I Could Have Ended Up A Street Hustler
We had settled in Toronto, Canada for about five years at that point - the year was 1999. This was our first trip back to Romania since we had left and it was an emotional one to say the least. My parents, my brother and I. We had travelled back to where we grew up, in Bucharest, and even reconnected with some of the people we grew up with. One of those people was my best friend growing up in Bucharest when we were kids. We used to do everything together, even fight together, get in trouble together, be scared together and just literally spend hours of our day roaming the streets of Bucharest in the 80s and do what kids used to do back then - nothing and everything.
This time, our worlds were so far apart it was as if we lived on different planets, not just different continents. My friend ended up stealing my dad's cigarettes when we weren't looking and then ran away. That was the extent of our bonding after not seeing each other for years. That was it. Him stealing from my us and running away. He had apparently dropped out of school and got into a lot more trouble than we used to get into as kids. He was a bonafide Bucharest street thug and a pretty famous one at that - as we found out later on. Apparently we were lucky we just lost our cigarettes and didn't get stabbed.
I Could Have Ended Up A Thief
A few years before that I was a young twelve-year old playing ping pong in a refuge camp in a small town in Belgium, called Hastiere. I was just learning ping pong, but I was quickly rising through the informal - but nonetheless meaningful - ranks of the refuge camp ping pong tournament. I was the only kid in the tournament, but I had a secret weapon. My secret weapon was my teacher. He was a soft-hearted mean-looking African dude in his thirties, who was a ping pong master. He used to live off hustling people and betting - and winning every time of course. My ping pong teacher saw me hanging around the ping pong table a lot and took me under his wing, teaching me his own flavor of street wisdom - that I still remember to this day. He was the one who introduced me to the concept of full mental concentration on the task at hand. He was so focused when playing ping pong that you'd think he went into a trance. I was fascinated. My brother and I and two African kids younger than us were the only children in a large refuge camp of Eastern European and African refugees. We had no friends our own age. Whatever we learned, we learned from adults twice or triple our age. And living a refuge camp, a lot of those things weren't always about pretty unicorns flying over cute rainbows, fluttering their mythical little wings. No, it was mostly about figuring out creative ways to stay alive and not starve.
My parents had been living in that camp way before my brother and I joined them, later on. I was twelve and my brother was a year younger than me, when we had travelled for days all the way from Romania to Belgium, forging our identities and illegally running away with two brave strangers, a Belgian man from Hastiere and his wife, who pretended to be our parents. I will be forever indebted to them for taking that wild chance on us and going at insane great lengths to reunite my brother and I to our parents. We had been apart for two years. They had to flee the country and we stayed behind - hoping to see each other again one day.
I remember we didn't speak a word of French and our pretend parents didn't speak a word of Romanian. So for days we would spend time together as we travelled from country to country on our journey, pretending to be a family and simply gesticulating and pointing at things and trying to bond through improvised sign language. We eventually made it to the Belgian refuge camp where our real parents were waiting anxiously and when we made it, none of us could even believe it was real. We didn't last long in that refuge camp though. The more time you spend in a place like, the easier it is to fall into a life of regrets. I was tempted and even taught to steal by my middle aged "camp friends" who lived by stealing left and right. But I never did it. I never stole a thing. But if I had to I sure did have the training for it.
I Could Have Ended Up Hateful, Angry And Resentful
My brother and I ended up going to a school 13km away, in a town called Dinant. When we started out, we didn't speak a word of French so we just tried to adapt as much as we could. It was tough at school because none of the kids in the school wanted to play with us. Except one kid. But when the popular kids reached out to him he dumped my brother and I and chose the cooler crowd. So we spent our days and nights studying. It was either that or getting into some sort of trouble. The only thing that kept us on the radar of the other kids, the only reason they knew we even existed is because I was good at drawing so I entered a competition with a cartoon I had invented and became kinda nerd-famous for it in the school. Other than that, we were simply not the kids you'd wanna hang out. We were simply uncool immigrants with horrible accents and a more mature outlook on life than kids our age.
We were too young to walk to school so we used to tell our teacher that our parents were dropping us off every morning but that was a blatant lie of course. I think she knew it all along but was a big softie and didn't call us out on it and never reported us. We walked a few kilometers every day from Hastiere to Dinant to and from the bus station and took the bus most of the way. In the evenings, back in the camp we used to run a little French class for the immigrants in the camp and it was funny seeing grown men come up to my brother and I and sitting down through a good old lesson of "Je m'appelle Gheorghe et je veux du boulot" - that was the most popular word they all wanted to learn to use well - "boulot". Meaning job. For months, our tiny little room in that camp had become a career development centre and I had invented an innovative way of getting those guys (the camp was primarily housing men) - to speak French. I created a phonetic alphabet, for Romanian immigrants at least, so that they could read entire French phrases using Romanian sounds. It seemed to have worked wonders because we had more customers and we could handle. We would work for free but in turn they would all give back by teaching us whatever they knew and taking care of us if anyone bothered us. In addition to learning ping pong, basketball, and swimming, the camp taught us lessons in street hustling I would never have otherwise been exposed to and in a way I'm glad I went through that.
