CCS to Russia and Morocco

I went to Russia in May 2009 through Cross Cultural Solutions Insight aboard program. I picked Russia because I had heard about their large numbers of orphanages, in par with India where I saw the plight of orphans first hand at Mother Teresa’s homes. Since this was my first time and I was traveling alone, I decided to volunteer for 1 week and sightsee for another. After going for my second volunteer program to Morocco in 2010, I noticed that every experience with CCS tends to be very different. A lot of people have since approached me asking me about the differences in the programs and how I would rate one against the other. Both programs were very unique, and offered different perspectives on life, but here is a basic breakdown of my observations.

volunteering in Russia with cross cultural solutions

Location:

The base camp in Russia was in Yaroslavl, about four hours by car from Moscow. The city was relatively small, and everything closed by 5-6pm. The people there did not speak much English either. Even though there was daylight till 11pm (being summer), our evenings were quiet because we weren’t able to do much. Rabat is the political capital of Morocco, and a bustling city any time of the day. There was a lot to do, from shopping, visiting medinas, malls, casbah, beach, museums, monuments, restaurants, etc. I never found any down time while I was in Morocco.

cross cultural solutions home base in Rabat MoroccoThe home base:

We were 22 people at the home base in Rabat, Morocco and only 5 volunteers in Russia, so that made a huge difference. I enjoyed the larger group better because you could always find someone who had common interests or was willing to do an activity at that time of the day. Pretty much any hour of the evening, you will find someone who is going shopping, wanting a Gelato, go running, smoking hookah, playing games, reading, or chatting.  On the other hand, having a full house in Rabat, we had bunk beds (for 2-8 people per room) and a few common toilets to share. In Russia, I had a room to myself and shared the toilet with only four other females. The house in Rabat was s stand alone, three-story home with gardens and open spaces. Our home in Russia was in a building. It had many floors but no outdoor space.

Placements:

In Russia, we went to a different placement each day and worked from 9am-4pm with lunch break at home in between. We went to boarding schools/orphanages, children’s hospital, women’s mental hospital and old person homes. Since we did not speak Russian, our interactions were mainly non-verbal through games, crafts and sports. We engaged the kids and adults in various activities that gave them a break from their daily routines.  It gave me an overall perspective on how life was in Russia. I learned a lot, especially from the old home and the women’s hospital. In Morocco, there was a fixed routine and I went to the same placement, a women’s empowerment center to teach English, every day. Other volunteers were placed at a children’s hospital, university, center for street kids and a refuge community college. We only worked during the morning hours and were free after lunch. I felt like I could make a bigger impact by working at the same place each day and was able to connect with the people better.

Cultural activities:

Both the countries had organized activities for us after work. I felt like there was a more organized schedule in Rabat, than in Yaroslavl. We had cooking lesson, Arabic lessons, talks on Islam, women and Morocco, excursion to the Casbah and pottery village during our stay in Rabat. In Yaroslavl, we had Russian lessons, a visit to the art museum, talk on history, a field trip to Kremlins, ceramic factory and city tours.

Food:volunteering in Rabat Morocco

Food is an important part of my experience when travelling abroad. Obviously, Russian and Moroccan food differ by night and day, so I can’t really compare. In terms of offerings by the CCS program, I felt that we were served more luxuriously at Yaroslavl as the group was small. Also, the chef had formerly been employed at an upscale restaurant so she prepared some gourmet meals and attended to each of our preferences (one of us was vegetarian). Eggs were made to order in the mornings and there was always a special dessert treat each day. We had set times for breakfast, lunch and dinner and were expected to sit at the table, before meals were served. In Rabat, we were served buffet-style meals. There was a lot of variety to chose from (soup, salads, breads, lot of vegetables, one meat entrée and fruits was dessert).  A line would form instantly once the bell rang and the food was generally gone within 15 minutes. We dined at the traditional round tables with low stools ad couches around them.

Weekend travel:

In Russia, CCS offered a three-day weekend, so volunteers went to St. Petersburg and Moscow, where there is a lot to see. Train was the best way to travel. I also went to neighboring countries, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark after my trip. In Morocco, I had gone with two friends, so it made weekend travels much more fun. We went to Casablanca and Marrakesh. One weekend, about 12 of the volunteers went for a dessert safari into the Sahara. It was very economical once we split the cost between ourselves and hired a small bus with a guide. My friends and I also did a day trip to Fes, which was a lot of fun. I found that people who didn’t know each other connected during their stay and went for weekend trips together.

