…. to bring hope to the world

This is how we can create diversity

We are so happy to publish Luz Restrepo’s presentation to the Human Library of Expatclic. Her story and experiences are such an example of how we can become real advocates of what we strongly believe must be done to make this world a better place.


luz restrepoI was born in Colombia, and have lived in Australia since 2010. My family and I were forced to take the decision to move here because of the political situation in our home country. We had to decide between staying and risking our lives and the lives of our daughters, or moving to a safer place.

What I immediately felt put me in a position of disadvantage was that I spoke no English. And as many of you know, when we don’t speak the language, when we know no one, when we don’t know where we are, we need to start all over again. And starting again means that we must eat humble pie and learn again how to connect with the human and physical environment surrounding us. Certainly, as all moms will confirm, the wellbeing of our children is our top priority when we arrive in a new place. But as mothers and wives, while our husbands and children advance in the new country, we go backwards. We build our bubble of comfort within a close, known community, but we have no opportunities outside of it.

When I started to learn English, we did not have the resources to cover expensive courses. I started to study English in community centres in the suburbs of Melbourne. My classmates were all women that had settled in this country, three, five, some of them twenty years before. And while my English advanced well, their level remained the same. That made me wonder, “Why am I different?” I think one of the factors is education. When you are educated back home, you are more prone to absorb new things. You are also more curious: I was the only one in the class to ask for synonyms, antonyms, and spellings. What happens is also that many women that already live in a poverty circle in their home country come here and experience the additional barrier of the new language. And when they find themselves in the same class with other people who know how to navigate the education system, they are disadvantaged.

At that point I also realized that we learn the language by doing something meaningful in society, outside our homes. One such thing is a job, but how can you find a job when you are struggling to write the simplest things on paper? The solution I saw was to create a business together. I thought we should support each other. They had little English but lots of connections. We started to make handicrafts. We made crafts at home, and I looked for marketing opportunities in Melbourne. When we went to sell our handicrafts in the markets, we realized that our group of twenty-five multicultural women was very attractive to people. People loved to come and talk to us; they engaged themselves in our stories and bought our products. And by selling our products, we started enjoying the idea of having our own money, and our business minds began to develop.

Eight years ago I founded a charity, because no one wanted to lend me money for a proper business. We called it SisterWorks, Possibly it was my confidence as a businesswoman and the beauty of our mission that attracted more and more people to support migrant women’s economic empowerment. The organization grew rapidly. When the pandemic started, SisterWorks was supporting 900 women from more than 70 countries. We developed new ideas to create new products to sell on a big scale in supermarkets, other retail outlets, our own shops and online. SisterWorks fulfilled a need and UN Women came to us to find out how our business model was working. Our model of learning by doing and creating a sense of belonging and community support is now a worldwide pilot scheme with UN Women. As CEO, I oversaw the growth of the organisation from functioning on a zero-income, volunteer basis to one thriving with a staff of 20 and a $1.4M annual turnover by May 2020.

Two years ago, I realized that I am an entrepreneur, but my charity needed a manager – someone capable of developing systems and processes with the employees. I also realized that when long term unemployed migrant women find their first job in this country, they lose their voices, because they are not going to complain to their bosses. And I was the boss. They were doing all I said, but sometimes they disagreed with me. I didn’t know that, and when I found out, I realized I was taking their voices away, and I needed to give them their voices back.

In June 2020, in partnership with an amazing Australia businesswoman, Corinne Kemp, we founded Migrant Women in Business, an Australia-wide social enterprise that supports migrant and refugee women with nano or micro businesses to thrive and grow, and for their owners to become community leaders. 

Migrant Women in Business is a business, not a charity. The other thing I learned in this journey is that we migrants are not vulnerable people, and when we put ourselves within a charity contest, people see us as persons to help. But as new migrants, we don’t need charity – we just need to learn how to navigate in a new country. That’s why I created Migrant Women in Business as a business. I want to help migrant women to give a good structure to their business. I want to provide everything around a business: legal and financial care, product development, promotion, collaboration. The concept is to work together to learn from each other, and on the way, we support micro businesses of migrant women, which in turn generate work and welfare. This is the ecosystem of Migrant Women in Business in a nutshell.

Starting online in the middle of the pandemic, Corinne and I identified the need for networking activities and easily accessible digital tools designed for migrant women entrepreneurs who have varying levels of English literacy, technology skills, business opportunities and understanding of business culture in Australia. Migrant Women in Business is currently working for and with more than 90 businesswomen with migrant and refugee backgrounds, offering them commercial opportunities through our Made by Many Hands platform, and hands-on small business experts supported through Made by Many Minds.

