Today two good friends and I went for an adventure in a remote Shanghai neighborhood where mostly migrant workers from the provinces live and where their children go to special schools. These are the workers responsible for lifting Shanghai from the ground up to soaring levels with its new high rises and luxury hotels that mushroom at an impressive speed around the jewel of China. The residences are extremely modest and the children struggle to learn as best they can under their current circumstances. On this day the teacher said that they would be celebrating children’s day (normally on June 2nd in China) and strangely enough they pointed out a few of the girls who they consider ‘beautiful’ and explained why they were dressed in party clothes and not the usual school uniform. The declaration of their beauty was done openly in front of all the other students, a concept I found incredibly alien and difficult to understand. “She is the most beautiful girl in the class” the teacher announced loudly, ” and this is why she will be presented on stage today”.
Shanghai, the pride of China, races towards its future, bejeweled with glitzy sky scrapers, glowing with billions of energy consuming lights, employing the largest work force in the world, day and night, 7 days a week and waiting for no one to be ready for this epic change. In neighborhoods like this one, people are given very little notice before their homes get demolished giving room to bigger, more modern and more expensive buildings. The people themselves are moved to housing outside the city to start a new life with little character, with no traditions and with not much choice. Every week that I visit these alleys, I find that more and more of them has disappeared…
The thing about the future is that is seems to happen on time and not wait for us to be ready to receive it. And always things appear to be later than we think, don’t they?
Today I was with a friend on a photo walk in an old Shanghai neighborhood condemned to demolition and we saw that from week to week homes were being demolished leaving in the rubble, shoes, clothing, old furniture, toys… It would seem that people had very little time to pack up and leave their homes before they were destroyed and we wondered at the levels of stress this must have caused a family that lived there possibly all their lives. Change is often associated with pain, even if it was a change were seeking all along.
Behind and right next door to the glitz and glamour of Shanghai, real people live their real lives in the old lanes. The first shock you get walking through the very old parts of town is the extreme narrowness of the alleys and the very small size of the overcrowded rooms people call home. It is quite a wake up call that I make sure I take myself through at least once a week so as not to be fooled by the fake reality that expats tend to exist in in a place like Shanghai.
Shanghai has recently been one the fastest growing economies in the world with yearly growth percentages measured in double digits. In this city of now over 23 million, it is the migrant workers who drive the whole giant machine forward and through it all remain faceless…
There are those in the world who are destined to have their whole lives intertwined with hard labor . They accept their fates and press on through life with strength, determination and a quiet acceptance.
La Liberté éclairant le monde~Liberty enlightening the world
Quite the words to be met by upon arriving in New York, words that embody the essence of the statue of Liberty, the great lady that stands tall with her torch and tablet there on Liberty island since 1886. Liberty: the ability to have agency over your own actions, freedom, free will, determinism, aren’t these some of the promises that drove millions to pack up their things and sail to America?
Before the trip of “by art we live” to the Democratic Republic of Congo, an open line of communication and collaboration was opened with Jody Kennedy who teaches Middle School students in White Plains Public Schools, NY. Ms. Kennedy currently serves as a virtual trainer and consultant with the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration in Cleveland Ohio. She is the founder of the Global Ambassadors program and the Global Run project which is highlighted on the United Nations’ UN WORKS For People and the Planet website. Connecting with over 26 countries, Jody provides a virtual stage for youth to share ideas, art, music, and poetry-she has pioneered live videoconferencing to promote a global, borderless classroom. Jody’s expertise in interactive technology brings young people all over the planet face to face, in real time, to celebrate culture and art and a collaborative vision of humanity.
The Global Ambassadors, who are a very inspired and inspiring group of children, were very moved to launch an Art Drive to raise awareness and raise funds for the purpose of assisting demobilized child soldiers in Congo.
After several video conferences that I was invited to by Ms.Kennedy and the Global Ambassadors, a video was produced as well as a drive to collect art supplies and materials for sending to the Congo.
Quoted from Ms. Kennedy: “These are some examples of what the students who learned about the Congo from you created in order to help teach our community about Child Soldiers! Hannah created the T shirt design,Daniella and Sophia had the idea of selling pencils for $1 to raise funds to buy more art supplies. Daniella created the drawing . Hannah is an accomplished artist for her age. She herself has said that art has taken her through some hard times in life. I think that is why she feels so connected to this project.”
What is better than children helping children? So inspiring! Thank you to Jody Kennedy and her Global Ambassadors who are always doing so much. I am so honored to work with you.
Photographs are funny things. They can capture the state that you and your subject were in when you clicked the photo, and each time you look at it again, you are magically transported to that moment and it all returns, the smells, the weather, the sounds, the colors, and your emotional state at that time.
This photograph was during my last day with the children at CCPP ( The Cambodia Children’s Painting Project) in Sihanoukville. It was very hot and very humid like every other day I experienced there. I remember thinking that it is going to be so difficult to leave this place. The smiles, giggles and joy of the children were so contagious and so attractive to be with.
But on that day, this boy caught my attention in such a different way. He was not painting, not laughing, not smiling and not even remotely aware of the camera or me as I photographed him for at least 5 minutes. He seemed so engrossed in his thoughts, thoughts that were perhaps too much for him to handle. I wondered for a long time and remained haunted by his look, by his state. He seemed to be locked in his own bubble of sadness.
I so wished I had magic dust, a wand, a circus, or anything that would take away his pain.
Children are meant to be protected, cared for, shielded from pain, allowed to be children. Whenever I see a child having to meet the pains of adulthood it tears me apart. I always think of my child and how I would do anything in the world to protect her from hurtful experiences. Doesn’t every child deserve the same parental shielding? Aren’t children coded with the potential of our future? It is so crucial that we help them, that we allow them to become who they are meant to be. I am always so grateful and in awe of people that I meet who dedicate their life, efforts and talents to help children in need.
Such a glory is found in the giving where a gift is needed. Such an honor it is to give respect and value to the potential of a child and to be an instrument in unlocking it. And whatever this child is doing now, I hope he is smiling and being a child.
Sombath Srey Toch is a 13 year old girl who has been coming to the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project for two years. Srey Toch never smiled when she first started coming and she had no good reason to. Her mother died leaving her and her brother to the care or rather abuse of an older father who drinks heavily, is unemployed after a job related injury and beats Srey Toch and her brother regularly.
She also lost her front teeth and therefore was very shy to show her smile.
As part of what CCPP does, Srey Toch received free dental work that fixed her front teeth. And a contract was made with the abusive father that promises him help with his home rent (and home is a one room and one bed that the whole family shares), and some weekly rice allowance if he refrains from hitting his children.
And of course the daily painting sessions bring a glowing smile to Srey Toch. Every time I saw her at the center she gave me one of these beaming smiles that should never have been hidden in the first place.