01-12-2013 - Traces, n. 11

this year’s Campaign

In the face of enormous international problems–with the Syrian refugees in Bekaa Valley, where the Lebanese have nothing left to give, with the educational needs in Kenya, with orphans in the Ukraine, and with lack of work in Peru–what can be done? The goal of this year’s AVSI Campaign is to provide financial support for four initiatives that express concrete love for women, men, and children.

by Paola Ronconi

A normal life, at least for a few hours.... This is what Abdel wants, when he asks his mother if he can go to school like the other children in the refugee camp. It won’t be easy, because he will have to learn at least a bit of French to attend a Lebanese school, but at least in class he will forget for a few hours the oppression of having been forced to abandon his home in Syria. In situations like this, a notebook, some pencils, and an eraser can mean a great deal. The days in the refugee camp of Marj el Kokh are not simple, with the mud, the ragged clothes hung out to dry. But for Kahled, whose father does not want to send him to school, it would mean the chance to learn the alphabet and to sing together with other children, because even in the midst of tents, children can be children, if someone could manage to create an open-air classroom, find a blackboard, and treat them like children.

A year later. The official figures speak of 800,000 refugees in Lebanon, a country of four million inhabitants, but actually over a million have crossed the border. In fact, a great many refugees, because of fear of deportation or the lack of documents, do not register with the UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees, thus losing the opportunity to receive international aid.
Exactly a year ago, Marco Perini, AVSI responsible for Lebanon, told Traces that the refugees in transit  needed to hurry, because snow was soon coming to the mountains above the Bekaa Valley. The 1,000 Syrian families who arrived in Marj el Kokh had left their country in sandals and needed not only blankets, clothes, heaters, and diesel, but also food, medical care, and employment. A year has passed, the war in Syria offers no hope of a peaceful solution, and once again cold weather will return soon to the Lebanese highlands. “The condition of a refugee is very complex, especially if you have only recently become one,” says Perini. “When the Syrians began arriving two years ago, they brought their belongings, and those who welcomed them had something to give them. Now, those who arrive no longer have any money, and the Lebanese have nothing left to give.”
The AVSI Christmas Campaign aims to continue supporting the work that the AVSI volunteers have been doing for over a year in Marj el Kokh, together with the UNHCR and UNICEF. In addition, it intends to help the diocese of Aleppo, the city with the third largest number of Christians in the Arab world after Cairo and Beirut, and which today is being devastated by the war.

One of the UN objectives for the millennium is to see that, by 2015, all children have the possibility to receive an elementary school education. Kenya is almost unique in Africa in having succeeded in enabling 95% of its children to attend elementary school, which covers the first eight years of studies. The difficulty comes with the passage to secondary school, which barely 50% of students manage to attend.
In a reality like that of the slums of Nairobi, the rigid and purely factual approach used in public schools, the lack of structure, and the dire socioeconomic situation of the population make it difficult for students to continue their studies.
The Cardinal Otunga School of Nairobi is an example of how this challenge can be met. Founded in 2005 with 25 students and 4 teachers in a couple of rented rooms, now it has 240 students, 15 teachers, and a facility that boasts a library and equipped laboratories. It offers not only a good education, but “what makes the difference is looking with affection at one’s own destiny and that of others,” says Joakim Koech, headmaster of the school and one of its founders. The Cardinal Otunga School was born to put into practice the “risk of education” described by Fr. Giussani. “It seemed like foolishness to found a secondary school that was not boarding, as most of them are here in Kenya,” he told Traces some time ago (Vol. 12, No. 10, 2010, p. 24). “But we took the risk, involving the parents in the curriculum.” In this way, Cardinal Otunga School has become a place that is worth getting up at dawn for, one with classrooms and soccer fields where you find faces who welcome you and are ready to travel with you not only on your academic journey, but also on your personal one.

“I would like to continue.” The story of Fredric, among many others, describes better than numbers do the opportunity students have to live with hope for their future. He used to live in the Kibera shantytown in Nairobi, with his widowed mother and younger siblings. Fredric passed his time begging, and could not attend school. Then he met an AVSI social worker and, through a distance adoption, was able to attend the Little Prince elementary school. Upon completion of his studies there, he said, “I would like to continue going to school.” The Cardinal Otunga School is on the other side of the city, and Fredric’s family was hardly in a position to find money for lodging. Then, the Kamande family, with 3 children of their own and about 10 guests at a time, decided to help him, hosting him and enabling him to attend high school. Today, Fredric is about to start university studies.
Between 2008 and 2012, the Cardinal Otunga School not only prepared 148 candidates for the national examinations necessary for entrance to the university, but also emerged as the top-ranked school in the district.
The AVSI Christmas Campaign supports the educational activities of the school, including courses to keep teachers up-to-date and to strengthen their qualifications.

