At the end of 2017, after over a decade of work in a fast-paced multinational IT company in Dublin, I hit the wall and felt burn out. Eventually, I took a career-break and went volunteering in Ethiopia. A year and half after that I came back somehow a changed man. This piece is a reflection of my journey as a volunteer.
I visit my family in Ethiopia once or twice every year, but never for an extended period and certainly not as a volunteer. It was strange feeling to go back, after living twenty years in Ireland.
My volunteering role was capacity building in project management and research in a young university in Central Ethiopia. However, it was my engagement with the local community that did have lasting personal effect on me. The experience has changed my worldview and the choices I have made afterwards.
Since I grew up in poverty, it was not particularly new to me. What had profound impact on me was the erosion of the strong family and community ties I once knew.
Ethiopia’s economy has been growing double-digit over the past decade. Shiny paved roads, access to electricity, brand new schools and universities including in small towns are evidences of the boom. However, there is still deep-rooted poverty. In Fitche town, where I was based, there are young girls and boys who go to school for days without food. I have heard stories of children who fainted in classes because of hunger. I personally witnessed that many elderly people live in squalid conditions.
Since I grew up in poverty, it was not particularly new to me. What had profound impact on me was the erosion of the strong family and community ties I once knew. I noticed change in people’s mindset. People have become individualistic. Everyone is on the go and has little time for each other. In the past, it was a norm for people to look after their elderly neighbours, especially those who don’t have family of their own. It looks like that has become a thing of the past. Many vulnerable elderly people are not only poverty stricken but also suffer from loneliness. I knew material poverty but loneliness is something I had never heard of in that community in the past. I felt like stranger in my own home.
Many who were aware of the problem, but didn’t know what to do, started to join us. Then we realised that we needed to find ways to harness this kindness and channel it to something sustainable.
I felt I needed to do something. I organised few friends and started visiting the elderly who are the poorest of the poor and have no living family. Once people heard about our informal ‘befriending’ service, we were inundated by requests from several neighbourhoods. The demand was too high. On the other hand, the more we started talking to people, we saw that there were so many well-meaning and kind-hearted people, than we thought, who would be willing to serve. Many who were aware of the problem, but didn’t know what to do, started to join us. Then we realised that we needed to find ways to harness this kindness and channel it to something sustainable. That led to the formation of a non-profit Organisation called FICDO (Fikir Integrated Community Development Organisation). FICDO was registered in Ethiopia in mid 2019, as a completely volunteer-led charity to serve the practical needs of marginalised and vulnerable persons. It serves as the connection between the good intentions of people willing to volunteer and meet the needs of marginalised and vulnerable people and communities. It is a platform for people to show kindness to each other.
Incidentally, the name Fikir literally means ‘Love’ in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. We do what we do, motivated by love for humanity. We realise that a simple act of kindness by many people can transform the community. A kind and loving heart is what is needed to serve.
Since its inception in mid 2019, we have reached out to many. Although the core of our program is befriending service, we have included programs like school feeding. We saw community members donating everything from a kilo of pasta to sponsoring 30 children for a meal per day for six months. We witnessed a kindness revolution. Just in this short period of time, we have seen that peoples’ lives can be improved through the small hope-filled kind actions of the many.
In the last six months I have been volunteering with STC, I realised that the same social issues I saw in Ethiopia exist in Ireland – albeit in a different intensity.
The elderly may not have shortage of basic needs such as food and house, at least not in the same degree as in Ethiopia.
However, I have witnessed that loneliness among the elderly may even be higher here.
My placement in Ethiopia ended in June 2019, after which I came back to Ireland. It was time to look for a job, but I was also keen to find an opportunity where I could continue volunteering with an Organisation whose core values align with mine. Serve The City (STC) ticked all boxes for me. STC Ireland is a family of STC International, a global movement of volunteers showing kindness in practical ways to people in need. In Ireland, it currently operates in Dublin, Galway and Cork. For the past six months, I volunteer for STC in a capacity of Dublin City Leader on Thursdays and Fridays when I am not working for my paid job from Mon to Wed.
Our projects include practical DIY help such as painting/ decorating, gardening and dehoarding. We get referrals from social workers and family members. The DIY projects are on Saturdays and anyone can signup on or website or our facebook and join us. We also run practical support and social inclusion projects for refugees and asylum seekers. In the last two Saturdays, for example, 30-plus asylum seekers from Balseskin centre spent over eight hours restoring tiles at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.
In the last six months I have been volunteering with STC, I realised that the same social issues I saw in Ethiopia exist in Ireland – albeit in a different intensity. There may not be many children going to school without food in Ireland, but there are pockets of poverty. The elderly may not have shortage of basic needs such as food and house, at least not in the same degree as in Ethiopia. However, I have witnessed that loneliness among the elderly may even be higher here.
Volunteering can be transforming both for the volunteer and the community. As a volunteer, I realise that my actions may not solve all the problems in the world. But I know that I am contributing something. By befriending a lonely elderly person, I am saying I care. Personally, it is a privilege to be in a position to put smile on another person’s face. It is an honour to make the life a lonely elderly person a little better by through our DIY work.
In Ireland, there are a number of Organisations that are keen to facilitate your gifts and abilities to be used for the better good. I encourage everyone to give it a try.