WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

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

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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.

 

 

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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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