This week’s reading list is a little sparse, on account of the fact that I’ve discovered a bit of a gap in the coverage of travel writing (or at the least, travel writing that is free on the internet for me to read). Where’s the gap? Politics.
Budapest is a city I can’t properly describe. It is a place that somehow simultaneously has something that almost everyone will find enjoyable, and destroys all of your expectations.
It’s the middle of October, and I am on a train snaking its way along the Orava River in Northern Slovakia. I am about four hours into a five-hour train ride from Bratislava to the village of Podbiel. What’s in Podbiel? Apparently, proximity to the Western Tatra mountain range and a great deal of outdoor activities, as well as beautifully preserved heritage houses. I am going, however, because my maternal grandfather was born in Podbiel in 1911. I’m going to go further into why I decided to take the trip out to this place, but I have held one of the less rational reasons for a few years now.
Travel is an experience that is paradoxically personal and constantly shared. From looking at so many different travel blogs and social media posts, as well as from talking with other travelers, I have noticed that many people have the idea that there is one “real” or “authentic” way to travel, and try to convince others of the same. A lot of people that I met seemed to labor under the idea that if you aren’t filling a certain set of criteria when you visit a country or city that you might as well have not been there at all. Yet almost all of these people have hilariously different ideas of how that particular way looks.
Most people who have approached me about my traveling experiences express the most interest in volunteering abroad. Volunteering was one of the most valuable educational experiences I had while traveling, despite the brevity of the work. This post, therefore, is about the lessons I learned while volunteering overseas.
Bear in mind that these observations are drawn solely from my own experiences, and are not to be taken as universally applicable to all volunteering circumstances. These lessons may have differed vastly if I had volunteered elsewhere, or not with refugees headed into Europe. I encourage readers to do their own research and view this as a reflection of a personal experience, instead of a research piece.
WHAT I DID
I volunteered twice: at a resource center for asylum seekers in Belgrade, Serbia, and on the Greek island of Kos. As is to be expected, the bulk of the volunteer work I did was with refugees of many nationalities (mostly Syrian) who were headed for Europe. The flux of refugees into Europe from Syria and other conflict zones is not fresh news, but the media attention does not diminish the seriousness of both the conflict in Syria and the humanitarian crisis centered on refugees fleeing to Europe. According to one BBC article, well over a million migrants have entered Europe in 2015 alone. A few additional resources will be included at the end of the post.
HOW I STARTED VOLUNTEERING
I happened to meet people in Belgrade who were volunteering, and who inspired me to do the same. My reasoning, at the outset, was that I wanted to understand the implementation of international humanitarian aid provision, after learning its theory for four years while working on a Bachelor’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. I had also been traveling for almost a month at that point and kind of eager to do something instead of float about, exhausted, with no agenda.
Next, my reasons:
I met a lovely woman at my hostel in Belgrade who stated that when working in humanitarian endeavors like aid provision, one must be clear on what one’s reasons for doing so. The reason for this being that in that situation, you are on the high end of an imbalanced power relationship. Through the smallest actions, you can have a potentially huge effect on the wellbeing of those you are trying to help. After this discussion, I thoroughly considered why I had decided to go through with this.
A few years ago an article about negative aspects of volunteering had made the rounds among the social media pages of my friends in the International Studies department. Going into volunteering, that was what I was most concerned with – being helpful and effective, and not just volunteering for my own personal gratification.
So after thinking for a while on my reasons, I came to the following conclusions:
- The kind of large-scale aid provision was something in which I had a keen interest at university, and I had a good opportunity to not only witness its functions and efficacy but to also gain experience in their implementation through direct participation.
- I wanted to give something back to humanity for this trip I had the opportunity to take. I was having fun, and it felt wrong to just cavort about and enjoy myself without offering what little assistance I could to people who were suffering. This may be skewed mental arithmetic, but it is what I thought at the time
I was at first very concerned with whether or not my reasons were the “right” reasons for getting involved in aid work. This can be debated without end (and therefore will be dissected in its own post), but I am no longer certain that there are really “right” reasons. I agree more with what my friend told me: that you should know clearly why you are doing this work, and not go in without clear purpose.
