I heard Jenny’s story at an alumni event for a charity we’d both volunteered with. She was talking about her time in a refugee camp where she set up an adult language learning centre. She spoke in such a matter of fact way that was totally relatable and honest. Jenny decided to help some people who needed it using skills she already had – the simplicity of it was so approachable, and her passion was infectious. She was the first inspiration for this blog, so naturally Jenny’s is the first story I’m keen to share…
How did you first get into volunteering?
I was working in a bar and teaching English in Paris, pretending I was still a student after university. I was lacking direction. I thought about travelling, but I wanted to get my teeth into something. One of my friends had done an International Citizen Service project and I applied for one on a whim never thinking I’d actually go. But I didn’t really know what to else to do, so I went to Nicaragua with Raleigh International – a sustainable development charity. Without trying to sound cheesy, literally everything changed from then.
I was in Nicaragua for three months and halfway through I didn’t want to leave. For the first weeks, I had major FOMO and I didn’t want to be away from my friends in the UK or Paris – everyone was doing amazing things and I was stuck in some little mountain village. But after a few weeks I realised that I couldn’t go back to my previous way of living – to going out and not thinking about the world beyond that. I was helping people and that was something I wanted to do more. It was definitely a gradual change. I didn’t wake up one day thinking ‘this is it’.
So what took you to the refugee camp in France?
When I got back to the UK, just before Christmas in 2015, the refugee crisis was all over the news. My mum had been going back and forth to Dunkirk to volunteer while I was away, and she was so animated by it. It was all she talked about. She was going back in the New Year and asked if I would go with her. She thought that I could help with speaking French, because there weren’t many translators. So I went for a week. And I ended up staying four months.
Did you have any worries about going into an unknown – and pretty intimidating – environment?
Oh, yeah. It’s one of the scariest things I think I’ve ever done. But part of my personality is being spontaneous so I don’t really overthink these sorts of things. I just dive in. If you think about something like this too much you can just talk yourself out of doing it.
What were your initial reactions to being in the camp?
It was a massive shock. I remember the first day I walked into the camp and the conditions were insane. The tents were set up in this really squelchy mud, it was up to my knees, and everything inside them was covered. There was a massive pile of rubbish – like a mountain – in the site and there were rats everywhere. It was cold and it was wet. You hear about the camps and see reports on the news but nothing really prepares you for being there. That first day I was just horrified.
After a few days though, being there became quite addictive in a weird way – I don’t know if that’s the right word to use, but it’s the best word I can find to describe it. You start getting to know people, you start being productive, you realise that there is so much to do. And you just can’t leave. It wasn’t something just I felt; all the other volunteers – people from all walks of life and all ages – were the same. They would keep coming back or they stayed longer than they’d planned. My mum is still there more than a year later.
Why did you want to start teaching languages?
In that first week I was helping to put up tents, make pathways through the mud using wooden pallets, and I was sorting through donations. I worked a bit in a little playroom too. My time with Raleigh had taught me that sustainability is key in voluntary work, and I realised that the everyday stuff we were doing wasn’t really sustainable. It wasn’t going to help the refugees in the long term.
At the beginning, it was really casual. We just thought we’d do a bit of language teaching and see what happened. I had a TEFL and my mum had worked in HR so she knew how to bring groups together for learning. Between us we were a good team. We went into the kitchen tent with flash cards and just started speaking with people to find out whether they wanted to learn. We had a really positive reaction. So we started organising little language circles in people’s tents. We’d sit down with 5 or 6 people and just encourage them to speak. Some had no English so we’d spend half an hour covering ‘hello, how are you?’ The aim wasn’t necessarily to get everyone speaking fluently, but to help people get used to the idea of speaking a new language, which they’d have to do when they moved on from the camp.
And did the teaching evolve organically into a school, or did you have a plan?
After a while we wanted to create some structure and to get a routine going with classes at a regular time every day. We started using a wooden structure in the camp as a school and made a timetable, but some days no-one would turn up, and that was disheartening. We had moments when we thought it would never work. Then about two weeks after we started, it all just suddenly took off. Sometimes 15 or 20 people would be there. We had groups of all levels – some who couldn’t say hello and others who spoke good English and helped to translate for everybody.
We were in that building for just two or three weeks when everyone started being moved to a new camp. The old camp was on a derelict site – just some fields outside town – and it was completely makeshift. So the local mayor had decided to build a more official humanitarian refugee camp, which was being funded by Medecins Sans Frontieres. It had wooden shelters, a medical tent, a school for the kids, but it was difficult to get a space for the adults. Nobody was thinking about that, so we had to be very persistent that the refugees needed this. We talked directly with the local government – there was no other formal organisation in the camp itself – and finally we were allocated a site and had a building funded by a company in Jersey. We had a permanent space and we called it the Adult Learning Centre. We felt more official. That was two months after I’d arrived in Dunkirk.
Were there any moments when you thought ‘why am I doing this’?
Sometimes it was pouring with rain and we were covered in mud and maybe no-one had turned up for a lesson. Then we’d feel so cold, and so depressed with the whole situation. Especially at the beginning when lots of other volunteers would ask why we were bothering to teach languages when there were so many things to be done. That could be quite difficult. We felt like others didn’t believe in what we were doing.
But one of the great things about the learning centre was it brought a bit of normality to the lives of the refugees. On a day to day basis they had somewhere to sit and have intellectual conversations. We’d talk about politics or cultural norms. That was one of my favourite things. Getting to know people in the camp and building those relationships. I made such good friends there. So many people there were my age.
In Spring we would get lunch between lessons and sit in the sunshine – we just had a laugh. It felt just like at uni being sat in the park with friends. My friends would make Kurdish food and we’d have dinner together. We had Kurdish New Year and organised a big party – people cooked and we had dancing. It was like normal life. There were so many nice days. And each night I knew that I’d done something good with my time, that I had helped someone. It showed me that I need to keep doing things like this. I want to feel some meaning in my life by doing something worthwhile.
Would you say your volunteering experiences had an overall effect on who you are?
Yeah, definitely. I know that I want to work in the humanitarian sector. Now I have a job with the UN’s World Food Programme. On a day to day basis I read about emergency situations on the ground and it’s difficult to ignore or switch off from those disasters and crises. But I can’t go back or un-see what I’ve seen – and I don’t want to. I wouldn’t be happy in a job that didn’t try to make an impact for people in those situations. Very few people get this kind of energy from their job. I’m really lucky to do something that I’m so interested in and to work in an organisation that I really care about.
Now I meet a lot of people who have done similar things too. They’re just normal. You don’t have to be completely selfless to want to do something good in the world. I’ve learnt that when you see an issue or problem that you want to do something about, just go for it.
I think there’s a lot for anyone to learn from Jenny’s story, whether you’re reading this because you’re looking for a career break, thinking about what to do after uni, or feeling moved by the refugee crisis and want to give some time to it. For me, Jenny’s experiences helped me to see a few specific things in a new light…
- Talk to friends and family about their experiences to get ideas for new opportunities
- Find something that makes use of skills you already have
- One opportunity will often lead to another
- Having no clear life plan can lead you to finding new unexpected paths
- Try to avoid overthinking new opportunities – don’t talk yourself out of taking the first step!
If you’re particularly interested in volunteering with refugees, like Jenny, here are some UK organisations to look at :