Friday, August 12, 2011

A new week


I had promised J. to help her with printing some photos for the organization helping her with her shelter. After editing and cropping the photos, we met to go to a photo studio to print them. She was really happy about this small present. Then she showed me around “her neighborhood” and insisted we have lunch in a cheap but nice place with food from her own island close to Madagascar. The food was delicious, and J. was extremely proud to share more about her own culture.  I also helped her write an article she was going to present to the association on that day. J. insisted to pay for the lunch despite my objections. While it was very hard for me to agree, I could see how proud she was to be bringing me to this special for her restaurant and treat me as a guest. I could not have refused…

For dinner I met with Fernando – the researcher who has followed the Homeless World Cup for four years and has written a 440-page thesis about it. He knows almost everyone involved in the organization both in Scotland and in France. He has promised to introduce me to one of the founders as well.

It was interesting to me how the idea for the HWC was born. It turns out that both Mel Young and his Austrian partner were together in Cape Town in 2001 on a conference about homeless street vendors. Both fans of football (soccer), one night they were discussing how wonderful it would be if some championship for the vendors from all over the world existed. On the next day they still thought the idea was great and that something should be done. And indeed, in 2003 they organized the first HWC in Austria for homeless newspaper vendors. The success of the event convinced them that it should be more inclusive for homeless people in general. Since then, the championship has been expanding more and more impact each year.

From Fernando I also learned a lot about the realities of the HWC that are not always evident to the researcher who does not follow what happens after the event. This made me happy about my decision to stay in France for one more month after the HWC.

Tuesday’s practice

 Today was an exciting day for me – a new girl from China came to practice with the team. She does not speak any French and almost speaks no English. Luckily, I could be of help and translate for her and the coaches. I could tell she is a very good athlete since the moment she arrived – while having many questions for me and not even knowing about the upcoming championship, she eagerly followed all the coach’s instructions and demonstrated some amazing athletic skill. At the end of the practice when we were doing more drills and playing mini-games, I realized she is an amazing player. She was untouchable with the ball – she could trick everyone (even the best players), and she never missed a shot against L. – one of the best goalies I’ve ever seen. Regardless to say, the team, the coaches, and I strongly admired her play.

I learned from her that she left China because of the hard conditions in her province- Xinjiang. Anyone knowing about the riots between Muslim and Han Chinese there would not be surprised. What one could marvel at, however, was her courage. She left her family, and with one of friends, headed to a country whose language she does not even speak. All of this in the hopes for a better future.

N. told me she had played street soccer since she was a little girl and professionally with a male team since fourteen. Her dream is to continue playing professionally. Seeing her talent made me hope that this dream would become reality.

The French female team has to be announced during the upcoming Sunday. However, the decision has already been almost finalized. The girls need documents, medical certifications, and time – time to bond as a team and to practice together. N. has had neither of these and will most likely be unable to compete in the upcoming championship. I talked to the coach about her, and he was similarly impressed with her skill. He promised to keep on working with her and give her a chance at the following practices, but he knows it is almost impossible for her to compete in this championship. For that, the team would have to accept her. Without language skills and with only limited time (two more practices this week), this might be impossible for her.  Nevertheless, I was promised she would be supported and directed to the right people in professional football.

Before practice on Saturday morning, I am meeting with her . I will use the time to honestly explain to her what the situation is like and what her goals and expectations should be given the circumstances.

The weekend that changed it all for me

On Friday, I made a personalized card for J’s birthday from a picture of the two of us. I met the girls at a hotel/hostel where they would be staying for a few days (the place is right next to the stadium where we play football). J. loved my present and could not stop showing the birthday card to everyone throughout the night. I could not have been happier.

Dinner did not start until 10pm because several of the team members are hasting during Ramadan. In the meanwhile, we had a meeting about the team’s schedule for the weekend. I met several new girls who were very excited to talk to me. Although we did not necessarily speak the same language, we communicate well through gesture, phone translation, and other means.

