There are times when I think there’s a wisdom to that one conception of telepathy – not the mind-reading, clear as day, but more on the side of premonition. You know, something’s coming. And I imagine the afternoon Danny’s school director announced her request, he had a little inkling bumming around the back of his mind, that sixth sense for potential projects. In this kind of ramshackle, seat-of-your-pants work, you learn to sniff out the blood pretty quick.
“Danny, I have something I’d like you to do.” (If you can, hear the statement in Romanian).
And they gathered, Danny Gottfried, his two partner teachers and his director, to select the outstanding English speakers of Mihai Eminescu Lyceum. These students would form a small, voluntary group to choose a form of discrimination common to Comrat and elaborate for the project ACES: act local. Every person matters. Together for social inclusion.
The ACES call invited schools from 15 countries to organize teams of students, aged 13-17, to draft project proposals on the theme of “social cohesion, inclusion or overcoming discrimination and marginalization.” Danny invited me (or rather, the Miras Moldova organization) to partner with his students and develop a proposal for the above-mentioned project. My partner Nadya also agreed to join our progressive band of volunteers and kids – with less than a month to get it together.
The project blossomed with its fair share of challenges. There was the scrambling to clarify schedules; kids attending because they felt they had to (who eventually dropped out, like the bookish guy who only tried a sport, any sport, because his mom thought it would be good for him); the nod-and-smile so common to Peace Corps Volunteers and non-native speakers alike (you know, signifying we understand what’s said when we don’t).
Lucky lucky, I had a chance to play observer as Danny conducted (and dealt with scheduling issues and a few doe-eyed teenagers). It’s no little task to diplomat-ize with giddy or grumpy teens, though the truth is that we made out well – many members of the group, unlike what I’ve seen when working with my (often) passive English Club kids, were engaged and burbling with ideas. Details, not so much – but they got the big picture quick.
Danny facilitated participation with open-ended questions and patience, especially regarding the language. Danny’s school is the only Romanian-speaking school in Comrat (all others in the city teach courses in Russian, unless it’s a language elective). Though it was slow-going, Danny was impressed: “It was a really interesting process how [the youth] would converse in Romanian, reach a consensus and then express their ideas in English.”
Danny began with a group brainstorming session to decide which topic the youth wanted to address. Our participants came up with the following concerns observed in Comrat and other parts of Moldova:
- Language/nationality discrimination: One person speaks Russian, but another might not consider them “Moldovan” because they do not speak the same language. It’s difficult to speak Romanian in Gagauzia because they consider the “national” language of Gagauzia to be Russian. Ukrainian, Russian and Gagauzian are okay here – but the cause is a problem with history.
- Appearance Discrimination: It’s based on clothes hair, nose, face, ears. For example, in Chisinau, young people try to look better than anyone. In Moldova in general, people want to wear the most expensive clothes, they want to look awesome! You might walk in the street and see girls dressing like they’re going to a party, but they’re really going to work or school. There’s an opinion that if you don’t dress well, you might be poor – they judge your wealth based off your appearance.
- Disabilities Discrimination: People with disabilities don’t just need physical support – they need good relationships with other people. They are not accepted by society in the majority of cases. Strangers will pretend they don’t see them, they will just pass by, or assume that they are stupid. For example, if a person with disabilities wants to buy something and he or she is with a friend, the employee will ask the friend. They assume the friend is the person who is paying.
At the next session, the youth decided to write about discrimination against people with disabilities. Nadya lent her expertise when discussing project ideas – she’s been working with Miras Moldova, and by proxy “Fidanjik,” our local center for youth with disabilities, for the past two years.
The teenagers decided they wanted to develop a training for both students and teachers in Comrat schools to educate them about the situation of people with disabilities. After the trainings, they hope to have a picnic in the town’s central park, inviting students and teachers to meet, eat and play games with disabled individuals. The youth used the following 5 guiding principles to develop their project and its objectives:
- Human Dignity: If we meet these disabled individuals, we will learn to be tolerant and respect them. We will show the community that they are also people. With trainings, we will educate people how to manifest respect, and show the world that disabled people have rights too. With volunteering, there is a real interaction between people with disabilities, and this will demonstrate that we respect them as humans and want to be friends.
- Democratic Citizenship: We want to inspire others to get involved in this issue, to provoke them to act for this cause.
- Student Empowerment: Those who have information have the power. Our target for training is students in Comrat. We will speak with them and give them reasons to show respect to people with disabilities. We will inspire them to participate in this project. In the future, they will talk with other students, and change their notions about people with disabilities.
- Action-Oriented Learning: In the day of volunteering, students meet people with disabilities at a picnic. They will spend time with them and make friends with them, and therefore learn about people with disabilities. They might continue to speak with them after the day of volunteering. One example of a game is chess, or introduction games in pairs.
- Community-Based Cooperation: We will include students from Comrat schools and have trainings in three of these schools. We will invite these students to participate in a volunteering picnic. We will work with experts in this domain to organize the trainings. We will ask the mayor to use the park and will work with the school directors to set up the trainings. Miras Moldova will help with project coordination and implementation and we will partner with Fidanjik to connect us with disabled people.
The last step was to film a 2-minute video for the project application. The “final four” participating kids dragged themselves out to the Miras Moldova office on a Saturday morning, an effort Danny and I both appreciated.
We worked together to develop the script for the short, seeking personal anecdotes to create a convincing video proposal. One girl told us about her aunt, who was born without the ability to walk. We asked what it was like for her aunt to live in her village, attempting to guide the youth to connect the reality of living with disabilities to the prejudice they had described to us earlier.
“Well, she’s a star!”
Not the connection we were looking for (and we cringed, in the first place, at trying to ask a student a question with an answer in mind). However, the point we were able to make was that it “takes a village” to support individuals with disabilities.
The student told us that her aunt has had 18 operations since childhood, and though she still spends most of her time in bed, she is able to walk with the aid of crutches. Though she has an electric wheelchair, the woman has only been to Comrat, the regional capital, 5 times in her life – and this with the assistance of family members, who help her into cars. There’s also one man from nearby Cimislia who brings her aunt food and takes care of a few chores around the house. The girl’s conclusion was that, because of the vast support, her aunt was able to lead a good life – “If my family discriminated against her, I don’t know what her life would be.”
So wish us luck! You can see the final video here: