“The dreams we helped come true, the lives we changed for the better: This is what keeps me going”
Xavier Narciso (38, married and father of four), Director of Social Programs of the Fundação Arte e Cultura (the Fundação), has fiercely paved his path with great willpower and strength of character. At 26, he joined the Mitrelli Group and the Fundação, a subsidiary foundation of the international Menomadin Impact Foundation responsible for Haim Taib’s entirety of impact initiatives. Wishing to know him better, we conducted an interview with Xavier that was not only enlightening but also awe-inspiring; Xavier’s path and his devotion to the community he grew up in should be a model for us all.
How would you describe your children’s childhood compared to yours? What can you give them today that you were not fortunate to receive?
“My childhood was hard. I grew up without the presence of a father to guide me. My mother took both roles upon herself,” says Xavier, whose mother had battled with depression and alcohol addiction and died when he was still a child. “I then lived with my grandmother, who wasn’t a benevolent character either. She had her own problems to deal with. When it comes to my children, it’s different; they have a father and a mother who guide and teach them everything they need to know about life. They attend a private school, very different from the school I attended; they have a father who comes home every day, and we eat our dinners together and talk about the day we all had.”
Xavier’s children have a solid ground to stand on and flourish from. “I expect my children to flip the pyramid,” he says, implying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and testifying to the challenges facing the Angolan society. “Our community lives the opposite of what is normal: our children do not go to school, and our teens have children while having no job and no house to live in. My expectation for my children is that they will build their lives oppositely: attend school, find a job, buy a house, and only then get married and start a family.”
Xavier started working at 14, first as a carpenter and then as a taxi driver. “There was no hope for the future in these jobs. It was impossible to save money or even buy a TV. With the money I earned, I bought food for that day; I could only hope I would have enough money for tomorrow’s meals. It is so hard living like that. My life changed 12 years ago when I joined Mitrelli and the Fundação, initially as the driver of Naama Margalit, the Fundação’s General Director. It opened up the possibility to dream and believe that I could move forward and have more responsibilities in my work. Due to the group’s policy to provide courses and continuous training, I had a prospect of specializing and promotion. Moreover, inspired by ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s notion that people can learn from books but also from their fellow men and women, I looked around and saw many good people to learn from; Naama and other colleagues of mine in the company were my role models.”
And Naama, she also detected Xavier as a great source of knowledge. Can you tell us about your joint journey, Naama?
“Straight away and with great precision, Xavier recognized the nature of my mission here, in Luanda, and understood that I have a lot to learn in order to make it happen.” Naama came to Angola as ”a privileged white woman,” in her words, equipped with a strong desire and the necessary humility to learn. “While wandering the streets, even in the toughest neighborhoods, Xavier introduced me to the local culture. There, on the streets, I also realized Xavier’s motivations, what drives him as he wakes up in the morning: the determination to utilize his capabilities and those of everyone around him to make a fundamental change in his society. It was so clear that after only a few months, I gave him a very special birthday present: a business card stating his new title: The Fundação’s Director of Social Programs. I told Xavier: ‘From now on, you are not my driver. You only the one who drives us because I can’t drive in Angola.’ Together, we kept wandering the streets of Luanda. Day in and day out, I saw Xavier’s past meet his present, and the intersection of the two drives his work for a better future for his country. Xavier is not busy fixing his own shoelaces; he’s busy doing Tikkun Olam, fixing the world, no less,” Naama emphasizes. “Thanks to Xavier, I have had some profound love and friendship situations with the most drugged and poorly-treated Angolan children. Thanks to him, I left some massive pieces of my heart there, on the sidewalks of Luanda. Because it is hard here, and sitting in the office without dipping your hands, and especially your heart, in the mud, you can’t make any real difference.”
Xavier, what tools did you receive, and what values did you absorb throughout your years in the Fundação?
“Solidarity, mutual respect, and integrity—all these values were already rooted in me, maybe somewhat latent. The Fundação helped me to awaken and manifest them. It begins with the small things, like if friends or family schedule an activity and I say I’ll arrive at 10:00, everyone knows I’ll be there at 10:00. It’s enough for the people to recognize a distinction from the common behavior and to understand I’m a man of my word; people are listening to me, and they have learned that they can also benefit doing things my way; it made me a sort of a leader in my community.” Today, Xavier leads three communal organizations, all based on regular meetings, open discourse, listening, and mutual assistance. This is the nature of the neighborhood’s soccer team, made of fathers and sons, and both of the support groups that Xavier coaches. One is a group of lifelong friends who grew up together, got married, and had children; the other is Xavier’s extended family of about 40 relatives, nephews, uncles, and cousins. Each of these groups meets once a month to talk about life’s challenges: family life, money, children’s upbringing, and even the most sensitive issues tied to religion and tradition, like the necessity of family planning.
