Victoria Dunford is guided by a motto: “Change starts with each of us.” The social cohesion activists was born in Moldova, a tiny state bordering Ukraine and the Russian Federation. She now lives in London.
Victoria’s motto continues: "And when you offer concrete examples of development and support, others get inspired, too.”
She believes that it is up to every citizen and especially civil society organizations to eliminate barriers that may hinder persons with disabilities, which will contribute to greater levels of social inclusion and cohesion and reduce inequalities in Moldova, as foreseen by Goal 10 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Victoria and others established an organization called “MAD-Aid” whose acronym comes from “Make A Difference” and aims to contribute to a world where children and adults with special needs have access to the same opportunities as others to fulfil their life’s ambitions, a world where all can live safely with dignity, respect, and quality care.
Poverty and social exclusion significantly affect Moldovan society. Despite the efforts made by the international and national communities to tackle both scourges, recent data reveal that social exclusion in Moldova is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon. The data futher suggest that addressing it requires an integrated, whole-of-society approach, bringing together different actors at international, national, local, community and even individual levels.In the Republic of Moldova, people with disabilities are regarded by some evaluations as "among the most vulnerable social group in terms of social exclusion" with over 170,000 people with disabilities registered. Victoria Dunford, from her status as a Moldovan diaspora leader in London, has committed her life to ensure persons with disabilities – especially children – are included as active, respected members of their communities wherever they may live.
Victoria was raised in the Republic of Moldova and never intended to move abroad. Destiny, however, had other plans for her.
She left Moldova in 2006 for a two-year work program in the UK. Yet after meeting her future husband, she chose to stay in London. Nonetheless, the Republic of Moldova was and remains the place that she will always call “home”.
Social inclusion represents a vision for “a society for all”, in which every individual has an active role to play. Thus, achieving greater levels of social inclusion and cohesion is a paramount strategic objective at the UN level, ensuring no one is left behind, as expressed through the adoption and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Victoria is proof that despite no longer living in their native countries, diaspora members can be actively involved and support the development of their native countries and communities to catalyse positive change.
It is estimated that about a third of Moldova’s population, including children, reside temporarily or permanently abroad in over 30 countries. The numerous and diverse Moldovan diaspora has the potential to support local development initiatives both financially and socially. Indeed, they have been able to send remittances, charitable donations and investments to their homeland while at the same time privileging social transnational flows such as education, knowledge and skill transfers.”.
Victoria implemented her first MAD-Aid project in Moldova in 2013, when her team shipped essential medical furniture and equipment from the UK to three care centres in Moldova: the Mother and Child Center in Chisinau, the Hospital of Rascani, and a care home for people with disabilities in Badiceni.
That same year, 200 wheelchairs were delivered to Moldovan children with special needs. MAD-Aid also met with these children to better understand their aspirations and wishes.
Victoria was moved by her conversations with these children. The first boy to receive a wheelchair was elated: “Thank you, I will be able to see the trees outside. In the past I could only see the leaves through the window”. Victoria knew there was a need to open a specialized centre for children with special needs in Moldova, in order to ensure more systemic support for children with disabilities. Her centre would kickstart change in her community of origin, aiming at creating the proper conditions for social inclusion of children and youth with disabilities.
Victoria advocated tirelessly, raising money, gathering enthusiasts around her cause and working hand in hand with local public authorities in Moldova. Her dream finally became a reality when the doors of “Phoenix Centre” in Riscani opened in September 2015.
Since then, the centre has transformed the lives of children with special needs through providing early intervention and rehabilitation services, transport to and from home, education, activities that promote inclusion, meals and other essential services. Through these activities, the children escape isolation and loneliness, develop skills and relationships, and feel inclusion and confidence.
“For the past five years, thanks to generous donations and contributions, MAD-Aid has managed to keep 61 children with special needs out of isolation. They had been locked within four walls; some of them for as long as six to nine years, others up to 12 or 14. Together we gave them freedom; we gave them a measure of independence!” – Victoria Dunford, MAD-Aid website
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced MAD-Aid to temporarily suspend the physical presence of the children in the centre, Victoria and her team keep them engaged in online chat group activities. They support each other, tell stories and look forward to the day the Phoenix Centre’s doors open again.
Local government authorities and activists in Moldova are well aware of Victoria’s determination and ability to unite people around initiatives that make a difference. So when COVID-19 impacted Moldova’s healthcare system, they asked the MAD-Aid team to help raise funds to support frontline medical teams – doctors, nurses, ambulance crews, caregivers and laboratory technicians.
“Our original goal was to give them water, tea, and coffee. But thanks to the generous donations from over 2,000 individual and corporate donors, we were able to purchase and deliver ventilators, hematology analyzers, ECG equipment, tons of soap and disinfectant, and tens of thousands of gloves, masks, and personal protective equipment. Sourcing all that has been a challenge in itself, when the entire globe is looking for the same items.”
Moreover her work is far from finished.
MAD-Aid is proof of how diasporas can act as transnational unifiers, bringing together two countries, civil society, the government, and the private sector to catalyze change in times of crisis and peace. Victoria’s tremendous dedication and constant contributions to achieving greater equality have been noticed not only in Moldova but in the UK, too. For her services to children with special needs in Northern Moldova, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom awarded Victoria the British Empire Medal.
Victoria has one last message. “MAD-Aid will keep going the best we can, we will stay steadfast and strong, and we hope in these difficult times you too will stay strong, healthy, and able to continue to support us.”
The IOM Mission to Moldova is working to enhance the capacity of the Moldovan migrant communities abroad to actively support local development in Moldova. An important part of IOM Moldova's Migration and Development Department’s work supports the capacity of the Moldovan Government to engage diaspora members like Victoria, leverage the development impact of diaspora resources, and work towards further inclusion of the Moldovan diaspora in the country’s development. One significant ongoing initiative in Moldova is the Global Programme on Making Migration Work for Sustainable Development (implemented in 11 countries in partnership between IOM and UNDP and funded by the Swiss Development Cooperation) They work in partnership with Moldovan diaspora and migrant organizations like MAD-Aid, national and local authorities, civil society and the private sector to ensure migration’s positive contributions to sustainable development.
To learn more about MAD-Aid, visit their website. For more information on IOM Moldova’s work, please see https://moldova.iom.int/ or email email@example.com. To find out more about the Global Programme and IOM’s global work on Migration and Sustainable Development, access our website here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.