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Marist Bulletin - Number 263

 

Interview with Brother Marino Primiceri, Brother of the street children in Goma
28/9/2006

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We started with nothing, from the street itself, because we had nothing.” These are the words of a brother of Italian origin, but while still quite young, left with his parents to go to Belgium where he came to know the Marists, where he made his profession after his novitiate, where he worked for four years, then left for Zaire, currently D. R. Congo, as a missionary. He belongs to the Province of West Central Europe. He currently works with street children in the city of Goma. Recently he visited the General House and the brothers in Rome. He brought a few photographs which constitute a precious report about his activities in Goma. He breathes tenderness. Each person who appears in the photos reminds him of his story, his anecdotes. Pointing to one of the photos, he said, “This child was saved from a certain death. I had to run to several hospitals, insisting with several of the doctors…”

AMEstaún. You have been doing this work with street children for several years already.
Marino. In reality, in this work with street children, you count neither the days nor the hours, nor the years of work because with the street children you do not work according to a set timetable from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. You have to be available for them twenty-four hours a day. In reality, the life of a street child begins in the afternoon, but the problems arise at any moment, which means that if we count the hours of work throughout the thirty-six months that we have lived with them, it is perhaps a false calculation. The day is double and you live the time intensely.

But you have already journeyed with them.
Yes, we have journeyed a long way with them, because it is a long journey, difficult with a group that is quite important. There are more than 650 boys and we have contacted more then 200 families. I have sought the children’s families because it is nearly impossible that there is not a parent more or less close to them who is living close by.

When did you start?
We started with the Salesian Fathers who were looking for somebody to work with them and they asked me to collaborate with them in this work even though I had never done it before.

How did you start?
In reality we started with nothing, from the street itself, because we had nothing. We started with good relationships with the people. The work started in a market called “Virunga on the streets of Goma where we had some contacts with the street children who lived without doing anything, they had no work, they spent their time stealing… In this first contact, I said to them, “I have nothing to offer you, but you can count on my friendship. I am proposing this to you in an impartial way.” And they understood that I was not there to give them something as did a few organisations who offered them food or clothing… We simply said to them, “Our action consists of being with you there where you are, but we are not coming to bring you things; we don’t have anything to give you. The only thing that we are offering you, is something to enrich your personality, we recognise your values, your problems, but you can count on our friendship once you judge it opportune.”

You no doubt remember very well the first children to approach you.
The first was called Janvier but there was another called Gahínja. And this is the name of this organisation: Gahínja House which has been for three years the “University of the market” but it was not a university in any way. The school was a market shed when it rained, when there was water, when you could hear noise. But since the beginning we have called it the “University of the market.”

(I am looking at the photo I have in my hands. This photo enchants me; this one particularly.) What did this boy say to you at first glance?
This boy was the boss of the clan, a boss of the sector, which means that he was responsible for a zone of the city where he played the role of teacher, of boss. This boy had had a few problems with the place where he has welcomed by the Salesian Fathers; he had stolen and had fled, but we were able to rehabilitate him and currently he goes to class, he has learnt a profession, he has his driver’s licence, and he has understood that he does not have to thank me, but give to others what he has received.

And he was one of your supports?
Yes. These boys whom we find in the street and who discover what we do are the better collaborators. Currently he is rending a service that we ourselves could not perform.

You graduated from the Arlon Teacher’s College (Belgium) in English, French and History and you set about giving courses in these classes. For you, as a Marist Brother, has this encounter with street children supposed a conversion, an important change in your life?
I have finally understood an aspect of the charism of Champagnat. I worked as a teacher, as a director of a school and I finally realised that this was only one aspect of Champagnat’s charism. Champagnat was so open to everything and to all…, and it seems to me that my Congregation had perhaps forgotten this. At the present moment I do not feel capable of being a classroom teacher; my life is the street with these boys.

Are there other brothers who share this project with you in Goma?
I need to explain a little what has happened. The Provincial knew from the beginning what I was doing and he understood that I was not seeking money or material things to do this work. But he had some reticence. I invited him to come and see what was being done. He did not accept immediately but I insisted: “Come, see and reflect on your first impressions.” He came a second time and he saw that this work for me was a new pathway. He listened to the advice of various people and he saw especially what had been done with former students who had studied to be teachers and of whom seven had come at my request to collaborate with me.

