Thursday, January 31, 2013

Our volunteer Mary on volunteering in a refugee camp in Belgium.

I was able to take part in July 2012 in a short term international volunteer project in Yvoir, Belgium, living and working at Red Cross centre hosting asylum seekers from many countries, with 7 other volunteers, for three weeks. There were about a 120 residents, comprising singles, minors and families. Some were new arrivals, and others had been awaiting a decision on their asylum claim for years.

Our work was divided into two parts. In the mornings, we worked on creating a video that would explain the rules of the centre to new arrivals without using language. This is so that the video would be useful to individuals from any nationality and without the language skills when they arrive in Belgium.

In small groups, we spoke to staff members who highlighted the most important rules of living within the centre. We then started writing scenarios for each rule, to be shot for the video. We then spoke to residents and invited them to take part in the video, playing various roles.

Creating this video allowed us to interact with the adult residents of the centre, find out where they were from, their previous ways of life, and the difficulties they face as asylum seekers in Belgium and as residents within the centre. 

There were many funny moments and many shared laughs during the filming. The residents enjoyed feeling that they were being an active part of the centre, taking part in something that would be useful to future arrivals, and also interacting with us. We were often invited for traditional meals in their kitchens. It was humbling that despite their difficult circumstances, they made time for us, to tell us about the centre, about their lives, cook and eat with us, and even play sport games together.

In the afternoons, we spent time playing and co-ordinating activities with the children of the centre. It was the summer school holidays, and with Yvoir being a small village with very little to do, and their parents being financially restricted, I felt that the children really appreciated having us in the centre. The weather was lovely most of the time, so we played outdoors; many games that brought back childhood memories. We also organised a bread making workshop, parties, and a sports competition day. The children were very energetic and loved to play with us, regardless of whether or not it was officially playtime! They were very sad to see us leave the centre, and took the time to make us individual drawings and presents which they surprised us with on the last day. 

We were a very close group of 8 volunteers, and all got on extremely well. This helped make the experience much more enjoyable; as we cooked and shared our meals together, did our food shopping together, and went on weekend excursions to Brussels and Bruges. There was a real group and community spirit amongst us, and also amongst the residents of the centre as a whole.

The experience was an amazing one for me. As somebody who arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker at the age of 15, I am very much aware of the injustices of the system and the isolating effect it has on people. I wanted to take part in this project to understand how the system works in another European country; to meet new people and challenge myself, as for a long time I had been isolated; to contribute a little to the understanding and awareness of what it means to be a refugee; and most importantly, to help make a difference to the experiences of the residents in the Yvoir centre. I felt that I was able to do all of these things, and now more than ever before feel that I really do want to use my freedom, my education, and my awareness of refugee issues to help create a better world.

I am so grateful for Concordia and the partner organization in Belgium JAVVA for giving me the opportunity to join this project: without their support and kindness, I would not have been able to live this experience. 

Mary, Summer 2012

Teaching English in Ukraine - 2013

Together we are many
Barney Smith
International Volunteer Project, Ukraine 2012

It was another sweltering evening at Boiko children’s summer camp, the site of my seventeenth international volunteer project. The volunteers had gathered together with some teenagers from the camp. We were all asked to say something in Ukrainian. When it was my turn, “Together we are many” was the first phrase which came to mind. A line from a song which Ukraine’s revolutionaries would sing on Kiev’s Independence Square in late 2004, it had stuck in my mind. These four words summed up for me the spirit of solidarity and cooperation so important in international volunteer projects.

There were four other volunteers: Karoliina from Finland, Laura from Spain, Nina from Slovenia and Sonya from the Czech Republic. Our group was ably managed by Ukrainian leader Katya. Our work consisted of assisting the teachers in their English lessons in the morning and jointly organising an English club in the late afternoon. Depending on the teacher and group, the lessons tended to be more academic and the club focused more on games. We gave PowerPoint presentations about our country in the lessons and also, one evening, to the other volunteers. As native speakers of five different languages, we made the most of the linguistic opportunities which presented themselves and did our best to brush up our knowledge of each other’s languages.

