One Year Volunteering in Paris

by Safiullah Ebrahim 

Volunteering is well-known and worthy in France. Based on statistics, one out of every four French citizens volunteers at some point in time. There are many reasons that cause someone to volunteer; one may feel useful, acquire skills, develop oneself, and fulfill his/her civic duty. 

After a quick search, it is easy to find volunteer associations in France. I came to France at the end of June 2021 wanting to start learning French. Due to the summer vacations, most of the institutions which teach French were closed. So, I had to search for alternatives. By doing a short search, I found Serve the City Paris (STCP), an international NGO focused on helping asylum seekers, refugees, the homeless, and underprivileged foreigners in Paris. One of the STCP programs is the language exchange; anyone who is interested in learning or teaching French or English can join this program. 

I joined the language exchange session, which was being held after the food distribution for homeless people, every Saturday. At the first session, I met Tom Wilscam, the STCP managing director. He taught me how to politely order and how to request some things in French. 

Tom encouraged me to join other STCP activities, especially the food distribution, to practice the language and maybe make some friendships. After the second week of joining the language exchange session, I joined the food distribution which was a good experience. 

The second time I participated in the food distribution was at the time the Taliban conquered Afghanistan. The Afghan people were in panic and everyone was trying to leave the country. 

Leaving one’s home country is not an easy decision, especially for educated people who have gone through many challenges to earn their degrees and who hope to have a developed, independent, and peaceful country like other countries. Afghans know what the Taliban are like, who usually joins the Taliban, and how the Taliban interact with people in regions under their control. Many Afghans even had prior experience with the Taliban regime, so they tried to leave the country. 

The Afghans, who were already outside of Afghanistan, suffered from watching the scenes on television. Especially after seeing Afghans falling from the transport airplane, I was suffering and feeling bad on those days even though it was not happening to me directly.

The STCP food distribution program on Saturdays usually begins with a short speech from one of the STCP directors. He/she expresses appreciation for the volunteer’s participation and encourages them to continue their commitment to playing a role in improving the condition of human lives. Peter DeWit, the director of volunteer experience, who has a very long experience in volunteering and who has a kind heart, talked about the humanitarian crisis in the world and specifically about Afghanistan. 

On that day, Peter said to the participants that “we, the people who are here in France, living in a peaceful situation, should not forget our Afghan brothers and sisters in Afghanistan. They are going through the worst days in the history of humankind.” 

He mentioned the Afghans who fell from the airplane at the Kabul airport and asked the volunteers for one minute of silence for the sake of Afghan people. He asked the participants “to think about our Afghan brothers and sisters and to pray for them. And the people who believe in a superior power, to send positive energy for the Afghan people, to help the Afghans to handle the situation more easily.” 

After the minute of silence, I found one of the participants who was Christian and African, was praying for my people. This scene was unbelievable for me. How is this possible? Someone who is not from my country, who neither speaks my language nor follows the same religion, but has sympathy for my people? Peter’s speech, on that day, really touched my heart. 

I come from a 99% Muslim country where religion has a big role in our society. Many have used religion as a tool to obtain power and to control the people. We never pray for non-Muslims. I have never seen a similar scene in Afghanistan. Besides that, some of my Afghan compatriots, who are Muslims and mostly speak the same language, kill their brothers, torture their sisters, turn children into orphans, women into widows, and parents to mourn for the sake of their children, just to gain power and wealth. 

During the food distribution, the volunteers who knew that I was Afghani, came to me, asked about my family, invited me to their homes, and showed great sympathy. This encouraged me to continue volunteering with STCP. 

Volunteering also helps to communicate with others and at the same time, makes you credible with society; this could be a great opportunity for a refugee who is starting his/her life from zero in a new society. After volunteering for a while with STCP, I saw an announcement from a medical association called “Medical Aide for Refugees and Displaced People (MARDi)” looking for volunteer 3 interpreters. I can speak Persian/Dari, Pashto, English, and Arabic, so I applied to volunteer with them once a week. MARDi required a recommendation letter from a trustworthy person or an association, and Peter DeWit wrote them the letter so that I could start volunteering with them. 

There, with MARDi, I saw great people. The volunteers, who were mostly from the UK, were helping refugees with great kindness. Their behavior with the refugees touched my heart. Unfortunately, the MARDi activity in France was stopped due to some administrative issues. 

After finishing volunteering with MARDi, I found another association, English Pour Tout Le Monde (EPTLM), that was teaching English to refugees. There were native English speakers with EPTLM. I told them about my teaching experience in Afghanistan and volunteering with STCP during my interview. The lady who interviewed me knew STCP and I think volunteering was one of the reasons that they accepted me to help other refugees learn English. 

I worked with EPTLM until the end of this academic year. The volunteers at EPTLM were so kind to the refugees. They showed interest in learning about others which helps everyone to feel confident about their identity. The volunteers communicated with the refugees and with other people who were new in France. These people do not speak the language and do not know many people, so the contact with EPTLM volunteers helped them to feel better. 

I met many individuals and associations that work with refugees voluntarily during the last year. I met a lady who allowed refugees to spend the night at her apartment because she had extra room. I met some people who attended the language exchange programs to help refugees learn the French language. They listened to our broken French passionately, and if we made any mistakes, they kindly corrected us. If we asked about French culture and history, they answered our questions. They also asked us about our culture, and no one mocked us. 

Paris is a big city and has a diverse society. There are people from different backgrounds in this city. Living in such a city could be challenging for people who come from other very homogeneous societies. Working as a volunteer has not resulted in any material benefit for me, but it helped me to learn about the part of Paris that I may not have been able to know if I were not volunteering. It also helped me to deal with the cultural shock that non-Western people often face here. Besides this, I learned many issues about myself, others, and society.

During the last year, no one judged my beliefs, thoughts, and understanding of religions, but they respected me as a human. Being with such people made me revise my thoughts on human beings and respect others regardless of their nationalities, colors, genders, and beliefs. 

I learned that humans could be different in case of culture, religion, beliefs, color, and ethnicity, but it’s enough that people believe in humans as humans, regardless of their many unique differences. And we can help and support each other and live in a peaceful society. 

I saw how the parents who volunteered behave with their children, how they teach their children to behave with elders, and how they teach them to love humankind early on in childhood. 

During the last year, I met both men and women who were not believers and who looked different from the people in my country and my culture. But they were suffering from what the others, refugees and homeless people, were suffering and they were very kindly trying to help others who had problems. 

I found that external elements cannot be the only impetus for change. Personal motivation is even more important. I saw many refugees, at least some of the Afghans, who had the opportunity to learn French and use academic resources for free, but either did not attend classes or did not focus when they were in classes. 

I learned that the government should not be the only one working with people to try to solve their problems. Any person who has the knowledge, skills, compassion, and understanding, should get involved rather than sit aside. 

I found that humans can live happily and in peace regardless of religion. I discovered that what we were told in Afghanistan about life and people in the West, was based on illusion and ignorance. Jalaluddin Roomi, the Afghan Sufi and poet was right when he said: “Oh, many an iniquity that you see in others is your own nature (reflected) in them, O reader!” 

During the last year, sometimes I suffered from loneliness and exile, but I found that French society is accepting of me based on my abilities, skills, and human characteristics that I have and that I can live here happily as long as I respect their culture. So, I will continue to learn more about French society, to find ways that connect me to the people, in an effort to become integrated. I will be open-minded and will not hesitate to ask any questions I might have. 

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