The great Danes

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Monday, January 20, 2014


Anywhere they go, they turned heads—literally.

When pretty young Europeans join the crowd in jeepney stops or when they make their daily rounds in the slums, the curious stares are inevitable. They don’t mind having a bunch of street kids playfully cling to their bodies—in fact, they are more than delighted to join the game.

Meet Simone Christiansen, 23, and Maria Thomsen, 24, the social work interns that the Parian Drop-In Center in Cebu City was lucky to have for five months.

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The Danish beauties could have just stayed in Denmark for their internship, but they opted to take the more challenging and adventurous route to finishing their social work degree at the Metropolitan University in Copenhagen.

“We wanted to experience the culture and to be aware of the social problems in Cebu and find out what causes them. I also wanted to meet and help these children, and to also learn from them. I know it’s easy to say that you want to help, but it’s different when you’re able to really do it with the right set of skills and knowledge... When you open your heart, that’s how you’re able to learn and to help,” says Maria.

For five months, they helped look after orphans or children who were neglected by their parents, children who were victims of abuse, street children and out-of-school youth in Cebu City.

They played with them, cuddled them and taught them how to cope with their situation.

While others would cringe being around such kids, much less touch them, they made the children feel like they were family.

“I feel sorry for them not because they are poor but because I know they want to have
somebody to trust and care for them and they don’t have that, and that’s what I wanted to show them—that we’re here to take care of them and that they can trust us. Even if they come from the streets, they should be able to remain as kids for as long as possible,” says Simone.

Maria and Simone had a blast during their internship here, but both admit it was not easy at first, especially with the cultural differences.

While street children are everywhere in Cebu, the interns say you will not see one in Denmark, said to be one of the happiest nations on earth with the best quality of life.

They come from a country with 100 percent literacy rate and an incredibly low unemployment rate, and where education is free and social welfare programs make sure no one is hungry or without medical care, so the sight of street children is heart-wrenching.

“While we were on the car coming from the airport, a young child knocked on our window begging for money. That was the first culture shock for me. It really hurts your heart because we’re not used to seeing that,” shares Simone.

Before leaving the capital city of Copenhagen, the ladies made an internship plan and had to undergo a briefing on the social issues affecting Cebu so they would know what to expect when they got here.

“They will help you understand why things are the way they are here. But I think you can’t really be prepared until you’re here,” recalls Maria.

Both interns report to Parian Drop-In Center five days a week to assist the social worker and house parents of the children. They also do community visits, mostly in slum areas, where they check on children in difficult situations and their parents.

But it’s not all work for the Danish visitors. When they’re not working on assignments and submitting reports to their professors, they find time to unwind with their Danish and Filipino friends, they go out of town to enjoy the beach or hang out in the mall or gym.

Overall, their internship in Cebu was an enriching experience. They learned so much not only from their clients at the center, but also from the Cebuano youth and the Filipino culture.

“I like the fact that you have a close family bond where the young take care of the elderly, and you always have your brother or sister near you to help. In Denmark, since the government provides you with nearly everything, the society kind of forces you to be by yourself, so you tend to be absorbed in your own needs and you tend to forget about the people around you,” Maria says.

Simone shares Maria’s observation about the youth here and their admiration for it.

“In Denmark, we’re really affected by the American culture. We go out a lot and we go to cafes and parties, and maybe that’s because we don’t have a lot of responsibilities because we can rely on our government to take care of us and our families. Here, they have responsibilities so they grow up to be good adults—humble and respectful,” says
Simone.

“But in terms of personal issues, we go through the same things, we face the same problems with boyfriends, our studies and families,” Maria was quick to add.

Both ladies are now back in Denmark. Days before their internship ended, they were emotional about leaving Cebu and the children they have formed familial ties with—ones of their inspirations in finishing their degree.

At the same time, they also looked forward to seeing family and friends, especially after their experience during the strong earthquake and typhoon while they were here.

“I will miss the work and being able to do something to make the lives of these children better… I can say that I was able to fill my baggage with a lot of learning and experiences. This is what I want to do when I graduate,” says Maria, who vows to be back next year for her thesis.

They have survived the curious stares, the language barrier, the culture shock and Cebu’s climate. They hope that with their help, the children they left behind would somehow survive their own trials and will help themselves to make their lives better.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on January 21, 2014.

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