Remember how we brought you a story about a former colleague of ours who's developing a vaginal probe in China? No? Never mind. Check it out later.
Anyway, here's another interview! This time with another former colleague. Her name is Zuzana and she spent 6 months working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
As you can imagine, her job was as difficult as they come. On the other hand, it wasn't all doom and gloom. And that's what this interview is all about.
It's about the moments of hope, laughter, and camaraderie that can be found even in the most precarious of circumstances. And fitness classes. It's also about fitness classes.
But despite the light tone of this interview, don't think we take this topic lightly. Media often dehumanize these people and refer to them simply as "refugees". We wanted to show a different, more human side of their story.
But naturally, this blog isn't about human rights, wars, or humanitarian action. It's about helping you find your dream job. Zuzana's story could help you do that.
Zuzana will tell you:
- What it's like to work as a volunteer in a refugee camp;
- How to give fitness classes to Syrian women;
- How dancing to Despacito can motivate children to stay quiet during the class;
- Why volunteer experience is a must on a CV;
- What skills are needed for that;
- Why it's stupid to think that you know what you will do for the rest of your life;
- And then some.
You spent six months in a refugee camp in Lebanon. What do refugees do there every day, apart from education?
Most refugees in 'my' shelter have already been there for about seven years. Because of that, many of them have jobs. Unfortunately, they can only work illegally, so they get mistreated.
Women work in the fields. Men work either in the fields or in construction.
Children's work is also far from uncommon. They sell fruits, vegetables, napkins or gum. You can see them in the street selling when they should, in fact, be at school. Unfortunately, many families depend on their income.
Being stuck in the camp all day must be frustrating. Are they still able to have fun in such a difficult situation?
Oh yeah, totally. Sure, it's a difficult situation and many people suffer from depression, but it's important to understand the camp has (unfortunately and unwillingly) become their home.
They've been there for seven years now. Because of that, they're not just trying to find activities to waste that time away. They live there. In this way, many refugee camps become a town within a town.
They do what anybody else would normally do. They take care of children, visit each other, watch TV, or listen to music. Some of them have a family living outside the shelter, so they go visit them too.
On the other hand, I should also say it's an unhealthy environment. Living there can damage one's physical and mental health. Because of that, psychosocial support is also an indispensable part of humanitarian work. Even simple things, like volunteers playing football with the people living in these conditions, can help them a lot.
So, yes of course they can have fun and we had a lot of fun together during the activities we did in the center. For example, at fitness classes for women.
You were teaching fitness classes to Syrian women? 😄 Tell me more!
Oh yes. When I started teaching it, I told myself “shit, I don't know how to do that”. The classes always took place indoors because in this community, women are not allowed to be seen without their hijab. But when they were inside with all doors and windows shut, they took off their hijabs and...Well, let's just say they let themselves be be more themselves 😉
Then they told me they don't like the music and wanted to play Arabic music instead.
So we did and they all started dancing. All volunteers were trying to dance too but they just laughed at us. Apparently, we didn't know how to dance — they had to show us how to do it. Basically, they taught us how to move our butts. 😂 It was really funny.
I've read about a French refugee camp where volunteers organized fashion shows or art classes for the refugees. Did you have something similar?
We had art classes for young girls, but that was part of the education program.
But I think it comes down to differences between individual camps. Some camps are transitional and people only stay there for a shorter time. On the other hand, in the shelter where I worked, people have been living there for a few years already. Because of that, the education center provided opportunities like vocational training to help these people find jobs even in Lebanon.
I remember how happy we were when men came to the English class after even working all day. That was a big accomplishment. They're normal people doing their work and we were just supporting them by providing education. That's it.
I know about camps where people are constrained to their limits, don't have any jobs. Many refugee camps in Europe are like that. But in Lebanon, the refugees are not seeking asylum. They just want to go back home as soon as possible. Those are two very different scenarios.
And what about children? You know, kids always need to be kids and they need to play. What they usually do in their free time there?