33% of independent businesses in Australia are created by migrants, but only one out of ten is created by a migrant woman. We are the last in line. Also, there is little representation of migrant women in politics and business in Australia. I strongly believe that this is the time to have more women leaders in the world. We take care of the family, we are carers, we are leaders, and it’s time we were more represented in the public sphere. This is how we can create diversity.

Luz Restrepo
Human book at Expatclic Human Library 2021
For another story from the Expatclic Human Library clic here.


Empathy across borders: the war in Ukraine seen from Romania

In these days of great sadness for what is happening in Ukraine, hope shines through the strength of empathy and solidarity, which crosses borders and reaches right into the heart of war. Romania, where I currently live, is the main gateway for refugees from Ukraine to Europe, as is Poland. From this observation point I went in search of touches of humanity and found many. I am convinced that as expats we have a duty to recount what is happening in the countries where we live. Interpreting reality from a new perspective can be very helpful.


For those born and raised in Western Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, war has always felt distant. Distant in time, fought between the pages of history books or in the stories of grandparents, or distant in space, even if, in fact, it was not. Just think of the example of Yugoslavia. But we liked to think about war this way: unfair, cruel, terrible, but “belonging to others”.

Perhaps it was a kind of defence mechanism, a way of not being overwhelmed by horror.  Maybe we should be a little indulgent to ourselves for every time we were not emotionally involved in other wars. Now I realize how superficial we were, and how bitter the awakening is today.

During my years in Bucharest, I often heard sirens, but was only afraid the first time. I often saw fighter planes pass over my house, but they didn’t worry me: Oh yes, there are NATO bases, I said to myself.

Today, however, war is close and is invisibly but tenaciously creeping into everyone’s daily lives. In recent days Italy has sent more planes the Mihail Kogalniceanu military base, near Constanța. Yet Constanța always evoked sea rather than war for Romanians, and for me, until a week ago.

A friend sends me a message: you can donate blood for wounded Ukrainians at the blood transfusion center at the Central Military Emergency University Hospital. I am overcome by anxiety and hearing my children in the next room going on with their life does not make me feel better. I need to go out. Passing near the Ukrainian Embassy is painful: flowers, candles, signs in many languages. A group of a dozen people are out there, maybe waiting to enter, maybe waiting for news. I dare not ask; I dare not get close to those harrowed eyes.

I need to find some humanity in these cold days, to get, if not relief, at least a moment of respite in my thoughts. I want to listen and talk about the solidarity that runs along those 600 kilometers of border with Ukraine, and that from there engulfs the whole of Romania. After all, Halso made up of the many gestures of ordinary people and organizations, and this, too, must be told.

My friend Alexandra Paucescu shows me the photos of the Caradja Cantacuzino Association, one of the many organisations receiving aid in Bucharest: the number of volunteers and the amount of essential goods is impressive. Meanwhile, within a few hours, the entrepreneur Alexandru Panait created the refugees.ro platform, to connect Ukrainian refugees, who can specify their needs, with those who want to help them with housing, lifts, meals, and basic needs. And the number of those who help out continues to grow, as well as the list of restaurants and hotels that offer meals and accommodation to Ukrainian passport holders.

Empathy across borders

Refugees form Ukraine arriving at Isaccea (Romania). Photo © Mugur Varzariu

As I scroll through the endless offers of help online, with hundreds of Romanians opening the doors of their homes, welcoming people to their table, or giving lifts, I get a message from Simona Carobene, an Italian social worker in Romania, who has travelled to the border with Ukraine.

She tells me about the cold, the snow and the many, many people who arrive having covered miles on foot. On her journey, she was left speechless when she received a call from a desperate woman in tears who asked for bulletproof jackets, helmets, gloves and boots for the soldiers.

Roman, a Ukrainian who managed to enter Romania with his wife and five children, could have moved on elsewhere. He has a network of contacts in other European countries, but he decided to stay there, at the border: he speaks English and Romanian; he can help his people. He lives in a shelter with 57 others, many of them children. And he knows that what they need is not only blankets or food, but also not to feel alone. They need a smile, a hug. ‘What hope do you have for your country, for your people?’ asks Simona. Roman shrugs: ‘Eternal life, perhaps’.

Right after this I get a call from Don Valeriano, a priest friend. He’s 50 kilometres from Budapest, on his way back from Italy. Two nights ago, he received a phone call from Lviv: You have to rescue disabled people, it is difficult to keep them in the improvised bunker in the building where they live. Valeriano and a colleague take a car and a bus and leave.

They arrive in the middle of the night at a secondary custom, hoping it will be easier for them to pass. And so it is: only three hours of waiting and a dozen people, including two in wheelchairs, cross into Romania. They drive through Italy. . As I write, Valeriano is making another journey, this time to rescue 44 people, mothers and children. Not all minors have documents, but he is confident that also this time there won’t be any problem.

Meanwhile, at the border, Romanians do what they can, bringing food, blankets, toys, offering car rides, a bed, a meal in their own home.

I scroll through the photos of a photographer friend, Mugur Varzariu. As I thought, he is there, at the border, too. I ask him to tell me about a moment, a face, a situation that struck him, that helped him to keep hope and trust in humanity alive.

He tells me about Anastasiia, who arrived with her mother and her child from Odessa at the border checkpoint of Isaccea, carrying a trolley and nothing else. Exhausted, she burst into tears when she realized she didn’t have her biometric passport with her. The frontier commander, a big man in a dark uniform, offered her a rose, which had somehow ended up there in the confusion, and then he let her through. From Isaccea, Anastasiia found a lift to Bucharest, where she is now hosted by the mother of a Romanian gendarme. .

Faced with so much violence, so much pain, when despair seems to overwhelm us, we must take a moment to think about the example of so many people, women and men, who in the cold of the long night our continent is going through, open the doors of their homes and keep burning a flame of hope, as small as it is precious.

This article was adapted from the original published in Italian on March 4, 2022 in the online magazine Mentinfuga.


All pictures ©Mugur Varzariu

Giuliana Arena
Bucharest, Romania
March 2022













What volunteering in Athens as an expat has taught me

We love this testimonial of Zuriñe, a Spanish lady who went to Athens, Greece, for a two-months period of volunteering with migrant and refugee families, and then decided to settle there for at least one year. It is a very honest account of how getting in touch with different realities can open your heart and minds to unexpected discoveries that change the person you are.


I must confess that it wasn’t easy to write this article: in my present circumstances, it’s difficult to talk about myself as a sort of protagonist, when my firm belief is that every person with whom I work deserves the honour of being centre stage.

My first taste of volunteering can be summed up in two separate months during which I worked with migrant and refugee families in a busy building in Athens. I felt that each experience was so brief that it didn’t really have an impact on the project, and in certain cases, it seemed that I may be doing more harm than good to the people I was supposed to be helping: this was because it was impossible to follow up each case properly, and also because the constant coming and going of volunteers resulted in severe emotional strain for families who had formed attachments with them and then had to watch them move on.

These factors were added to the shock of landing in a European capital and finding in its streets a horrendous social reality of the kind that, through ignorance, we generally associate with developing countries, but never come face to face with in our own neighbourhoods.

And so, during those two month-long episodes, what I learnt led me to change my perception of voluntary work: I stopped thinking of it as being founded on a sentiment of altruism, and shifted to considering my activity as a moral obligation, taking into account my privileged existence which is a simple consequence of my place of birth and my family’s economic possibilities.

Following these reflections, I decided to pack my bags and move to Athens. I planned to stay for at least a year. And that’s how I started working with the Elna Maternity Center, a project that houses pregnant refugee mothers and their families. The project is funded entirely through donations from private Spanish civil society donations, which are managed through various NGOs and organisations.

The objective of the project is to offer a safe haven to families who have fled their countries of origin because of war, terrorism, violence against women, and so on. In addition, it offers holistic care, such as help with administrative and legal procedures, and all healthcare matters. Everything takes place in a space specifically designed taking into consideration the values of empathy and respect. It’s a clearly intercultural environment, welcoming families from very different backgrounds: Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iran, Palestine, Kurdistan and Pakistan.

In the bleak context of refugees living in Athens, our centre is a place that offers security and care. We can offer this stability because basic needs are covered, and from this foundation, people can progress and plan a future. Although everyone would agree that healthcare is a basic need for a pregnant woman, this is not provided in many of the Greek islands, nor in refugee camps on the outskirts of Athens. Healthcare in these places has come to a complete standstill, and there is no political will to change this: on the contrary, there now seems to be a policy dissuasive of healthcare.

On balance, my personal experience has not been very positive. The reality is overwhelming, and volunteers are not in a position to change it. The origin of the problem is abstract, but day after day, its consequences arrive on the doorstep of the place we call our home, and sadly, we have to deny people help because of a lack of resources.