My second concern was the fact I could not offer a decently long amount of time to help. What can one do when all you have to give is time, and not even much of it? Most people that I talk to about volunteering ask me about this as well, and my usual response is as follows:
FIRST LESSON LEARNED: TIMING & NATURE OF WORK
The timing issue was not a problem in my case, for one main reason. Most people don’t realize that 80% of the work that needed to happen at the time were common tasks that don’t really need a specialized skill set. At very least, they just needed a strong awareness of organization and an ability to follow instructions. Almost all the work I did involved sorting donations and in distributing donated goods. Though the work does not seem particularly urgent at first glance, its importance became quickly undeniable. People need fresh clothing, toiletries, and other supplies, which any organization might have in a storeroom. These things are not helpful, however, to those who need them if they are buried in a messy pile of donated goods and cannot be found quickly, or at all.
This may have been particular to the places where I was volunteering and are therefore not necessarily applicable to other situations or organizations, but it was needed at the time. Blessedly, these tasks did not require a specialized skill set, nor did they need someone who could commit several months.
SECOND LESSON LEARNED : ASK FIRST
This lesson is very closely tied to the section above, and is even simpler: ask what people need before making an assumption on what you should do to help. Do they want donations? If so, do they want goods or funds? Do they want someone to come help? Ask whatever organization you’re hoping to work with these questions before you volunteer. Be honest: if you want to volunteer in-person, tell them how long you can stay and what you can do.
Here’s the important part though: do what they say. Respect their needs. The organizations doing this kind of work have a much clearer idea of what needs to and can be done than you do. Let go of your presumption that you’re going to be doing something “heroic” or glamorous. Even if you are doing something you think is “boring,” observe how your job functions in the organization’s machinery. You will quickly see that everything is essential.
If you can only donate goods or money, many organizations are up front about what they need people to give in order to provide their services efficiently. Most will have a helpful FAQ or “How You Can Help” page detailing what kind of donations the organization prefers: here are some examples.
I learned so much from the short time I spent in Belgrade and Kos. I discovered new things about myself, about people, and about humanitarian organizations that I never could have known if I had not volunteered. I know now how terrifically easy it is, in our world today, for one person to make a positive difference, as long as they can let go of preconceived ideas of what “helping” looks like. I didn’t do much, but I am grateful for the experience and glad that I could give contribute.
The people I have met during these experiences, as well, are some of the most resilient, self-assured, and kind human beings I have ever known. I thank them once again for their patience and the lessons they taught me (whether they knew it nor not).
For Those Looking for Ways to Help
- How You Can Help (incredibly useful blog/website with many resources)
- Recommended organizations from PRI (Public Radio International)
For Information on Refugees:
- MercyCorps Writeup on Syrian Refugee Crisis – updated February 2016
- BBC Chart-based article going over numbers in Refugee crisis (referenced earlier in the post)
- Guardian article on the recent and controversial EU-Turkey deal concerning Refugees:
- Rebuttal article from MSF (Doctors Without Borders)
Organizations & People I Encountered* in No Particular Order:
- Refugee Volunteers; the group I contacted to arrange volunteering on Kos
- Asylum Seekers Info Centar za-Azil; the facility where I volunteered in Belgrade, Serbia
- Charmaine Craig, my first contact who had volunteered in Kos (who has a blog and Facebook page where she discusses her experiences)
- Mercy Corps (Kos)
- Dutch Boat Refugee Foundation (Kos)
- UNHCR (Kos)
- Kos Kindness (Kos)
- Save the Children (Kos)
*by no means inclusive, in Kos especially there were so many organizations in close proximity of each other, and who tended to change every few weeks
Have you had valuable experiences volunteering, or pointers for people looking to volunteer effectively? Anything you feel I missed or you want to see talked about? Leave a comment or shoot me a message!!
**featured image is of the waters between Bodrum, Turkey, and the Greek island of Kos. All images taken by the author.
WARNING: While it does not delve too deeply into the minutiae of the Holocaust, this post does handle a subject that is quite disturbing.
Before you read the title of this post and panic, let me explain why I decided to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum. World War II and the Holocaust was a frequent topic in my history classes from seventh grade onward, for a variety of good reasons. As an unintended consequence of this frequent exposure, the events that I was learning about existed only as grainy black and white photos and statistics floating between my textbooks and my memory. It was a faraway concept that had nowhere near the emotional currency it deserves, and I wanted a more tangible understanding of this history from which I now felt distant.
Put shortly, I succeeded in my mission. Visiting the former camp was horrifying. It was a slow-creeping horror, similar to the way one doesn’t notice shadows lengthening until the sun is almost gone.
