One of the main goals of CBM is promoting social inclusion, which means living together. As the Director of CBM Italia Onlus(1), I had the opportunity to visit and explore inclusive schools, meaning schools where disabled kids study with kids without disabilities. But can we talk about disabled kids? We all have physical or psychological or emotional disabilities, therefore we should say that kids with some disabilities and kids with other disabilities study together. I have seen inclusive schools (where kids study all together), special schools (only for disabled kids), and also schools with disabled children in a separate classroom, isolated from all the others… and there’s a lot of difference between them! Inclusive schools are characterised by a welcoming atmosphere, to welcome means to include, and the inclusion process works on both directions, it’s a mutual exchange of knowledge and experiences. A woman I have encountered explained it perfectly, with a happy smile: “When the kids are together, they learn a lot more: they create a synergy, a great energy”. CBM supports many inclusive schools or those who want to become inclusive, schools giving their children, ALL their children, the opportunity to face the future, together. The inclusion process necessarily involves the educational sphere and therefore the creation of specific schools, but building a social structure to support this creation is vital. Poor countries are not the only ones to be involved: education and social awareness are needed in our schools as well. I think we should talk more about disabilities and inclusion, and social awareness, on all levels, starting from the youngsters. For this reason, I’ve strongly pursued the realisation of our magazine Occhiolino(2) and of the project Apriamo gli occhi(3).
CBM prevents and treats avoidable blindness in poor Southern countries. For example, we reach the main meeting points in African villages and announce through the speakers the day and location of the next free eye examination for those who are affected by eye diseases or might be. What an amazing experience! On the appointed date, since early in the morning 1000-1500 people start to form a queue on the designated location and wait for their turn, well-dressed, with great dignity. Generally, 90 percent of these people suffer from severe eye diseases, and would have gone blind without our intervention. We do not do operate directly, but we collaborate with local partners, we let them work in their environment and with their own medical units: we cannot act on our own because sometimes we cannot even interpret the signs due to cultural differences, which must be preserved. We go there and grow with them, we help and offer an opportunity for development.
I’ve recently been to Kenya where I have witnessed a miracle: a child regained the sight, leaving the darkness of blindness behind him. Meeting these children, asking them what they wish for, listening as they answer “to see again”… taking them by the hand and going by jeep or by bus to the hospital where the local CBM unit will take care of them… it’s unbelievable. I feel better knowing that I can change the world, that I can improve it, even just a little. The children cry as soon as they arrive at the hospital: the operating room is scary, because of the needles and the anaesthesia, but then there’s the miracle of the day after, when they regain the sight, when they open their eyes and smile and the first thing they do is staring at their hands, sometimes counting their fingers… during another journey, a South American little girl had her eyes unfolded and told her mother: “but I can see you… I can see you!”
We define the overall strategy of the project together with all the national CBM associations in the world. This is the starting point for the development of the projects in the world and the establishment of specific interest areas for each association. Among other things, CBM Italia is currently designing a septic department, in the Corsu Hospital at Kampala, Uganda. Four years ago, I visited this hospital and encountered one of the few CBM Italian doctors, who confessed me his dream: opening a septic department for children affected by osteomyelitis. Osteomyelitis is a severe bone infection, extremely common among children, who get wounded while playing barefoot. It is also extremely contagious – which is why it is important to isolate children suffering from this disease. The treatment is complicated: you need to vascularise a healthy bone, then insert it in the missing part; the bone regenerates with the help of extensors, and within a year the leg heals little by little, and then the child can walk again. Many children are suffering from this disease. We save many of them, but the recovery lasts one year. In this hospital, a small school promoted by Brussels Airlines was founded, and also a playground and a hostel where the mums can stay. It’s a hospital, but it also includes a small community of people who generally come from far away and have to stay in order to avoid the unbearable costs of the journey. After coming home, for years I’ve thought about the doctor’s dream, until I found an organisation interested in funding the project with more than one million euros: next November we will open the first septic department in the whole sub-Saharan Africa.
I’ve always worked in the nonprofit world, and I had the chance to live for a long time in direct contact with the Franciscan world, with the friars, and this allowed me to interpret some of the key points of St. Francis’ thought, like welcoming and joy, which I then applied in my ordinary job. For CBM members, it’s important to live with joy, our job is not easy and it’s only with joy that we can get through a difficult situation involving a blind child or a kid with a twisted foot and no future, trying to keep smiling through all this, and keeping a positive attitude to carry on working and living. One of the beautiful things about our job is that we operate especially on avoidable disabilities, and so our intervention can change a life course: you could not see and then you regain your sight, or you had a twisted foot and then you can walk again. How many times we have treated children that “could not learn”! Of course he cannot learn, he’s blind… after regaining the sight he will learn.
CBM works in the Southern countries, in close collaboration with local partners. In 2016 CBM treated 28,300,000 patients.
Last April, during the Bologna Book Fair, the Fondazione Sarmede introduced me to CBM Italia Onlus and its Director, Massimo Maggio. That encounter generated the idea for the theme of this issue. I know nothing about NGOs or nonprofit organizations, nor about blindness, social inclusion, and especially hospitality and joy. I am the typical woman who smiles, if she smiles, and says she does not have time to stop and listen to the stories of the volunteers in the streets. I am uninterested and a little ignorant, but fate apparently wanted me to stop and learn this time, and maybe to share a welcoming smile in the future.
(1) CBM, or Christian Blind Mission, is the biggest humanitarian international organisation involved in the prevention and treatment of blindness and avoidable disabilities in the Southern countries. Founded in 1908, this non-profit organisation assists, treats and welcomes disabled people living in poor countries and promotes a better life quality for them. CBM is composed by 11 national associations – Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, United Kingdom, USA – working together to support different projects and interventions in the medical, rehabilitation and educational fields.
(2) the first NGO magazine for children that covers this topic in a simple way, describing the lives of blind and disabled children in the Southern world.
(3) a CBM Italia Onlus educational project addressed to the II, III and IV classes of public and private Italian primary schools. The aim of the project is to raise awareness among children aged 7-9 about the importance of the sight and about the life conditions of the visually impaired in the Southern world. CBM Italia Onlus provides free manuals and educational material for teachers and pupils of the schools participating in the project, and organises sensory workshops held by – even blind – experts. In the school year 2017/2018 the project will take place in the primary schools of 13 Italian regions: Valle d’Aosta, Lombardy, Veneto, Liguria, Piedmont, Trentino Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio, Campania, Puglia, and Sicily.
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