Finally, and perhaps a little selfishly, what I will retain from my experience is the affection and warmth of the families who have managed to get this far, and who, after hours of working together, I can claim as a part of me. I also treasure the opportunity I’ve had to meet women who carry the weight of their entire family on their shoulders, and struggle each day to improve their situation, with their characteristic strength. I have learnt to stop seeing vulnerability, to stop re-victimising, because what is really at the heart of these women is an incredible capacity for resilience. In the end, I owe everything I have learnt to them and to the experience I was lucky enough to have of working with them.

Athens, Greece
Photos ©Zuriñe
Translated into English by Paola Fornari


The trailing husband (of an aid worker)

We sincerely thank Federico Bonadonna for allowing us to publish the translation of his moving account of what it means to be the trailing husband of an aid worker.


I have followed my wife for ten consecutive years in places I had barely heard about (and some places I’d never heard about), not to mention other countries where I had sworn to myself I’d never set foot, so strong was their reputation of being dangerous, dirty, or miserable.

On our first date in Rome, I told her I hated to travel, I hated the “Chatwin-like mysticism” of the journey, and I did not completely understand the point of international cooperation “with all there is to do for the poor in Italy”.

aid workerAt that time my work focused on extreme urban poverty and I had never experienced being stuck in a besieged neighbourhood during a civil war, resulting in hundreds of deaths – practically ignored by media (apart from the local ones); and I was physically allergic to ethnic fashion (I still am, a bit). My future wife looked at me in silence… and less than one year later I was beside her in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Since that moment I have done what the character of a song of Sergio Caputo (Italian songwriter, ndr) does: “I will follow you to show you something more, I’ll come with you should this be my work”.

Together with my wife in these 10 years, I’ve had stones thrown at me (even if the stones were for her, in Yemen, because she had unwillingly worn a colourful veil from which strands of hair protruded), been spat at (the spitting was also for her, for the above reason), and contracted intestinal and skin parasites. I fasted for days in the desert while she ate local food sitting on the ground, for weeks I only ate junk biscuits and drank Coke, I slept in infamous shacks among rats, cockroaches and snakes. A couple of times I threw up my soul as a result of serious food poisoning.

My wife and I have passed on a road a few minutes before it was shaken by a bomb attack and for years have breathed toxic fumes because of open air dumps and the constant burning of trash.

With her in these years I have visited orphanages that provide meager amounts of food to scrawny children – intentionally ensuring they do not appear well fed in order to discourage parents from abandoning their children there to give them a future. I have seen children looking for worms in the earth to eat. I’ve stared into their eyes: some were full of hate, others of pleading. Those eyes have tormented me for months.

I have seen China advancing in Africa, blowing up mountains to pave landscapes, build railways, bridges, motorways, or to extract minerals. I have seen the new colonialism, and the future shapes of the world: “Cindiafrica”, with her 3.6 billion people – mostly young. I have visited pristine places, and other landscapes definitely destroyed by pollution.

aid workerI have followed women on a three-hour trek to fetch water from the only well accessible to them, and trek 4 hours back, loaded with overflowing carboys. I have seen the result of the aid workers job: the joy of inhabitants in remote areas that celebrated the opening of new wells, the building of schools and health posts.

I have come dangerously close to contracting malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya and bilarziosis. I have understood that danger is part of the job: traveling on Russian helicopters that have fallen (and fall with alarming recurrence), driven by not-always-sober Ukrainian pilots to go to South Sudan, where there is a war – which means they shoot, kidnap, and rape… it means they have kidnapped, killed or raped people you know. Places where lodging outside of Juba are huts where poisonous snakes and rats live, infested with malaria-ridden mosquitos and cockroaches (I know an aid worker who fears nothing… except what I just listed: she has a phobia of beetles and she insists on going to those places, because that’s her job).

I have seen refugee camps with lean women and children as far as the eye can see, thousands of exhausted people, massed in camps between Kenya and Ethiopia, sitting on UNCHR rice bags. Being an aid worker is not a job for those who work for agencies that spend 70 or 80% of resources in staff (the aid workers I value and talk about are not only able to write projects and make ends meet; they dirty their hands – they risk). Aid workers do not think that the danger is always the fault of those who are kidnapped or attacked, or that you can always avoid danger. No, cooperation, in some places, is physically and psychologically dangerous work.

I met hundreds of people, extraordinary volunteers and aid workers, and then others too busy with looking good. Sensible entrepreneurs and infamous bastards. Elegant diplomats and others who cannot be described.