Neighborhood fundraiser for Japan

The connection between people knows no geographic or cultural boundaries. An Indian couple, Durrain and Navaz Porbandarwala organized a fundraiser for victims of the Japan earthquake, in their neighborhood in Kennesaw, Georgia. Durrain, who is a cooking instructor, prepared a scrumptious dinner with the help of her neighbors. They put out flyers, invited friends and held the event at their subdivision Clubhouse on a Saturday evening.  

50 people attended and over $800 was raised. All proceeds will go to American Red Cross towards Japan relief fund.

It is impressive to see how people come together for a greater cause. It’s a small drop in the bucket but we all have to do our part in order to make an impact in this world. Imagine if each neighborhood around the world was to organize a similar dinner fundraiser, how much aid we would generate for the unfortunate Tsunami victims. Even if you are unable to make a financial contribution, do take out a few minutes to send your prayers and loving thoughts to these families.

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Why I volunteer…

I wrote this for my family and friends a few months ago and decided to share it with you too…

I lived in India with my grandmother till the age of 17. She was a professional volunteer social worker for most of her life as her husband did not want her to work for money. As a child, I would accompany her to blind schools, orphanages, Rotary clubs and many other places. Once when I was 10 years old, we were at Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Chandigarh, where I overheard a comment that got tattooed in my brain. The nun who was running the orphanage said that they had about 99 baby girls out of 100 kids at any given time. When my grandmother exclaimed, “Why no boys?” she said the boys get adopted right away but nobody wants the girls. That day I decided that when I am an adult I will come by and adopt a baby girl from an orphanage in India. If not that, at least I would try to impact their lives in whatever way I can.

Did you know that 1 million children get orphaned in India every year, followed by Russia and Africa? This fact alone led me to my journey to Russia in summer of 2009. I found a volunteer program offered by Cross Cultural Solutions that involved an Insight to Russia where one could take a volunteer vacation. The volunteers would be working in orphanages for 4-6 hours a day and get to experience the country in evenings and weekends. Since it was my first time doing something like this, in a far away country, by myself, I signed up for the 1 week program. Closer to my departure, I was told that the placements at Yaroslavl had changed a bit due to the Government interventions. Nevertheless, we would be working with children during our trip.

During my week in Yaroslavl, I went to an orphanage, a boarding school, a woman’s mental hospitals and an elderly ladies facility. I enjoyed playing with the kids, teaching them new crafts, taking their Polaroid photos for them to keep, and bringing ear to ear smiles to their faces. The elderly women were eager to make conversation with me and wanted to know how I like Obama’s new government! The hospital was a grave site to watch. The women had battered beds, got communal showers and got to eat oatmeal for every meal. One thing I recognized from this experience was how similar we humans are in every part of the world. The people I met lived in a far away country, but shared the same aspirations, desires, needs and problems as they do here. I met a 19 year old girl who had a crush on her college professor, another young woman who started drinking heavily after her mother’s death, and a grandmother who kept inviting me to her home where she was thinking she was going to after being released from the psychological facility.

Be it in India, in USA or in Russia, we all share the common thread of humanity. We want to have a good life where we are able to have access to necessities, have good health, peace and happiness, be recognized at work or communities, have someone to share our love with, and be close to our families. Those are the most important things in life!

Consulting to Every Woman Works

Some Background – I am currently volunteering with an organization called Community Consulting Teams (CCT), based in Atlanta. Each year, local non profits apply to CCT asking for pro bono consultants to help them with short term projects. My client this year is Every Woman Works (EWW), a non profit learning center based in Roswell, GA.

Today, I went to visit the EWW office and meet their staff members. What an energetic group of women they were! Miss Tillie, who comes from a corporate training background, started this organization to help destitute women (such as those who are homeless, have been abused or are coming out of prison) to help them get back in the workforce. She has created a wonderful 4-weeks long program where the women get to learn about everything from customer service, work ethics, corporate etiquettes, to self empowerment and most of all, having hope.

Like a lot of small non profits that are struggling right now, EWW also has its own challenges. They have a very small budget, but high aspirations of helping others. Their staff is limited. They are crammed into a tiny facility. It sure doesn’t help when you have one bathroom and 20 female students!

My team through CCT is working on creating much deserved brand awareness for EWW which will allow them to have a further reach in the community. They are doing some wonderful work here, changing people’s lives, but very few people know about it. We will create a marketing plan focusing on their donors, sponsors, partners, and media. My hope is they will be able to use this to secure more funding, get tie ups with corporate sponsor, expand their physical location and be able to serve more needy women.