Lena has just one arm, very serious problems with her legs, and was abandoned at birth by her parents. Now she is attending the university. Sasa was found in a dump when she was six months old, with her skull fractured. She lived in an institute for 20 years. She writes poems dedicated to the mother she has never known, but deeply yearns for. Tanja, an orphan since she was very young, wants to become a nurse. Oleg lived for 20 years in a boarding house because he is an orphan with very serious problems with his legs. Over time, he slowly went blind. Today, he can “read” all the books he wants, and is studying Philosophy at the university, and he has “even learned Latin.” These young people are the protagonists of the third story about AVSI’s work. Handicapped or orphans (often both), they are “rejects” that post-Soviet society in the Ukraine does not know what to do with. The government has few options available: orphanages, boarding schools, or old-folk’s homes, because even though Lena is not yet 20, at least there is a bed available for her there.
Aleksandr Filonenko, a Ukranian philosopher and professor at the University of Kharkov, told Traces “the story of an intolerable absurdity” (No. 3 of 2013). In 2011, he and his wife Inna heard about Maksora, the non-governmental organization that partners with AVSI to run a home for unwed mothers in Siberia. This story opened up for the Filonenkos a world of charity and the opportunity to share life.
The couple had a series of encounters in the trajectory of their life’s adventure, including one with the director Vasilij Sidin, whose theater company, Timur, works with  young people in difficulty, most of whom are alone in the world and would be destined for delinquency. Timur offers an opportunity for redemption to these young people, and often liberates in them the sensitivity, intelligence, and talent forged by their own dramatic life experiences. “With Sidin, we produced very moving performances,” recounts Filonenko. “Then, my friends and I realized that we could help the young people with school materials,” to enable them to continue their studies notwithstanding their extremely difficult situations.

Like the two disciples. Not long after, the non-governmental organization Emmaus was born. Aleksandr and friends go to state-run orphanages to play with the children and help them with their homework, to walk together like Jesus with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
The AVSI Campaign will support educational activities, helping with studies in the institutions, theater productions, and formation seminars for young educators. Who knows, maybe in the future there might even be a house in Kharkov where the young people can live outside the institutions!

In the Amazon, nature is something alive that “feels” and “suffers” if it is disfigured, but also if it is just worked. Those who farm that rich and generous land must respect it, so that it continues to yield its fruits.
In Bagua, in northern Peru, or in Masma, in the central region of Junín, the farmers do not know techniques such as pruning, weed removal, or fertilization. But the “food of the gods,” the prized criollo cocoa, with its white beans, fragrance, and only slight bitterness, is very sensitive, needing a great deal of care, and has a poor yield. For three years, AVSI has been working with the Ceprooa Cooperative, which unites 400 families of small farmers in Bagua and Utcubamba, to experiment with techniques to increase production while respecting the environment.
Improvements in the phases of harvest, fermentation, and drying have already provided good results. Yield has grown from 1,000 pounds of cocoa per hectare (approximately 2.5 acres) to almost 1,320, and improvement in the quality of the beans has enabled them to increase the sale price and to participate in trade shows and international competitions. The objective of AVSI’s work is also to improve the organizational and management capabilities of these small family companies, to connect buyers and sellers through a business network, to encourage involvement of wives and children, and to help farmers put their accounting in order and formulate a system of internal control for organic certification.

Workshop for students. Some young farmers have modified the cooperative’s statute, establishing a “Comité feminino,” a committee of women who have created a new line of cocoa and coffee-derived products with the registered trademark Utkku. Alongside this project, AVSI wants to support the “Oficina laboral,” an effort that began north of Lima to find small jobs for students at the Catholic University of Peru, and that now is present in Chincha and in the Cono Est of the capital, and has expanded to locate work opportunities for unwed mothers and young people with criminal records as well as for  those who arrive from rural areas with little professional formation.