It would be impossible to forget Antonio. His abandonment and isolation had been so complete, nobody even knew how old he was. We guessed about 8 or 9. He lay in a cot, lifeless and listless in a dark corner. The lack of animation was the not the outcome of his severe disability and blindness but rather caused by extreme neglect. The institution “housed” around 150 adults and children. It reaked of human waste and human disregard.
My index finger gently brushed against his palm and he gripped it tightly as his face broke into semi-toothless smile. He had lived a life cut adrift from love, attention or even basic human acknowledgment .
Antonio’s story inspired a shared effort by the government of North Macedonia and the UN to end placement of children in large scale institutions. Children like him would be provided with family-based care, connection and stimulation in community settings.
The plan was knocked off script when locals in the town of Timjanik angrily refused a mayor’s request to accommodate some of the children . We went there with the minister to find out why. On arrival, we sustained a three hour volley of abuse and hostility from several hundred protesters. There was violence in the air. People watching this back in the capital on livestream were horrified. Pundits, influencers and activists began lambasting the protesters as primitive, callous and hillbilly.
We listened carefully. Their’s was a small town in decline. It could have been in Oklahoma or South Yorkshire.The townsfolk had previously been dependent on industry and agriculture. For generations their income and opportunities had been on a modest, upward trajectory. But they now feared their children would have a much more precarious future. They had lived with years of unfulfilled promises to fix their roads, improve their schools and provide a pre-school. They longed for someone to give a voice to them, alongside the regular campaigns they heard from human rights activists for migrants, sexual minorities and people with disability. Like Antonio, in their own way they felt abandoned.
But why did these two different forms of deprivation and abandonment compete with each other? Broadly speaking there are three catastrophic burdens in childhood that drive lifelong inequality:
- Discrimination or Exclusion based on race, gender or disability for example. It creates barriers that exclude one from opportunities, justice and often the basic safety that others take for granted.
- Income Poverty through a lack of the basic means to survive, thrive and access opportunities to reach one’s potential.
- Emotional Poverty through the absence of the basic nurturing and protective parental relationships due to violence, neglect or other forms of dysfunctional parenting (also known as childhood adversity). This is often transmitted inter-generationally and unintentionally.
If you look at Black Lives Matter, Hillbilly Ellergy and Good Will Hunting through the lens of identity, they seem so different to each other. When we look at them through the lens of fairness and dignity for all, they seem the same. It sometimes feels like we have forgotten a sense of ourselves as a whole, we are looking for the differences and barriers. This fragmentation polarises us into differing sides in a counter-productive culture war.
People in places like Timjanik perceive human rights champions to be selective in the injustices they seek to address. Those living with rural and town poverty feel both politically and economically abandoned. They are at the fag end of a painful transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy. This transition has concentrated opportunity in large cities at the expense of almost everywhere else. Those same champions scratched their heads as populists have hoovered up support in poor and abandoned communities. Despite their best intentions, they must bear part of the responsibility for the growth in populism and polarisation.
I felt this recently back home when I took a group of young adult care leavers for lunch in London. They had each lived with all of the three catastrophic burdens described above. It is hard to think of a more deprived group in the UK. We walked past a protest march urging us to support the rights of an oppressed minority in a far flung country. The comparatively wealthy looking protesters obviously felt that from our position of privilege we should all support this vulnerable minority oversees and that this was the most important human rights issue of the moment. But whose privilege is it? One of the young people in our group said he could not imagine the same protesters marching for kids in care. To highlight injustice, without acknowledging it is not the only injustice is itself an injustice.
Coming back to the story of Timjanik. The following day at an unrelated press conference in the capital, we were asked by journalists about the events in the town. We were expected to join the public condemnation of the protesters behaviour. Instead we articulated the townsfolk’s grievances and their struggles and explained that we could understand them, though did not agree with them.
Within two hours our inboxes were flowing with warm messages from people in Timjanik. They had not expected that we would actually listen to them and tell their story. They had needed to be acknowledged and heard. To understand that we think they matter too. From a collective refusal to host the small group home just 24 hours prior, it was now back on.
From that moment on, we numerically balanced our public facing advocacy. We gave equal attention to the situation of the overall population and to those living with one or more of the three catastrophic burdens . If we did a public event on exclusion of Roma minority or children with disability one month, we made sure we also had an event on poverty or a population-wide issue like education or health the next. This struck us as fair, just and effective.
A few weeks after the protest, the government agreed a strategy to transfer all children out of large scale institutions through family re-unification, foster care and small group homes. The government named the strategy “Timjanik” in testimony to what we had all learnt from these events.
On October 15th last year, the last remaining children were removed from large scale institutions. The situation may have improved for children in state care in North Macedonia, but there is still so much to do to prevent exclusion, poverty and adversity in the lives of children the world over. We can only do this when everyone finds their place in a shared story of justice and fairness. We need to “re-universalize” our human rights story.
And the children in the story? Antonio is out of the cot, living in a small group home with adequate care and stimulation and for the first time in his life, he is enrolled in school. Today in Timjanik, the locals visit with cakes and play with the children at the small group home. Just ordinary people in an ordinary place with the extraordinary courage to reimagine a better tomorrow in a world that protects all of our dignity.