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ADCAM’s School of the Future: A Short History
“Education does not transform the world, education transforms people, and then people transform the world.”
—Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator (and Escola do Futuro teacher Francinei’s favorite quote on pedagogy)
This is a story about Escola do Futuro—a school on a mission to transform Manaus, one of Brazil’s most violent cities.
But before we get to the school, we need to explain its unlikely backstory: One about three Iranian women, without whom the school wouldn’t be what it is today—or exist at all.
From L to R: Mona, Ferial, and Mahnaz
The first: Mona Mahmudnizhad, who was executed by the Iranian government at the age of 17 in 1983. Mona was a champion for social justice, a volunteer at an orphanage, and a member of the minority Bahá'í, a religion long persecuted across the Middle East. She inspired many people across her country to be outspoken advocates for service and freedom.
A couple years after Mona’s untimely death, the second woman, Ferial Farzin—who left Iran due to persecution for being a Bahá'í—arrived in Manaus, Brazil. “The love to serve was planted in my heart from the beginning of my childhood,” Ferial explains. She shared Mona’s compassion for underserved children and set out to establish an orphanage in Manaus.
Seven years later, Ferial was busy starting Escola do Futuro (School of the Future) to transform the community even more deeply. “As a woman and a Baha’i in Iran,” Ferial reflects, “I would have probably been placed in prison for the work I was doing. But now in Brazil, not only am I not in prison, but my services and our collective efforts are being recognized.”
The third woman is Mahnaz Javid, who moved to upstate New York in 1969 to attend high school with the hope of continuing on to university—a path that would’ve been impossible in Iran due to her Bahá'í Faith and gender. Mahnaz missed her home and family, but upon returning to Iran for a visit, she was struck by a realization: “I could no longer be ‘unfree’ and a prisoner of an oppressive state that denied me the right to exist.”
So Mahnaz returned to the U.S., and in 1999, established the Mona Foundation to address poverty through education, with a focus on gender equality. Inspired by Mona Mahmudnizhad’s story, Mahnaz named the nonprofit after her.
Today, Mahnaz’s organization works with schools across 15 countries—including the school Ferial founded in Brazil—and has been a Cotopaxi nonprofit partner since 2021.
Now back to the School of the Future (Escola do Futuro) in Manaus, Brazil. Ferial sat down with us to share the powerful story of how she built this institution against all odds—and her secret to transforming communities. She spoke with us in Farsi, with Mahnaz as our translator.
Ferial’s Roots in Shiraz, Iran
Since she was 15 years old, Ferial loved taking children from a nearby orphanage out into nature to play with them. But one day, her school principal warned her to stop visiting the orphanage because she was a Bahá'í.
On her last day of service, a two-year-old girl clung to Ferial, not wanting to see her go. The principal snatched the toddler and “tossed her into the corner like a cat,” as Ferial puts it. This became a defining moment in her life, leading to her decision to leave Iran. “I wanted to find a place to serve in the way my heart guides me,” she remembers.
So, while pregnant with her first child, Ferial and her husband left for Latin America. Nine years after leaving Iran, she landed in Manaus, Brazil, with her husband and two children, ages five and seven.
Troubled Paris of the Tropics
Manaus is a jungle in both senses of the word. The city lies in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, but it’s also a violent metropolis where most have to fight to survive. Nicknamed “Paris of the Tropics” in the 19th century during a rubber boom, the city now serves as the capital of Brazil’s massive State of Amazonas.
“Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world,” explains Flavio Rassekh, who sits on the board of the Association for Cohesive Development of the Amazon (ADCAM), which is the umbrella organization for Escola do Futuro among other programs. “Out of the 20 most dangerous cities in the world, five or six are in Brazil,” he says, “and one of them is Manaus.”
Even during our short conversation with Francinei, an Escola do Futuro teacher, an administrator had to jump off Zoom to address a shoot-out occurring outside the school. A routine situation.
But it’s not only the violence. As Francinei explains, endless injustices and lack of economic equality plague Manaus, too.