Graduation is tomorrow. Most women are found a job by the time they graduate, so that they can start providing for their families and take care of themselves.

Very excited to be working on this project!

Teaching English as a volunteer

My volunteer placement in Rabat, Morocco was at Le Feminin Pluriel, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1999. This organization has a small center that focuses on women’s empowerment and educational programs. They host conferences such as the one of the Mediterranean women’s writers every year and bring in guest speakers on various topics to their center on every Thursday. Last week someone came and spoke on “Technology.” The programs are mainly in French. There is also a library and a computer lab for the members to use.

Leslie and I were asked to teach English for two hours each day to the women and occasional men who are interested in learning. They have ongoing classes in the daytime and evenings, taught by volunteers from other organizations.

The biggest challenge here was that we didn’t know the competency levels of the students who would be coming, what the past classes had been about and not having a lesson plan outlined. The students don’t necessarily sign up for a class. They come in on any day randomly so we never know who or how many to expect each day.

The first day, we had 4 women and 2 men, of ages 20-51. For introductions, we talked about our backgrounds, families, where we come from, etc. and showed them pictures. I had a 15 slide presentation and Leslie got a photo album which was mostly photos of her dogs in different outfits. They enjoyed it and felt quite comfortable with us. We also asked them to tell us their names, where they were from, about their families and why did they want to learn English. Their motivations included wanting to help their kids study, converse with English speakers when travelling to the US, work in the travel industry, etc.

Then we started gauging their skills by giving them simple reading and writing exercise. We decided that we should divide them into two groups- Advanced Beginners and Basic Beginners. This would make it easier for us to give them individual attention and tailor the lessons to meet their needs.

Over the next couple of days, Leslie decided teaching wasn’t for her another volunteer, Stephanie took over. The same groups showed up each day, while a few more students dropped in and out. Apparently, the word spreads if a new good teacher shows up and then more students pour in.

Each day, we would start the class together by doing a conversation exchange or grammar exercise, and ten take our respective students through the rest of the lessons. I taught my Advanced Beginners class how to order food in a restaurant, shop for clothes in a mall, festivals and holidays we celebrate in the US, describing people and personalities, cooking and the grocery store, amongst many other things.

The students were very appreciative and seemed to like me a lot. They would say at the end of each class “Thank you for you” which I found very sweet. They said my name “Sucheta” rhymed with “Usteda” which means “teacher” in Moroccan Arabic or Berber (I am not sure). On my last day, one of the students got me a recipe for a meat with potatoes tagine that she managed to write herself in English. They also surprised me by throwing a farewell party. One of the ladies walked out and made fresh green tea and served it with assorted Moroccan cookies that were delicious! Everyone took pictures with their cell phones to keep as memories. I wish that I have made some impact on their lives and that I had more time to teach them. One thing I did learn from this experience is that teaching comes quite naturally to me. I really enjoy the interaction with people and they seem to respond well to my personality too. (I got positive feedback from the students). Perhaps taking the ESL certification and teaching English to non native speakers may be in my near future!

Orphanages in Morocco

Some of the volunteers from our home base have been volunteering at a local orphanage. Today I learnt a few things about the system in Morocco.

For starters, most of the kids in the orphanages are boys. This is surprising to learn since it is usually more girls than boys that end up in orphanages in every other country that I have come across. For instance the Mother Teresa’s home in India had 99 girls for every 1 boy as boys get adopted quickly and girls are abandoned by families. The reason in India for this behavior is that a boy is seen as an asset, sort of insurance in old age; whereas a girl is seen as a burden since she would consumer resources for her wedding and then would go off to take care of her in-laws family.

Here in Morocco, people believe that a girl is more affectionate and better caretakers of their families. Parents feel that their daughters would be more reliable than a son, who would probably be more involved with his wife and family, than take care of his parents. More and more women in Morocco earn a living these days. 25% of doctors, lawyers and government administrators are women. The average age of a woman getting married is 29 years old. All these statistics prove that the value of a girl is clearly increasing in this African country.

A second reason cited for the large number of boys in orphanages is that when women get pregnant illicitly and want to get rid of a baby, often times the gender is a factor in their decision. Women feel more comfortable abandoning a baby boy thinking that he would be better able to fend for himself. You will never find a street-girl or homeless girls here. A girl is more prone to exploitation, therefore less likely to be abandoned. Also, some of these women fear that if they kept their baby boy born out of wedlock, he may grow up to attack his mother or take revenge in some form.

