Shajjad Rizvi arrived in Romania in 1990, an idealistic Londoner hoping to help, 27 years later it can be safely assumed that he has accomplished that mission. With his wife Katie he established Little People which helps young Romanians suffering from cancer and to date this has involved thousands upon thousands of children, 4,000 last year alone.
by Douglas Williams
OZB spoke with Shajjad about Little People, about Romania and about his adopted home city of Cluj:
How was Little People established and what sort of numbers of children have benefited from Little People?
Little People started in a warzone, I was working in the former Yugoslavia during the early 90s on the humanitarian relief effort. One key element missing from the humanitarian relief was the need for children to have some form of normality; they had lost everything: homes, schools, communities, and in some instances family. So our team put together a simple but very effective program that provided multiple layers of help, from entertaining performances, school programmes, counselling and delivery of humanitarian aid.
Replicating this, when Little People started working in hospitals, the situation was pretty dire in Romania, very little was focused on patient care besides medical treatment. So Little People set out to develop and implement the best possible patient care services and support mechanisms geared towards children, teenagers and young adults who were being treated for cancer. At the helm of Little People is my wife, Katie. She is the heart and soul of the oraganisation.
Today Little People works daily in every treatment and intervention centre in Romania. In 2016 we worked with over 2000 kids, and we have won countless awards nationally and internationally for our cancer care services. We host two camps every year for the teenagers and young adults and every Christmas we celebrate “Another Year Cancer Free” with over 400 survivors.
Who are the people involved in delivering your services and care?
We employ specialists to work within each hospital section, but we also recruit volunteers to provide an extra layer of activities. We select and interview volunteers and provide skills training to enhance their abilities to work with children. Katie and her team oversee every element of operations. The level of professionalism is remarkable; Katie and the team run a very tight ship, with daily communications and reports to each team, 11 hospitals nationwide, plus the Republic of Moldova.
Can you give us an example of a child who has benefited from your care ? What is his or her story?
I met Emanuel 6 years ago while he was being treated in the Bucharest Oncology Institute. He was just 17 and was being treated for a cancer type more common to older male adults. He took part in the daily Little People programmes and joined the Temerarii club, a support group set up by Little People which focuses on teenagers and young adults with cancer. After his final round of treatment Emanuel signed up to be a volunteer at Little People. When he started university, he would spend three days a week volunteering in the hospital helping other young people undergoing treatment. He chose to study Phycology with the intention of helping people with cancer. Emanuel now works full time at Little People; he has gone from daily hospital work to becoming a youth advocate, preaching the Little People gospel on European forums and is a key member of Youth Cancer Europe. We have numerous cancer survivors who have returned to the hospital ward either as volunteers or as staff to help patients. And we have many who study medicine. Years ago I did a meet and greet in Cluj with a famous international football player and a cancer survivor who acted as the footballer’s translator. The kids loved the football player, however the parents were so moved by the survivor all they wanted to do is talk to him, the impact a survivor has on current patients and their families is massive!
Can you give us an example of one of your volunteers, what is their story? How does your volunteering programme work. How can people get involved?
If people would like to volunteer they need to send an email to [email protected] we currently have 120 volunteers actively engaged within our programmes. I have to be honest we do turn people away and even discourage people from volunteering for us. It is hard work, and is extremely demanding. Most people have a rather romantic idea about volunteering that I guess is great if you’re involved in projects that don’t involve people and illness. Working within our environment takes a special kind of person, they go through an interview process, a training process and a trial period and if they pass all three they are asked to commit to a set amount of time per week.
How do you raise funds and how effective has this been in the past and what are your plans for the future?
We created a few different channels to raise funds, we do events, pub-crawls, poker tournaments, pub quizzes, we have a charity shop and donation box network, and we go after funding from companies. We are one of the few NGOs that has a nationwide reach. Frankly I don’t know of another NGO who does more and is more effective within the child healthcare domain.
The big money is still from corporate donations and that’s a tough one to access as it is still very much relationship based. I personally feel a lot of CEOs and CSR officers are misinformed on the social need or they want a quick fix solution and end up giving to the NGOs that have a fab PR front, but are ultimately less effective or shallow in their delivery. Little People doesn’t fall into the trap of lying about the need nor do we inflate our numbers or use images of sick kids to raise money. I once read the headline 5,000 children are diagnosed with cancer every year in Romania, I called the press outlet to ask who provided this statistic and they mentioned an NGO. I called that NGO and asked why would they provide such a statistic, the NGO said the press outlet gave them the figure. The real figure is approx. 470 – 500 new diagnoses each year. A lack of ethics and standards exists in Romania and the very NGOs who are meant to help fix such issues can in fact end up doing more harm.
How do you think the situation with NGOs has changed in Romania, how do you think the Romanian mind-set has changed in the time you have been here?
When we first came to Romania, it was so hard to make Romanian friends, as they would all leave! Thankfully now many have focused on making it work in Romania. It’s quite exciting actually. Every year I follow the Civil society awards in Romania and you see the quality of projects and the dedication from locals who are doing everything to make communities better – it’s inspiring. In 2013 Little People won five of the top prizes.
On a more personal level, how would you say Cluj compares with Bucharest?
Cluj is a great, and has changed so much over the years. It’s a city driven by the tech boom, the pubs and clubs are full and the summer months are packed full of festivals and events. To be honest it’s hard to keep up with everything that is happening. In 2015 Cluj was the European Youth Capital and I really believe that had a huge impact on the City. The UNTOLD festival was born from the 2015 project and it generated a whole new buzz around the city. UNTOLD gave Cluj festival clout on a European level and the nice thing about it was the bunch of young people who put the festival together. What I like about Cluj is its belief in youth: you really have so many projects driven by young people and the stuff they come up with is amazing.
Do you miss the UK and if so what do you miss?
I’m a Londoner born and bred, I do miss the city, and thankfully I go back often. I’m actively involved in linking the UK to Romania and vice versa, I head up the Duke of Edinburgh Award in Romania and also the British Romanian Chamber of Commerce in Cluj.