“Life is a never-ending dance of loss.” We lose certitudes, habits and preconceptions, so that we constantly challenge ourselves. That’s the viewpoint of Nicolò Govoni, the 27-year-old nominated by the Republic of San Marino for the Nobel Peace Prize 2020. What has he done to deserve such recognition? Since 2013, he has been travelling the world trying to help others. Starting off alone, he then went on to found the NGO Still I Rise, which has recently announced the opening of an international school offering first-class education to refugee children on the border between Turkey and Syria. The school will open in the town of Gaziantep and has the same mission as the school already set up thanks to Nicolò on the Greek island of Samos: to give a chance in life to those forced to flee, providing Syrian and other children with a safe place to grow up and be schooled.
Just who is Nicolò Govoni and how has he achieved so much at the age of 27?
Born in the northern Italian city of Cremona in 1993, he recalls the period of his childhood spent with his grandparents: “the smell of biscuits, peaches and bare feet in the summer”, struggling at school and, in his own words, breaking all the rules. Govoni says that at the age of 18 he already felt old and was dissatisfied with his environment and the life that lay ahead of him.
The turning point came at the age of 20 when he left for India to do voluntary work taking care of children in an orphanage. “That’s when everything changed,” Nicolò explains on his website, “the children took over a special place in my heart - a heart that had been empty and then, after that summer of work and love, felt full again.”
The turning point came at the age of 20 when he left for India to do voluntary work taking care of children in an orphanage.
This experience had such an impact on the young Nicolò that he decided to stay in India to devote his time fully to the children: he ended up staying four years. “I made a promise,” he continues, “that I would use my good fortune as a young white man from the West to take care of them.” During his time in India, he studied journalism at university and at the same time taught the children at the orphanage, which was able to keep running also thanks to proceeds from Nicolò’s first book. Entitled ‘Uno’ (One) the book is a collection of stories based on his experience in India.
The success of the book was the best news ever for the children, because in 2016 the proceeds enabled Nicolò to send all the younger children to school and three of the older ones to university.
A year later, the orphanage faced the exact same challenge once again: funds were needed to ensure that all the children could build themselves a future. “There were now five young people ready for university and there was not enough money,” Nicolò recalls, “for the first time I was afraid that I would not be able to keep my promise.”
Yet again, the solution came from his writing. In just one month, Nicolò wrote his second book ‘Bianco come Dio’ (White like God) and self-published it as an eBook. It was a huge success reaching almost 10,000 readers: once again the children in the orphanage could go to school.
Nicolò has written three books: ‘Uno’ (One), ‘Bianco come Dio’ (White like God) and ‘Se Fosse tuo figlio’ (What if that were your child)
At this point, Nicolò decided it was time to leave India to focus on new experiences. He went first to Palestine and then to the Greek island of Samos, where he wanted to help the refugee children who had fled from war in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine as well as from several other countries in Asia and North Africa.
Here too, he faced the same challenge: to give these children a future. The best way to do that was to give them an education. Another turning point came for Nicolò in 2018. Together with a group of volunteers, he founded the NGO Still I Rise and his books (at this point published by Rizzoli) were further spreading the word about his projects and attracting donations. It seemed like a miracle when one of those donors decided to sponsor the construction of a school for refugees for a whole year. “Within a month we had built the walls, refitted the electricity system, ordered desks and chairs, installed air conditioners and taken delivery of stationery. In a few words, we built a school.”
That school is called Mazì and it provides an education to around 150 children and adolescents. In this hotspot on the island of Samos, the Greek authorities were subjecting the migrants to abuse. Nicolò decided to report on what was happening and in June 2019, he published his third book ‘Se Fosse tuo figlio’ (What if that were your child). The proceeds go to a similar project to Mazì but with a difference.
Govoni has now turned his attention to Turkey and in recent weeks has spoken with the Italian press agency Agia about his new experience. “There’s a big difference between this and the school on Samos, where we followed a school curriculum but, due to the local conditions, the school was not recognised as such. In Turkey, we are about to take a step further by providing classes for every stage of school.”
The figures paint an alarming picture of the crisis in Gaziantep: 500,000 refugees in a city of one and a half million inhabitants and around 200,000 minors who potentially need help. One single school will not be able to solve a problem of this size, but perhaps it can point the way to how this can be achieved. “We will offer a qualification to these children – not only do they have no money but they also lack opportunities and the foundations for a decent future. We are offering them just that free of charge.”
Future projects are planned in Kenya, Mexico and also in Italy
Over the coming months, similar projects are planned to start in Kenya and Mexico: “Still I Rise operates in five countries with around 50 staff and volunteers.” That’s not bad for a 27-year-old. Which is exactly why Sara Conti, member of the Grand and General Council, has nominated Nicolò for the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Republic of San Marino.