…. to bring hope to the world

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
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



Social Fabric – a wonderful way to integrate refugees in Zurich

Deborah is Italian and lives in Zurich. She tells about Social Fabric, a Swiss organization that created a wonderful project to help refugees integrate in the Swiss society.


social-fabric3Despite having always lived in Europe, I went through the difficulties linked to the need of conforming to and understanding the rules of my new host country (including a different language). Yet, the whole experience of moving abroad and the little traumas it entails, have given me the opportunity to grow up, to change my “small-town mentality” and to look differently at people around me, at the diversity around me. My moving abroad is nothing compared to all those people (refugees or not), who leave their native countries to find better living conditions. I can understand their feelings, because after all it was the same for me: I moved to find better living conditions for my family and myself. Still, I did not run away from a war-torn place and I took an airplane to go to my new destination. I did not have to walk for kilometers or force myself onto a fragile boat, hoping not to sink in the Mediterranean sea, as it happens to so many people today.

So, why not to give them a chance?

The same happened to our Italian ancestors, when they moved to America looking for and hoping in a better future. The history repeats itself, but we forget the past too quickly and easily.

The current situation is certainly difficult to handle and Europe is having a lot of trouble in managing it. It is my opinion that many of the host countries lack integration programs (I feel this is especially true in Italy): A path of studies, activities, meetings that will help the new immigrants integrate their new communities, whose rules and habits they do not master.

In Switzerland there are different mandatory integration programs for citizens coming from specific countries. Among these, one provided by Social Fabric grabbed my attention. Social Fabric is a community based organization, whose first and main aim is to support the employment in the textile sector with a small ecological and social footprint. Since 2015, they work with refugees providing sewing classes with the help of volunteers.

The goal is to give people the opportunity to improve the language, to get in touch with citizens from other countries, to integrate into Swiss society and build a life here in Switzerland; through the project they learn a new job and acquire the tools to build their own business in Switzerland or in their countries of origin.

social-fabric2As Heather (founder of Social Fabric) says in this video, it is difficult for people with a refugee background to find a job. At Social Fabric, refugees spend hours having fun, meeting other people but also learning and working. Clothes and textiles designed by the immigrants are sold through the website of the organization; 20% of the revenues goes to the person who designed the model, the remaining 80% goes to the organization to keep the project running.

On the Social Fabric website you can buy, support fundraising campaigns and donate at any time. In collaboration with AOZ (an institution for social assistance to refugees), Social Fabric started a process to help some of the refugees have a paid job at the organization.

A success story certainly comes from Cisse Sekou, a 26-years-old man from Ivory Cost. He has been working as a tailor since the age of 11 and he is very passionate about drawing and sewing clothes. However, he needed technical training, because being a tailor in Switzerland is different from being a tailor in Ivory Cost. As Cisse tells in this video, here in Switzerland tailors work with patterns and pins, while back in Africa there is no time to use these kinds of “accessories” and tailors have it all in their head. Thanks to a fundraising campaign, Social Fabric was able to collect enough money to pay a 7-months internship for Cisse, thus giving him a great opportunity to improve his skills and help him in his integration process.

I am not directly involved with this organization because I do not have tailoring skills to offer, but I found their way to integrate refugees a very original idea!

If you want to have more information, be involved, buy clothes or make a donation, you can go to:


Deborah Patroncini
November 2016

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