In these 10 years I have understood that I had understood nothing: that is to say that I, and all the people I know, have been born in the right place and at the right moment in history, that we have a material luck we cannot even understand because we are so far from the daily tragedies that the vast majority of people in the world go through every single second of their existence. And that even if unperfected, improvable, and modifiable, international cooperation – in all the shapes it assumes and has assumed in the course of history – is the most democratic tool for development. Cooperation, however, is made of aid workers: people of flesh and bones, with their dreams, passions, and ideals; but also with refined skills and knowledge that merit the utmost respect, because aid workers do not love danger, but their work by its very nature implies danger.


Federico Bonadonna
February 2019
Photo Credit ©FedericoBonadonna


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


hate hurts


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

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

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


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

Photo credit ©Cinzia D’ambrosi


When crayons become powerful means of solidarity

Thierry Barrigue is a French cartoonist, co-founder of the satirical magazine Vigousse, launched in 2009, and creator of a beautiful project called “CrayonSolidaires (Solidary Crayons). He was recently in Jerusalem to present it, and it is there that our colleague Alessandra Perini had the chance to interview him.
We practice Linguistic Empathy. We count on your understanding if our English is not perfect.


Aim of CrayonSolidaires is to share intimate moments with refugees through drawing and caricatures, smile with them, give them a name, an identity, but mostly give them their lost dignity back. To do so, Thierry with two other Swiss cartoonists, Pitch and Sjosted, went to several refugee camps: Cherso in Greece, Aida in Bethlehem, Palestine, some schools in the Gaza strip and the detention centre for refugees in Holot, in the Negev desert in Israel. In all of these visits, Thierry and his colleagues empathically listened to the refugees stories, both adults and children. They entered their tents, felt their emotions, looked at them, and then drew their faces.

Here is what Alessandra asked Thierry:

Yesterday evening, in your introduction to the exhibition of your drawings and to the movie, you talked about “Listening”. Could you tell me more about that?

The magic of live drawing allows an immediate communication, and overcomes all cultural barriers. I cannot draw if I don’t look with my heart first. The same happens with communication: you must be able to listen to the other before communicating. Listening is a priority for me, it’s enthusing, it is a form of kindness towards the other. I have always worked and drawn for everybody, and I have now decided to work for those who suffer, those who stand at the margin, deprived of an identity. With the act of drawing, I want to go towards these people, tell them “good morning, you exist, I look at you in the eyes, you have got a name, a surname. I respect you. I listen to you”.

Can you tell me about your association “CrayonSolidaires” (Dessiner pour Tous)? And about the experience in the refugee camps and in the Negev desert?

The idea of CrayonSolidaires came to me after I met a UNHCR delegate in 2016 and talked about the Balkan route, which is now closed to refugees. No hope to continue their journey or go back. I cannot stand talking about migrants and refugees as an anonymous mass.

Everybody’s scared of the words “refugees” and “migrants” but these are not simply words. They represent a group of people whom we are afraid of and reject. These people are like us, they have their own history, they had a job, a house that they lost because of the war. That’s why I decided to go first to Cherso (north of Thessaloniki) in Greece with two Swiss cartoonists, and then to Palestine, Gaza and the Negev desert in Israel. I wanted to meet these people. I have to tell you, I was scared but I think that I am a lucky person and when you are lucky you have to give back to the others to build something else.

People told me: “do you think that a drawing can change something? They need houses, food, jobs, etc….”. I know, I answered, but what I can do is give them back their dignity and maybe their force. This is what has happened and I’m very moved by it all. I met girls who were so happy just because I taught them how to draw and adults who thanked me for giving them their smile back. I want to go back to Cherso.

Is it correct to say that what you did worked as art therapy?

Yes, you’re right. It’s a therapy for myself, too. I am lucky because through my job I can express my feelings: pain, anger, etc. I’m my own psychiatrist. I also try to bring humour in everything I express, I believe it is very important. Combining the magic of drawing and humour created a strong complicity with the refugees.


All this is documented in a couple of videos that Thierry shot during his visits to the refugees. Please take a moment to watch them, and see how Thierry manages to create a bond of complicity with the people, and makes them smile with simple gestures. While sitting there with his crayon and aquarelles, Thierry listens to atrocious stories of loss, bombing, death, and escape. In the end, listening with empathy is exactly this: giving space to people to tell their stories, making them feel they are worth the while to be listened to.


Alessandra Perini
November 2017


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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