Claudiaexpat shares a reflection on voluntary work abroad, and some memories…
Whenever you hear about the advantages of taking some time off from your career to become a trailing spouse, voluntary work is always on the list. And with good reason. Voluntary work is the best way to get in touch with the local community and to have an insight into the culture, something accompanying partners usually have to fight for, since they do not have an office or working space outside their homes in the new country. Voluntary work is often a great opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge that can be useful in future professional projects—or for you as a human being. Last but not least, it gives a sense of structure to your days, and allows you to meet new people.
A few days ago I met someone who has been living in Jakarta for three years, and amongst other things, she told me that she volunteers once a week at a refuge for street kids, and she loves it. I felt a pang of melancholy. Now that I no longer have children to take care of, I am experiencing an unexpected and unfamiliar increase in my work, which does not leave me enough time to go out and volunteer. And this makes me appreciate even more the beautiful experiences I had in previous postings.
In particular I remember with fondness the one in Honduras and those in Jerusalem. In Honduras I got in touch with an association of spouses of officials working in international organisations, and despite my initial scepticism (they were all older than me, well-off ladies, with big houses and cars and lots of domestic help) this turned out to be one of the most important human experiences in my life.
We helped the Paediatric Burnt Unit of the biggest public hospital in town in a variety of ways: we spent time with children suffering from burns, and with their families; we bought medicines when an urgent case came in and the hospital did not have the budget to buy expensive and uncommon pharmaceuticals, we even rebuilt and equipped an empty area to turn it into a space where children could play and do their rehabilitation exercises.
It was an amazing time, that brought me close to a world of misery and desperation—most children got burnt because they were left home alone, or because their parents were too busy trying to make ends meet, or too tired to take care of their children after an inhuman working day—but also into a world of incredible humanity and solidarity. I met fantastic nurses and doctors who really cared about their little patients and were doing the impossible to help them overcome their sad conditions. I learnt a lot about burns, rehabilitation, drugs, AIDS (at one point we were helping children with AIDS), and the ins and outs of the health system. I have rarely felt as useful as when I was meeting my group once a month, to plan what needed to be done to help the hospital improve its standards for the children.
The first experience in Jerusalem was as rewarding as the one in Tegucigalpa, though I was working only with the beneficiaries and had no say nor contact with the administration of a big convent that hosted a group of abandoned disabled adults. These people, who had all sorts of disabilities, from the slightest to the most serious, relied on volunteers to be taken out to see a bit of city life. Every Wednesday I would go there, help them with breakfast, entertain them a bit and then, with other volunteers, we would set off for a long tour in the Old City. I have vivid memories of the feeling of warmth that gripped me when I walked through ancient streets holding hands with one or the other, greeting the shopkeepers, talking—or otherwise trying to communicate—with the folks I was taking out. Then we all sat and had a snack in the Christian Quarter, thanks to a wonderful grocery store keeper, who would always give us biscuits, drinks and chips. When the season was right, we took them to the swimming pool or to collect olives—I got so close to some of them.
The second experience was more useful to me from a professional point of view, but just as rich from a human one. A friend of mine who had been coaching the staff of a centre for young disabled people in Bethlehem had to leave, and asked me to replace her. I was about to complete my training as a coach, and thought I would give it a try. It turned out that the team was satisfied with my work, and I quickly grew close both to them and to the clients, whom I would meet briefly when I arrived for my coaching session and before they left. Through the coaching, I got to know so many things about both the Palestinian culture and the situation in general, and I became friends with some of them.
These are the moments that spring to mind when I think of voluntary work, but of course there was also the time in Angola when I volunteered to teach English to young people at the Angolan Red Cross and at the first class I found myself with…74 students! Or the work I did with a group of determined women in Peru to repatriate a young South African lady who had been convicted on charge of drug smuggling, and later pardoned because in prison she had a stroke and remained partially paralyzed. Or the help I gave to manage a street children’s association website in Peru, or to correct the subtitles of a Palestinian movie on the difficult situation of marriage for Jerusalemites and Palestinians in the West Bank.
I have always been pushed by two components that are of primary importance for me: helping others and getting to know my host culture as deeply as possible. And while giving my time abroad a rich meaning, I have grown as a person through experiencing the difficult conditions of many, and especially through feeling the universal power of solidarity and support.