The volunteers on Kharkov’s Freedom Square

During our two weeks at Boiko we participated fully in the life of the camp. There were sporting activities organised for the whole camp including football between the teenagers in one team and the staff and volunteers in the other. Most evenings there were stage performances given by the children involving drama, music and dance. One evening the six of us judged the talent show. The quality of the performances and the hard work and dedication on display were deeply humbling and moving. I was reminded of these performances weeks later when I was back in the UK listening to a radio broadcast about the Olympics. When the discussion turned to the countries which had performed better than their population size or national wealth would suggest likely, it came as no surprise to me that Ukraine was among them. 

The volunteers take to the stage at Boiko summer camp
 Our free time was also memorable. The camp was situated on spacious grounds next to a small lake and so there were ample opportunities to keep fit, including by swimming and running. Most days, usually after the English club, we went to the shop and to the restaurant just outside the gates of the camp where we would set up our “office”, as we called it. There we benefitted from the wi-fi connection both for doing lesson and club preparation and keeping in touch with friends and family. The staff certainly relished our regular custom; we used to joke that the more we ordered the better the service and faster the internet connection! We also had two memorable trips to Kharkov, where Katya and her father showed us around Ukraine’s second largest city. We enjoyed lunch at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant evocatively named Hut of the Pot Belly on the first trip and, by contrast, picnicked in a city park on the second.
During the project I often had a sense of déjà-vu, when I thought back to the projects in which I had participated in Russian summer camps years earlier. The language spoken at Boiko was that of Ukraine’s larger neighbour, so the terminology used, much of it relating to the army, was familiar: children’s groups were called “detachments” and lights out in the evening was known as “retreat”. Yet there were also differences: some of the children I met in Siberia in the late 1990s had never met a foreigner and used to marvel at my (very modest!) digital watch and film camera, while at Boiko some of the children had already travelled extensively abroad and were completely at ease with modern technology. 

After the project, the volunteers took the opportunity to see more of Ukraine. For my part, I spent a week travelling west across the country before entering Poland. The linguistic divide between the east and west of Ukraine and, below the surface, the political divide, were stark. As I approached the Polish border I found Russian less and less widely spoken. In the west of the country I also saw many posters denouncing the imprisonment of former Prime Minister and heroine of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Timoshenko. Until these linguistic and political issues are resolved, Ukraine will surely continue to be seen by many as a somewhat troubled country, yet one with great potential, hospitable people and astonishing natural beauty.

As I begin my eighth year teaching in Kuwait, an oasis of calm in a region itself rocked by revolution, I often think back to my international volunteer project near Ukraine’s eastern border. I think of the people with whom I volunteered and worked. I think of how together we were many.

Group leader Katya with Ukrainian children at English club


There’s been a lot of talk about national pride in 2012, but what made me truly proud to say I was British this summer wasn’t the Olympics or the Diamond Jubilee: it was the incredible welcome given to the seven international volunteers on the project I co-ordinated for Concordia at Trythall School in July. Volunteering, even in this country, is such a different experience from visiting an area as a tourist, and I was touched by the generosity of everyone in the local community, from the staff at the school to the local residents who invited sweaty volunteers into their homes for hot showers. 

Before the project, I was looking forward to making new friends from around the world, and to gaining a sense of satisfaction from seeing a real difference in the work we did at the school, developing the outside environment. I didn’t expect that we’d also be invited to join a school trip to the famous Minack Theatre, have a group cameo role as a giant in the school play, or be given a surfing lesson by the headteacher! 

This was my first time as a co-ordinator, and it’s a very different perspective from volunteering on a similar project – more demanding, certainly, but also with the potential to be even more rewarding. It’s certainly an experience I hope to repeat! 

Kitty, Summer 2012

Kitty with the group of international volunteers she co-ordinated

The international volunteers during the school play
Kitty took part in our co-ordinator training in 2010. Although she could not take up co-ordinating before now, she took up the exciting challenge of co-ordinating in 2012. This was a brand new project based in a beautiful part of Cornwall, Newmill near Penzance. She worked with a team of 7 international volunteers and a co co-ordinator Richard. They had one of the best two weeks of sunshine on the project to help redevelop the grounds of Trythall School.
The training dates for the next Co-ordinator training are 10th – 13th April 2014 in Shoreham by Sea. To book a place click here or contact Francesca Corney on or call 01273 422535