Migrants as actual people, not statistics, was the topic of a panel discussion in Pittsburgh that sought to draw attention to the stories of individuals – with their hopes and challenges – in the current global migration crisis. Barbara Gagliotti of AVSI-USA moderated the discussion at the annual Festival of Friendship which featured Ilaria Schnyder, research professor at the University of Notre Dame, Marie L’Hermine, Partnership Development Officer at AVSI-USA and Wasi Mohamed, Executive Director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. The discussion offered a human starting point by shifting the question from how we face immigration in the abstract to how we face immigrants – telling real stories of real people in context.
Marie L’Hermine detailed AVSI’s work with refugees and displaced peoples in Africa. Because of the devastating crisis in Syria, she noted, most of the world’s attention has been focused on refugees making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. Yet, according to the United Nations, developing countries, mostly in Africa, are taking in a disproportionate number of refugees — currently 80% of the world’s refugee population. Marie illustrated AVSI’s approach, which starts from looking at people as inherently valuable rather than inherently problematic, by sharing a video of Teddy Bongomi. Teddy was victim of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and was subsequently forced to leave her village. Once a beneficiary of AVSI programs, she is now a social worker for vulnerable women in Kampala and in the video she recounts her own journey to self-awareness.
In Roraima, Brazil northernmost state, 500 people arrive every day in the city of Pacaraima. Since 2017, Venezuelan migrants have been crossing the border to flee poverty and crisis, looking for a better future. Once they arrive in Brazil, they travel 200 km carrying their belongings before reaching Boa Vista, the capital city of Roraima. Boa Vista has a population of 375,000 people and today the city also hosts more than 30,000 refugees from Venezuela.
AVSI, in partnership with UNHCR, manages three reception centers in Boa Vista and helps more than 1,500 people every day. People who arrive at the centers are exhausted, and feel hopeless. They need everything: food, clothes, healthcare and, above all, they need to feel there’s a possibility for a future in their new home.
AVSI took on this major challenge of helping integrate Venezuelans in Brazil. After providing the initial arrival help in the reception centers with UNHCR, AVSI wants to offer some of the families a package of support and integration for four months in different cities in Brazil.
The package will include shelter, Portuguese language courses, personal services such as education and healthcare as well as initiatives with local businesses in order to offer job opportunities.
On October 3rd, 5th and 6th, in Kibera, inside a vast slum in the heart of Nairobi where almost one million people live, something unthinkable will happen: 150 students from the schools Little Prince, Cardinal Otunga, Ushirika and Urafiki will stage an adaptation of The Divine Comedy, by Italian author Dante Alighieri, directed by Marco Martinelli with Assistant Director Laura Radaelli. Through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, children will cross a path that will conclude in a parade in the heart of Kibera.
“The work on the Divine Comedy has confirmed to us how this archetypal narrative is universal," explained Martinelli, founder of the Teatro delle Albe, one of the most important theatre companies in Italy. "In this work, we talk about a man who gets lost in a dark forest, full of fear, despair, lack of meaning in life. How that man, when he hopes to get out of it, finds himself devoured by wild beasts and has the strength to understand that he will not save himself. This is the cry of Dante: have mercy on me. His prayer to the Creation, to the world, to the Other, is effective: someone arrives and holds out a hand, leads him into the light. Therefore, we simply told this story, without using Dante’s verses. We used improvisation, actively including everyone including teenagers.”
The project of making theatre a central experience in the educational paths of these schools in Kenya’s slums dates to a few years ago: many teachers had pointed out how the theatre was a factor of great attractiveness for the students. Thanks to the theatre, the rate of absence dropped dramatically and the theatre was also a tool to address other subjects. Since then, thanks to the commitment of AVSI, an international humanitarian NGO that has been present in Kibera for many years with projects in different fields, in particular, that of education, training and job placement, the investment in the theatre has gradually grown.
On Tuesday, September 25th in the halls of the United Nations main building in New York City, AVSI was the co-host of a lively discussion on the topic of “From Vulnerable to Protagonist: empowerment of women”. Other co-hosts included the Italian Permanent Mission to the United Nations and No Peace without Justice, a non-profit advocacy organization.
The title evoked AVSI’s direct, close-up experience with so many women, each with a particular story of transformation and self-realization—the experience of becoming THE protagonist of one’s life story—even in the midst of suffering and obstacles.
Giampaolo Silvestri, AVSI’s Secretary General, stressed the need for a relationship of equality and real collaboration among development actors, advocates and those whom they serve.
“Change cannot be imposed from the top. No communication campaign nor law or regulations will succeed in changing a mindset if the person doesn’t discover, through the direct personal experience …that involve her to the last fiber and makes her discover that she can do it,” affirmed Silvestri through examples taken from his many years visiting AVSI’s development programs around the world.
Teddy Bongomin, a social worker with the Ugandan NGO Meeting Point International in Kampala, sent a moving testimony by video in which she witnessed to the beautiful transformation which occurs when a woman discovers her true value, fully as a woman. This is the key for any development program or even advocacy efforts to have impact, that a woman’s heart is open, reawakened.
“I say if you exalt a woman, make her discover herself, give her tools, she will use them to save her life and even the lives of the others!” proclaimed Teddy.
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