A letter to the volunteers

Dear all who offer your time and skills to do volunteer work within the refugee community,

First of all, I am proud of you and of being part of this massive welcome and support movement! But next to that, I have noticed some challenges.

More and more often I hear complaints about how difficult is to work in “this environment” — you feel  chaos, nothing is well planned, predictable, people come and go, people do not focus on the tasks, you feel lost in translation or totally “awkward” for not being able to ask the simplest questions. There are translators, but never enough and even if there are, they bring with them the notion of artificiality. You feel foreign, lost, out of space. You feel tired from noise — the mix of many emotions and languages.

Have you noticed something? This could very well be a description of the daily experiences of the newcomers arriving in Europe.

A drawing made by a woman in Tempelhof shelter.

I understand your frustration, but precisely this frustration is a blessed feeling — maybe the only key to understand the refugees’ faith. You may not know how it feels to have your house bombed, your son kidnapped by ISIS, your hopes for the future  stolen by the united regimes. You may not know death, poverty, hunger, or the extreme fear of crossing the ocean on an overcrowded rubber boat, but you can get to understand and co-experience the anxiety and frustration, this deeply disturbing noise, chaos, lack of privacy and control, culture shock, uncertainty… This makes  for a bonding experience in the most paradoxical sense.

Fortunately, you have also got the power to create positive common experiences — joy, friendship, the pride of creating something useful or beautiful, of learning and expanding boundaries, of feeling peaceful in silence.

However my experience shows that this can only happen with time. People who have lost so much do not open their hearts so easily; too much pain is in there. They may smile to you and politely join in games and other activities, but this does not  mean that the relationship is healing the wounds just yet. Even worse, when you just show up once, or randomly, even when the time was great, you create confusion and the notion of abandonment. Not always, of course. Some people have learnt not to care about the new faces that constantly change.

Once you build even a little attachment, you give hope — the hope that there is someone who cares about them. And you prove it by coming back, by staying for coffee, by becoming friends on facebook and asking “how are you?” Even… even when the language or culture barrier is frustrating. By coming regularly, you bring rhythm, predictability and familiarity into an otherwise chaotic and strange environment.

I do understand that you yourself may be in a transitional moment of life, you may not know what you seek and volunteering is just one more experiment. You have the right to check things out for yourself, but please remember that you are the privileged one, who has a choice, who has power to abandon, who comes home to their friends or family while other people stay in the shelter waiting in anxiety and a perceived vacuum. Would you like to be someone else’s experiment?

Yes, go volunteer if you really have the time and openness to get attached!

If you discover that it is not for you, that is ok as well, but please respect the people by coming to say goodbye. Many of them have had to leave their homes and families without saying this important word, or they have lost their beloved ones without the chance for a loving goodbye. Goodbye matters. Goodbye gives closure.

I write this because I’ve made these mistakes before, not being aware of the harm I caused by being a “one time stand” volunteer. I remember feeling pretty good about myself. But now, knowing people living in the shelters more deeply, I get to understand what each human encounter with a local really means.

If you struggle with your self-esteem and ability to appreciate life, it is ok to admit that volunteering heals your wounds too — you quickly realize how much you have, how much you matter… But to heal your own wounds you also need time and attention.

With love,

Hania, a volunteer since 1998.

Hania Hakiel is the manager of the Give Something Back to Berlin Open Art Shelter.