As a historical refresher, the older portion of the Auschwitz concentration camp (called Auschwitz I) was a converted Polish Army barrack that functioned as a prison camp from 1940 to 1942. From 1942 until the camp’s liberation, Auschwitz’s function transitioned from a prison to the largest of the “death camps” – a facility designed for the mass murder of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazi state. The secondary camp, Birkenau, was built during this period and was the camp complex’s focal area for mass murder . In total, between 1 and 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
As stated before, Auschwitz I is the older of the two camps, and being a former Polish Army barrack, is mostly full of red-brick buildings that look entirely innocuous from the outside. Auschwitz I is where the main offices of the Museum are, and we were obligated to take a guided tour of Auschwitz I. Entry to the museum is technically free, but there is a fee for the tour.
Our tour guide was amazing – she was very knowledgeable about the camp history, though she had to cover an insane amount of material in ninety minutes and at times was speaking so fast I thought she was speaking in Polish. Though being on a budget, I was glad in retrospect that I took the tour – there were so many things that I had not known about that place. Being able to see and walk through these things also was a more profound exercise in understanding the horrible things that happened there.
That said, it was jarring to be walking around what might otherwise be an inoffensive-looking compound of brick buildings, while every twenty feet the tour guide pointed out places where different atrocities occurred. I am not implying that this was done nonchalantly, but when these things are being objectively described by an informed guide, the sheer scale of human violence becomes abruptly and horrifyingly present in a way it previously wasn’t. Even though it all looked very different than the picture I had constructed in my head from numbers, survivor stories, old photographs, and history lessons, the visit grounded my prior knowledge in the physical experience of the place.
For example, in many of the buildings in Auschwitz I contain physical exhibits that include items confiscated from the detainees. There was a room where seven tons of human hair removed from prisoners was piled high behind a glass wall. To my horror, some of these were braids still intact and tied with ribbons, neatly snipped from someone’s head over seventy years prior. One of the things that I found most disquieting about that room was that I found a clump of hair that was the exact same shade and texture as my own. Photography was prohibited in the hair room for good reasons, but I cannot forget those sights.
Birkenau was on a whole separate level from Auschwitz I. It is a few kilometers away from the first camp, but there is a Museum-run shuttle bus that runs between Auschwitz I and Birkenau. You are not required to have a tour guide to look around Birkenau, but we were given the option to continue with our tour guide into Birkenau, which we did. Watching the rebuilt and modern town of Oswiecim pass by on the bus after spending ninety minutes in the well-preserved Auschwitz I was surreal.
Birkenau is not quite so well-preserved as Auschwitz I. It is a massive field, split down the middle by a train track and covered in long, low wooden barrack buildings. Some of these are still standing, but only the foundations of the majority of camp structures remain today. Since many of the buildings are no longer standing, you can see more clearly just how large the camp was.
A brief refresher: most individuals who died in the Auschwitz camp died in Birkenau (90% of inmates). Though building began in 1941, in 1942 the main function of the camp was the mass extermination of Jews. The railroad around the camp was extended and diverted to facilitate the unloading of train cars full of people into Birkenau. According to our guide, Birkenau housed the 10-20% of prisoners who were not immediately selected for the gas chambers.
This statistic made the total death figures for the camp and for the entire Holocaust (1-1.5 and 6 million people respectively) suddenly present in a way that they had not been before. I could look out over this vast piece of land and see that this only held a tiny fraction of those who were brought to this place. Having that small fraction physically represented, in my mind, created a horrifying visualization of the sheer mass of people who did not escape the gas chambers. If this huge area held only 10-20%, then how massive was the remaining 80-90%? Understanding those numbers in such a physical way gave a new weight to the hundreds of thousands of people who had been killed. These people had only existed in my mind as a statistic, or an anecdote, or a smaller story in what had seemed like an impossibly large and horrible historical narrative. I hadn’t realized it until then, but I had no metric or sense of scale for what “a million people” looked like. Let alone six million.
Here’s something you won’t hear in conversation very often: I’m glad I did go to Auschwitz. I am grateful that the visit gave me a better understanding of the scale of what occurred there, regardless of how uncomfortable the experience was at times. Even with study, I am unsure if I would have gained the same understanding without visiting.
Sources for specific pieces of information (not including facts from our tour guide) are linked directly in the text.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum “History” Page (accessed 4 March 2016) Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
The Museum’s historical background on Auschwitz II-Birkenau (accessed 4 March 2016).
The Museum website’s historical discussion of the Shoah (Holocaust) and the number of victims (accessed 4 March 2016).
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum’s website, and their page on visiting are very helpful if you want to plan a trip. I would recommend reserving a slot for a tour online in advance, otherwise the wait at the museum can be an hour or two (at least).
The Museum has a comprehensive history section as well, including much more information than I provided here.