At 10pm we headed out in the rainy weather to get dinner in a nearby restaurant. We spent a few hours talking lively and having wonderful food. We also surprised J. with special candles from the restaurant owner and singing for her. At 12.30am, we had a hard time separating. The girls insisted I join them the next day. The invitation was all that I needed.


Early on Saturday we met in the stadium for another long and exciting practice. What makes the football experience so special for me is the acceptance I am met with. I feel grateful that I can be a part of this adventure with the girls and that they are so welcoming. I cannot help but think that the more one knows about the lack of acceptance, the more she is able to open up and help others who might be going through the same difficulty.

During the practice we were separated in two-person teams and played on small fields. My partner and I were doing great and scoring many goals. This experience made us feel really close in a unique way. By now, I can see that each player has a very distinct identity and sports is what helps us reveal it.

After practice, we all relaxed together in the girls rooms until late lunch arrived. After lunch, we all headed out to the cinema! If you haven’t seen Colombiana, I strongly recommend it! Taking the metro together with the team and waiting for the movie to begin made us form a different and even stronger bond.

After the movie, everyone insisted I have dinner with them. There was no way I could have refused. Team dinner was filled with laughter, jokes and pictures, especially after the team’s caps and sports clothes had arrived. J. and I interviewed one of the coaches while he was waiting for sunset (because of fasting). It turned out that he had competed for the male HWC in Brazil last year! He had come to France from another country 10 years ago, and it was hard for him to obtain a flat. He lived with friends and acquaintances for some time but never had his own place. An association that was helping him try to find a flat told him about the HWC. He had played football all his life and he loved the idea.

Being part of for the male team was very competitive because of the high number of male participants. However, he placed at each round and was one of the last eight players to go to the championship. Seeing Rio de Janeiro for him was like an accomplished dream. He gained confidence and was full of new hopes. Following the championship he was able to find a flat with the organization that had first helped him and he was ready to move on with his life. When I asked him what his new goals in life were after the HWC was over, I expected many answers but not this one: he wanted to dedicate the rest of his life to helping others who are in a difficult position.

Why was this answer unexpected? In my world, where a majority of my friends are graduating from college and having dreams and ambitions about their careers, I assume that everyone is striving for individualistic success – good career, money, family, etc. On the other hand, I realized that people who have personally experienced difficulties and know the importance of having someone being able to stretch a hand for you when you need it the most are the most compassionate.

After the interview was over, J. and I were having a conversation about homeless people. You can be homeless without necessarily being on the street. In French, the word homeless literally means “without a roof.” What the coach had said was that not everyone who is sleeping under a roof is sleeping under their own roof. Sometimes it can be a friend’s, a family’s, or a public roof. But the fact that it is not yours, and you won’t be able to keep it for long is enough to classify you as homeless as well.

While the coach had never lived on the streets, I thought the opportunity was good to ask whether J. had been in that position herself. She confirmed that she had been on the streets for three months but is not ready to talk about it. Without asking her personal questions, she slowly opened up throughout the night and shared more about her terrible experience. While I would not like to reveal details of her story because of its private matter, I can tell you that it is quite an unbelievable one – as many homeless people’s stories are. Most of us never believe we can get on the street. Neither did J. But because of a series of absurd events outside of her control, she did end up in a tough situation. While her story sounded unbelievable, she helped me realize that if the same things happened to me that very night in France, I would have at least temporarily ended of up without a roof…

Sunday practice

Practice on Sunday was in a faraway place in the west of Paris. Being late as usual, we began practice at 11 and finished at 1:30pm. During practice I got a chance to speak with several people from the communications team of Remis en Jeu – the French organization for the HWC. They had come to watch the girls’ practice. I learned a lot about their intense work and the serious coordination and planning they needed to exercise on a daily basis. The local organization’s boss had also come to watch the game, as well as four groups of photographers and journalists.

Optional practice on Tuesday

Today’s practice was optional and fewer girls showed up than last time. But there were also new players that I got to meet. Practice was very intense but also very fun! While I was not necessarily speaking the same language as the girls, I felt like I communicated with each one of them through the game.