I Could Have Ended Up A Bully
During the day, at school, we hated recess because for 90 minutes we had to walk around the big schoolyard full of hundreds of kids playing and having fun, and my brother and I we used to just talk to each other and think of the things we would do when we'd grow up and we didn't have to put up with snotty kids like the ones that kept making fun of us on a daily basis. Most of our clothes were hand-me-downs we used to get out of pure mercy and sure, some of the shoes didn't have all the laces and stuff but hey, at least we had shoes. They also made fun of our lunches. We used to pack some of the food we used to get in the camp back in Hastiere and bring it over to school for lunch. Of course, the kids in Dinant were not impressed by our refuge camp food. And they had to make sure we knew how they felt.
We kinda beat the crap out of one of them one day. I have to admit it felt good. My brother and I had enough towards the end of the year and when the biggest, baddest bully got aggressive, my brother jumped him and then of course his friends jumped by brother and of course, I jumped the friends. Hey, we won. And the funny thing is that after we beat the crap out of the them - because you can't even imagine the anger two bullied immigrant kids can unleash on five or six first-world bullies - every single one of them wanted to be our friends and we suddenly become wildly popular. If I had known, I would've punched them right in the mouth the first day we entered that schoolyard and we would've enjoyed a full year of friendship. But hey, who knew.
So for about a week we felt kinda popular - felt good too - but unfortunately it was the end of the school year and we had just found out we were getting deported back to Romania and we saw our newly-made friends - you know, the ex-bullies - one more time at the awards ceremony at the end of the year. Somehow, my brother and I won the best students of the year award that was traditionally given out to one student every year but the school administration decided to award both my brother and I.
Education Saved My Life
I could've ended up a thief. Like my refuge camp friends or like my Bucharest street thug friend. I could've ended up a street hustler or even a bully. And like so many other friends I had before and after. If I learned something through those years growing up is that most people who slip into that kind of life - most, if not all - never wanted that life in the first place. But they never had the opportunity for a better life. They just kinda struggled and hustled their way into it and once you end up there and have nothing, it's hard to hustle your way out.
When I grew up in communist Romania we literally had nothing. Every single thing - every single toy, every single clothing item, every single chair, every single cup of water, every single piece of bread - everything - everything - had to be fought over. You had to fight to survive. God bless my parents. I can't imagine raising children in such poverty. Friends, if you haven't lived through that - watching a movie or even reading a story like this isn't enough to explain it. If you did have a tough life - then welcome to the club, you know exactly what I'm talking about.
But the purpose of me telling you all this is not to make you understand if you haven't been through it or not to remind you of it if you did go through. The purpose of it is to make you believe this:
Education saved my life.
This is it. I'm convinced that it's absolutely the key, the answer, the secret to everything. Education saved my life and I know it saved my brother's life and I know it saved a lot of lives.
And so, as I look at my four beautiful children and the beautiful life they have, and as I enjoy every second of my life, I can't help to wonder, what would my life have been without education. What would my parallel life look like? Would I be as happy? Would I have a happy marriage, happy children? Would I enjoy the things I enjoy now? Would I be able to think, speak, feel, the way I do now?
I'm absolutely certain that the lessons I learned living the childhood I've lived helped me become stronger. But, I am equally certain that without education, I would've ended up in more trouble than I could even imagine. It was all setup for me to fall into it. And yet, I didn't. Thank God for mentors, thank God for people who believe in you when you don't and thank God for education.
I've spent the first two decades of my career learning and becoming as good as I possibly can at what I do. I brought my hunger, my memories, and most of all, my heart - to the table - every. single. time. always.
And I'm humbled by the opportunities I have received. But now, my life would be meaningless if I would keep all that to myself. I heard someone say something once that made me change my course in life in a heartbeat:
Pride is unshared knowledge.
Education saved my life and I've learned my share. Now, it's time to pass along some of that knowledge. The first 40 years of my life have been about learning a lot and I know that learning will be big part of my life moving forward because I'm more starved to learn now perhaps than when I was younger. But, it's time to pass it forward. It's time to give.
This is my #EducationStory and this is the beginning of the #CarmelStory - and the beginning of a new chapter in my life but more importantly - the beginning of a revolution in education, that is all heart. I call it #AllHeartEducation and it's what I've vowed to spend the rest of my life doing. Giving back to those who need it most. And giving what matters - education. From the heart.
If you feel the way I do about education and if this story is one you'd like to be involved in - simply stay tuned and let me know what you think along the way.
There's a lot of people who are making the #CarmelStory the movement that it has become and I am going to introduce them all to the world as this story progresses. I can't wait for you all to meet them. But for now, I want to personally welcome you to our #RoadTo1B lives changed through education. That's the dream and I know that if it can happen to one poor kid from Romania, it could happen to anyone.
Let's do this. Together.