The work has been strengthened?
We have not sought numerical results but a presence to each person, to each problem, to each family. We have tried to undertake a work in the field, not at the level of statistics.

But there are numbers!
Yes, it is evident that there are numbers. When we started, there were twenty-four children who slept on the ground. For Christmas there were forty-eight. They slept on the wet soil when it rained. When we started to gather them together, we believed that some of us would have to stay with them during the night. But the brother had to sleep in the Community.

You collaborate with the Salesian Fathers, which means that this work is a work of the Church.
This is another important sign for me. We have not only collaborated with the Salesian Fathers, but the White Sisters, the Xaverian Fraternity and some laypeople have also participated. There are five or six groups who have collaborated. The Salesians tell me sometimes that I am more Salesian than Marist. (I cannot avoid smiling at this.)

Some characteristics of the work
We have not gone seeking boys to make them leave the city. We have gone where they were. We have not led them where they do not want to go, but we have gone to where they want to be. We have gone to where they were instead of bringing them to where we are. I can tell some stories of other organisations who have led them to places created for street children, but they fled and returned to the market.
I said to my collaborators: Do not be afraid that our children go with other organisations; in this milieu of life they are more loved than in any other place.” We have not presented ourselves as givers of things but as people who offer them friendship, who can speak with them, who recognise their value, who know their pains, who recognise that they are not poor and miserable, but that they have their own value and dignity, their pride. To recognise that they are not only poor or poorly dressed or hungry, but that they have their own value and dignity, this is the important thing. For these people, the dignity and pride of being someone is more important than being the boss.

Does everyone accept you well?
If you do good things, you will always find the contradiction that is part of the realisation. If you do something courageous, you will find someone on your path who envies what you do and will try to put sand in your cogs. Trying to help these people find work has put us into opposition with other social groups, especially with the police. We have been suspected of preparing young people for the war. The police have watched us, followed us, questioned us to know what we were doing with these young people. It makes you laugh but it is serious. When they realised that we were not preparing an army in this war zone, (because it is a war zone!) they changed their reasoning: “You help these bandits, these thieves and you do not give help to us who are honest people.” Such that these people put a spoke in our wheel because you are not helping them. But this problem is called corruption. The fact that we do not share with them what we have is a reason for not giving us their support when we have difficulties.

Thus, to be able to organise an exchange...
The school commenced with some people who wanted help learning how to read and write. We gave them a little polenta that we had received from international organisations, but our talk was another thing. I could not get close to two of them by saying, “I am your saviour. If you do what I tell you, I will give you this or that and if you do not do it and will not give you anything.” With this attitude you cannot attain good results. We not only fed them, but before giving them something to eat we cleaned the kitchen of these boys who use jam jars as plates. Before feeding them, we came close to them as people. Contrary to other organisations who say to them: “Come with us and we will feed you.” No! “I am coming to eat with you and then, if you wish, you could come and eat with me. If you come to eat with me, I invite you to go to school for one hour, to help me to clean the place,” etc. Thus, change started to occur. You need me but I don’t make you know this and far less do I tell you. On the contrary, I need you, your friendship, and even if we do nothing, we can be here together and chat, simply being close to each other.

What is the spiritual life of these boys, these people like?
The spiritual life of these boys is something surprising because we think that because they are street children, they do not have the time to pray, to interiorise the Gospel which we bring to them, but that is false. Firstly, you cannot trick these boys. You cannot present yourself as being good if you are not so, and you cannot hide it if you are bad. What can be interpreted from a relational point of view perhaps can be said to be from a spiritual point of view. You can’t tell them to go to Mass or say this prayer; what they immediately understand is if you speak the truth and live truthfully.

The best of this experience
The relationship of a friend – friend has come to be something very strong, resembling the father-son relationship. This has been a strong experience for me. I had a similar feeling to that of a mother when she sees her son crying or bounding with joy. And not only me, Marino, but also those who have worked with me, all of us who work together. I have felt the satisfaction of realising the task of a father or of a mother, something these boys and girls do not know.

Brother Marino was interviewed for this Bulletin on another occasion. You can find this interview in Bulletin n° 157, August 2004.

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