One of the women who was unwilling to talk to me the first time we met opened up after the practice. She even taught me some tricks in football. Despite her older age, she is in great physical shape. She has practiced many different types of sports and is definitely one of the stars in the team. I learned that the girls perceive her as a kind of a mentor. At the same time, she is really modest and shy when people talk about her skills. When going to Saturday’s practice, I randomly saw her waiting at the same train station and drawing – the portrait she was working on was one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen in my life! I learned from her that she used to be an artist and she has visited every museum in Paris. She hopes to write a book with illustrations that she has painted. Given her talent, I told her I’d certainly buy her book – and I really would.

Another woman who speaks really good English (I will call her J.) and practices with the team (but has refused to compete in the championship) talked to me a lot as well. She mentioned it’s her birthday on Friday and that she really hopes I will join the team for their outing weekend. The coach seemed to support the idea and promised to e-mail me if I could go with the girls. Lucky me – I received three e-mails on Friday from the coach, one of the women organizing the event, and the birthday girl to insist I go to dinner with them.

After practice on Tuesday, J. told me she is writing an article for the organization that is helping her with housing. She has been selected as a vice president there and is really proud to do volunteer work for the organization. For her article, she wanted to interview one of the girls, A. – my friend from Sunday’s practice. J. asked me to join them and help by taking pictures for the article. I readily agreed, and Mikael and I were off to an interview with the girls.

The afternoon was a lot of fun. The four of us made a lot of jokes about practice and bonded well. Learning about A’s life was exciting. She is a girl my own age who had stopped attending school after thirteen. Her family was in a difficult financial situation and didn’t have time to bring her to school or football practices where she was already excelling (and she is one of the other team stars!). Before she was 18, she kept on playing on the streets and remained with her family. She tried to find a job, but without proper education it was very difficult. At one of the employment bureaus she turned to for help, she met with Said – the team’s coach.

She practiced different amateur sports for a few years and tried to pass a three-stage difficult exam for becoming a coach. However, she could only pass the first of them. Still jobless a few years later, she received a call from Said to invite her to participate in the first French female team for the HWC. This opened many doors for her. She could practice in a team with girls in difficult situations like hers. She could also compete for an important international championship and have the chance to be noticed by the many sports clubs who will attend the event. It was like a dream that had come true for her!

First practice with the team

The practice with the French female homeless team as if marked the real beginning of my project. While I had done a lot of organizational research and met with people who work for the enterprise, nothing gives a better sense of what the Homeless World Cup is than meeting with the people whom it is created for.

What I have come to appreciate the most is that football (I will refer to soccer as football) unites girls with difficult and distinct life experiences and brings them into a supportive environment where they become a part of a team with goals and dreams. While this might sound idealistic, it is easy to see during all of the girls’ practices.

Last Sunday

First thing I noticed was that practice began later than scheduled. I was told that it is really difficult to arrange for all the girls to arrive on time. Luckily, this provided me with an opportunity to speak with the team’s coaches, several of the girls, and one man who used to compete for the French team at the HWC in Copenhagen (2007). The coaches were curious about my interest and they were happy to provide someone dedicated to a similar goal with information and an opportunity to watch the practice.

I learned that while the girls’ sports abilities vary significantly, they are all excited about the game and ready to do their best. Their sports personalities differ as well. I noticed that while some girls are ready to jump into the game and demonstrate what street football has taught them, others feel vulnerable and insecure. Nevertheless, their motivation is equally strong, and they are determined not to give up. The possibility that they are selected to compete for the championship means that much to them.

The girls started practicing together in May, but looking at them and the way they encourage each other on the field makes me think they have always been a team.

How was the team assembled?

This difficult task was assigned to two women – one who has been working for the HWC on the request of its local leader for several years, and the other one who has just started working for the enterprise in May. Finding “the right” girls was not easy. The championship is in France this year but it usually takes place abroad. This means that the girls need to have documents and be able to obtain a visa. In a homeless person’s life this can often pose a problem.

