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06/02/2017 - 07:00hs

Brazilian woman encourages refugee kids to play

Alessandra Luiza de Morais Gabriel of Minas Gerais, Brazil created a project to help children in risk situations to play. She works at refugee camps in Greece, whose residents include Syrians.

São Paulo – A Brazilian woman with a Fine Arts degree is working on preventing children in risk situations, like refugee kids, from enduring gameless, toyless childhoods. Alessandra Luiza de Morais Gabriel was born in the state of Minas Gerais and resides in New York, USA, where she manages the Childhood Rescue Project.

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Alessandra and kids: for a fun childhood

Alessandra started doing research into the culture of childhood in Brazil as a college student, and she has put her project to work before with kids who struggled with the Mariana, Minas Gerais dam break, as well as kids living in Greek refugee camps, most of them Syrian.

The Childhood Rescue Project is designed to bring children’s games into the lives of boys and girls who live in the midst of war or natural disaster, who are migrants, who endure child labor, violence, child marriage, or even overexposure to technology. “Childhood is the most important part in the life of a human being,” says Alessandra, stressing that kids need to play. According to her, there’s science in playing, and grownups don’t need to do anything in order for kids to play. “All it takes is to look on and let them play.”

Alessandra related to ANBA her experiences with Syrian little-ones in a Greek refugee camp. There was an area for children, but they were all very edgy and aggressive. “They were these beautiful, happy kids, but an accidental bump was all it took for a fight to break out,” she says.

In the children’s area, they’d take toys from one another’s hands, and then they were forced to exit. “I didn’t offer them any toys. I just took each of them by the hand, we sat in a circle and then I told them a story.” The story transported them into a world of imagination, and they soon joined in.

Alessandra is from a large family, and there was always lots kids around. “I’ve always been closely involved with little children, and that made me want to work with them,” she explains. She studied Fine Arts at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and began doing research into children’s culture with her then-partner. She travelled and played with kids across Bahia and Minas Gerais.

Her first paid work with children was at settlements of Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST, the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers’ Movement) in Belo Horizonte. After that, she joined other initiatives, such as providing training for people to work with children at culture centers in the outskirts of Minas Gerais state capital Belo Horizonte, and a project that had kids make videos to tell other kids, who were public school students in Belo Horizonte, how they played.

Childhood around the world

Alessandra soon realized that kids play the same games around the whole world. She decided that the United States was the best place to get in touch with other parts of the world, and she relocated to New York in 2002.

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Children do not need a lot to play

There, she began setting up Play Groups, first with Brazilian immigrants’ daughters, and then with American kids as well. But halfway through 2015, media pictures of little refugees grabbed her attention. “There was this child in the mud, building a little house with tree branches,” she says of one of the photos that moved her.

The following year, 2016, she went to a camp in Greece called Eko, near the city of Polykastro. She was there for ten days playing with children, the bulk of them from Aleppo, Syria. During a trip to a nearby location, she returned to that camp, in September and October last year, and should go again this month. Now, however, the refugees have scattered throughout Athens, where she will try to get them back together.


Alessandra intends to make the Childhood Rescue Project a US non-governmental organization. Currently, the project is tasked with focusing on childhood in affiliation with the Eko Project, which assists refugees and whose leaders include Phoebe Gilpin and David El Alvarico. Her work in Greek refugee camps was all done in partnership with Eko. Phoebe was the one who enabled Alessandra’s work with refugees.

She will plan out her next steps and work approach in partnership Gilpin and Alvarico, from the Eko Project, and with Dan Teuma and Mary Finn, from The Worldwide Tribe, another kindred organization.

Alessandra relies on a few collaborators for the Childhood Rescue Project, including Karen Sztajnberg, who will join her in Athens for a video-letter project with Syrian children. Brazil’s Lili Maeda and Luisa Lobo have worked with Alessandra in the past, as has her husband, the photographer Peter Gabriel.

*Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum

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