This story starts in Singapore, takes off from Rotterdam to Zimbabwe and promises to continue in India. The aims are just as ambitious and broad as the geography. But then, anything started by Ginie Servant, a tutor at EUC, has to have scope. Her brainchild, FairFight, is a charity foundation which aims to empower girls from underprivileged backgrounds with the help of martial arts.
Lost soul moment
It was back in 2012 when Ginie first got the idea to unite her two passions – NGO work and martial arts training. “It was a rough time for me. I was in Singapore having a kind of ‘lost soul moment’. When you end up in cities full of bankers and corruption, you wonder what you are doing it for. I thought I’d try something that is meaningful to me, reasoning that if it’s helped me, it could help other people. I knew it was empowering for me, so I figured it might empower others”, Ginie recalls.
She has had extensive experience working for international NGO’s including Red Cross, so she knew exactly what she wanted to avoid in her own project, “The one thing that is wrong with the NGO and charity world in the West is that it is what people do to feel good about themselves. It doesn’t affect the local community. They go there, take a couple of pictures and leave, without changing anything. And people have these grand ideas about changing the world as a whole. Unless you are Ghandi or Nelson Mandela, then it is not worth doing.”
However, there are still many people, inspired by the great figures, who are yearning to help but don’t know where to start. Such as Alex Whitcomb – Ginie’s colleague at EUC – who wanted to do something for his home country, Zimbabwe, and Emma Bouterse, EUC student, whose life-long passion is martial arts. “I’ve always wanted to make a change in the world in general, but I’d never actually thought of doing it with martial arts until Ginie shared her idea with me”, Emma admits.
Then it all came together – the concept, the location and the plan. Empowering girls by teaching them Martial Arts in Zimbabwe. Now it was about finding the means to realize the project. Ginie and Alex asked EUC for help. “When we set up the project, Elisabeth Noordegraaf –Ellens (Head of the Humanities and Economics & Business Departments at EUC – EM) was the one to review our very first proposal for the project. She rejected it twice. I think it was very helpful for us, because it meant that we had to go back and think through all the practicalities again – call all the embassies, do the risk assessments – basically run it professionally. They did not let us get away with sloppy work. That was useful. They assisted us financially by letting me and Alex go to Zimbabwe instead of pressing on our employee contracts. EUC has always been supportive of employee initiatives.” Thus, the first run was part of the EUC study trip in January 2015.
The idea worked out so well that in summer FairFight became an official charity foundation. Ginie praises the Dutch legal system for the quick and easy legal procedures, “The hardest thing was to put on paper things that we thought we all agreed on. There was, of course, tacit understanding between us, but we had to realise that we were writing a legal document. The rest was smooth, it took us only two months.” Emma became secretary, while another EUC student, Simone Punzo, joined as treasurer.
Being an official NGO, FairFight now had to stand on its own feet and find money to finance its activities. “This year our chief sources of income were three major sources. The Rotary Club did a fund-raising campaign for us and Emma’s club organised a fund-raising day for FairFight. Moreover, an English Sensei Mark Caddy ran an online fund-raising campaign for us. Things like self-defense seminars are more for fun than fund-raising, to be honest. When you target students, it is hard because they don’t have a lot to give to start with”.
In January 2016, FairFight went to Zimbabwe for the second time. Both Ginie and Emma confess that the experience was very different from the first round. “The first year was scary because it was about setting everything up. I have to say that this year I was still intimidated. It was a completely different set-up once again – now being a legit charity and having more professional martial artists on board, who could help us. We had a real team and this time we were able to schedule and plan the classes in advance”, Emma admits.
Not only did the work have a new quality, but the reception also felt more personal this time. “We are also known in the community now. Some people participated in the research projects students ran for the study trip last year, so this time they would come up and greet us. We are known now, and I don’t feel like an outsider there anymore”, says Ginie.
It turned out that having less students on board made the project easier to run: “Last year it was more challenging because there were mainly students who did not have much of prior experience with martial arts.” Ginie adds: “I feel blessed with the team that we had this year. We were able to offer a sort of ‘beginner package’, which we taught to classes of over 200 people repeatedly this year. At the end, we had a beautiful ceremony. The whole school gathered and we invited parents to see their daughters grading. Tears were shed on the stage. Even our senior teacher, who had 23 years of teaching experience started breaking down in front of the audience.”