One approach that the two women employed to find the girls was to contact existing organizations helping homeless women. They could range from shelters to religious organizations to employment bureaus. The organization would explain to the girl about the championship, and if the girl agreed to participate, the two women would go and meet with her to provide her with more information. The team formed slowly – the girls joined one by one. But as the word spread amongst organizations and friends of the homeless women, enough girls were ready for practice in May.

The practice

The girls trained for quite some time under the hot sun. My friend Mikael who came to help translate for me and I watched the practice and talked to the other people who had come – a journalist, organization members, and one man who has done research on the HWC since 2007! As part of his graduate field studies, he had followed the French team each year before, during, and after the championships in each of the countries where they took place. He interviewed both the girls who got to compete, and those who were not selected. He seemed like a book to me that contained all the answers I was going after. And he speaks English! I am meeting with him tomorrow to learn more about his research. I will follow up with you afterwards.

After the practice, the team had lunch together to which we were invited. The girls were curious about Mikael and me and willing to talk to us. During that first meeting, I did not want to ask any personal questions. Instead, the conversations were centered around sports, the championship, and the girls’ dreams. A lot of the girls have previously played street soccer or some other type of sports. Others just like the idea of being part of a team and competing for such an important international event.

I asked whether Mikael and I can join the team for the next practice, and we were allowed to do that! Exciting Tuesday follows next.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Every saved life counts

I apologize for my delayed second post. As more time passed, I thought that waiting just one more day would be enough for me to find out what I need in order to create a “comprehensive” discovery report on social ventures and their ability to alleviate homelessness. However, by now I am convinced that these findings are not going to stop and that a comprehensive conclusion for France might not be reached until the end of my stay here. Therefore, I better start sharing each piece before they are too many to write down at once!

Homeless World Cup (HWC)

To continue from where I stopped last time, my meeting with the volunteers for the HWC was motivating – not only to learn more about the organization, but also to learn more French! The volunteers were given instructions and a presentation in the beautiful language of this land, of which I yet need to possess mastery. While I enjoyed attending the presentation, I needed separate explanations after the end of it. Luckily, a couple of the organizers and some of the volunteers helped me out with that.

What is impressive about the HWC is that it requires a lot of coordination and preparation. That should not be of surprise given the scale of the venture – teams from over 60 countries will be present in Paris at the end of August, and that requires country-specific preparations, local organization, fundraising, media outreach, and collective coordination.

A local committee is created in each host country for the event. The committee manages playground construction, team outreach, event coordination, accommodation settlement, etc. Volunteers play a huge role in this process. Typically, two volunteers would be responsible for one team’s stay in France. They would be with the group the majority of the time starting with their arrival and lasting until their departure. Some of the responsibilities would include airport pick-up and drop-off, escorting the team to their place of stay, ensuring the group goes to each daily event and competition on time, serving as a tour guide for the team and bringing the homeless to museums (free passes provided!), and making sure the team gets the most of this unique experience. Because of shortage of volunteers, now only one person has to manage the above mentioned tasks.

I cannot be more grateful that I will serve as one such volunteer! Not only will I have a chance to spend a significant amount of time with the homeless team and its coaches, but I will also be able to gain a perspective into what this experience means to the people. Additionally, I will be able to see how it ends for them, and where it leaves them in terms of their goals and motivation to change their lives. I will be responsible for the Hong Kong team. While the coaches will speak English, I hope that my Mandarin Chinese will also be able to help me communicate with the team. Although that is not the main type of Chinese spoken in Hong Kong, my discoveries have shown that most of the homeless people are usually not originally from the city they are in (more on that later).

Before the event at the end of August, there will be several more meetings for volunteers. I have now separately met with one of the organizers to learn more about the structure of the enterprise. This Sunday I am also going to attend a soccer practice of the French female team and talk to their coach! Hopefully (and definitely) this meeting will add to my discoveries about the process and preparation of the event, and its meaning to the people for whom it is designated.