The Only Orphanage of Manaus
The first thing Ferial did when she moved to Manaus was scoop up seven children off the streets and bring them home with her. The government had a law that prevented mothers from leaving babies in the hospital, so they would instead abandon them on the streets.
At the time, there were no orphanages in the city, so Ferial established one in her home. Eventually, seven children grew to 40 and they had to find a bigger house to accommodate them all. While she was able to leverage some support from the state, she did this work primarily on her own dime, while parenting her own two kids.
“All our efforts were focused on placing children in homes,” Ferial recalls. She would look for their family or extended family. If they were younger, she would search for someone willing to adopt them. If the kids were older, the odds of adoption were slim, so she would work with the government to find an orphanage elsewhere in Brazil.
Ferial with kids at the orphanage
Seven years after moving to Manaus, Ferial and her family had cared for about 300 children, 30-40 at any given time. Barring any adoption laws requiring cutting ties, she has remained in touch with many of them over the years.
A case in point: four brothers and sisters, who’d witnessed the murder of their parents. “The three-year-old had stopped talking,” Ferial recalls. After two years, she finally found two Italian couples to adopt them, but the terms of the adoption were such that she had to sever all connection with the children.
Ferial had always wondered what happened to these kids—did the four of them stay in touch, despite being split between different homes? Would they be okay? One day, the oldest sent Ferial a Facebook message. “I cannot tell you what an incredible gift it was to me that these children were leading happy lives,” she says. “There were many challenges with the orphanage, but the reward is immeasurably great.”
From Orphanage to School
“I started noticing that as children were growing up, we’d have to find a way to help them fish, instead of continually providing the fish,” Ferial explains.
This realization led Ferial to begin teaching a few kids at the orphanage to read and write. But one day, two little girls showed up and asked if they could join the lesson. The older girl (11 years old) reported that she’d been turned away by her local school because she had no parents.
In Manaus, there was a law that if you weren’t registered for public school by the time you were seven years old, you couldn’t enroll again until you were 14 years old. The 11-year-old girl had missed her window.
“I could not turn her away,” Ferial remembers. But the next day, the little girl had told all her friends on the streets about her lessons. And the day after that, 35 more kids showed up asking for an education.
At first, Ferial refused—how could she take on educating all these kids, while also running the orphanage? But the children began crying, pleading with her to teach them to read and write.
“I couldn’t help myself,” Ferial says. And so, her living room became a classroom, where during the evening hours, she taught 35 children between ages seven and 11 to write.
Francinei at a graduation ceremony
A Life Transformed: Francinei
One of those 35 children that showed up at Ferial’s door that day is Francinei, and he will tell you that Ferial saved his life.
Francinei grew up squatting on illegally occupied land in Manaus. He explains that the path of least resistance for a boy like him was to become a servant to a drug dealer, who knew it didn’t take much to lure poor kids into a life of violence.
“Many of my friends from those days unfortunately passed away,” Francinei reflects. “They died because of violence.” As a self-professed “rebel at heart,” he likely would have met a similar fate if it weren’t for the opportunity to learn from Ferial, who was patient with him even at his most mischievous.
Francinei with his son Vittorio, who also attended Escola do Futuro
“The school saved my life,” Francinei says.
Not only did the school save his life—it is his life. The Association for Cohesive Development of the Amazon (ADCAM) that Ferial established grew to offer a K-12 school as well as teacher training through its Tahera College, both of which Francinei took advantage of. Tahera has since closed, because the Brazilian government began offering teacher training.
A clip from our interview with Francinei and ADCAM staff
Today, Francinei is a high school teacher at Escola do Futuro. “There is nothing more dignified for me than to be a teacher,” Francinei explains. “What drives me is giving others what I have received and seeing the eyes of the kids shining.”
Incredibly, Francinei’s story is not unique. Nearly 30% of educators in the Manaus area were trained through ADCAM. And nearly all the teachers at Escola do Futoro are alumni, like him. Many of whom can likely relate to Francinei’s feeling that “the school is part of my life and my life is part of the story of the school.”
