rural albania for der spiegel

Poverty and high unemployment rates have driven thousands of Albanians to leave the country, seeking a better life in the European Union. In villages in northern Albania like Shishtavec and Novosej more than half the population has left. Most that seek asylum in the European Union are rejected. In Germany the government is working to declare Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro as “safe” countries as a way to speed up deportations. I traveled to Shishtavec and Novosej for Der Spiegel back in August to show what these thousands of Albanians have left behind.

See more pictures here.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 5.24.47 PM

salesian center offers haven for iraqi, syrian children in Istanbul


Conflict in places like Syria and Iraq has disrupted the education of millions of children. This story looks at one school in Istanbul trying to make a small difference by offering free education in Arabic for about 300 students. 

By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service

ISTANBUL (CNS) — Basima Toma teaches English to about 40 children at the Don Bosco youth center.

A young Iraqi boy stands at the chalkboard with a plastic ruler in his hand and spells out the words W-I-N-T-E-R, S-P-R-I-N-G, S-U-M-M-E-R, A-U-T-U-M-N.

Toma and her family have been in Istanbul long enough to see each of these seasons come and go, more than once. In 2012 Toma, her husband and four children left their home in Baghdad.

Toma and her family are Chaldean Catholics. In Baghdad, as Christian-owned businesses were targeted and destroyed, Toma worried more and more for her children’s safety. One of her daughters was the only Christian in her classroom.

“Now I don’t fear for my children,” Toma says. “I put my head on my pillow and am not afraid when they are not with me.”

“Here we don’t ask anyone what religion they are or what political party they belong to,” said Salesian Father Andres Calleja Ruiz, head of the Don Bosco youth center. “We just want to help them.”

The Istanbul center was started 20 years ago as a temporary response to the wave of refugees coming from Iraq. Conflict in the region continues, and new refugees and asylum seekers arrive every day. Today, 300 children, mostly from Iraq and Syria, are enrolled at the center.

The center is primarily funded by donations to the Salesian Mission in Bonn, Germany, and students attend at no cost.

Like Toma, most of the teachers at the center are refugees or asylum seekers. Father Calleja says this helps the youth because the teachers have lived the same situation and understand what the students have suffered. They also speak Arabic.

While the young people study English, math and computing, Father Calleja said, the center is also “a center of joy, where children can play and sing.”

Sarah Mohammed, 14, left her home in Aleppo, Syria, about one year ago. After an explosion near her school, the students were told not to come to class anymore: It was not safe.

“Many of them have never been in school, or they have been very irregular going to school because of the wars,” Father Calleja said. “We try to give them some regularity so that after one, two or three years when they reach some other country, they haven’t lost the continuity of school.”

Sarah said she loves to study. She speaks English and has also learned Turkish. She dreams of being an engineer and attending college.

While Sarah and her younger sister are enrolled at Don Bosco, their 17-year-old brother works 12 hours a day in a bakery to help support the family.

The U.N. Human Rights Council reports that the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Turkey is expected to hit 1.9 million in 2015.

For most refugees and asylum seekers, Turkey is only a stopping point, a purgatory they pass on the way to new lives in Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe.

While Toma worries less for her family’s safety, she said she worries more about paying the bills. Compared to Iraq and Syria, Istanbul is an expensive city, with limited work opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers.

After more than two years in Istanbul, she is still not sure where her family will be resettled or when they will go. She said she prays they will be granted asylum in Canada, where most of her relatives are already living.

“I believe God sees us, and that he’s knows what’s best for my family,” Toma said.

She added that her dream is simple: She wants a small house with nice furniture and for her children to attend college.

Father Calleja said he hopes and prays that the wars finish and people can live in peace. Until then, he believes the center serves a critical need.

“The group environment and the environment of joy, freedom and tolerance is already healing many wounds,” Father Calleja said.

documenting latin america with instagram



On July 1 three colleagues and I launched Everyday Latin America on Instagram. We are a group of 23 photographers from throughout Latin America that hope to show each other and the world the reality of our region through mobile phone photography. The inspiration to start the group came from Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill, who started the first (of many!) Everyday accounts on Instagram when they launched Everyday Africa back in 2012.

In the past two months it’s been incredible to see the work of so many colleagues from around Latin America and interact more directly with them. From here we hope to grow, adding more contributors and finding ways to engage more with Latin America communities.

