The New Volunteer Program Where The Poor Work In Britain

The new volunteer program where the poor work in Britain

We thought everybody here would be rich: An exchange scheme arranges voluntary work for young people from poor countries

From The Times
January 25, 2010

They have rehearsed their Hula Hoop act for a week, but the trio of 11 and 12-year-old girls lose their cool just moments before going on stage. The hoops, they decide suddenly, are the wrong size and they dont think they can perform in front of their fellow pupils at Bristol City Academy after all.

Paulette North, a teacher, beckons to Tracey Seboru, a Kenyan volunteer who has practised the routine with the three students two Somali immigrants in traditional Muslim headscarves and an English friend. The 26-year-old with dangly earrings and a soft, warm voice hurriedly takes the girls aside for a pep talk. The three listen intently in a huddle in the hallway and, when they finally summon the courage to go on stage, look to her for reassurance. Seboru stands in the wings, reminding them of every move: Neck, neck, arm, arm, leg, leg.” They had completely forgotten what they were supposed to do, says North after the show. She just quietly gave them the confidence, saying come on, you can do it, the kids will love it.

Seboru is in Bristol as part of Global Xchange, a programme run by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and the British Council which brings volunteers from some of the worlds most impoverished nations here to one of the richest where they have come, somewhat surprisingly, to help the poor. It is a reversal of the decades-old norm of young British graduates travelling to underdeveloped parts of Africa and Asia to spend a year or two teaching maths or digging wells, in the hope of boosting destitute communities a few rungs up the economic ladder.

Launched in 2005, Global Xchange has brought Bangladeshis, Ethiopians, Indonesians and others to some of the grittiest corners of Britain, where they have shown children from council estates around country parks, run sports and arts activities for youngsters at risk of getting ASBOs and helped to prepare former homeless people for jobs.

For all the terrible problems in their homelands, these twentysomethings are keen to show that they are ready to participate in the globalised world as equals. And they have a lot to offer.

One of the Hula Hoopers, 11-year-old Rawda Ali, a Somali immigrant who has lived in Britain for three years, says that she feels a special connection to Seboru because they are both Africans. She tells me stories about her land and culture; she listens to me and [about] our land, Rawda says shyly. Tracey gave me confidence. I was scared but I still did it.

Working with a British volunteer for three months on a team giving outside-the-classroom support to 15 immigrant students, Seboru has taught her charges a Swahili song and planned activities to help to improve their English, including trips to a Welsh coalmine and to the Roman baths in Bath.

Nearly 70 per cent of the academys students are from ethnic minorities and most are recent arrivals from countries such as Somalia, Bangladesh, China and Zimbabwe. Many are the children of asylum seekers, struggling to find their feet in a new environment. Seborus poise and perfect English help them to begin to believe that they can succeed in Britain, too.

I make them comfortable in the sense that Im also new here, just like them, so if they see me happy, not having problems, it brings up their spirits, she says. Its an opportunity for me, coming from Africa, to be able to help in a Western country.

Not far away, in a bright Quaker hall filled with music, Jane Nduku, a 21-year-old from Mombasa, Kenya, is among the volunteers and staff offering a dozen physically and mentally disabled adults supportive hands, shoulders and embraces as they circle the room during a therapeutic movement session. And at the nearby Eastside Roots community garden, beside a railway station in the run-down district of Easton, another Kenyan, 25-year-old Sadiq Said, smiles proudly as he shivers in a bright yellow jacket on a bitterly cold day, showing off the new gutter that he and his British counterpart have fitted to a small wooden shelter.

Global Xchange pairs participants from a poor country with a group of British volunteers, and together they spend three months working in the developing country and three months in Britain. The cultural and geographical match-ups can be unusual: the scheme has brought Mongolians to the Lake District, Tanzanians to Aberdeen and, in a recent specialised exchange, a group of deaf Nepalese to Preston.

Part of the idea, organisers say, is to show that the developed world has no monopoly on good ideas or talented people.Young volunteers with a different perspective and lots of energy can make a real difference in struggling British communities, says Phil Hudson, director of the initiative.

The Peckham Settlement, a community group in South London that offers services ranging from childcare to clubs for the elderly, is a case in point. According to its chief executive, Tim Reith, the group had begun to lose touch with the transient and diverse neighbourhood that it serves until a team of young Africans helped to revive the connection.

Nigerian, Ugandan and Tanzanian volunteers canvassed more than 400 homes, asking local people what new services they needed. Many residents are African, some are asylum seekers and they are often suspicious of people asking questions, Reith explains, so the African background of the volunteers helped to put them at their ease. People would immediately open up and start talking to them, he says.

Howard Johnson, who lost both his legs to diabetes, visits a day centre for the disabled in Kendal, Cumbria, two days a week. The 61-year-old says that Oyungerel Puntsagdulam, the Mongolian volunteer who has been helping him with his exercises, seemed to settle happily into life in the Lake District. He liked her willingness to listen and openness to new ways of doing things, and learnt quite a bit from the Mongolians about their culture. And they learnt a bit from me about how I handled my disabilities, he adds. I worked at a paper mill for 29 years and they were very interested in what I used to do there.

For many of the overseas volunteers, the biggest shock is learning that there are people in wealthy Britain who need their help. Before we came here we thought that because this is a developed country, everybody would be rich, says Hawa Kivembele, 23, a southern Tanzanian who worked with unemployed youths in Aberdeen. But we see people on the street who are beggars. Many people are rich but still there are some poor. It surprised me.

Still, the visitors say, even on the most deprived estates, poverty in the wealthy world is nothing like it is at home, where governments are often too poor to offer citizens any safety net. Here, they note, most people at least have enough to eat and are given help in finding a place to live.

Some issues that the volunteers encounter are harder to explain. I was surprised to see problems like early pregnancy and people suffering from mental illnesses, says Richa Koirala, 20, who came from Kathmandu a year ago to volunteer in Brighton at a centre for troubled young people. I had never heard of things like eating disorders in my country, and antisocial behaviour of young people, and obesity.

Back home, she says, we think the British are really rich and really happy they have everything. Now, despite or maybe because of Britains material advantages, Koirala says that she believes life is better in Nepal, where families and communities are stronger: People have their basic needs fulfilled here but somehow they are not happy.

She blames the relentless need to earn. The British are always in a rush. Here people are much more into working; to maintain their lifestyle they have to work and work, so they have less time for family.

When her group of 18 Britons and Nepalese were working in Nepal, everyone in the community knew all their names, Koirala says. Here I hardly knew my neighbour. The Brighton mother in whose home she stayed was often alone, and she met other families that consisted of just three members a far cry from Nepal.

Like Europeans and North Americans who expect to find only dirt roads and mud huts when they visit poor countries, many of the developing world volunteers find their stereotypes challenged when they get to Britain.

Some of the Kenyan volunteers said that they had expected an all-white country full of racists and were happily surprised to find a multicultural society where people were often friendly.

Nduku said that she had been frightened by stories she had heard from Africans returning from Europe. You would hear of people being treated badly or called names, she says. I thought that everyone would stare at me in the street. You get here and realise that its not like that.

Making a contribution here has boosted her confidence. When she gets back to Kenya, she says, Ill always know that I went to somewhere called the First World and did work with no pay. It makes me feel worthy of something.