Volunteer Abroad: Reflexions & Conclusion

News from Morocco: The warm sunrays light up the alleys of the Medina. The scents of olives, spices and cow’s feet travel the streets. I walk from my lovely homestay through the alleys towards my work place. Teaching the kids in the morning, empowering the women in the afternoon. However, I’m not sure who’s gaining more from this: them or me. I’m already learning the basics of Arabic, how to cook Moroccan dishes, how to make a djellaba… The prayer chanting at 5:30 in the morning at the mosque nearby inspire my dreams. I am so fortunate  to be here. Insha’Allah! (Facebook post from 9/01/2013)

The day has come. Too fast, too soon. I was getting comfortable with my volunteering work, my host family, the smell in the alleys, the call to prayer at 5 in the morning, then I had to leave.

Farewells to the Women

The language barrier, altered culture, different traditions and religion made the journey challenging, but interesting and enlightening. To see the progress that in only a few weeks we made was significantly noteworthy. It surely wasn’t much, oh no, but you can’t change the world in a few days. We didn’t manage to teach languages, however, the progress came from the exchanges and interactions amongst all of us, women. We connected with them by showing truthful enthusiasm in their lives and environment, and the interest was mutual. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what colour of skin we had, what language we spoke, what country we came from, what religion we believed in. It was the sympathetic feelings of solidarity, recognition, and togetherness that brought us all together. I realized that unitedly we made it all possible. We empowered each other. There is still a long way to go, but with the help and support of following volunteers, these beautiful women will grow into flourishing human beings.

After exchanging email addresses, clicking some photographs, and drying some tears, we said goodbyes. I left the blank booklets and pens on the table, with hopes to inspire them to learn furthermore. I accepted the kiss on the cheek but also reached for a hug, and I held them all with all my love.

Farewells to the Children

The class prematurely finished that day and the kids were brought to the courtyard. The teachers put on music and, while holding hands in a circle, we sang, swung, jumped, skipped and spun on the dance floor. It was a full hour of festivities, filled with laughs, giggles and beaming smiles. The children were too young to understand the reality of the event: they had no idea we were leaving. All they wanted was to be part of an image clicked by my camera, their toothless smiles and bright shiny eyes ready to be photographed.

The teachers brought us to the back room. There was a table with empty glasses and a box. “Tea?” I asked. They shook their heads. They opened the box which was filled with baked goods. They poured thick milk in the glasses. “This is for you. To thank you.”

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I was overwhelmed by all this devotion and appreciation. I felt like the worst teacher and didn’t believe I deserved such a celebration.

“Of course you do. You were one of our best volunteers. It’s not about the techniques or the rules that are followed from a book. It’s about you, your heart to heart presence with the children and your genuine connection with each one of them. You influenced and inspired them. They looked up to you. Believe us, we know our children.”

Indeed. I’ve never realized any of that. I felt like those teachers, and those women and even those kids taught me way more than I taught any of them.

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Picture taken on my last day at work with the children, the Dar Attilaba teachers and IVHQ coordinator.

The teachers also made me promise to come back and stay with them, and teach their kids. It was hard to hold the tears and I could see theirs reaching the edges of their almond shaped eyes.

I hugged the children goodbye, without being able to explain that this would be the last. Those kids that once were so challenging to teach. Although at the end, I saw them as my students. The ones that looked up to me eager to learn. The ones that get so excited when I reached papers out of my bag for them to colour. The ones whose eyes sparkle as they see PlayDoh for the first time. The ones that held my hand while a story was read. The ones that ran into my arms and gave me the most sincere kiss on the forehead.

Conclusion

This first volunteering work in Morocco was indeed one of the richest and most rewarding experiences of my life. Not only did I gain a better cultural understanding of a country, being exposed to a new language, religion and environment, but I also built strong ties with inspiring and remarkable individuals. Volunteering abroad has met my expectations in many ways: I did get confused, disoriented and uncomfortable. I did think: “what have I gotten myself into.” And I’m glad I did. You can only grow and learn when you take risks and accept challenges. And once you start thinking outside the box and work past your comfort zone, you get a true sense of accomplishment and identity. This mind-opening experience not only gave me the chance to change others, but it mostly changed me. As well as having a positive and meaningful impact on the community, this volunteering work experience gave me a new perspective on life and gave me a sense of purpose. It also motivated me to engage myself furthermore into developing communities and continue to help others in need: To volunteer, to give back and to receive, and to be involved as a global citizen.

