Blog: A volunteer's actions are a drop in the ocean

Living with other cultures is a great way to realise how much we don't know, says ADRA Slovakia volunteer.

Martin PavelkaMartin Pavelka (Source: ADRA Slovakia)

Martin is an EU Aid Volunteer in Istanbul helping displaced families to integrate into Turkish society through the organisation Small Projects Istanbul. His deployment was a part of the HVA - Humanitarian Volunteers in Action, through the sending organisations ADICE (France), MONDO (Estonia) and ADRA Slovakia, a non-governmental organisation with 27 years of experience in implementing humanitarian, developmental and volunteering projects for those in need in Slovakia and abroad. ADRA Slovakia aims to help people lead dignified and free lives while better preparing them for a possible humanitarian crisis.

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My name is Martin Pavelka and I am an EU Aid Volunteer from Slovakia, currently deployed as a Volunteer & Program Coordinator in Istanbul, Turkey by the French organization ADICE. Before coming to Turkey, I spent a year working as a SlovakAid Volunteer with internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Georgia as a Grant & Project Manager.

My host organisation, Small Projects Istanbul (SPI), is an NGO with a mission to integrate and provide livelihood opportunities for 250+ displaced families from the MENA region. SPI is a community centre with a women’s social enterprise branch called Muhra.

At SPI, I engage in various educational, recreational, psychosocial, and social cohesion activities to help the refugee community (mostly Syrian) better integrate into Turkish society. Turkey is currently a host to some 4 million refugees, the largest number worldwide. Unfortunately, the number of local organisations working with this population is insufficient and their effectiveness is often questionable. SPI is a clear exception. However, due to the Covid-19 crisis, we’ve had to transform our projects and activities into an online platform.

During my deployment in Georgia, I knew that I wanted to stay in the field of international development. The ‘EU Aid Volunteers' programme allows professionals to spend a year in a developmental or humanitarian context and contribute to the growth of the local host organisation. This was a great opportunity to experience something new and support the local environment with my skills.

Don’t imagine overcrowded camps and flimsy tents

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My host organisation SPI and I seek to help refugee families from the Middle East and North Africa by creating a safe place for them to learn, connect with each other and increase their livelihood opportunities. We not only work with children and young people but also with women. More than forty displaced women work in our social enterprise Muhra, where they create jewelry and sew sustainable clothing. All of them have the chance to participate in various trainings such as sewing, tailoring, 3D printing or computer courses.

As a Volunteer Coordinator, I am responsible for the recruitment, training, and retention of our volunteers, who are the driving force of our organisation. Most of our volunteers are Turkish and Syrian, but quite often we accept other candidates, mostly from Europe. Apart from volunteer management, I am responsible for implementing and monitoring more than twenty activities on a weekly basis.

The community we work with is already established in Istanbul. Most of the parents go to work and their children go to school. Still, their biggest obstacles include social stigmas, employability, and lack of funds.

In total, more than two hundred and fifty families are registered at SPI. Each family has four children on average. Though most of our beneficiaries come from Syria, we work with a number of families from other countries, such as Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, and Palestine. They all have the status of ‘Refugee under temporary protection’.

Like fragments from a movie

Members of the displaced community have taken the difficult path of fleeing their homeland due to war, persecution, and injustice. Now, they face challenges with integration into local Turkish society. Some stories that I hear from my Syrian friends and colleagues sound almost like fragments from an action movie. However, for them, it was a harsh reality. Now, they seem to be enjoying joyful moments more than the others. Sometimes, I get invitations to drink tea or coffee at their homes.

Our community faces many challenges, such as social isolation, the language barrier, and difficulties accessing services and relevant information. They often don't know their rights and where to seek help. The Turkish bureaucracy is unreal. Processing one confirmation of residence or registration of a foreign mobile phone can take months. This naturally requires patience and financial resources. One of our goals is to serve as an information point for our community.

Impact of Covid-19 on human lives

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Despite the current situation with Covid-19, I decided to stay in Istanbul. It is my home now. Overall, life in the city has calmed down but it has not completely stopped. Non-profit organisations often operate through grants from international donors. How development and humanitarian sectors will continue to operate during this crisis is not clear.

The coronavirus affected not only our organisation but also our beneficiaries, the refugee community. Many families have lost their jobs and their source of income. As a response, we try to find ways to provide them with at least some financial assistance so they can cover their most basic needs. At the same time, we started distributing food packages to the most vulnerable families.

We also launched online activities, targeting children and young people. Through these efforts, we teach Turkish, provide homework support, and conduct creative activities. Online communication has its limitations but we have not been deterred. I believe that this programme is a huge help to parents and relieves families of considerable stress from homeschooling.

Professionally and personally enriching

I work with a very international and diverse team where everyone comes from a different background. Therefore, I try to express my ideas simply and disassociate myself from my own norms and beliefs. I try to listen fully to what others say without the need to convince them of ‘my truth’. Thanks to intercultural sensitivity and communication skills, I feel that I can connect with various people - on both a professional and personal level. Additionally, I have become more resilient and internally strong and have learned how to work with limited resources.

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Working in a team in which everyone has a different mindset is always a bit challenging. Living in the context of other cultures is a great way to realise how much we don't know and how many cultures there are in the world. It’s also a reminder that we are all interconnected. I think it is necessary to constantly learn something and to regularly step out of one’s comfort zone as well. My actions will not save the world; they are more of a drop in the ocean. Illusions and exaggerated expectations from any humanitarian deployment must be set aside. Otherwise, there may be a great disappointment.

Prejudice rooted in all of us

We often hear terms like migrant, asylum seeker, or refugee. It is important, though, to understand the differences between them. A migrant usually voluntarily crosses the borders of their own country. The reasons can be due to work, study, or volunteering. Refugees, however, flee their homes due to war, persecution, loss of liberty, etc. If they stay in their home countries, they would be in danger of death, torture, or imprisonment.

The media and educational institutions should be responsible for providing unbiased information about migration. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true, and only very extreme situations will be given space in the headlines of tabloid newspapers. Additionally, the phenomenon of climate change is having an increased impact on human lives, and it will contribute to the migration of Slovak people both within and to other countries. Then we will perhaps understand migration first-hand. When you meet refugees, you understand that on a human level, we are all equal. Prejudices are, however, deeply rooted in all of us. The change in perception will happen only if civil society, the media, and local governments start to raise awareness and educate citizens about such topics.

In recent years, a lot has changed thanks to travel, study exchange, and globalisation. For example, the elderly, through the experiences of their grandchildren, slowly become acquainted with the topic of diversity and sensitivity to other cultures. I hope very much that the global coronavirus pandemic does not slow down this movement.

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