ADCAM's Escola do Futuro
From Living Room Lessons to K-12 School
The first major milestone in Ferial’s journey toward opening a school was a building donation from a friend—but the school was not built overnight. “It really took 12 years to start a K-12,” Ferial recalls. “Every year, we added a classroom.”
It helped that Ferial had experience setting up schools. Not only did Ferial and her husband operate an orphanage in Manaus, but they’d also been simultaneously creating access to education for 36 Indigenous villages experiencing extreme poverty around the area.
But back in the city, with Escola do Futuro, Ferial wanted to establish more than a school. “These children needed more than reading and writing,” she says. “They needed family support.” So she created a three-part pedagogical philosophy for ADCAM (Escola do Futuro’s umbrella institution): 1) academic excellence; 2) physical wellbeing; and 3) a sense of responsibility cultivated in the student to care for themselves and their community.
Outdoor play is an important part of Escola do Futuro
A Holistic Approach to Education
With a scope that goes well beyond reading and writing, Escola do Futuro gets creative in how it achieves its three-part mission. A few examples include an apprenticeship program with vocational training and connections with potential employers, like local businesses. Student scholarships. An emphasis on extracurriculars. And student home visits to help address family issues, which was crucial during the pandemic, when many students lost a parent in the hard-hit area of Manaus.
Not only does ADCAM support education, but as Ferial explains, “Every child develops the capacity to serve and contribute to the betterment of their communities.” Francinei calls the impact of ADCAM upon the community “immeasurable.” “What is violence?” Francinei reflects. “Violence is a lack of opportunity. A lack of education.”
Today, in Manaus—and throughout Brazil—ADCAM serves as an emblem for how to approach education and community transformation.
“We have witnessed the critical role of a holistic education in addressing the needs of the community,” says Mahnaz Javid, the founder & CEO of the Mona Foundation. “Whether it's girls’ empowerment, women’s empowerment, elderly service, or Indigenous education. Once you address the root cause, it becomes an instrument of ever-advancing development.”
A clip from our interview with Ferial
The Baker’s Son & the Bicycle
You can provide the fish. You can teach them to catch the fish. But Ferial’s approach to serving and transforming her community doesn’t stop there.
As a Bahá'í woman, Ferial’s worldview is this: We must embrace the poor as people with incredible capacity, who just happen to be poverty stricken. Therefore, a mindset of low self-worth is just as dangerous as hunger or illiteracy.
So, Ferial’s ultimate goal was to create a change in mindset, allowing these children to see themselves “as people of capacity who could do whatever they wanted.” And the most impactful way to do that? Through service.
“Service allows the children to feel that they can accomplish something,” Ferial explains. “It helps them find the dignity and potential they deserve.”
This is why community service is at the heart of ADCAM’s approach. There are countless stories showing how this works. Like the 12-year-old from an impoverished family who noticed a woman caring for other people’s children without any food to give them. He called upon his community to assemble a box of food and deliver it to her house.
Afterward, the boy shared with Ferial: “As I had this box of food on my shoulders to deliver to this woman, I felt for the first time that I was a dignified human being, worthy of respect.”
Then there is the story of the sleepy baker’s son, who couldn’t stay awake in class. Ferial met with his parents and learned that this six-year-old boy was waking up at three or four in the morning to deliver his father’s bread around the neighborhood. By the time he had to go to school, he hadn’t had a chance to eat breakfast and was exhausted.
“What can we do to help you?” Ferial asked. “If I had a bicycle,” the boy replied, “I could do my deliveries much faster and go home and have breakfast before school.”
But rather than just buy him a bicycle, Ferial wanted everyone at Escola do Futuro to feel like part of the solution. So they undertook various projects with the students to raise enough money to buy the bicycle.
“The idea was not to just give him the bicycle,” Ferial says, “but to empower everyone to be part of the support and service to the child in need.”
And that is Ferial Farzin’s secret to community transformation.
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