A lot of crazy shit [sic] 😄. I've never worked with that many children in my life, but I think it's safe to say these were the most creative kids I'll ever meet. A lot of them have never gone to school before, which is why they had no sense of discipline. That was one of the biggest challenges when the center first opened.
The teachers who opened the center had to teach them that every day the class starts at a certain time and they need to come there at that time. Also, they had to explain why they need to stay seated in the class and cannot run away. But still, if the children saw something interesting out of the window, they would just jump outside and run there.
Scarred by the trauma they have endured in life so far, and the lack of trust to others, they would often bring knives to the class. I think to some it gave a sense of security and self-defense. And they usually crafted those knives themselves too. They would find a sharp object and go from there. Very creative. But after about a year, it got much better. They stopped bringing knives to the class and wouldn't even play with them anymore. That was a huge improvement. Now they spend their days differently than by starting fires or searching through thrash to find toys.
Has it ever happened that a child would stand up in the middle of a class and wanted to leave?
Quite often. I loved that the majority of them weren't shy at all. They were very curious and wanted to learn everything about you and could get excited about small things. But also, if you bored them, they would raise ruckus and run around. I loved we had a lot of fun dancing and singing. To motivate them, I told them if they worked quietly during the class, we'd play Despacito for the last five minutes of the class. And it worked!
I hope my colleagues are not going to read this, they would probably kill me 😂 But I let them stand on the desk while we danced and had a party. Oh and remember how the women told me to shake my butt while dancing? I had a kindergarten student who danced that way 😅 We had the best parties. I loved that because I don't remember being allowed to dance in my school.
It sounds like they really love to dance.
Absolutely. There was a lot of dancing. I've never danced so much in my whole life like during those six months. When I used to go to school, it was very different. On a bus, we had to stay seated. No standing up. No yelling. No music — maybe just silently in the background or in headphones. In Lebanon, it was exactly the opposite.
Once, we took a three-hour ride to the mountains in winter because many of the children had never seen snow. From the moment we boarded until the moment we got off, it was all dancing and loud music. Everyone was on their feet. We were singing, yelling, dancing and the bus driver was the DJ. It was so much fun. I was having the time of my life.
Wow, that's really cool! And you were doing this for three hours?
Three hours there and three hours back 😄. Also, as soon as we got there, they started a huge snow fight! But then, immediately after, we plugged in a huge speaker and danced there as well.
That almost sounds like too much fun for a refugee camp 😅 Was there a fun moment that has a special place in your heart?
Well, yeah, but it wasn't really that funny. Anyone reading this will probably think I'm weird to think it was a nice memory. But...
There was a time when the center was constantly being flooded with water because of bad plumbing. So we canceled the first class every morning to pump the poop water out and clean the place. Only then we could open the school. Other things became quite normal to me, I guess.
But most of my favorite memories are linked to the fitness classes. You know, hanging out with other women. They would always bring us food before the class, so we had something to eat and then did some exercise. Well, it didn't work out that well every time but anyway... 😄
What is the most important thing you have learned from this volunteering experience?
Flexibility. If you work under circumstances that are out of your reach, you need to be flexible and keep your eyes open to the environment around you. You're not there to do your own project, but to serve others and work in a team.
Because of that, your momentary priorities change all the time. You need to be always prepared to do anything in order to help the situation. If the building gets flooded with sewage water, you have to take care of it. Sometimes you also need to adjust the goals of the entire project, too, when you see that although there are things you set out to do here, right now the community needs something else.
It definitely doesn’t sound like an easy job. Are there any special skills that one needs if he or she wants to become a volunteer?
It really depends on what kind of a volunteer job it is. For the most part, you don't need any special skills. You just need to 'ideologically' agree with the job and have enough strength to work at night, in cold weather, or in stressful situations. So, yeah, you need these 'skills', but you don't need to have any special education.
Obviously, if you're going to teach English as a volunteer, you need to be proficient in English and have some teaching experience. Some organizations require two years of experience in the field, but it really depends.
