…. to bring hope to the world

My commitment to the most fragile ones

We are grateful to Simona Carobene for allowing us to transcribe part of her presentation to the Expatclic’s Human Library.
Hers is a truly exemplary story of how empathy, love, attention, and commitment to the most fragile ones can lead to great results.

In Milan, I earned a degree in pedagogy. After working for 7 years in a cooperative for disabled people, I decided to try a one year experience abroad with the aim of helping people in difficulty. On May 30, 1998, I came to Bucharest with a well-known Italian NGO to work on a project funded by Unicef focusing on abandoned HIV-positive children living in orphanages.
Our goal was to find their families of origin and try to reintegrate them.

We were confronted by the unknown, and as a result, we learned many things – both about what was happening in Romania (and in all Eastern Europe countries), and about what these children really needed.
In Romania in the Nineties, there were about 200,000 abandoned children out of a population of 23 million. An enormous number!
A certain percentage of these abandoned children were HIV-positive. In fact, HIV-positive children in Romania accounted for 50% of HIV-positive children across Europe.

The Romanian state, which had emerged from a long period of dictatorship, was totally incapable of taking care of these children and had neither the economic nor cultural resources to face this. The government had therefore delegated a lot to NGOs, but without giving any kind of support.
After working for a while in the capital, we decided to work in the suburbs and arrived in an orphanage 20 kilometers from Bucharest. There, we found more than 100 children with AIDS. They were all born to healthy parents and we never could figure out how they got infected.

Seven eight-year-old children slept in rusty, small beds made for two and three years old, with their feet hanging out. No money was invested in facilities, because it was clear that these children would die soon, and indeed I have seen so many children die because of AIDS… The treatments were not those of today and the medical and nursing staff was completely unprepared.

Children often saw other children die. When a child got worse, he was first put in a small room and then taken to Bucharest… and never came back. No one spoke to the others about what had happened, and I recall a child who told me he knew very well that those children died and asked me why no one told him clearly.

The children were washed in a large bathroom with a tiled floor where they were all lined up naked and struck at a distance by the water jet of a pump because the nurses were afraid to get close to them and risk infection.

We tried to trace children back to their families of origin, but we found only 40% of the families, often because there simply were no documents.
The work of that year was my first big failure: out of over 100 children, we managed to integrate just one girl back into her family of origin.

But that first year was crucial for me, for my life, and for future projects.

Having met these children had touched us deeply. We began to bring help: beds, clothes, shoes… but every time we brought something, it was stolen. At the end of that year we thought that it would be more appropriate to start three foster homes with Romanian families to welcome the children from the orphanage. Namely, rather than trying to bring them back into their families, we’d give them a new family. This was very difficult both because of the fear of the disease and because there just wasn’t a tradition of foster care in Romania.

Photo credit ©Parada

Now I would like to open a brief parenthesis on the question of abandonment: why were there so many abandoned children in Romania – indeed in all the Eastern European countries?
I had always thought it was because of poverty. On the one hand, this is accurate: there are poor families, very difficult social cases, dads in prison, alcoholism, psychiatric diseases, etc., but actually over time I realized that it is also a matter of mentality. It’s a consequence of so many years of regime. In the end, the state is more important than the family. Family is not considered the cell of the society. So, the state does not help the family in difficulty, but rather directly assumes the responsibility of raising children. Most abandoned children were not orphans, but children who had families that perhaps could have been helped in advance to raise them.

When we decided to start foster homes, we knew that it would be difficult. Within three years we managed to start three houses and find seven foster families. This moved 28 children away from the orphanage: given the situation, a real miracle!

I returned to Italy after that experience and stayed in Milan to follow the projects across Eastern Europe: Romania, Albania, Kosovo, Poland, Kazakhstan, Lithuania…
Until, in 2006, it was announced that Romania would join the European Union.
Then I asked my NGO to return. On one hand, I liked the job of coordinator less than the one in contact with people, and on the other I knew that with entry into Europe, we could no longer help Romania from Italy. The children I had met in 1998 were deep in my heart. I knew that over time, with Romania in Europe, the NGO would ask me to work in other areas, but I didn’t want to leave Romania.

I found a new three-year project funded by Italy to work on in Romania.
I understood that I’d never leave again when, in 2007, one of our foster families left and I went to live with the five children who lived in that house while looking for another family. I spent two amazing months with them. One night, while we were pillow fighting, one of the boys looked at me and said, “You love us all, but you’ll leave, sooner or later.” I was struck because it was true: orphanage, family, then another family, people from the NGO that came and went… that was life for these children.

