“My faith is in joy. If there is a god, it is joy,” says the 52 year old Brazilian Lelé Luiza. Lelé has been working with children in situations of risk most of her life, and one might think that in some of the places she has been, such as refugee camps in Greece and Turkey, finding and nurturing joy would be a strenuous mission – but that’s a misconception. “Children are happy. No matter in what situation you can always make them laugh. Even a child in the mud, not eating properly, in total misery, he or she still laughs,” she says.
Video credit: Kelli Scott
A False Start in Education
Lelé’s affinity with children was uncovered at an early age, much before the refugee crisis hit Europe and camps spread over the Mediterranean coast. After graduating from Fine Arts in her native Belo Horizonte, she applied for a job as an arts teacher at a kindergarten and at her first day at work, she decided to observe the children as they played and did their own thing. That was when the school director walked in: “She was furious at me. She sat all the children down with paper and crayons in front of them and said ‘This is how you teach art’,” she recalls. Lelé knew deep down that there was nothing trivial about what she had done: “Children need to play and to be amongst other children. Art comes during play time — you can introduce it while playing. That was an absolute truth for me, and I could not see or work in any other way,” she says. Her career as a teacher ended even before it began — she quit her job on that very day.
Fostering Carefree Moments
It turns out, that what Lelé already knew intuitively then, would only confirm itself to her in the following years. “There is a culture that belongs to children through which they communicate with themselves and the world. There is a common language that exists everywhere in the world, the language of play,” says Lelé, who in her 20s devoted her time researching and documenting this childhood culture. She developed a project called “Video Letter” which involved making videos of children playing and making their own toys and then sending those to children from another area or country, mapping out the ubiquity of playing. She opened playgroups in various schools in Brazil and got hired by the government to work with children in situations of risk, some living in slums and others in temporary camps after losing their homes due to floods.
“Toys reveal our most precious side; the memory that we kept of when everything was innocent and good. When we play, nothing else matters but playing, and in that moment we are whole,” Lelé explains. She also says that through playing together and sharing, children go through an awakening of sorts, they learn limits and consequences: how to ask for things, to wait for turns and to be appreciative. They experience how to take care of each other, their surroundings and nature.
From Brazil to New York
Lelé’s a woman with a palpable optimism and warmth; she smiles and gesticulates energetically as she speaks. It is immediately obvious why children take a liking to her. It is also unsurprising to hear that as a child herself, she wanted to do and be everything: from an artist, to a dancer to a singer to working in a circus. In 2002, Lelé took her enthusiasm to New York, where she moved to learn English and develop the skills, such as filmmaking, she thought could help take her projects further. Arriving in the city, she quickly went about connecting to the local Brazilian community, and her astute people skills meant that in a matter of only three months she had found an apartment she could afford and work in the field she enjoyed, setting up playgroups and babysitting for families. Her work, in turn, was helping her with her English: “I started to learn English with the children; I would read their books. And then later, they would grow up and start correcting me,” she recalls, laughing.
Growing Up in Her 30s
But like many immigrants, Lelé ran into complications in her visa renewal process which meant she was unable to leave the United States for seven whole years. Those first years weren’t always easy; far from her family and friends, and not speaking the language properly often felt lonely and frustrating. “In hindsight, that period on my own was really necessary for my personal growth, I started a deep internal transformation at 36 years old. I started to grow up late.”
While many people eagerly hurry through their youth, skipping important steps in a rush to start careers and families, Lelé had been doing just the opposite up to that point. As she realized later, the child in her, curious and playful, had been guiding every one of her endeavors. It was during those seven years spent alone in New York that the woman caught up with the child. She gained focus and confidence, and learned how to prioritize and channel her energy into what was truly important for her: “I loved many things, but I knew that working with children was the one thing I couldn’t spend one day without doing,” she says. She settled in New York for good after having married Peter, an American photographer, and her newfound sense of purpose saw her playgroups develop and become a reference amongst parents.
Awakening to the Refugee Crisis
It was around 2015 that the world became increasingly aware of the tragedies brought about by the refugee crisis in Syria, as pictures of dead children washed up on beaches of Europe made it to the front pages of newspapers worldwide. It was also around that time that Lelé started to use Instagram professionally, posting pictures of her playgroups to keep parents informed. “In one of the ‘recommended for you’ boxes, I saw this image of a girl carrying heaps of clothing in her hands. For some reason, I clicked on it.”
That was a picture Jaz, a young English girl who had gone volunteering in Calais and whose story and post about the experience had gone viral. From Jaz, Lelé kept scrolling and browsing other profiles, NGO’s, volunteers’ and refugees’ pages until she landed on a picture of a young Syrian boy: “He was building a small house on the ground with sticks, and he had the most beautiful smile in the world. And he was doing exactly what I did everyday with the children in my playgroups, building things with sticks. That’s when I knew I had to go there,” she says.