Rabat, Morocco, 2013: Where I have left a piece of my heart, along with a footprint behind.

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Orientation

Departure

I woke up to an appetizing warm meal with cheese and bread waiting on my table tray in front of me. “Rouge ou blanc?” asked the flight attendant from Air France. “Juste de l’eau, merci,” I answered. “Madame, il vous faut du vin avec votre repas,” he insisted. “Rouge alors, merci.” I was on my third and last connecting flight towards Morocco, spoiled with a nice meal and wine and a beautiful pink sunset over a sea of fluffy clouds.

Arrival

“Bienvenue au Maroc!” saluted the immigration officer. When I got off the plane in Rabat, Salah, an employee of ICLS, partner of IVHQ waited for me at the arrival gate with a welcome sign. Along with an other volunteer, he explained us that he was going to be our in-land coordinator and then chauffeured us to our designated host families.

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Orientation

The first day was reserved for the orientation. Hyat, our host ‘mother’, cabbed us to the ILCS placement in the district of Sale. ILCS works in partnership with IVHQ to offer the volunteer services in Rabat.We met our coordinators and fellow volunteers of different placements. The day was spent to discuss about the importance of volunteering, to share our expectations and to talk about the benefits of the volunteer work. They also educated us on the norms and customs of the country, as well as a crash course on religion and traditions.

After a very informative and educative orientation, Salah took the group for a tour of the city. He pointed at the location and use of banks, transportation systems, cellphone services. We also had lunch at a traditional Moroccan restaurant where we all experienced for the first time their famous tagine.

En Route to Our Work Placement

Our work placement happened to be centrally located in the same medina as our homestay. We followed our host ‘mother’ for a short walk through the tight alleys, passing merchants setting up their stalls for business and cats enjoying the morning quietness.

Dar Attaliba

When Lisa and I arrived at Dar Attaliba, we entered the walls of the medina through a small wooden door and walked into a bright courtyard. Dar Attaliba  is a female student house that offers academic support for local women and young girls affected by poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and/or violence. We noticed 2 levels around the courtyard. There was three rooms at the lowest floor: one with toddlers, one with preschoolers, and one with women. A curved staircase stairs led upstairs to a room reserved for teaching and another one for sewing and brodering activities.

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Meeting the Women

There was a small group of women sitting around a table. We could easily differentiate the participants from the educators, the latter wearing long white coats. I shook hands with each one of them, and received a timid kiss on both cheeks, as tradition it seemed.  The women were very timid and reserved and their eyes were locked on their project with only a shy smile once in a while to acknowledge our presence. I soon realized that none of the women could speak French or English. And unfortunately my Arabic was embarrassingly nonexistent. The language barrier put us into an immediate discomfort and awkwardness state. I knew right then that this experience was going to be one of the most challenging, hence the most worth it.

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Meeting the Children

We were sitting at a low table and on tiny chairs between children aged from 2 to 8. Eyes were all on us and once again, we were confused at exactly what role to play. The ‘occasional childcare’ listed in the description of tasks didn’t seem to be sufficient for our understanding. Were we supposed to assist the teachers? Were we supposed to bring teaching material? Were we supposed to stand up and actually teach? I never taught before, only swimming lessons while in my teens, but in a class? And what language do they speak? What do they know? How to teach a class that has such a large age difference? And why is the whole class staring at us impatiently waiting for instructions? My discomfort got interrupted while I glimpsed at Lisa whose ‘get me outta here’ look in her eyes couldn’t hide any longer behind her uncertain smile. Her tall body was cramped on her miniature chair and she had a ‘please save me’ sign on her forehead. I started giggling and soon enough decompressed. That scene gave me the chance to breathe. Let’s do this!

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I saw a black board on the wall. I stood up and took a piece of chalk. I had absolutely no idea on what to say or do next, but I accepted the challenge!

