By Ghalia Farzat
I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit many countries from Europe to the Americas to the Middle East to Asia to little islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I have seen many different cultures and interacted with people of all backgrounds. However, out of all this travel, two of my dearest trips are volunteer trips. I have had the chance to volunteer in Nepal and in Indonesia. Both of these trips were done with Reach Out To Asia (ROTA), a not-for-profit organization based in Doha, Qatar where I currently live.
Of course it’s very important when volunteering abroad that you ensure your efforts are really helping locally and not actually hurting the community because some volunteerism abroad does more harm than good. Read RainTee’s previous blog Keep the Change for an example of how good intentions can hurt locally and how you can ensure your make a positive impact during your travels.
My trips to Nepal and Indonesia were both to support schools in rural areas of these two countries. Each trip was ten days long where we worked every day for the full school day. We would teach classes on the topics requested by the school (English, Music, Computer Skills, Environment, Sports, Cultural Exchange). In Nepal, we also set up a computer lab of four computer donated by one of the ROTA sponsors. It was very gratifying to see the look of satisfaction and pride on their faces when they typed their names for the first time using a computer keyboard! The class congregated around the table where we opened up one computer case to show them the internal parts and explain the function of each part. Our approach was to include less theory and more interactive two-way learning. We would bring with us maps and globes and would show the students the countries of our nationalities, and the counties that we live in (could be different). Their cute little faces will light up in a smile of surprise when we tell them that we got on a plane for 9 or more hours to come see them. Our objective was to show these children/students a glimpse from the world beyond their little village, to demonstrate how we as human beings have more similarities than differences, and plant a seed in their minds that what they dream they can reach.
While there isn’t a blue book or a red book to summarize the wisdom that one needs to know before embarking on such life changing activity, here I highlight five tips that will help you in your next volunteer trip.:
- Be Flexible: To enjoy the trip be flexible in your expectation. Do not expect that you will live the same quality of life that you are used to. Take this as an opportunity to discover and live a new experience. Take it all in and appreciate that there are people who live this type of life on daily basis. Equally true, appreciate that there are people who wish they could be in your place having the same experience and this would always be me!
- Make friends: Whether you are volunteering in a school, a hospital or in community, make friends with a nurse, a teacher or a student. They would love to have a friend in another part of the world and it is always interesting to check on your friends and see how their lives have progressed. You can make a greater impact if you keep an open channel that can continue to make a difference beyond the temporary duration of your stay.
- Stay in touch. The world now allows for communication beyond our wildest dreams. You will be surprised that even in the most improvised areas, people know about Facebook and twitter. If not, there is always the good old email, and if not, send a post card or a letter every now and then. Ask how they are doing; ask about school or their health or that business that you helped them start. Remind them of the things that you discussed with them or taught them. Remind them of their dreams and potential or see how they see their dreams have changed. Or simply, just ask how their daily life is going.
- Learn the language: This in no way means that you need to be fluent so relax J. However, just learning simple phrases can make a big difference and bring down the initial barrier. It makes a big impact to be able to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in the local language. Other helpful phrases are “ How are you” “ What is your name” “My name is” “Goodbye” and “I’m sorry”. This shows that you care and are personally interested in the people. Before you know it, you will find that they too will make the effort to learn from you and want to speak your language!
- Keep perspective: Be aware that whereas water and electricity and Internet may be taken for granted where you live, they may not be as ubiquitous where you are going. Overlooking this fact may come as a disappointment in your volunteer experience. Do not let it. Live and appreciate every experience. The worst thing you can do is spending your time complaining about the food, weather and other marginal things compared to the magical experience you have at hand.
- And here is a bonus one: Prepare to learn: Just because you are going to country that is described as “developing country” does not mean that you have more knowledge than the people there. It may mean that you have knowledge in other areas but you will be surprised at what you will learn… be it from the guide, the driver, the people in the local community and also the children. Go with an open mind and an open heart.
My personal experience has been that after a volunteer experience you will come to appreciate the true essence and true meaning of the essentials vs. luxury. I was having this conversation with someone and they proposed a $3000 handbag as a luxury. My counter argument was that running water when you are standing in the shower with soap all over you is what I consider luxury! You will cherish all the relationships that you have made. I always miss the girls and boys that I met in Indonesia and Nepal. I wonder if they are progressing towards their dreams and hope that one day I will see them as the professors, musicians, fashion designers, sport players and presidents that they aspire to become and very well have the intelligence to become.
So go ahead locate a country and get your passport ready… where is your next destination going to be? Read my next post for some ideas J