That statement – which was not a complaint, just a fact – opened my heart and I thought to myself, “No, the relationship with you is forever.

Later, I resigned from the Italian NGO and I started working with Romanian colleagues for the Romanian NGO that came into existence.

I still work for this NGO, Fdp Protagoniști în educație, of which I am now also director.

We are still working with the HIV-positive children we met in 1998. They’ve now grown up, are 30 years old, have children, work, and live in social apartments that we manage. We have also started many other activities.

We work in Roma communities with poor children at risk of school dropout. We work a lot with sports foundations, such as the Real Madrid Foundation, to combine school with sport and make school more attractive so that they do not abandon it. In the last two years we started working with children with learning disabilities and difficulties (one of the children I have in foster care has special needs).

Working with poor people, we have found that very often learning difficulties have to do with poverty. I’ve come to understand this on a much deeper level as I am currently studying for a master’s degree at the University of Padua focusing on learning disorders. There is a disorder (which is not yet considered as such but will soon be) which acknowledges the problem of understanding text that primarily afflicts poor children.

These children may be on the normal school path, but do not know how to make connections like cause and effect or inferences, they have a reduced vocabulary, and in short have poverty of stimuli and experience. In these years of the pandemic, school dropout rates (already at 19% in Romania) reached 25%.

When I think back on my time here, I realize how important love is. A few years ago I did some research on the first children we had helped, checking in on them today as adults. Out of the 28 who had been placed in foster homes, no one had died, while 72% of those left in orphanages had. This shocked me because, with equal sanitary treatment (since we now have antiretrovirals), what really makes the difference and what makes people live is to feel loved.

Ultimately, my time and investment was definitely worth it, and it is worth staying here. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll realize the great dream of building a house with several apartments where, along with other colleagues, I could live with the HIV positive people that we have followed since childhood. Today they work and have become parents, but they have so many weaknesses related to illness and to the part of their childhood lived without love.


Simona Carobene
Human book at Expatclic Human Library 2021
FDP-Protagoniști în educație
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For another story from the Expatclic Human Library clic here.


Diversity: The true wealth of our world

We are grateful to Valentina Aristodemo for allowing us to transcribe part of her presentation to the Expatclic’s Human Library.
We have chosen Valentina as one of the 33 human books to introduce to our community, because her story, and the message it conveys, are a clear illustration of the power of diversity.


I grew up in Marsala, Sicily, in a middle-class family. My parents always encouraged me to be independent and to have an open mind about society and the world.

I had recently started working when, by pure chance, I discovered LIS (Italian Sign Language), through a flyer that advertised a course. Having always been passionate about languages, I decided to attend it. And that changed my life forever.  

I fell madly in love with this language and all aspects related to the fascinating deaf community. I moved to Rome to work in a school for deaf children. This was my first experience with diversity. I understood how important LIS is for deaf people, but especially for deaf children.

In general, deaf children have hearing parents. The norm is to proceed with prosthesis or cochlear implants, but this deprives deaf children of linguistic stimulation for a few years – the time necessary to learn to recognize sounds in speech therapy. Since this is a long journey, deaf children often miss out on basic language acquisition, which can affect language development. Many think that LIS for children is just a tool, but in fact it is a real language and a fundamental human right.

In 2006 a UN Convention urged governments to recognize sign language. The premise was that everyone has the right to acquire a language, and LIS is the natural language of the deaf. It is acquired naturally, through sight, a sense which is not affected by deafness, and does not pass through the auditory channel, which requires speech therapy and the work of deciphering sounds.

At that time, and as often happens, Italy lagged behind other European countries. It ratified the convention in 2009 but recognized LIS only in 2021. It was a first step but there is still a long way to go to overcome reluctance to embracing ISL, especially in the medical profession. Hearing children are often stimulated to use LIS (baby sign language is very popular now), but the deaf are deprived of their natural language without any scientific basis.

Going back to myself, after my experience in Rome I decide to deepen my knowledge of LIS, and I enrolled at Ca ‘Foscari in Venice, the only university where LIS is considered equal to and taught as any other foreign language. I graduated and specialised as an interpreter. It was there that I met Mirko, deaf, son of deaf parents, who would become my husband.

