Interview with Igino Brian, founder of IDA Onlus – Education For the Future Organization, who told us how the School and Family Home project in Phnom Penh was born.
This interview stems from Leonardo Fabbri’s friendship with Igino Brian and from the desire to give visibility and publicize a project that we greatly appreciate, which gave birth to the goldsmith’s workshop in a village on the outskirts of Phnom Pehn, where the boys and girls of street who participate in the project give life to jewels of hope, both to build a future for them, and because they are made from recycled material from landmines, a problem still very present in Cambodia.
[Despite not knowing each other, it was natural and immediate to address each other with informal terms with Igino Brian, ed.].
How did you arrive in Cambodia, Igino?
I studied in Italy and became a goldsmith. I went to school for modeling, drawing, and setting. At a certain point in my life, I put my talent at the disposal of street children in Cambodia to give them a trade and a future.
How did the project start?
Many years ago, in 1996, my wife and I adopted a child in Cambodia. That’s where our connection with this country began. My wife and I went to Cambodia to volunteer with the Salesians. We were supposed to do a month-long trial, but we met our son and that changed things. The volunteer experience ended with the adoption and we returned to Italy.
We saw a lot of poverty during that time. After returning home to Italy, we decided to do something from a distance. So we started a fundraising campaign with our friends and contacts to send to Cambodia.
We soon realized that what we were doing helped but didn’t solve the problem.
So we started thinking of coming here (Igino now lives in Cambodia) and starting a project to teach children a trade that would allow them to support themselves.
With my wife, who is now deceased, we studied the project for 8 years. And at some point, we asked ourselves: what do we do, continue from Italy or go to Cambodia?
The push was very strong. During that time, there had been a reconnection to my religion. That’s when I felt the call to mission. We left and moved to Cambodia. And we opened the school.
At first, we looked for an association in Italy that would support us. But after a few years, the situation changed and we decided to create our own association.
The organization is called Education For the Future Organization, it’s Cambodian, and it’s already registered in the name of the children.
Why create an association in Cambodia? Before, as an international organization, with so much corruption, we always had to pay something under the table.
That’s why we decided to register it in the name of the children, also because everything we do will stay here and will be theirs. Structures, equipment, and machinery, etc.
And IDA Onlus?
It’s the name of the Italian association, through which it’s possible to make donations from Italy.
Who was IDA?
Ida was my aunt, who was like a mother to me. She was a very devout person. While I wasn’t. And she was sorry that I didn’t have that kind of faith.
Then she passed away. That day in the mortuary, I was alone with her, crying. I had asked her what her last gift was. At that moment, I heard her voice asking me to confess and take communion. That’s when my spiritual journey began, which led me here. It was 1995, the year before my son’s adoption.
Clearly, after the adoption, I continued to cultivate my spiritual journey.
When the time came to establish the association with the other people involved, we remembered my aunt Ida and decided to name it after her.
Where are you located in Cambodia?
In a village 15 kilometers from Phnom Pehn, where we bought a piece of land about 19 years ago. At that time, it was a countryside village among rice paddies. Now the city has absorbed it.
The capital of Cambodia is growing at an impressive rate. And it’s unclear for whom they are building: the skyscrapers remain empty because the cost of apartments is not within the reach of people here, who typically earn between 150 and 300 dollars a month.
At first, we had two rented houses that cost us 800 dollars a month. Not cheap. So we decided to buy a piece of land to build on.
We bought the land in 2013. At first, we didn’t have the possibility to immediately build the house (it was a major and costly project that is still not finished), so we built a small shed to put some machinery in and started our activity there. The shed is still there and we continue to use it.
In addition to that, we now have a nice, big school-laboratory.
And finally, we built a family home, a structure with four rooms with bathrooms, where we can accommodate some people.
Is poverty today the same as 19 years ago?
