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Volunteering in Gaziantep, Turkey

When I was taking three flights to Gaziantep, I could have never imagined that I will be so lucky with this project. Starting from the welcoming and ready to help staff of the receiving organization and local volunteers, ending with the tasks we were faced as volunteers.

To tell you more about activities that we had: our main focus was teaching English to refugees from Syria – both children and adults, but we were also leading a conversation club for Turkish people, and in particular English lessons to the Turkish staff of the organizations and centers we were volunteering at. Also, we had English for orphans, Afghan children and handcraft classes for kids from Syria and in oncology hospital.

Usually, we had the planning meeting every Monday, meaning that every volunteer could choose the activities he or she preferred and compose his own schedule. At the beginning we were trying every activity to find which ones we are better at, but on the third week of the project it became clear to us where we can contribute more, so after that we usually had a more or less fixed group for each activity.

We had two weekends every week, so usually we tried to travel as much as we could. During the time we had, we visited Kapadokya, Iskenderun, Mersin, Erdemli, Mardin, Midyat, slept in the cave in the mountains above the river Tygris in Hasankeyf, occasionally stopped in the middle of the road to snack at the tangerine and orange gardens, and also did trekking in the mountains at our mentor’s village. Obviously, we could have never afforded to travel to so many places with our pocket money, so we usually went everywhere by hitchhiking and searched for the host on couch surfing. And of course after such weekends we needed another weekend just to have normal rest, but it was fun.

Also, we had Turkish and Arabic lessons from the very beginning. Usually, when we were leading English lessons for Syrian kids, we had a translator who knew Arabic, but sometimes it was better for us to know some basic vocabulary, such as don't run, slowly, look here, read, - something like this. Turkish language was of great use. For example, I had an activity teaching English to kids from Turkey, and because I knew some vocabulary, I could better communicate with them and they listened to me more.

Needless to say, knowing bits of these languages was very helpful in our everyday lives. Usually we went shopping by ourselves, or even just for a walk – when we asked for directions, prices or just said “how are you” in Turkish, it all helped to establish warm relationships with local people.

We made good friends with volunteers from other countries and from Turkey as well. Almost every Wednesday we had a cultural evening, for which we prepared traditional food, made a small “cultural” program, which usually included a presentation video about our home countries, songs and so on, and then had a disco.

Also, because GEGED was situated in the very center, and almost every organization we were volunteering at was on the main street, we were usually running into people we know, starting from staff and Syrian kids, and finishing with the local woman to whom we went for sikma every now and then.

Our volunteering has taught me a lot of things. I definitely improved my non-verbal communication skills. Because we had different mother tongues, I learned to explained new words or expressions in English in creative ways, showing a lot on fingers, or finding simple words for explanations. Usually, in the process, we noticed a lot of peculiar things and after that tried to make out new ways of working with them. For example, children from Syria had problems with using Latin alphabet in their writing, and we were trying to show them the difference between capital and small letters, and so on. Moreover, on this project I found out that most of the time it is your patience, kindness and energy that plays a key role at your lessons, because students will put more effort and interest into studying just because of your attitude to them.

Every experience I have had gave me an insight on so many things connected with culture and traditions and compelled me to observe the diverse background of our association and my own identity with different eyes. Every place we visited took my breath away and made me strive for new adventures even more.

If you are ready to face challenges with open heart and dive deep into the new culture, then do not hesitate to apply for this project – because this experience will truly change your life!

Olga Bondarenko