Final Reflection on my Faces2Hearts Journey
Dear friends, family, passerby’s to this blog (otherwise known as my online home for the past half year),
I wanted to say ‘thank you’. Thank you for following this journey and supporting me from near and far. I have had the incredible privilege to travel with the European Commission for a project that allowed me to highlight the voices of others through storytelling.
I wanted to write this blog post as a final reflection on my journey – from beginning to end, and all the moments in between that changed me as a photographer, blogger, and… (ultimately) human.
How did it start?
Almost 10 months ago I created a video that (little did I know at the time) would change my life in ways I couldn’t imagine. I entered a competition called ‘Faces2Hearts’ that aimed to find 4 young bloggers that would travel the world to share stories of how European Union projects were impacting and transforming lives.
In my video, I shared a story about my friend who I met in the Refugee Camps of Western Sahara. His story touched me so deeply because it was a living example of hope and resilience. Not only did our exchange show me the strength of his spirit, but he also opened up about his life as an artist in the camps. He uses his art as a tool for social change – to inspire young people to follow their hearts.
Fast forward, I won the competition and his story was the first of many stories I would be telling in the months to follow. I travelled to 7 countries in 5 months, visiting: Laos, Cambodia, Fiji, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Uzbekistan.
In the beginning, I stumbled to remember them all, and now in one breath, I can list the countries as if it were attached to my name. That’s how personal this journey was for me (as if it were my name), it became a part of who I am. It defined me in many ways and changed me in other aspects.
Faces2Hearts (in a nutshell)
Faces2Hearts was about bringing people closer to the stories of individual and communities around the world. It was about bringing a human element to a project or programme.
It was about changing the narrative of development – not riddled with jargon and facts, or figures but an aspiration to bring the audience closer to people.
It surprised me when I learned that the European Union is the largest aid donor in the world. I think it’s safe to say that the EU is sometimes misunderstood as an institution that sits in Brussels managing European affairs, but what I discovered is that the EU is active abroad and outside the European borders.
At first glance, it’s easy to think I won a travel competition (because in a way I did). A chance to go to 7 countries in half a year? Sweet deal right? And while it did allow me to go to places beyond my wildest dreams, I also felt that it was less about visiting a place and more about the encounter and relationships with people that I created along the way. It wasn’t only travelling to see a site, but it was a connection that could only be built in the context of this project.
“Faces2Hearts” was so simply and beautifully named to reflect the hope of bringing people (faces) and their stories closer to you (your heart).
Bumpy Roads of Up’s and Down’s
And the honest truth is that this journey was more physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding than I could have envisioned. Anyone who’s been travelling for weeks or months would know that sometimes it’s not always a nice picture to be living out of your backpack and not know where you might sleep the next day. It’s tiring to forgo a sense of stability.
All the physical exhaustion brought me to the hospital twice, while nothing major (thankfully!) it was a reminder that health should always be a priority. Emotionally, I was confronted with many hard realities. I can close my eyes and think of so many moments that moved me. I knew that water and climate change was an issue, but it was heartbreaking to learn about the story of environmental disaster at the Aral Sea (“Disappearing Source of Life: The Story of the Aral Sea and Oktyabr”)
I learned about a form of discrimination against women in Nepal; a practice called Chhaupadi (” Eliminating Chhaupadi in Nepal: A Harmful Practice Rooted in Tradition”) essentially deemed menstruating women impure. From project to project, I had to sit down and listen to people’s accounts of suffering.
The truth is that not every story was positive, in fact, most were difficult to listen because they told personal narratives of hardships, abuse, violence, and struggles for basic human rights.
Every 2-3 days I was in a new place, and about every 3 weeks a new country. It was a logistical planning challenge that felt never-ending. Needless to say, this journey was both physically and literally a bumpy road. The journey pushed my limits in and in that process helped me grow. As much as I learned about other people, I equally learned a great deal about myself in this journey.
One of the lessons I’ve taken to heart these past months is the power of a message and the beauty of a story. I strongly believe that individuals aren’t defined by one story, rather a myriad of experiences and narratives, but there is also something powerful in communicating one person’s story at that moment.
Storytelling is about bringing out someone’s voice and creating a relationship with the audience. I’ve sat down with many people – young and old – and it surprises me how often they tell me ‘I don’t have anything worth sharing’.
They feel like their experiences are normal; yet, in contrast, it’s often remarkable how in their action they exhibit so much strength and courage – the kind of bravery that others could move others. I believe that stories can also carry with them a message or even a call to action (one of my favourite stories about climate change is this one from Fiji (“Faces of Fiji”)).
Despite the fact that I probably shared stories of people who were from a different background than you, there is a string of relatability in the narratives. One story I shared of young mothers in Laos (“First 1,000 Days”) could touch you if you too are a mother. Or if you know someone with a disability, perhaps hearing other stories of those who are fighting for rights could expand your understanding of the reality (“Meeting Joy: A Community Supporting Children with Disabilities”) (“Having Our Voice Heard”).
A human experience is a beautiful testament to the diversity in the world, it’s also a chance to unite people through realities that are shared.
