 

empathic-civilizationThis book takes us on a fascinating journey through human evolution, a journey covering ground that our collective sentiment, for the most part, has not yet explored. The discovery of mirror neurons – so-called empathy neurons – during the 1990s offers a completely different interpretation and is leading scientists from a wide range of disciplines to rethink the theories that characterized the age of reason. Today the cognitive sciences seem to recognize that the most profound human instinct is not the anticipation of pleasure, nor even the struggle for survival or the selfish fulfillment of our own needs, but rather the creation of social ties.

Rifkin takes us back through the biological, economic, cultural and social history of humankind, which is being rewritten by the scientific community of the present day. Our modern, technologically advanced civilizations have led to an unprecedented mixing of peoples and expansion of consciousness, but not without consequences. The path of this new ‘homo empaticus’ is, in particular, characterized by the empathy/entropy paradox – the gradual deterioration of a system to the point where it is no longer possible to replenish the energy it uses. Our huge consumption of natural resources is leading to the depletion of these same resources.

Never before have we been as aware of what we are, never have we been as clear about our potential for developing a new consciousness, both individual and global, as we are today. Yet all this is made possible by our greater and greater consumption of the planet’s energy and natural resources.

Will what Rifkin describes as humanity’s ‘biosphere consciousness’, an awareness of ourselves as part of the earth’s system, be able to guide us towards the solution to this paradox? Will we manage to reach the level of global empathy needed to save ourselves and the earth that is our home in time? The human race is facing the most important challenge of its existence.

This book has affected me deeply. In practice, it’s science telling us we’re better than we had always thought. This can only fill me with faith and hope that things can improve for us and for this world of ours. It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly possible. And this can come about not by denying who we are, but instead by following and listening to what, it turns out, is our true nature. For some cultures this has always been clear; we Westerners are finally getting it!

 

Francesca Passini
Italy
October 2016

 

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