What about people who have no idea about volunteering? Could they do that too?
I would say no. A volunteer usually works with vulnerable people. You can't go there with your own problems, your own lack of experience or panicking. Sure, you're there to learn but, at the same time, you cannot make it even more stressful for others. You can't go there and complain to a refugee about your breakup. It's a job like any other. Just because it's volunteer work, it doesn't mean it's an easier job.
But is it an advantage to have volunteer experience on the CV when applying for a job?
Oh yeah. Definitely. From what I've noticed, more and more employers like to see volunteer experience on a CV. But not everybody needs to go to Kenya, Lebanon, or other 'popular' volunteer destinations. Even people who want to work in IT sometimes work as teachers for a month. It doesn't have to be field-related and you don't even need to travel anywhere. Most cities have a homeless shelter, you can start there.
If you want to put it on your CV, it needs to show you had to go outside of your comfort zone. They need to see it was a bit challenging and you took on a new role. But, at the end of the day, the CV isn't that important. You'll learn many new things and that's even better.
Somebody told me you originally wanted to be a pastor. How did you get from this idea to being a volunteer in a refugee camp?
I think it's closely related. The reason why I wanted to be a pastor is that I wanted to work directly with people and (this will sound bad) I wanted to help them. I naturally seek jobs where I can do it. As a pastor, you often have to work with people in difficult situations. For me, that was one of the main motivations. But then again, I'm also from a religious background.
But the reason why I didn't study theology is that I didn't want to be limited by the Church; both the teachings and the institution. Not being inside the Church still allows you to work with the Church, but you also get to have a critical view of it. They do plenty of good work but the Church itself also has many troubling aspects of its own, so I didn't want to be part of that.
Despite everything, I did a joint degree program focused on anthropology and theology. In the end, I didn't stray too far away from theology because I like it as a discipline.
Is that when you decided to become a volunteer?
When I graduated, I still didn't know. Growing up, I always thought one day I would go to Africa as a volunteer and help children there. That was my dream. A very naive perspective.
I grew up with that idea. At university, I felt like I needed to rebel against it, I guess. That's why I didn't study theology alone. I wanted to do different things. At some point I even thought about getting into marketing.
Because I wondered — what if I can do other things too? Maybe I only had these these preconceived notions because I grew up around the Church and charities. As I said, I wanted to rebel against it. And then, one thing led to another, I graduated, and I didn't really know what I wanted to do. Then I got a copywriting job at Kickresume. But it didn't take long before I went back to volunteering. I said to myself I'd just give it a shot and see if I liked it. Because in the end, I thought, the only way to find out is by doing it.
Most decisions I made in my life set me up for this kind of work. But then I did everything I could to rebel against it. It was only after I returned to this path that I realized it was something I've always wanted to do. I don't want to be a humanitarian superhero in Africa anymore. I've left that naive idea behind.
So, you already know what you want to do?
I think it's naive to think you just know what you will do in life. When you're eighteen, you have no idea what's out there. Then you do one internship and you are like “oh wow this is cool” or “this sucks” and you do something else. It's mainly about meeting people and trying different things. There's no handbook or shortcuts.
In any field, two people in the same job will do things differently — and ultimately end up in a different position. The main thing is to keep your eyes open. So no, I don't know what I'll be doing in ten years, but I have an idea what I want to accomplish.
What, for example?
For now, I want to finish my second Master's. I've already studied for four years and now I'm going to study for two more years in Paris. I've received an offer from a program called Human Rights and Humanitarian Action.
The main reason why I want to study is that I don't know anything about law or the legal frameworks of international humanitarian and development work. At the very least, I want to understand the basics. In the refugee camp, I've noticed that people in critical situations are often in a desperate need of legal knowledge or legal assistance. It's one of the main reasons why they often get mistreated. But, of course, I don't think I'm going to know everything after two years of studying human rights. I just think it's a good place to start.