Interview with Dr. Juana Maria Roman, president of Fundació Amazonia

Dr Roman: “We are fighting to ensure that these children have the opportunity to be children and be able to choose their own destiny, as our children do”

For those who don’t know you, Dr Roman, how would you define yourself and your career as a doctor?

I am a paediatrician. I studied medicine at the University of Granada, did my doctorate in Barcelona and then interned at a hospital in northern Germany for a year. After that, I completed postdoctoral stays abroad, particularly in the United States. When I returned, I began working at Son Dureta and had the privilege of being the first woman in Spain to be appointed Head of Service, of the hospital’s paediatric unit in this instance, a role I fulfilled for many years until I retired.

Another highlight of my career was being invited to join the Spanish Royal Academy of Medicine in 1978 and so becoming the first female member of one of Spain’s highest academic institutions; Carmen Conde was the second woman to do so when she became a member of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language in 1979.

How and when did you first feel the spirit of solidarity that drives you to take care of children and adolescents in disadvantaged countries?

I began my journey in the world of cooperation 25 years ago in the Brazilian Amazon, hence the name of our foundation: Fundació Amazonia. We developed many health projects there because the child mortality rate was horrific and the sanitary conditions were appalling. We created health centres and, eventually, everything came together in the opening of what is now a fully operational hospital.

The second critical stage of my development in cooperation coincided with the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in Central America. I was sent to the sight of the disaster by the Balearic Islands regional government to identify and implement important victims’ assistance projects.

What projects is Fundació Amazonia currently involved in?

Currently the foundation is in a third phase entirely focused on Bolivia, the poorest country in Latin America with the highest child mortality rate continent-wide. We have begun to work with the Bolivian street children in a project that we are currently developing on a humble yet ambitious scale. We have a home for 80 street children who were homeless and living in an environment of extreme poverty, where they tended to be exploited and marginalised. At the same time, we have a home for girls from environments with extreme social conditions, and nurseries in very depressed areas. We have set up a nursery in a prison to care for children who, though they are innocent of any crime, are incarcerated in subhuman conditions for crimes committed by their parents. It is the first nursery to exist in a Bolivian prison. Another of our projects is a bakery workshop where we train bakers. We call the project “From street-life to real-life” because, as the name suggests, we are concerned with the whole process: habitat, shelter, nutrition, support, schooling, vocational training, etc. We currently have six children at university, kids who were alone on the streets and are now students of architecture, for instance.

It is very intense, very hard work. In the past, we could count on state aid for this, but 1,200 million euros were cut from international cooperation in 2012 and we were left with zero funding. As a result, we are funded by our members and donors and whatever funds we can generate using our own resources. We make presentations at all the trade fairs and conventions that come up and, in fact, this last centre came out of a project sponsored by a Swiss foundation.

We set ourselves the challenge that in ten years these street children would have disappeared from the streets of the city [Sucre]. And they really are going to disappear, because we have been engaged in the programme for seven years now and when we go out on the streets there are no longer children in those conditions, they have almost disappeared. We have 80 children in our programmes, some of them now at university. Our motto is “We can because we believe we can”, and this is truly an ongoing project.

Our ultimate objective is to reduce human suffering for these children who have been unfortunate enough to be born in a world so unjust; to fight to give them a chance so that at some point, like our Spanish children, they can choose their own destiny and cease to be slaves; to ensure they don’t have to clean shoes or windows at eight years old and do have the chance to be children, not the miniature adults they are now, lost and ignored on the streets.

What support does Fundació Amazonia receive and how are projects like those in Bolivia organised and carried out?

Our group of volunteers is very important and, in fact, we receive more applications than we can accept. We hold concerts with the UIB [University of the Balearic Islands] in Palma and with the Complutense University of Madrid. A placement on a programme like ours in Bolivia has a tremendous impact on a volunteer. Meeting reality face to face marks a before and an after in their lives. Many of them are young, full of enthusiasm, maybe a bit spoilt, but they come back having experienced considerable personal growth.

We also have a section for sponsorship of children by children, which is unusual. Spanish children sponsor a Bolivian child of their own age and it raises their awareness, they have their photos at home and they actually worry about how they are, whether their sponsored child might be cold or need some shoes, and they will administer their savings or their birthday money to be able to buy them what they need. In this way, children develop a spirit of solidarity, something which is not so easily acquired as an adult. And lastly, we are organising a party on 1 June in the Palacio March or people to get to know what we do and contribute whatever they can. We are being donated the use of the palace for the occasion.

The era of public financing of NGOs seems to be at an end. How can private initiative be involved in the task?

One message I would like to get across is the issue of companies and collectives taking part in projects. The traditional concept of charity is finished. Everything has evolved: globalisation, new technologies… When I think about offering a project to a company or entity, what I think about is offering the opportunity to be involved, the satisfaction of making a tangible contribution to a specific endeavour or action, going beyond the simple handouts of the past. We are currently developing a solidarity nursery, for instance, and the project, like all our projects, is defined and coordinated to perfection, and I offer them the opportunity to be a part of it, to make their own modest contribution, and they are asked how they want it to be, what ideas they, as patrons, have thought of, so that these can be considered and included in the development of the project. Our projects are totally transparent and anyone taking part in them can find out at any time what stage the project is at and what steps are scheduled to follow.

As well as all these contributions, there is considerable tax relief, and ultimately the name of your company is there on a plaque acknowledging your contribution, because we only really act as intermediaries. Being involved and making an active contribution is thoroughly gratifying for companies applying the principle of corporate social responsibility, and for private initiative in general.

An indelible memory or testimony that stands out for you from all these years of commitment to solidarity.

I have an indelible memory associated with this Bolivian phase, which explains why we devote our efforts to the street children. I arrived in Bolivia and was staying in a hotel. I am a very early riser and I love to wander around the streets. I got up at six in the morning and went out for a walk around Sucre, the old capital. The streets were silent and deserted until I got to a plaza where there was a tremendous commotion and ambulances and I asked what was going on. They told me: “A boy has died.” I had the good luck or the misfortune to see that boy there on the ground. These children seek out shelter to sleep at night: the Altiplano is intensely cold with extreme temperatures. They shelter in ATM lobbies or they climb up into the trees, which have bushy canopies and plenty of foliage. That boy climbed up into the tree, went to sleep and fell to the ground. The image of the boy on the ground disturbed me so much that I said to myself, “This cannot be,” and decided there and then that I would do the impossible to prevent it happening. The experience has haunted me ever since, in its contrast with the lives of our children in the western world.

Some time later I wrote a book, The Flowers of my Sobs, which relates the impact I experienced when I discovered Bolivia, where hydrocarbons are valued more highly than children. It is a developing country, with a growing GDP and cities that are changing for the better, though huge inequalities exist between the upper middle class and the poor. In Bolivia, children are still a scourge, and they have no vote. Many of them are of indigenous origin and are caught in a spiral of extreme poverty.

How and when did your relationship with Bufete Buades begin?

Teresa is my niece by marriage and the fact of being your nephews’ paediatrician gives you a certain sense of familial ancestry. I am very fond of Joan and Teresa and the special relationship persists despite not seeing each other very often. Teresa, who is a truly remarkable, kind-hearted woman, was all set to come with me on one of the association’s first trips, but ultimately it was impossible for her to go. We are delighted to be able to look forward to her presence at our next event, which she has already confirmed she will attend.