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Marist Bulletin - Number 157


Marino Primiceri

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Marino Primiceri,
an older brother to the street kids of Goma, R. D. Congo

Brother Marino Primiceri, 58 years of age, was born at Casarano, Lecce, in Italy. He studied English, French and History at the College of Advanced Education at Arlon, Belgium. After he arrived in Africa, he studied motor mechanics and tropical medicine. After having taught in Belgium for four years, he went as a missionary to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He lived through some difficult moments during the war in Congo, working in prisons and in refugee camps. He belongs to the Province of West Central Europe but currently he is working with street kids in Goma.

How did you start with the street kids?
In September 2003, Brother Eugène Kabanguka, the Provincial of East Central Africa, gave me the freedom to choose a ministry for my apostolic work. Of course, I thought of the young people of Goma. The Salesians look after 1400 abandoned children and I thought about the many others on the streets, whom no-one looks after. I chose to look after them. After some time of discernment, Brother Eugène gave me his support and said: “Go ahead!”

What is Goma like ?
Goma, with more than 200 000 inhabitants, lives under a cloud of fear, due to either the volcano Nyiragongo, which caused so much damage during its last eruption in January 2002 – it destroyed a good part of the city – or due to the war and to the tension between Rwanda and the Congo. Currently, the situation is tense and, as a result, we find kids living on the streets.

What do you mean by street kids?
In using this expression, I am referring to those children for whom the street is their home and their family, a place to live and to survive. They are the children outside the web of structures set up by NGOs and religious organisations. They are often orphans or even kids left to live on the streets by their parents for different reasons.

Give me a profile of a street kid…
A child between the ages of 6 and 16, thrown out by their family or who has run away himself; a child who confronts life alone or who belongs to a gang; a child who has to find his own clothing and food, defend himself against the attacks of his companions or of strangers, including the military, or who escapes into the world of drugs.

Are we only talking about boys, or are there girls among them?
The girls are often taken by mothers to do the house work; later, the husband may take them as a second wife. It is a difficult problem that is practically unsolvable without adequate structures. The girls are beaten by their protectors or kept at a distance when we try to get close enough to help them: they don’t want to lose a slave! It is a huge need for which we do not have an adequate solution. That’s why only one tenth of girls are on the streets. The older ones have chosen their lifestyle, that is prostitution, either occasionally or permanently.

You are depicting a very tough situation …
The real picture is even worse than what I have just said.

What does a street kid do? How does he keep himself occupied?
His main work consists of asking, begging or looking for little jobs: carrying parcels, looking after cars, cleaning, selling marijuana. He sleeps on the street, where he works, at the risk of being robbed by other bigger kids or being bashed by the military. If he doesn’t use what he earns during the day, he risks losing it all during the night. He cannot save anything because he does not have a secure place to keep anything.

How did you make your first contact with these children?
I met these children in certain particular places in the city: they were wandering about looking for something to eat and for some attention. Little by little, by talking and laughing together, our friendship grew, a simple but real friendship. In this domain, they do not put up with any dishonesty. Thanks to this friendship, the children started to let me know what they needed, to ask me for medicine, for clothing, for food…, but mostly for the affection they needed as human beings. My hope was to be their brother, their father, their mother…

What was their response?
We opened a dormitory in a big wooden shack so that they could have some shelter and protect themselves from bad weather, the cold and from being bashed at night. Teaching them to read and to write was a second step. We taught them and the women they robbed at the market in the same class at the same time. It was serious and comical at the same time. Later we offered them a plate of corn. This process gave us the chance to ask them to do a small job: to clean the market and to crush pebbles for construction work. This is paid work that guarantees them an education, as well as food and clothing.

You are talking in the plural; what does that mean?
I needed helpers: our students from Bobandana, a city 50 kilometres from Goma. We trained them to be street youth workers. There are seven of them from this school, and another seven joined them on site. I should emphasise that this project is inter-congregational: Salesians, Xaverians, Ursulines… We also count on several very committed lay people. Currently, there are 18 people involved in this work.

How is this project of social work structured?
We are the ones who approach the children and not the opposite. This is a very important point. We have set up a centre that has a dormitory, a school, a place for work and for games. There are at least six people working here as youth workers. Currently, four such centres exist in the city and they look after about 160 children. The schools cater for 220 people, including the children and the mothers who, sometimes, come to class nursing a little one in their arms. We are hoping to eventually have a total of 6 centres in the city.

Does your project have a name?
We use the acronym AMC, from the words: “Amis (friends) of Marcellin Champagnat”. But it also has another meaning: “Amis Mayibobo Chege”, which means in Swahili “Friends, Youth from the street”.

What relationship do you have with the Government authorities?
At first, they thought that we were preparing the children for the war. But after that, they realised that what we were doing was very good for the children. The authorities do not give us any material help, but they allow us to work freely with the children as they recognise the good effects of this work in various parts of the city.

I would imagine that your project does not finance itself solely from the income received from the work of the children. How do you get the necessary money to fulfil all your activities?
In the world there is no place where the children pay for their education! So, it is normal that we need economic aid, even with volunteers giving their time and their help. Sometimes, there are benefactors, but the main ones who help us are the Salesians, the Xaverians and, of course, the Marists. I must also mention some volunteers who give, as well as their time, quite significant amounts of money. All of these people have helped us to run this project that has only been in operation for ten months.

In many cities throughout the world, there are many such projects needed to help street kids. How is your project special compared to these others?
The scope of the work is immense and we cannot respond adequately to every need. We offer these children some chance, but we leave them on the street because it is there that they have to find their own solution, with our help. They are always stealing, but for the moment we cannot solve all the problems. From time to time they return to the street, but they come back to us because of the values they have discovered and because of the respect and the love that we have given them. That is where I see that our project is special.

Can we talk about results yet?
Certainly. The city sees the results of this project and in many places in the city, people ask us to open similar centres. We have three projects working at full capacity, with a dormitory, schools and some work that allows the children to be self-sufficient for clothing and food. In all of these situations, they count on the help of the street youth workers. Education is an essential aspect. A fourth project is being developed. We have returned 40 children to their families, and in so doing we have helped educate the families as well as return the children to their homes. We have changed some sections of the city: here, there are hardly any street kids now. That is the positive reality that everyone recognises.

Do you believe that the work you are doing is in accord with the vocation of a Marist brother?
I think that today Champagnat would give priority to these children. Probably, he has not been well understood on this point. I believe that I am in accord with Marcellin’s dream, as well as with the Constitutions and the calls of the General Chapter. That is why I find great fulfilment in working with these street kids. If only other brothers could help in this work! Wouldn’t this be a good way to respond to the Lord’s call?

How are you seen by the street kids?
We are more than friends; we have become a family. We have a father-son relationship and also a mother-son relationship. That gives me the greatest satisfaction and tells me that I am where I must be.

If someone wants to help you, how can they do this?
To have what we are doing accepted is the first help. Following that, finding people who can come and work with us (“for the harvest is great but the workers are few”). Those who wish to help financially can do so through BIS (Bureau of International Solidarity: solidar@fms.it), situated in the General House in Rome, who has promoted our project favourably and helped its development through financial support.

The children of Goma must surely be very grateful to you.

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