From then on, my immersion in the deaf community began. I started spending more time with them than with the hearing community. Mirko went to study at Gallaudet, the only university in the world where lessons take place in American Sign Language. His dream was to become a researcher, but in Italy there were no opportunities for him. Once again, we were faced with a brick wall mentality. On his return from the USA, a professor suggested he go to work in Paris. He went and I followed him there. We were fortunate to have two PhD scholarships. He is a morphologist, I am a semanticist in sign language. After two years of his doctorate, Mirko realized his dream in France, and became a sign language researcher at the CNRS.

Photo @ValentinaAristodemo

Meanwhile, we discovered that we could not have children. Having a family, however, was our great dream. We decided not to give up and took the path of adoption. A very long and troubled path. After three years we obtained court approval and decided to go for international adoption. We chose Burundi as a country of adoption. After five years from the beginning of the paperwork, on 17th June 2019 we met our children, Jean Lucas and Jonathan.

This marked the beginning of another beautiful chapter in our lives, once again linked to a new culture.

Diversity entered our life again, we threw ourselves headlong into it, determined to experience it as a family. You can imagine the joy and wealth that our children bring to us. At home we speak three languages ​​every day — I speak Italian with the children, Mirko uses sign language, and then we use French because we live in France. African, Italian and French cultures are an integral part of our life, and we try to nurture all of them.

However, we must deal with a world that is not yet open to diversity. And we are very aware of this when we go to Italy on vacation. We often experience racist micro-aggressions that we would gladly do without. There are people who do not know us and ask me if the twins are my children, or if they arrived by boat. Some run after the children to touch their hair, or take selfies with them. I must always be vigilant and aware of people who might want to invade our privacy. Black children are often perceived as objects to be touched and photographed. A black child’s body is not respected like that of a white child’s. We are often asked impertinent questions that aim to highlight differences. Unfortunately, Italy is not yet ready to welcome our family. We have never yet been asked any of these questions in France. There is still a long way to go to persuade people that diversity is the true wealth of our world, and it must be respected and promoted in a positive way.


Valentina Aristodemo
Human book at Expatclic’s Human Library 2021
Main photo @CristinaBaldan



You have to be very careful with dreams

It has been an absolute pleasure to have this wonderful conversation with Franco Alosio, an Italian expat living in Bucharest since 2000. Franco has been collaborating with “Parada Foundation” since its creation. Parada is the first project of its kind that supports street children in the Romanian capital… and it is absolutely wonderful.

Parada was founded in 1996 by Miluod Oukili, a French-Algerian street clown who worked for the civil service whilst in Bucharest. While there, in his free time he used to do street shows wearing his red nose and juggling for the amusement of onlookers. Legend has it that one day, street children stole his equipment while he was performing. He was therefore forced to talk to them to try and retrieve his juggling equipment… which is how Miloud got started interacting with the children who were living in the underground tunnels that house Bucharest’s central thermal heating pipes.

When his time working for the civil service ended, Miloud decided to stay in Bucharest. Through Terre des Hommes Switzerland, he created a welcome centre for street children – though it eventually was forced to close – so Miloud founded “Parada” to keep it open, and thus the most extraordinary project was born.

The story of Parada is long and has adapted to the changes of Romanian society and the life of street children. It is the only comprehensive foundation that offers emergency services, socio-educational assistance, and socio-professional integration to street children and their families, using circus (believe it or not) as the primary educational tool.

Franco discovered Parada in 1999 at an international conference where he presented some of the activities he had promoted with street children in Nepal. The following year, his NGO sent him to Bucharest for a feasibility study on Parada. Later, when UNICEF Romania approved Parada’s project, Franco was sent to follow the start-up phase for six months. He’s been in Romania ever since, and even though his role within Parada has changed over time, he’s still deeply engaged with the project that has marked his life so deeply.

Thinking back on that time, Franco says: “All of my prejudices were thoroughly challenged. Not only did I find myself in the heart of rich and wealthy Europe, where these things are not supposed to happen… these kids were white, very much like our Italian kids. The image of them getting out of manholes, which immediately evoked mice scurrying around, was deeply disturbing. Those were the things our Western mind expected to see in Africa, or Asia”.

Reviewing one’s prejudices is not the only merit of going to live and work abroad. Getting in touch with different realities helps you reframe your own. Franco had already worked in the social services field and with adolescents as well as young people with personal discomfort, but their issues were more personal – the work was done on single cases. He had never experienced first-hand such a widespread social phenomenon.