The process of adopting a Moroccan baby is fairly simple, whether you are a citizen of Morocco or a foreigner. You must be a Muslim or convert to a Muslim before filing for adoption. Some of these children have living parents who are unable to care for them. In that case, you can gain custody of a child and bring him or her up like your own but would need to keep the family name. Only a couple or a single woman can adopt, single men cannot. The process takes about six months. Currently, most of the children are being adopted by people in Morocco and Spain. The social workers keep a check on the kids and finalize the adoption only after two years of monitoring.

Volunteer Vacation in Morocco

This was my second time on a volunteer vacation abroad program. Last year I went to Russia so this year I decided to try a very different place. Africa was on top of my list of places to travel to. Luckily Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) offers 2-12 weeks programs in Morocco. Their structure is very convenient for a working professional like me, who likes to travel the world but has limited time and budget. The volunteers are required to work for 5-6 hours a day and have organized cultural events, field trips and free time in the evenings and weekends. A flat program fee to CCS covers all local transportation, meals, lodging and some sightseeing. The onsite staff is friendly and knowledgeable. They give cooking lessons, talks on culture and religion, and act as local guides. The kind of work involved in Morocco would be teaching English or working in hospitals or orphanages, depending on the need at the time. Although the main languages spoken there are Arabic and French, there wasn’t a requirement of volunteers to be well versed in them. I did some research and found that it was relatively cheap to travel within Morocco and there were many places that I wanted to see.

When I arrived at the home base in Rabat, we had a total of 22 volunteers staying in a sizeable house of three floors. Men and women were accommodated on different floors. We had bunk beds and 2-8 people to a room. The place was very clean and well maintained. The house had an open floor plan with common areas including a traditionally decorated living room, a sitting area, a resource center, an office for the staff and a nice backyard. It was located in a nice suburb with a few shopping centers and restaurants within walking distance. One of the best parts about going for an organized program like this was you get to eat homemade authentic Moroccan food. The experience is as close to living with a local family which you wouldn’t get by staying in hotels and eating at restaurants.

My volunteer placement in Rabat was at Le Feminin Pluriel, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1999. This organization has a small center that focuses on women’s empowerment and educational programs. They host conferences such as the one of the Mediterranean women’s writers every year and bring in guest speakers on various topics to their center on every Thursday. The programs are mainly in French. There is also a library and a computer lab for the members to use.

I was asked to teach English for two hours each day to the women and occasional men who are interested in learning. Their motivations to learn English included wanting to help their kids study, converse with English speakers when travelling to the US, work in the travel industry, etc. They have ongoing classes in the daytime and evenings, taught by volunteers from other organizations. The biggest challenge here was that I didn’t know the competency levels of the students who would be coming, what the past classes had been about and not having a lesson plan outlined. The students don’t necessarily sign up for a class. They come in on any day randomly so I never know who or how many to expect each day.

Each day, I would start the class by doing a conversation exchange or grammar exercise, and then divide them up by their skill level between myself and the other volunteer. I taught my Advanced Beginners class how to order food in a restaurant, shop for clothes in a mall, festivals and holidays we celebrate in the US, describing people and personalities, cooking and the grocery store, amongst many other things.

The students were very appreciative and seemed to like me a lot. They would say at the end of each class “Thank you for you” which I found very sweet. They said my name “Sucheta” rhymed with “Usteda” which means “teacher” in Moroccan Arabic or Berber (I am not sure). On my last day, one of the students got me a recipe for a meat with potatoes tagine that she managed to write herself in English and another gave me a box of tea as a gift. They also surprised me by throwing a farewell party. One of the ladies walked out of class and made fresh green tea and served it with assorted Moroccan cookies that were delicious! Everyone took pictures with their cell phones to keep as memories.

Combining volunteer work with a vacation abroad is the perfect way to experience a new place. You not only get to understand the culture better, but you also give back to the society you spent time in and form meaningful bonds. The best thing about volunteer vacations is the interaction with people. I really enjoyed the social exchange with the locals through our conversations and storytelling. Also, meeting other like minded people who had come to volunteer from all over the world was another opportunity that you can’t find otherwise. I learned about their travels and experiences and formed deep friendships. There are so many memories I brought back with me in those short three weeks that I would cherish for the rest of my life.

As appeared in Do It While You’re Young in December 2010.