In the meantime, I have been doing research on what other social enterprises exist to help homeless people. What I find interesting is that unlike in many other countries where there are many small grassroots organizations, in France there are a few comparatively large ones. Most of the people in Paris know about them and readily talk about their work. Additionally, I was happy to observe that the media and people often talk about the homelessness problem. For instance, I keep on hearing about the main social organizations on the radio; I read news about them in the newspapers (yes, with google translate); I watched a documentary on national TV about homeless people (my host mom translated for me); and I see billboards in the metro about some of the organizations. It makes me feel like I am not alone with my project!

Some of the main organizations in the country are:

-          The Emmaüs Movement ( – the movement started in France and has now grown into 36 countries. The local organization sends teams of volunteers to “maraud” the streets and provide food to homeless people and to direct them to Emmaüs’ existing structures, such as shelters, job-finding bureaus, etc.

-          SAMU Social ( – this organization is modeled after another organization providing medical help. Its teams go on the streets and find homeless people in social distress conditions in need of medical assistance. They provide free medical help for them and try to facilitate their recovery. This can be especially helpful in the winter when not a few homeless people die because of the harsh weather.

-          The Children of Don Quichotte or Les Enfants de Don Quichotte ( – this is the organization I mentioned in my previous post. They were responsible for the massive distribution of bright-colored tents for homeless people a few years ago. This exposed the problem to thousands of people throughout the country and invigorated the dialogue about the problem. The organization is active in organizing public demonstrations and protests against housing policies or government spending cuts to programs that could improve the existing housing problem in the country, and especially in the capital.

There is a series of other government or community-led entities, such as homeless shelters or food providers. While shelters can provide temporary escape from the street, they are highly criticized. Most of them close as soon as winter is over. Additionally, when a majority of them operate they accommodate homeless people only for the night. The constant need to move in and out of the shelter and the attitude in these settlements have made many homeless people prefer the street to the shelter.  

My initiative

Most organizations have limited staff or do not operate in the summer. This has made my communication with them slower. As I am not a person who can wait inactively, I came up with a plan to begin communicating with the homeless people. I invited one of the English-speaking volunteers for the HWC to walk in the streets with me and help me talk to the homeless. Luckily, he has agreed!

My hope with this initiative is to learn from the homeless people about their situation and to find out if they have already had any experience with existing social enterprises. If they have, why did it not work out (or did it) for them? If they have not, why did they make that decision? And if they are unaware about those organizations, I would like to provide them with information about the organizations. I also want to let as many homeless people as possible know that the Homeless World Cup will take place in August and that it is open to anyone! Hopefully, if some of them attend the championship, the success of people in a similar situation can motivate them to believe in a solution for themselves as well.

The first attempt my friend and I made was not so successful. We were in the “wrong place” where not too many homeless people “reside” in the summer. The few we got to talk to did not speak French or English. While this can be considered as a failure of our attempt, it is also a success in revealing that many (or at least some) of the homeless people are immigrants. As my sister said when discussing this issue, what could have forced those people to leave their countries and accept to be exposed to the possibility of homelessness? Hopefully I will be able to find out more about that question. Our next expedition will be soon.

Last Thoughts

In an effort not to make this post too long, I will stop writing in a few sentences. What I’ve come to realize about people like me interested in possible solutions to difficult problems is that it is really easy to despair. Walking in the streets of Paris I cannot put my mission in the back of my mind even when I go to the store to buy my food or when I have to take the metro. The homeless people are always there with me, around me. Their sheer number and my desire and inability to go and tell them that I care and I want to help sometimes depress me to a point where I question the possibilities of an effective solution. Nevertheless, I regain my determination when I see or hear about even a single successful case.

The effort to a solution cannot be one-sided. It takes many steps and many actors. As one social business leader in Maine told me, social entrepreneurship requires and provides a community-based approach. Each organization affects a certain community, and this community can be locally small or international. The combination of all of these efforts is what can lead to an overall improvement. I once thought that dedicating significant time to help just one person was not an efficient use of one’s time and energy. But now I more and I more start to realize that every life and every change matter, and that a targeted and successful effort can be as meaningful (or even more meaningful) than an unrealistic one, in which success cannot always be measured.