Franco felt immediately engaged with Parada. At that time the concept of art therapy was completely unknown. Parada was a pioneer in exploring the idea of pulling children out of the tunnels by engaging them in something creative, humanly bonding, and fun. Miloud was absolutely innovative in that sense… and a bit crazy. It was foolish to dream that children living underground would come out and be trained in shows for the European circuses. But he did it. He understood that often, the only thing these kids had was a dream.

You have to be very careful with dreams”, says Franco. “Dreams have a huge potential, but if you break them you risk to take away the only thing a person has. The dream of a street child is to get off the street. These are his wings. Parada offered the chance to give roots to the wings. Which means to offer these kids the possibility to structure and develop those skills, talents and characteristics that allow them to realize their dream”.

I asked Franco what is the biggest lesson he takes away from his experience. “I have learned that human relationship is the only valuable path in these situations. It is a matter of empathy, of emotions. There is just one methodology to use under these circumstances, and it is that of human relationship: if you get involved at this level, even if you make mistakes, you will always be there for the other. You must show that you are there. And this requires constancy. Forget what they told you at the university or when you were working in the social work field back home. These kids are not inferior beings that need our help. There is nothing more false than this. You are just a tool that gets involved to connect with that person, a person who is not inferior, but who just happens to live under different circumstances. We can hardly change our lives, how can we even think to change theirs?

Franco has no doubts: in terms of individual growth he has received much more from “his” boys than what he’s given them. They have been a real school of life, for him and all those who have worked with them.

How can this personal growth be useful to society, though? “We are witnessing a globalization of social phenomena”, says Franco. “That of street children is increasing dramatically, it has gotten to the Western world and is strongly hitting European capitals. The experience of Parada is being exported where it’s most needed. Some of the former Bucharest street children are now training Kurdish kids in refugees camps in Iraq, or in Cambodia”.

Parada was born by the willingness of a person to get involved in a different context, to grow from the challenge that came from it. I can’t think of a better way to use this experience.


Parada has launched a fundraising campaign to raise the funds needed to continue their operations. If you feel like donating even a small amount to this beautiful project, even more important now in times of Corona Virus, go HERE for the fundraising campaign. Should you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us – we’ll be happy to put you in contact with Franco.

Visit Parada’s website: https://www.parada.it/

Interview collected by Claudia Landini
April 2020
All photos ©Parada


Empathy in…a bottle


An 8-year-old child in Gaza has lived through three rounds of conflict. A year after the summer 2014 hostilities, the children of Gaza are still recovering from the nightmare. They are growing up in bleak conditions, surrounded by poverty and violence. But they still have dreams… (UNRWA #SOSGAZA )


I received this bottle as a gift from a friend who wanted to support the UNRWA #SOSGAZA project for children’s education in Gaza (don’t miss their beautiful video). I kept it closed for a long time because I was looking for a special occasion to open it. This occasion came when I discovered Diala Brisly, a Syrian artist who fled her war-torn country, and whose work with Syrian refugee children touched my heart. Using her talents, empathy and lots of love, Diala helps children overcome the trauma of war, and keep their hope alive. I invite you to discover Diala’s work and story through:

When I asked Diala to be with me when I opened the bottle, she did not hesitate.

When I saw the drawing, I was utterly moved. I had expected bombs, war airplanes and blood to fill the page, and instead we saw this:



The sharp contrast between the peacefulness of the drawing and what children in Gaza go through hit me in a way I can hardly describe.

Later Diala translated what is written on it: the name of the kid, Arij, her age (14), her school name (Al-ma’mounieh), and the title of the drawing: I WISH I COULD BE.  I believe it says it all.

Diala was so touched by yet another sign of how deep and desperate the desire for normality in children living in conflict zones is, that she decided to send us a gift: an image she illustrated for a children’s magazine that used to be distributed in Syria, but that stopped a few months ago, because of lack of funding.

She accompanied it with a reflection on Arij’s drawing:


Arij said: I wish I could be, and we try to encourage Syrian kids to keep on dreaming, we remind them of normality while a lot of killing is happening  around, we provoke them to build their imaginary world since we can’t build them a better one.

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau said:
The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.
Kids are the best in using their imagination.
Kids like Arij are struggling in many conflict zones to keep some of their childhood, and while we should tell them how truly hard life is, we should also help them manipulate this life so they can be ready when the grow up.




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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