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Volunteer Abroad: Preparation

Think about how you can help and what you want to get out of the experience

Volunteering might have been part of your ”list” for a while now. The urge to save the world, play a hero, get recognized, tell a great story. But seriously. Why do you do it? How can you help? What do you want to get from the experience? Volunteering isn’t just a thing to try and say “checked, I’ve done my part”. It goes well beyond that. There are a lot of people in need all over our world and they require people committed in helping them find a brighter light. Most of us, literate and educated people, we are fortunate enough to come from a decent family, a decent country, decent government. If I find the time and money to travel and enjoy myself in developing countries, I will take the time to learn and help with the tools I have behind the scenes of less fortunate countries.

I am travelling to Morocco to volunteer with women. Being an Islamic country, women of Morocco are facing everyday challenges such as poverty, violence, illiteracy and unemployment. My goal is to help improving literacy levels by teaching French and English, assisting with professional development and providing support to female victims of domestic violence.

Even if I won’t change the world during my short stay, I will provide the best I can, if only to see progress and change in one person.

Sign up

There are several volunteer programs running worldwide. Volunteering tend to be expensive, so a wise search is necessary. I opted for IVHQ, a program providing aid and assistance to developing countries while increasing education and  awareness.

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Here is an interesting link of an article published on the Verge Magazine written by Jim Carson regarding choosing a volunteer program:

http://www.vergemagazine.com/articles/volunteer-abroad/volunteer-abroad-how-to-choose-a-volunteer-programme.html

Get documents

After signing up, you will get a booklet of information regarding the program, the preparation, the stay, the activities, etc. It is important to read it thoroughly as important information is provided.

An important document to get is your criminal clearance record check. Since you will be working with people, probably children as well, making sure that you are cleared of any criminal activities is necessary for the process of your application.

It is usually your responsibility to get a Visa. Do your research and get one if required.

Make photocopies of all your travel documents (passport, ID, flights, insurances, Visa).  Leave one copy to a friend or family member at home. Take the spare one with you.

Learn about the country

Where is it located? What is the religion? What is the clothing and culture like? What are the customs? What kind of food? What is the weather like? What is the currency? How do you greet someone? How do you thank someone? You don’t need to know everything in detail as you will explore and also learn on your own once there. But there is some essential information to know before landing. Arriving with a basic knowledge of the country would be beneficial for you and be grandly appreciated by the locals.

See a doctor

Make sure you are in a healthy condition to travel abroad. Have him/her update your vaccines and inform you on the ones you need for the country where you will be volunteering.

Pack

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You are almost ready to go! Get a travel backpack and fill it with only the essentials. Don’t pack too much. You can always purchase the missing items in your host country. That way you also invest in a developing country.

  • Clothes: know what are the appropriate clothes to wear and pack accordingly. Some people tend to presume all countries are westernized and there are no customs to follow since they are on vacation. WRONG! Respect the religion, the customs, and the people. Blend in. Also learn about the daily and nightly temperatures and weather. That might prevent you some surprises.
  •  First aid/medical kit: I like to bring a few bandaids, polysporin, grapefruit extract (natural antiseptic, antiviral and anti-fungal agent and excellent for healing of wounds), vitamin supplements and antihistamine tablets.
  • Toiletries: your everyday use.
  • Presents for hosts and children: it is nice to bring a present from home to your host family. Nothing expensive, just a little thought. For the children, anything from pens, stickers, chalk, books, games will make them happy. I usually always bring a few items for the local kids, however, you have to be very careful with that action. A lot of developing countries, including Morocco, have a rising problem of pedophilia. Kids have developed a facility to approach foreigners and offering presents to kids in the street will not help the problem. Instead, save the presents for the time you will be invited by a family to have tea or dinner at their house (of course always be vigilant from who you accept these offers).
  • Cameras: From DLSR to GoPro, to point and shoot to iPhone. Bring enough memory cards. Perhaps a memory stick to keep backups.
  • Music: for the lonely times, or to start the party!
  • Reading material: I always carry a travel diary to document my experiences, thoughts and progress. Our memory can only retain so much information and events, that way when on paper it will bring you back someday. A travelling book like Lonely Planet could be of good help as well. Don’t forget your pen.
  • Important documents: Of course, don’t forget your passport, ID, cards, flight information, insurances, etc. 

Get excited!

Try to get everything organized at least one day before your departure. At least, I try. There are so many things to think about that it is easy to let the stress take over the emotions. I like to keep the last day stress free and start to get excited.

I’m leaving tomorrow for Morocco. And yes, I am excited 🙂