Thank you for being with me once again and feel free to comment. Bonne nuit!

Monday, July 11, 2011

First week of my Watson experience

Hearing the boarding call for passengers to Paris I couldn’t hide my excitement that my Watson experience had begun. Going to a country where I don’t speak the language and have no one meeting me at the airport did not prevent me from secretly smiling as the airplane was about to take off.  

Luckily, everything went well at the airport in Paris, and I was on a taxi to the place I would live in. It is in a part of Paris I was warned by friends to avoid because of the high number of immigrants. The first not so fun part was paying the taxi (taxis in Paris are expensive!)…The second was going to the floor I would live on and not knowing the number of the apartment! Without a phone on me, I was left with ringing on all doors until a family opened and told me where to go J I was met by two great people in a very nice and cozy apartment. Because my host was not there, her daughter and husband introduced me to the place and the neighborhood and helped me with several essential things – getting a metro card and not letting me be alone my first night in Paris. I couldn’t have been more grateful.

Since that day, I have spent five days with almost no human interaction. As much as I thought a “solo experience” cannot be that difficult, I  have started realizing it is not easy at all. Waiting for the local branch of the Homeless World Cup organizing the event in Paris this year to get back to me about when we can meet, I did research on homelessness in France and Paris, walked around the streets to see where homeless people usually are, and talked to people about the situation of homelessness in Paris.

A few interesting things I noticed were that:

-      the French consider the problem with homelessness the result of the government’s incapability to provide affordable housing for poor people and immigrants;

-      the government has built sites where homeless people can live in communities;

-      there are public showers (but you have to pay) for homeless people near several major tourist spots (and most people would never know they exist!);

-      five years ago young teenagers (the organization is now called 'The Children of Don Quixote' or Les Enfants de Don Quichotte) came up with the idea of providing bright red tents for the homeless in Paris, and then throughout the country, in order to expose the problem and make people notice the many homeless. They did that in cooperation with an international organization based in France - Medecins sans Frontiers. The homeless would sleep by the banks of the canal near the city center where the tourists could see them – this would lead to embarrassing the government and hopefully action to alleviate homelessness. You can read more here:

-      many homeless people have “pets” – usually dogs, but some also have rabbits and other animals! Some of the signs of the homeless request money both for them and for the animals. I even saw a woman pay a homeless man to touch his rabbit.

These and many other interesting things have caught my eye while walking around some of the most famous touristy places in Paris. One that impressed me a lot was when a homeless man walked by a homeless woman and gave her food! I assume no one can be more compassionate than the one who has experienced the miseries of homelessness and starvation himself (and herself). Maybe this is why The Children of Don Quixote have also provided tents for non-homeless people and families to live in for a few days in order to understand how difficult being on the street is.

While I have been learning a lot already, it is pointless to hide that I have at times felt useless – I am already here but how am I helping the homeless? Luckily, I received an e-mail from the local soccer association organizing the Homeless World Cup today and I will be meeting with them tomorrow! I cannot wait to learn how they are preparing for the event. They even said we would discuss my own mission – I cannot be more impatient to actually start contributing to one of the biggest international efforts to alleviate homelessness. That would make me feel that for the first time I am not only compassionate with the homeless, but I am also helping them.

For those who do not know what the Homeless World Cup is, it is an annual soccer championship for homeless people from now over 70 countries around the world that first took place in 2003. This year it will take place in the park right behind the Eiffel Tower (Champ de Mars). The event will be at the end of August for a full week. For information about soccer rules, teams, and statistically measurable impact of the event, you can follow this link:

Ok, I will stop here for now and I will get back to you after I have met with the local soccer organization! Thanks for following and wish me good luck.

Tents the homeless were sleeping in
(picture from website

The homeless man who gave food to the woman
The woman touching the homeless man's dog and rabbit