“Friendship is the good times, the bad times and the in between”

We all remember our first friend from childhood, the one we looked forward to seeing at school or to have over for us to play with. Some of us carry these friendships all the way to the grave.  There are times when we find different friends who serve different purposes in our lives.

For children, making friends is a vital part of growing up and it has a great impact on their social and emotional development. Every year on the 30thJuly, the world commemorates the International Day of Friendship.

The National Council for Children (NCC) interviewed Ambassador, Dr Erna Athanasius in her capacity as the former Ambassador for Women and Children, who has participated in various Children’s Friendship Festivals abroad.

As she recounts, in 2013 she first got an invitation, which was initially addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, for Seychelles to participate in an International Children’s Friendship Festival in Seattle, Washington.

“Long story short, I got a committee together because I thought it was a wonderful idea to participate in an international children’s festival. It would help our children understand what it is like to make friends abroad, what it means to have an exchange with children of different upbringing and cultures, different everything,” explained Dr Athanasius.

The festival was an initiative of the Turkish community in Seattle and our Honorary Consul General Mrs. Lise Church, together with other Honorary Consuls in the USA wanted this to become a reality and forwarded the invitation. Turkey has been celebrating their National Children’s Day on 23rd April every year since 1927 when Turkey became the first country to officially declare Children’s day a national holiday. In 1981, the holiday in Turkey was officially named “ National Sovereignty and Children’s Day”. The thinking behind this festival was celebrating children and bringing together different cultures and promoting the building of lifelong friendships  Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was the founding father of modern day Turkey and dedicated this day to all children. He is quoted as saying ‘Peace at Home, Peace in the World’ and that was his dream.

The celebration of children is over a week long  and among the activities on this day, children send their representatives to replace state officials and high ranking civil servants in their offices. The President, cabinet ministers, provincial governors, and mayors, all turn over their positions to children’s representatives in a purely ceremonial exercise. On this day the children also replace the parliamentarians  in the Grand Natiinal Assembly and hold a special ceremonial session to discuss matters concerning children’s issues.

“Turkey is a country where I was able to witness, first hand, the real importance and value they give to children. They believe in Children’s rights and truly promote their children and all children everywhere, as the future of the world, politically and in every other sense. If one does not give children the feeling of being loved and stress the importance of their presence in our lives, then they may not really invest in what we call their future and they will emulate the nonchalance they see around them. If we do not invest in our children and give them every opportunity to learn, to make friends and to observe how the rest of the world lives and works, then they may not necessarily understand what is expected of them, and their experience in life ends up being narrow.” explained Dr Athanasius.

In 2013, around 45 children who could dance, sing or play a musical instrument auditioned to take part in the International Children’s Friendship Festival in Seattle, Washington. Twelve very talented children were chosen to take part in the festival for the first time. Dr Athanasius explained that “Although the committee had to raise funds for the participation across the globe, private businesses and other donors were generous, including the Children’s Fund, and even parents who saw this to be a chance of a lifetime, helped to contribute towards the trip, through sponsored clean up at the home for the elderly, sponsored walk and a show.”

“The children demonstrated their talents and our traditional song and dance, during that festival and enjoyed educational exchanges as well as well as fun activities. In Seattle, our group of children and adults were invited to attend a sitting of the Washington State Senate and one of our youngest participants got the chance to sit down with the Speaker of the senate and even used the mallet at the end of one of the sessions”. They saw historic sites, Mt Rainier and snow and even had a special visit to Boeing HQ. Seychelles was highly regarded because we took to America an array of talent. For a first experience, I thought it was magnificent and for the children this was a great learning experience as well.” said Dr Athanasius.

Following that first successful trip, Dr Athanasius and her International Children’s Friendship Festival committee endeavoured to raise funds, on an annual basis, to allow children of Seychelles to attend the different festivals. “I just did not want this to be a one off and the committee, the Ministry and even the Presidency, agreed with me,” she said.

She went on to add, “After our return from Seattle we got in touch with the Honorary Consuls in Turkey, who had sponsored our children and wished to do more. They obtained for us an invitation to attend the grand International Children’s Friendship Festival in Turkey, the actual birthplace of the festival. As mentioned earlier, Turkey had been celebrating children for many years with over 150 countries participating in their festival over the years.”

In Turkey, the children home stay which means each child stayed with a Turkish family for the duration of the festival. They are welcomed into a family as a member and are referred to as the brother or sister of the host child. In this way they made friends and developed a better understanding of the way of life, the culture and even the diet of the host family. Most of the friendships made are still going strong today.

Thereafter, we also received an invitation from our Honorary Consul General in Normandy, France, to participate with our children in a festival of friendship which was another beautiful and memorable experience for our children.

Seychelles has taken part in six festivals between 2014 and 2019. Preparations were in full swing for another festival before the covid-19 pandemic struck the world in 2020. Participants had auditioned since January 2020 and were preparing for a major cultural show, but sadly, this did not materialise for the last group and it is not known if there will be another participation in the future.

Dr Athanasius also explained that the groups never consisted of the same children twice, and the age group was strictly 10 to 13-year-olds.  Therefore every year a different group of children from across the country was chosen to attend the festival.

“We contributed to all of these festivals by showcasing the real culture of Seychelles; all the traditional dances like ‘kontredans’, ‘avan trwa’, ‘avan kat’, and even the ‘moutya’ once. These dances were well appreciated by our hosts that they just kept inviting us every year. Our second festival in Gaziantep, Turkey was unbelievable in the sense that the children saw history by basically going back to pre-bible times. We took them to the largest mosaic museum in the world and some of them may have not appreciated the knowledge they were gaining at the time but up to this day some of the participants still recall how fun their experiences were.”

The festival is a showcase of all the different cultures; there are children from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Egypt and other parts of Africa, the Middle east, Europe and America, and Australia. The whole country is in festival mode when the children of the world are in Turkey. The investment made by Turkey and the national media,Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) to bring the world to their children and showing them how different the world is really impressed our delegation.

“I was more of a chaperone and coach to the children – coaching them on the expected  behaviour and etiquette. All the children who have been through our hands have had coaching on how to behave when people talk to them, how to answer queries on their country, culture, traditions, and schools, and to be ready for questions all the time, because everybody would be interested in their culture and in knowing where they come from,” explained Dr Athanasius when asked what role she played as the facilitator.

She recounts clearly how when it was time to leave, every child cried because at that point they wanted to stay. There was a really positive impact on the children and some of them have kept their friendships with their host families and with Dr Athanasius and the other members of the coaching committee, namely, Mr Bennett Accouche, Ambassador Lalatiana Accouche and Ms Marianne Amado our dance coach. They have learnt what friendship really is and that you can make friends with people you do not know and enjoy long lasting friendships thereafter.

When asked if she thinks Seychelles will ever be able to host a friendship festival, Dr Athanasius told us that Seychelles will not be able to hold one on a platform like Turkey but it could explore hosting one on a smaller or regional scale. Of course, this would have to be done collaboratively with partners such as NCC, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Sports to name a few; this has been one of her dreams but it is costly.

To conclude, Dr Athanasius shared her belief that when children make friends in early school years, they almost always end up maintaining these friendships and communicating with their friends throughout their lives.

When asked what Friendship meant to her, this is what Dr Athanasius calmly replied: “Friendship means being there for one another no matter what; If you are having a good time friendship means having a good time together and if you are having a bad time then friendship means still being there in times of grief or loss, Friendship is the good times, the bad times and the in between. That is what friendship is to me; just being there for whatever, and whenever.”