Poor families and children still exist today, despite the significant development that has occurred. But it has not affected all of the population. Those who were able to get into the system are doing well. Those who haven’t succeeded are still struggling. There were several slums and they have been dismantled as they built. But the poor are still there, they just moved out of the city. There are still slums, one even close to where we are. Where, among other things, they ask us for help. This slum is made up of real stilt houses along a drainage canal, a real open sky sewer.
What is the model of welcoming that you put in place?
In 19 years we have always welcomed people who asked for our help, within the limits of our possibilities. But I have never wanted to give the illusion of helping if I couldn’t. If I take in children, I have to be able to support them.
How many children have you welcomed in the course of these 19 years of activity?
We have trained about 130-140 boys and girls. I don’t know the exact number. Some have stayed for years, both boys and girls: boys, families, girls with children. Not by chance the school is also a foster home. Poor people used to have a roof over their heads, even if it was that of a shack. Now they don’t even have that anymore. Under the guise of development, slums have been eliminated and many people sleep on the street. For this reason we opened the Patrizia foster home.
Patrizia was my sister. She joined the project and was president of the Association. In 2013 she also decided to come to Cambodia. However, she fell ill shortly after buying the land and soon died. So we decided, along with others, to name the association after her, to remember her.
What was the approach of the school?
In my field, that of jewelry, in Italy, I am able to do everything from design to finished object. When I decided to make this school, I started working with kids who knew nothing. I was a professional. I did not want them to learn just to do something. I wanted them to learn well. And I committed to making them professionals. This was the winning card. I wanted people to buy the jewelry for their quality, not for charity. And that’s what happened.
Then we wanted to link the school’s work to the problem of landmines, of which Cambodia is full (it is said that there are still 6 million: today many people still die for that reason, here as elsewhere). We adopted brass to raise awareness of this problem throughout the world. Then, over time, we introduced other materials such as wood, silk, stones and various others. A Jewelry for hope is the name we gave to our jewelry production.
How many students attend the school?
At the moment there are 10-12 students in the school. But the number has always been more or less this. Over the years there have been students who have stayed from the beginning and today they teach the new arrivals. Now we are building a second school.
How do you sell the jewelry you make?
In Italy we have a network of stores that resell the jewelry. At the beginning, however, there wasn’t and it wasn’t the goal: we made and remade the jewelry continuously, to reuse the materials. Over time I have met many Italians, who came here in Cambodia maybe to adopt children. I met them not because I was dealing with adoptions, but simply because speaking the language and knowing these places well, I helped them solve the problems they had to face.
For this reason, I met many Italian families and many then helped me to make the school and our jewelry known. In particular, someone who worked in fair trade at some point asked me if they could try to sell the jewelry in the various stores of that network. So, with the boys, we decided to produce some jewelry to try to sell them. They liked them and they started ordering. Today we have enough stores that request our jewelry.
Do you stay in touch with the boys and girls who have gone through the school over the years?
I have a relationship with most of them, and it’s beautiful, almost like a father-child relationship. Some of them call me “Dad.” And it’s normal. At first, we had an interpreter. But I quickly realized that the boys had serious problems, even life or death problems. And I couldn’t get close to them with an interpreter. I made an effort to learn Khmer. And the boys gradually began to confide in me.
Leaving everything behind, taking an uncertain path, living off providence: that’s my mission. I don’t have a fixed salary. But in 19 years we haven’t lacked for anything. Now we’ve also adopted as an association an abandoned newborn. We’ve called him Amien, which means “child who has.” He was naked, he had nothing. Now he has a family. My other son is 27 now and lives in Italy. But before he lived with us here, studied, and then he wanted to return to Italy with his wife.
How well-known is IDA Onlus in Italy?
IDA Onlus is quite well-known in Italy today, thanks to the many Italians who have adopted children in Cambodia. I have been a reference point for many of them, as I was the first one. And then I have helped many people and we have become friends, like with Leonardo [Fabbri, ed.] of Elfi Electronics.
For information and to support IDA Onlus – Education For the Future Organization, CLICK HERE.