Don’t Overthink It
Living in an age of push notifications means that at some point we have all felt the weight of responsibility and the desire to get involved and help others. By the same token, the information overload can also cause our determination to dissipate, as we are confronted by the sheer number of causes that could use our support, and ways in going about that. For Lelé, not overthinking is key: “One of the first things I learned is to leave all fears aside and simply dive into it. You can’t think too much, plan too much, because we never know what we will find. Planning too much can be a waste of time because the situation is full of unforeseen circumstances.”
When Lelé arrived at EKO, a camp near the Macedonian border in Greece, in April 2016 she found out just that. The staff of the organisation she had come to volunteer for seemed confused at her being there: “They were handing out their last batch of diapers and milk and the organization was leaving that campsite actually,” she recalls. But Lelé had come all this way and she was in no mood for giving up: “I knew I could help the children regain some normalcy in their lives through playing,” she says.
“Harmony is brought about by playing”
EKO project had established a makeshift school at the campsite, and the children would take turns in attending it. The ones that were out of class would be kept in a wooden structure with a canvas roof, under the supervision of a volunteer. “The moment I walked in there I saw dozens of kids running around, screaming and crying; complete chaos. There was so much tension in the air, and the volunteers, despite doing all they could, were barely managing,” Lelé recalls. After having spoken to the other volunteers in charge of the space, she decided to try something out. “The following day, we took in the children into the structure two by two, holding them by their hand. Touch is very important, it helps release tension. We sat them in a circle, and with the help of a translator I started with some simple play exercises, and read them a story,” she says. The children watched Lelé attentively and in silence, their eyes growing wider at everything she would say and do. When the story was over, Lelé brought in a bunch of newspapers and strings and taught the children how to make a Barangandão, a colorful folkloric toy from Brazil which helps develop children’s motor skills and visual perception. The children remained calm and focused as they built their new toy, before heading outside in euphoria to play with it. At the end of the day, one of the volunteers broke down crying, overwhelmed by the tranquility and joy Lelé had managed to instil in just one day. “Harmony is brought about by playing,” Lelé says of that first experience, “I knew this, I had been working with it for thirty years.” For the next 10 days, Lelé would play with the children and teach other volunteers games and exercises. She also built a relationship with the the families at EKO: “The kids would invite me for dinner and tea in their tents. It was really hard for me to leave this behind and go back to my normal life in New York,” she recalls.
A More Ambitious Plan
But Lelé’s time with those children was far from being over. They kept in touch via the internet, and only six months later, Lelé was back in Greece, this time accompanied by her husband Peter, and equipped with a more ambitious plan. Together with a group of volunteers from EKO project they went about developing a safe space devoted to playing just outside the campsite. “We would serve more than 150 breakfasts for the children, they would set out the menu themselves: cucumber, tomatoes, flat bread, yoghurt…Because they weren’t used to eating the potatoes and spaghetti that was being served by the NGOs inside,” she explains. “After that, that the children were divided into groups, some stayed with me in the toy workshop and some went with Peter on a photography or German course.” At the end of the month’s stay, Lelé and Peter organized an exhibition with the pictures the children had taken, enlarged and printed for their families to see. Lelé was guaranteeing that, against all odds, these children were having a childhood.
Founding an Organization
Lelé has been living this way for the past three years: eight months devoted to her playgroups in New York, and the remaining four months of each year to the Childhood Rescue Project, an organization she founded with a mission to protect the culture of childhood through the power of play. The relationships built with the children on that very first trip to Greece remains strong — she has travelled to Ireland, France and Germany to visit them after they were relocated from the campsite. “We set up exhibitions in London and São Paulo with the pictures the children had taken in Peter’s workshop. We went back to give the children the money they had made from the sales,” she says. “At the heart of it, all those kids, families and volunteers at EKO really helped me become the person I am today. I went there with the intention to change something, but I was the one who ended up being changed.”
Find Your Courage
When one reads or hears about refugees it’s hard not to imagine the tragedy that surrounds their lives: what was left behind, the separation of friends and families and the uncertainty of the future. But when Lelé tells me about her experience in those campsites, her narrative has a different focus. What she gets across are all the happy moments she had there, all that has been achieved, and everything that is still possible. “Every time I would come back to New York, people would be interested in knowing about the disgrace, the precarious conditions of the campsite, but I never have these stories to tell. Every time I meet a child it is wonderful!” she says. “I truly believe that the joy that comes from playing stays imprinted in us can be accessed in any situation in the future.”
Although she found her calling through it, Lelé admits that packing your bags and heading to a refugee camp might not be for everyone. But we have all felt our own particular callings, be it a strong yank or subtle tug towards something, and if Lelé’s journey can teach us something it is to be brave and answer to those. “Find your courage. Not knowing where to start is not what stops us. What stops us many times is the lack of courage to change directions.”
Thanks to Peter Gabriel for the images in this post.