You said you could get promoted in the company even without higher education, yet you decided to pursue academic studies. Why?
“I have always felt an intense need and desire to learn. Completing high school demanded my utmost willpower, but I have never had the support or the financial opportunity to make it into university. After two years in the Fundação, I thought I could finally realize my dream, so I enrolled in the Catholic University of Angola. About a year and a half later, I came home one day and there was no water; we had no money to buy water because a week before I paid my tuition. I terminated my studies but kept on reading. I read anything and everything: religion, science, and politics; I’ve already read the entire Torah and Koran. Naama saw my determination and devotion and felt my deep need to gain knowledge, and she succeeded in finding me a scholarship. When she told me about it, I could barely hold back my tears, but by the time I got home and told my wife and children, I was fully crying.”
Xavier is in his final year of completing his degree in social work. “Only a small portion in my community studies professions that aim to make social change. Profitable professions like law and engineering are much more popular, and in the weakest Angolan populations, people don’t want to learn anything, simply because they don’t know they can; these are the kind of people we meet in the Fundação. And this is exactly why I chose to learn a social profession—so I’ll be able to expose and spread these opportunities. But it is also important to present reality as it is,” Xavier emphasizes.
“Parents sometimes dream for their boy to be a pilot but cannot even provide him with food. My mission is to show them the way; you won’t become a pilot overnight, you have to start investing in the future, dedicating yourself, doing everything you can, and working hard. This is the path to making your dreams come true. In the Fundação, I have the opportunity to send this message loud and clear and to promote the values of inclusion of underprivileged people and the ability to rehabilitate them in the community, for example, to accept those who went through detox using a structured program that will make them feel safe.” Pairing his fieldwork and studies, Xavier seeks to mitigate the state’s means to the community, make new laws accessible, and advance rights exhaustion. “I feel that helping people is in my DNA, it is what motivates me in my work, community, and studies,” he says.
How do you juggle work, study, and family life?
“I’m still young, but my hair is already graying. It is a massive challenge, and I love challenges. An Angolan saying goes: if love is what makes you run, you’ll never get tired. I love what I do with all my heart, so I can bear the struggle. Also, I can always run to Naama for support and advice,” Xavier laughs.
Tell us about the ventures you are in charge of and your interactions with the children, teens, and women.
“One very intensive project of mine is Music in the Streets. We teach street children—some have homes but wander the streets all day, while many others are homeless children who actually live on the streets. We aim to save them from life on the streets, to bring them back to their families or place them in orphanages. Violence and abuse, abandonment, and accusation of witchcraft—this is the reality that pushes so many Angolan children out of their homes. Until now, we have managed to place 150 children in orphanages. Through years of experience, we’ve learned that from the age of 16, orphanages no longer accommodate them, and they go back to the streets without any skills or hope, doomed to be considered second-rate everywhere. Through research and interviews and approaching the state to find training programs for these young people, we’ve come to learn that there are none, so we set on to build the project A Better Way.” Naama adds, “Xavier detected the need, sought a solution, and when he did not find any, he developed the solution himself.”
“We chose nine young men to participate in the pilot of A Better Way. The Fundação provided them with residence, food, and a life-skill package, including English, sewing, carpentering, and driving courses alongside lectures in many different fields. Those who were able and willing got higher education scholarships too, as well as jobs in one of Mitrelli’s companies. Aligning with the project’s conditions, the participants have to save at least 50% of their wages and pay a small responsibility fee to the project—as part of their financial education training. Today, three years after launching, most of the participants gained independence, holding their homes and workplaces.
“Thanks to this successful pilot and the strategic philanthropy mechanism of Mitrelli, Menomadin, and the Fundação, we managed to scale up the project and its impact to 25 young participants. We consolidated a partnership with the local government that gave us suitable housing, recruited guides and developed a two-month structured education and activity program that provides everything needed for them to become well-adjusted into the community.” Naama notes that the inspiration for this project, like many of Haim Taib’s ventures, originated in Israel, in the Israeli Defense Force’s unique training base, Hashomer Farm. This army base trains soldiers from sensitive populations, under the slogan “thanks to our faith in the human spirit.” Similarly, our initiative A Better Way provides a two-month intensive empowerment training that includes everything from sports and good nutrition to English and financial education.
