10 life lessons I learned from volunteering

It started through a Facebook video posted by one of my previous school directors Sr Diala about a humanitarian mission they did in India in August 2018. Volunteering was on my list since 2017 but to tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure if I will ever do it.

It didn’t make sense to volunteer directly outside Lebanon while the country has lots of needs. Plus this is not tourism and fun. I should prepare myself since I live in very different conditions than the people I will meet.

So I started in October 2018 with a beautiful group in Beirut called “Equipe Missionnaire de la Charite – EMC” and then decided to join them in their one yearly trip to Rwanda – Africa in August 2019.

In Lebanon, we are assigned a second family in need that we visit monthly and help. We plan days or weekends with different audiences (refugees, villages, students, etc…) and do cultural, social and entertainment activities (games, gifts, etc…). Through the Daw el leil program, we go on Wednesdays evenings to check on people sleeping in the streets.

In Rwanda, we went to Rusumo village and did some social and educational events with the people living there. In Mahama camp, we helped refugees building bricks for a new big room for group events and we did lots of social and cultural exchanges.

Let me share with you the lessons I learned from Volunteering:

1- Always be grateful

We arrived to Kigali, the Capital of Rwanda. Everything seemed normal. Then we took the bus to go to Rusumo which is a region at the borders with Burundi and Tanzania.

On the road, we reached somewhere where there was no asphalt and no electricity anymore. It was scary at first. There was no highway but this was not a problem but it took us 4h to reach the place.

When we reached there, the house was completely empty with only thin mats. There was no bathroom sink, no hot water and sometimes, there was not even water. The water is not clean. We used to buy bottles to drink and wash our teeth.

Most of the kids have big bellies due to a severe form of malnutrition associated with a deficiency in dietary protein called Kwashiorkor.

We stayed there 11 days. Most of the days, little kids were wearing the same clothes. I will never forget the little kid Oziyeri with the Gap sweater for 10 days.

In Rusumo, the grocery shops are not like any other region. You don’t find common stuffs. We used to buy some soft drinks, lollipops and peanuts.

Just to conclude that water, hot water, clean water, changing clothes everyday, food, asphalt and many others are luxury in our daily life! We have to be grateful!

2- Happiness is in the little things

The kids in Rwanda were always very excited to meet us. It was surprising. Being kind to them, playing with them and trying to listen and talk to them through few words of their languages or in french made them very happy although it wasn’t much. I will never forget David the young man who was there to translate to me in french and who was very kind and who keeps on sending me messages.

I was there with 16 others from Lebanon. This group was very caring. We were taking good care of each other in order to make it to the end. I was very touched by these friends who asked me if I am OK when I was silent, who gave me vitamins every day to be strong, who bought water and soft drinks for everyone, etc…

We saw very nice sunsets and one sunrise. I will never forget the beautiful stars of Rwanda. It might have been because there was no electricity which is sad in someway but trust me it was amazing. It was there free for all

3- Money is important but isn’t everything

Volunteering made me reflect on my daily life. There is so much more to life than making money. What if I work without expectations? What would be the job I would choose? Will I choose a job that makes a difference in everyday’s life?

Let’s state it clear: Money can solve many problems but it can’t solve everything. For example, money can’t save all health problems. It can’t buy happiness and let the people forget scars in their lives.

We were able to help one of the homeless in Lebanon join a rest house. But this person had too many sad memories in his life. He was alcoholic. He wasn’t happy to be in this rest house. It wasn’t only about the money to get him a place to stay in but to listen to him and try to heal him from the soul. It wasn’t easy…

4- You learn more than you give

I was supposed to be helping as much as I can. But let’s face the truth, I was getting much more. First all, I would mention the experience where I am detached from my comfort zone in a very poor conditions.

Plus when you see them around you very kind and helpful, you see how much you are getting back in return.