Also in Rotterdam
In two years FairFight will become independent of the EUC study trip. Now the plan is to expand their work to India: “We had a Skype conversation yesterday with people who run a shelter for girls who were picked up from railway stations, slums. There, guys seem to be more focused on Taekwondo.”
But what about Rotterdam? Why go all the way across the globe when there are those in need of help close to home as well? Now FairFight is going to contribute to the local community as well, “I’ve set up contact with Olga Wagenaar from ‘Zonta’ in Rotterdam. They want a triple collaboration with the local police, us and them, to target girls from immigrant backgrounds. We postponed it because preparations for Zimbabwe were in full swing.”
No matter how inspiring the plans, great achievement and expansion come at a price. Ginie observes: “Now there is an external side to us. People re-post what we do on Facebook. People know of us before they know us. For me now it is a lot of pressure, because it creates many expectations. However, it also opens a lot of doors. For me it is going to be a learning curve. How can we channel the energy and desire of people to help us without jeopardizing the structure of what we are doing?” Of course, it is not only about the fate of FairFight, but also about the life of the people behind it.
Ginie speaks openly about the downsides of her aspirations, “Let’s not sugarcoat things. Those trips are tough. You are thousands of miles away from home and you are out of your comfort zone. You have to make decisions all the time. Things happen that don’t normally happen in ordinary life in Holland – you find a snake in your room, you get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere.”
Still, the benefits of their work outshine all the drawbacks. Emma talks about her motivation: “I just realised that for the girls I can set aside things that happen during rough days. Seeing them and working with them for me makes that all go away. When I am with the girls, teaching and seeing them grow, I cannot think about anything else.”
Things can change
Of course, no one can emerge from such an experience unchanged. For Emma, it changed her entire perspective on life, “I think it empowered me just as much as the girls. It changed what I do in my normal life on a daily basis, and at school as well. Besides, I realised that a normal life, spent just studying and getting a job, is not what I want to do. It is not what brings value to life for me now. I see that Fair Fight gives the value to my life that I want. I want to keep on doing that.” The journey has also been transformative for Ginie: “I can see what it takes for real change to happen. I see possibilities now. I no longer have that despair, the feeling that nothing is ever going to change. I know that things can change, but you really have to fight for it.”
Advice to others
Having passed their rite of passage, Ginie and Emma give advice to students who want to set out on the path to making a difference. Ginie thinks that being realistic and getting experience is crucial: “I wouldn’t go there completely unaware, I would recommend getting advice. At least going on a trip with an existing NGO to see how it works. However, I think the chief thing is to be able to hang on when things get rough. Having a plan that is your own plan rather than something that you think is expected, what an NGO should be doing. Be honest with yourself. Don’t kill yourself doing this; it is not going to help anyone if you put yourself into physical or mental danger.” Emma stresses the importance of staying true to your vision: “The most important thing is to stand up for your own goals and not to give up. We had those moments when we were wondering if it was going to work out at all. So then you need to say to yourself: ‘I want this and this is my strategy to change the world, and stick to it’.”
Nevertheless, in a world full of uncertainty, the ability to cope plays a pivotal role. Ginie emphasises: “You have to not be afraid that sometimes things will go wrong. It doesn’t mean that everything will go wrong. Whenever something goes wrong you learn from it, you know what not to do next time. It is very important to be able to embrace it. Hopefully, at a stage that is not critical. Very few things cannot be fixed anyway. I just hope that you don’t get discouraged to the point of saying ‘I cannot do this – I give up.’ It can be something mundane going wrong, or something personal. It is bound to happen, because it is tense when you invest so much of yourself into something. Of course, there are going to be times when you are going to disagree with the rest of the world, when something is going too fast or to slow. You just have to go steady and ask yourself: “What can I learn from this? What did I do wrong? How can I do more of the right things and less of the wrong things?’’ Most importantly, keep your eye on the prize.”