With the completion of the training, a process of job recruitment and placement begins. A professional human resource team interviews the participants and places them as interns in Mitrelli’s companies according to the participants’ interests and capabilities, and the companies’ needs. “There is a wide range of jobs—secretaries, electricians, officials in legal departments—and each participant presents their higher aspiration. The companies provide mentors that patiently guide and teach each intern. I feel we opened a Pandora’s Box that no one dared to deal with before and paved a way for these kids and young adults. We showed them a better way, a way that leads to an equal chance in life. Looking back, I see people we have paved their path to a better life and integration into the community.”
It is a highly demanding job, often fraught with failures and disappointments. How do you maintain your resilience and that of your staff?
“As a father, the most heartbreaking challenge is taking a kid off the streets, driving for hours in the hope of bringing him back to his parents only to listen to them say they are better off without him. It is hard for me to go back home to my children, sleep in my bed thinking about that child out there on the streets, whose own father does not want him. That is our reality; there are happy days but also devastating ones. We rely upon the good days to get strengthened.
“With the many hurdles and disappointments, what gives us the confidence to keep going are the dreams we helped come true and the life we have managed to change for the better. This bloke that I see every day in the Fundação, whose parents abandoned, who grew up in an orphanage with no father and no mother—now has a job and is contemplating the idea of starting a family of his own. This bloke is my motivation, with him lies my understanding that we do good. Jesus said there is greater happiness in giving, much more than in receiving. When you help someone, it makes you happy; it does not have to be a big thing, even providing information can make a difference.
“Every day in the Fundação we hear real stories of people that have nothing, not even hope. We only talk for a moment, give them some guidance, and we’ve already changed their perception. A few years back, a lady came to us with her son whose leg was not functioning. Naama and I spoke with a person who we thought could help and made the initial connection. Two years later, this lady contacted us again to tell us they had just returned from Germany after a successful operation. We understood that the Fundação became a place that matches needs with people.”
You have been chosen to award the European Union’s scholarships. What are these scholarships, and how was the Fundação entrusted with this responsibility?
“It was a process. International organizations seek local Angolan NGOs to be entrusted with their social resources and use them to make a difference. It is very challenging to find Angolan organizations that are able to deliver. The Fundação became a model for a well-functioning social organization, and the EU, after numerous unsuccessful trials with Angolan NGOs, has decided to allocate its entire Angolan social resources to the Fundação to provide scholarships for families in need. Before we took it upon ourselves to manage these scholarships, we held many meetings with the EU. We explained that the scholarships, the way they were being distributed until now, did not make a real impact on these families. We conditioned our involvement in having the responsibility for building the scholarship so that they will truly promote the recipient families. We were adamant—either do it our way or we are out. Aligned with our motto, “rods over fish,” instead of providing families with two sacks of rice, as done before so they’ll have something to eat now, we wish to provide the families with the basic conditions for them to be able to self-provide, food and much more,” says Xavier.
Today, 20 families benefit from these scholarships and are going through a profound process of change. “Each of these families went through a precise needs and capabilities evaluation according to which we provided them with technical and professional courses and helped them establish a small business that should provide them with a livelihood and sustainable financial horizon. In one of these families, the mother chose to be trained as a hairdresser; on top of the professional course, we also provided her with products and equipment and developed a timetable for the business launch. We employ a social worker who not only guides the families and oversees that things happen as planned, but also gives them 360° care in any rising need. He helps listing the children (many generations are not officially registered in the state documentation and thus had been excluded from education, healthcare and other vital services—a widespread phenomenon in Angola); in a case of illness in the family, he will arrange for healthcare; if a child does not attend school, or there is violence in the family, even if there is a need of police involvement or a lawyer, the social worker will take care of it all. We can attest to life-changing experiences following these scholarships, women who have high self-esteem and are highly motivated to keep studying and working.”
So where do you grow from here, Xavier?
“I see the Fundação as a model in my country, and my wish and hope is to establish such Fundação in each of Angola’s 18 provinces. I have a dream to move out of the capital Luanda and work with the Fundação in another province; the institution we have established here, the knowledge that Naama bestowed upon me, and the experience I have gained throughout the years—it all makes me feel ready to be the one to duplicate our impact. Many worthy children are awaiting a place as we have here that would open a future of hope, dreams, and opportunities for them.”