Tête-à-tête Between Luis Maria & Natacha Nicoria
Touching interview with moving anecdotes of Luis Maria Nicoria by his daughter Natacha
around the very beginnings of the Fundacion Emmanuel
The idea of the Fundacion began to simmer during our stay in Belgium in the 60ies. Maria Elvira and I met there. We both had a social work history before. Your mother had a university education in educational psychology and at the same time she was teaching in a "re-education institute" with girls between 6 and 12 years old who had been placed there by the Juvenile Courts. In many cases, they came from poor families and sometimes it was the parents who entrusted their children to the judge.
For my part, I think it all started in high school. There is a word that struck me when the teacher in Zoonosis (animal reproduction) said: "PALATABILIDAD". The term referred to the variety of nutrients needed for the animals. If their needs and tastes were not respected they would just not eat. I remember ... I jumped off my bench and asked: How is food variety so much our concern when we leave children eating what they find from garbage or pick up left over from markets?
A few years later, I worked in a disadvantaged neighbourhood and, among other things, we created a school in Belgian train wagons ... since then Belgium has accompanied us everywhere!
What was the first step and how did you translate the plan into action in 1988, more precisely March the 1st when my brothers and sisters arrived at our home?
It was more a journey than a step plan. During our stay in Belgium, there was a dictatorship in Argentina. Returning was of course our wish but, with your mother, we decided to stay until the end of our scholarship and get back afterwards to share our full experience. That’s how we ended up going to work with the Mapuche communities (Aboriginals in the South of Argentina). We lived there for a year, until the political situation became unbearable and we had to return to Buenos Aires.
In the 1970s, Maria Elvira became Dean at the University of El Salvador and at the same time worked for the National Police. She saw what night raids did to the children and how their rights were not respected.
So she created a special department for children within the police. One day, she saw 5 children between 7 and 10 years old hospitalised for sexual abuses. She was crying at home and did not understand what she had seen. We both knew then that it was our responsibility to do something for those children.
We gathered our friends to think about a solution that took into consideration the family as a focus point. We looked around and could not find an organisation with this view angle. We heard a lot about "surrogate family", but for us this vision seemed harmful! Our objective was not to create a parental replacement, but a system in which children were safe, family surroundings were secure and parents could remain as close and involved as possible as to allow children to return to them. First and always, we sought the respect for the daily particularity of each family. The professionals made available were not to be therapists, but companions and advisers.
The next step was to go to the state officials so that the Fundacion could have a legal framework. We had a hard time making ourselves understood since the environment we advocated did not exist in Argentina.
A concrete example : the "Burgos" family.
They were living in a very precarious situation and one of their children had died of malnutrition. Urgent measures were needed to save the lives of the other children. Your mother convinced the judge to appoint us as « foster parents » whilst keeping the rights of Mr and Mrs Burgos, the biological parents. The agreement secured the links between the family of origin and ours. The 7 children received the possibility to live together under one roof.
What did you feel the very moment that the Burgos children entered our home?
The arrival was chaotic with all these extra children! At that time, we did not even have a car to pickup "the Burgos".
I think that the look of Antonia, the biological mother of the children, was the first testimony that we were doing things right. She looked confident that they would grow up in a better surrounding.
Dad, when did the idea of the Fundacion emerge?
Were you always that confident? At one point, were you not afraid the whole project would fall apart?
The arrival of the children sprinkled the house with miracles.
One day your Mom and I counted the coins to pay the bus which would drive us to the bank and the possible credit that would allow us to fill the fridge. We were going to some rough financial times. We got out of the house and we found a whole bunch of crates filled with fruits and vegetables.
Dad, why did you decide to start the Tia Kiki Centre and to participate in all the daily work with the community?
The Centre was born from the interests and needs of the community. Preventing family-children disruptions was our main goal. When we arrived here, in Colonia Urquiza, the community had already organized the construction of a school. Your Mom, very quickly saw the lack of medical assistance. The Fundacion began to think about having its own health centre. The neighbourhood ended up continuing this mission and the health centre still works! This is the kind of project the Fundacion initiates and the community empowers.
The parents of the community left their children unattended at home in the afternoon (no school after lunch in Argentina). The houses of these families, who work in flower and vegetable fields, are usually made of wood and cardboards. The parents tend to keep their children at home to protect them from pesticides, snails and all sorts of insects. However, fires in these neighbourhoods can be dramatic.
That is how we imagined a place were all children could be welcomed. We supervise homework, create workshops to educate parents and adapt all kind of activities in response to family needs.
When you look back at what you and the Fundacion have accomplished, how do you feel?
It is funny that you ask me this now that I am suffering the aches of old age. I look back and see hope, children and family growing happy and I feel happy about what life brought to me. I am so lucky I “landed” in Belgium and found on my path Maria Elvira, your mother. At the very beginning, we had in common a similar project of life but it ended up so enriched by our encounters and our four girls.
Mario, one of the 7 Burgos children, was starving when he was a little boy and I am so proud to see him today heading a big restaurant kitchen.
I see daily miracles. I was blessed to share these wonderful moments with Maria Elvira, with my children and with all the supporters of the Fundacion Emmanuel.
All our children are doing well today and our work continues thanks to the next generations. Isn’t that marvellous!