In September Everyday Latin America will also be represented at Photoville in Brooklyn, New York, alongside many of the other Everyday communities.

Read more about the Everyday movement on Time Lightbox.

high in the andes, peruvian artisans create sacred art



By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service

CHACAS, Peru (CNS) — Freddy Cerna is about the same height as the statue he carves from Italian Carrara marble. His backward baseball cap and buggy protective goggles are a sharp contrast to the delicate face he perfects with his carving tools. The statue of Mary, her hands folded in prayer, stares back at him.

“I talk to her all the time,” Cerna says. “I ask her to help me imagine a more beautiful and sweet face.”

Cerna is one of about 650 artisans working across Peru for the Don Bosco cooperative. While many of the artisans build furniture, a handful of them specialize in sacred art. They build church pews and confessionals, create stained-glass windows and sculpt Jesus on the crucifix.

The artisans learn the craft in a free, five-year boarding school started in the Peruvian Andes in 1979 by Italian Salesian Father Ugo De Censi. It’s part of the Operation Mato Grosso, an Italian nongovernmental organization that works to eradicate poverty in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Italian volunteer and designer Mirko Codenotti says that when Father De Censi arrived in Chacas, he was stunned by the innate manual ability of the locals and saw training as a way to create job opportunities.

_RG_7460Many of the boys that apply to the school live in extreme poverty. Some are orphans. About 25 students are admitted each year. The school offers them a core curriculum but also teaches them to paint and work with glass, wood, metal and stone. In the third year of the program, each student chooses his specialty. Upon graduation, the boys receive a box of tools and are invited to join the Don Bosco cooperative.

Cerna chose stonework as his specialty. He says it’s the hardest and slowest to work with but it’s worth it because the pieces last in time. Like Michelangelo, when Cerna looks at a giant block of stone, he says he sees a statue waiting to be discovered. He also sees his future.

Artisans at the cooperative earn according to the number of pieces they finish per month. The average artisan earns 1,200 soles (US$430) but a more experienced or skilled artisan can earn 2,000 soles. That amount is on par with what a teacher or a medical technician earns in the region.

Churches in Peru, Italy and the United States commission a majority of the sacred art, almost exclusively done by hand and usually in silence.

In 2010, Deacon Robert Holgren of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in San Diego, California, was searching for a company to outfit the interior of the church the parish was building.

“So many companies were in it for the money, and there was no spirituality in it,” he says.

When Deacon Holgren discovered the Don Bosco artisans, not only did he like the quality of their work but, in working with them, he believed he was feeding their spirituality.

In October 2013, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church was inaugurated. Deacon Holgren says many wept at the beauty of the work.

“The altar looks as if God pulled it up straight from the ground,” Deacon Holgren says.

A concrete pillar driven deep below the church’s foundation supports the altar’s 2,500-pound marble top. The 13-foot crucifix was carved from one block of wood and took three artisans eight months to complete. Deacon Holgren says he is still stunned by the intricacy in the crown of thorns. The baptismal font is a brilliant blue, hand fused from one piece of glass.

“Their work is an offering of love,” Deacon Holgren says. “It’s as if it were made by the hands of God.”

In addition to the San Diego church more than a dozen churches in Maryland have hired Don Bosco artisans. While the profit from sales goes directly back to the artisans, benefactors and hundreds of volunteers like Codenotti support the operational side of the mission. Master sculptors, painters and glassworkers often visit Peru to advise the artisans, sometimes staying for a few days, other times for decades.

Codenotti worked as an architect in Italy before moving to Chacas 10 years ago. He says that, as an architect, it felt strange to be picking specialty tile for a client’s pool while knowing others in the world had so little.
“I’ve always been bothered by economic injustice,” Codenotti says.

Now he leads a simple life, humbled by the artisans he serves. Codenotti works mostly with sacred art and likes to think of his client as God. He says the work must be done with great responsibility, since the goal of the work is to give an image to what cannot be seen.

“Thousands of people come and kneel in front of this work, ” Codenotti says. “It’s bigger than us.”


short and sweet portrait of lima


Just wanted to share a short travel video and some images I shot in Lima to accompany Nicholas Gill’s story “Lima’s Melting Pot” in the May issue of SilverKris, the travel magazine of Singapore Airlines. Here in the southern hemisphere the grey skies of winter are upon us. Missing those beautiful summer sunsets!