5- You should always see life from others’ perspectives

Seeing it on TV and social media is different than going there and listening to their stories. Plus when I thought I was helping in Africa, I heard again the ugly stories about how white people treated black people and how kids are being sold. I felt ashamed of my race. I got one comment on my Instagram page that I should not think that I am a white savior. I felt confused but then I cannot pay for what others did but in the same time I should acknowledge the cruelty of what was done and try to be different.

Remember that we all have the same needs. They live in very poor conditions and I am not sure how much we are changing drastically in their life. But we should listen to their stories and adapt to their needs and help if we find it possible.

6- Smile is universal

Communication is not easy when the language is different but when you smile to the person in front of you, there is a slight chance that they won’t smile back. In Rwanda & Camp of Mahama, we didn’t know their language although we tried to memorize few words but smiling was our favorite communication to start the conversation.

7- Adaptation is the key

When I first arrived there, I thought I would never survive. It was after a 15-hour travel from Beirut to Addis Ababa and then a very long road from Kigali to Rusumo. The house condition was not easy.

Even in Beirut, in our mission daw el leil where we go and check on the people sitting under the bridge, it wasn’t easy. We meet strangers living in a very poor and unclean conditions.

Adaptation was key. else I wouldn’t have stayed.

Plus we expect a lot and then change of plans occur. The first day in Rwanda, we were excited to change the world. We lived 1h by bus far from Mahama Camp where we were helping refugees from Burundi. The bus that was supposed to get us didn’t arrive… we were sad… then we adapted and decided to shift the day and work with the people in Rusumo.

8- A small effort can do a difference

When I tell some of my friends about volunteering, some of them think I am a hero and that they can’t do it. For me, I am not a hero and I am not modest. I really think that small actions count and change comes from the individual. Everyone can do it through other forms. You don’t have to go to Africa to help.

Don’t over complicate impacts. Start small and in the form that you want. You can be helping by just referring the people in need to the right NGOs or maybe help cooking or donate the leftovers of food to NGOs like Food Blessed or to a neighbor in need. You can help by referring a homeless sleeping on the street to us.

9- Being faithful and calm is important

During all the volunteering days, we faced lots of challenges. Some of my colleagues got injuries and sick. It wasn’t easy.

Adaptation as said before, is important. But as a group, we needed to be faithful and calm. Let it be…

On the last day of our mission in Camp Mahama, one of our friends got a fever and we had to leave to the village very quickly. We got scared a looot!!! Many of us had a thought that our friend might have malaria. But we had to stay calm and faithful and let the people who know how to act during this situation lead.

Our friend had a normal small fever and got better few hours after.

10- Take care of yourself and be present

The most important thing while volunteering is to enjoy yourself and have fun. whenever you need to play, do it from the bottom of your heart. In Mahama Camp, we had to play football with them. I was sick that day. But still, I was in the game. But I wish I played more instead of just running a bit.

One thing I was proud of is that I disconnected from social media (Instagram & Facebook). I was rarely connected to the internet just to be able to send to my parents and few close friends that I am OK. it was amazing because I was more present and very connected.

After I came back, I was reconsidering my days and thought that it is important to reduce my social media time.

That’s it folks! I am very grateful to have met the EMC group. It was very impactful to my life. I was passing through stressful moments. It helped me appreciate more. I thought that I would do this for one year only but I discovered that it can become addictive. Maybe this saying is true: “Once a volunteer, always a volunteer”.

Special thanks to Sr Diala Kassably, Aline, Carla, Charbel, Christy, Chukrallah, Fady, Joe, Lea, Miguel, Myriam, Myr, Nancy, Nagham, Ray, Reine, Rita, Rodolph, Sacha, Yara. You made it memorable!

Another Special Thanks to Father Henry, Moise, Jaqueline, David, Deogratias, Jerome, Jean-Pierre, Charles, Chantal and many faces that I will never forget. Burundi & Rwanda, I will never forget you!

Lebanon is passing through a critical phase now and we have high risks of having more people in need. We need more volunteers! I hope that I can make a difference even if small and help spread the awareness around me.

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