Meet the Team
Acknowledgement, first and foremost, goes to the dedicated team from the European Commission. A handful of people really made this project possible – for all of us it was a new experience and I appreciate the patience, out-of-the-box thinking, creativity, and persistence it took to take an idea and make it into a tangible reality.
A final reflection isn’t complete without sharing the way my fellow bloggers have shaped this transformative journey. If you’ve read some of our individual blog posts or tuned in for any of our live tapings with EuropeAid, I think it’s safe to say we have incredibly different personalities. We come from different backgrounds and experiences. I’ve learned from each one of them and drawn so much inspiration from their personal lives.
Ariel, from the Dominican Republic, travelled to Latin Ameria (Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia). For those that don’t know, Ariel went through something quite traumatic (in a series of posts) he explains how during the journey he was robbed. He lost everything, yet the speed he picked himself up and took measures to move on from the situation demonstrates his courage. He’s a wizard with making videos and can make anyone in the room feel like a friend. His love for life and nature would inspire you too.
Ellie, from Italy, travelled to South and East Africa to Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Mauritius. If you’ve seen Ellie’s blogs, photos or videos, you’d be moved by the compassion she brings out of herself to tell other people’s stories. She has a gift of connecting with people on a deep level, often bringing out raw emotions and creating a safe space for anyone who wants to raise their voice. Since starting the project, Ellie’s been pressing her fellow Europeans to reconsider the stereotypical narrative of Africa and Africans. She’s been deeply transformed by the journey and doesn’t shy from sharing her experiences.
Jean Luc, from Rwanda, travelled to West and Central Africa to Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Cameroon. Jean Luc inspired me even before meeting him because in his application to Faces2Hearts he shared the story of his country, Rwanda in a way that promoted reflection. He always knows how to keep his calm and balance that with a sense of humour. Jean Luc is one of the most talented documentary photographers I know! Now he’s empowering a younger generation of photographers in Rwanda, and I know he’s going to continue to use his photography as a tool for social change.
And I travelled to Laos, Cambodia, Fiji, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Uzbekistan! But nothing more about me!
From Europe to the World, and Back
After finding out we won the competition we flew to Brussels for an extensive training in a couple of days (Decemeber 2017). But shortly after we had to part ways to begin our “individual” journey in different continents. Nearly six months later, after the journey, we returned to Europe.
It felt like in a strange way coming home… “Coming home” because it meant that things were suddenly familiar and we were reunited with each other. I can remember that moment seeing the other bloggers for the first time after half a year, it was completely surreal because, despite the individual journeys of transformation we all experienced, the joy of being together hadn’t changed at all.
We returned to present two exhibitions, one at the European Youth Event and the second at the European Development Days (June 2018). During this time we also lead workshops and panel discussion on our experiences and tangible skills like photography and storytelling. And finally, we presented at the Rimini Meeting in Italy (August 2018).
I’ve been so fortunate to see #Faces2Hearts project grow beyond my imagination and to see myself grow in this process. I’ve shed parts of my old self and embraced a self more compassionate, especially for women and girls around the world and others who face inequalities and injustices. What I saw was that many developing countries are no longer a passive recipient of aid. There are new ways of collaborating, which allows EU funding to stretch further and in more sustainable ways.
Individuals and communities being transformed for the better. I’m not saying that the system is perfect, I acknowledge the bureaucracy in development cooperation, but I am walking out of this experience more hopeful that positive change is taking place. We can continue to propel this change when we take more chance to listen to each one another’s stories with empathy.
Ariel told me at the beginning of the journey, “happiness is real when shared”. So thank you for sharing this journey with me. Thank you for supporting me in ways big and small. You probably have no idea how impactful your encouragement was along the way – a million times, thank you.
My deepest gratitude to:
My family and Sil. Your support continues to carry me forward.
Delegation of the European Union to the Lao PDR; Helvetas Laos; GiZ in Laos; Wildlife Conservation Society, Lao PDR; UNDP in Lao PDR; Australian Foreign and Trade Department (DFAT); UNICEF in Lao PDR
Delegation of the European Union to Cambodia; Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (GVC) Cambodia; Cambodia Climate Change Alliance; Plan International Cambodia; VSO International Cambodia
Delegation of the European Union for the Pacific; Pacific Community (SPC); Veiseisei Sai Health Centre (VSHC); Australia-Pacific Technical College; GiZ in Oceania
Delegation of the European Union to Indonesia; British Council; ASEAN Secretariat; INDECON (Indonesia Ecotourism Network); Handicap International, Humanity & Inclusion; Community Based Rehabilitation (PPRBM Solo); Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR)
Delegation of the European Union to Bangladesh; Uttaran; Save the Children Bangladesh; Light for the World; NGO Forum for Drinking Water Supply & Sanitation; Fondazione Terre des Hommes Italia ONLUS in Bangladesh
Delegation of the European Union to Nepal; Kathmandu Metropolitan City; Practical Action Nepal; Action Works Nepal; WeWorld Onlus in Nepal; UNICEF in Nepal
Delegation of the European Union to Uzbekistan; GiZ in Uzbekistan; UNDP in Uzbekistan; The Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (CAREC); Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Uzbekistan (CCIU); Ministry of Health, National Centre for Social Adaptation of Children