I See People, Not Problems

Tom Hampson | July 29, 2013

Young Roma children in Belleville, Serbia. Photo: Tom Hampson/CWS

Young Roma children in Belleville, Serbia. Photo: Tom Hampson/CWS

I’ve worked for CWS for over 30 years and will retire in January 2014.  What an amazing privilege.  To do meaningful work with committed colleagues who make the world a better place – it doesn’t get any better than that!  As an added bonus, under CWS auspices I’ve travelled to dozens of countries and met some of the most remarkable, courageous people.

When I tell people about my work, sometimes they say, “Oh that must be so depressing!”  But for me, it’s inspiring because thanks to CWS, I’ve seen the change that can happen in lives and communities with a little help from us.

When I think of CWS work I see people, not problems.  People who under the most difficult circumstances find creative ways to build lives of dignity for themselves and their families.

People like Gordona.

I met Gordona in the fall of 2011 in Belgrade, Serbia.  At that point she was living in a squatter community called Belleville surrounded by new upscale apartments and office buildings.  The contrast was stark and so was her life.  Her Roma settlement had exactly two faucets to supply fresh water for 1,000 people.  Sanitation consisted of pit toilets they’d dug by hand.  There was no electricity.  The entire community had been built from scrap lumber, cardboard and other materials scavenged from the streets of Belgrade.

Despite her precarious circumstances she radiated a fierce pride, especially when it came to her children.  At age 34, she was raising her five children (ages 2 to 14) on her own after being abandoned by her husband. She heated her home by burning scrap wood and fished in the Danube in the hopes of providing some protein for their dinner.

With such difficulties, it would have been understandable if she chose to have her children raise money by begging in the streets, scavenging, washing cars, or worse instead of going to school.  But Gordona had a vision for her children that was not confined to that shantytown.  Education was the key.  With support from CWS partner the Center for Youth Integration, Gordona’s family received emotional and material support that enabled the older children to go to school.  That school, Branco Pesic, also receives assistance from CWS in order to provide quality education to some of the most vulnerable children in Serbian society – the Roma and refugees – giving them the tools needed to integrate into the larger community.

Shortly after I visited Gordona, her life, already precarious, was upended again when the city government bulldozed their settlement.  Fortunately, she was able to find housing in a “container community”. Modest by our standards, it was a much more secure home than she’d known in Belleville.  Here, too, CWS was at work providing a “container school” for pre-school education as well as literacy training and other forms of education for Gordona and the other mothers of the community.  For her this was a great opportunity, “I would like to go to school.  To learn to write, to read…  I would like to teach them instead of them teaching me!”

Gordona’s indomitable spirit and passionate commitment to her children inspire me still.  What we do in CWS is important, certainly, but it only has an impact because of people like Gordona.  It’s their energy, insight and feisty determination that really make the difference.  We support them with emergency supplies, education, technical assistance and more, but they are the ones who are building their own future.  I’ve been blessed over these years with CWS to assist in some small ways and in doing so my life has been immeasurably enriched.  Who could ask for more?

Hear Gordona on YouTube here.

Tom Hampson, Director of Donor Relations, CWS