Volunteering – without my passport

When my daughter, Emery, and I returned from a volunteer trip in Perú several years ago, the immigrations officer in Newark, NJ seemed bored. He wanted to chat. There were only a few of us in line so he had nothing but time. It was 6:00 a.m. and Emery and I had been flying all night and were exhausted. We didn’t want to chat. Because we had been gone for over a month, I expected a few questions before being waved through pertaining to the nature of our visit.

“How long were you in Perú? What exactly were you doing there for so long? Where else in Perú did you go?”

Standard questions. But then he added, “Have you ever thought about volunteering in your own country? There are plenty of people and places here that could sure use you and your daughter’s help.” He paused and looked up at me as if to say, “well… what’s your answer?” I felt reprimanded by the man in the kiosk. And judged.

I was tired but I didn’t want to be detained further because I irritated him, so I responded with a kind, “We will look into that, and thank you, Sir!” To which he moved us through. Had I not been so tired and so careful about not upsetting him, I would have chatted about my world views, my curiosity with other cultures and my love of travel, especially when passports are involved. But instead, I gave my prompt thanks for the advice, and Emery and I moved quickly through the kiosk and onto to customs, where they only cared about whether we were carrying illegal substances from Perú, and not the nature of our visit.

I’ve thought a lot about the officer’s question at immigration and a few other people have asked me the same question regarding my volunteering. Why leave the country when there’s so much need here? Valid question.

Volunteering all over the world has given me a global vision and has shown me the connections that we all share regardless of borders. Mothers worry about their children whether in a 8 x 8 curtained off room in a makeshift refugee compound or in their home on my street in Boulder, Colorado. Kids are proud of their artwork whether using expensive paints and paper or the backs of packing materials with one shared crayon. Parents want their kids to be polite and thankful whether with their abundance or lack thereof. Fundamentally we are all the same. We need each other. We need people to notice us and care about us. We need to be seen and we need to be loved.

I knew the difference I was making during my volunteer time wasn’t easily measured and sometime was as fleeting as a quick smile or a kiss on the cheek – moments in time. That’s all. I haven’t saved lives or given people a better place to live or helped them feel safe. But I did add moments of levity and laughter that maybe would spark a memory later. I gave manicures to the hard-working hands of Peruvian women that were rarely (if ever) pampered and painted. I held small children in an orphanage in Morocco that were the size of toddlers who couldn’t sit, stand or speak but responded to my gesture with their eyes. I made repairs to school uniforms in Ghana that were so ragged that the wearers held them together with an arm or a hand for modesty reasons. I tested hundreds of children’s eyes in various countries and later got to see some of those kids proudly wearing glasses. I say “I” but with the exception of holding children in the orphanage because it was a one person job, it was always a “we” – a we of people who have changed my life forever in the way they saw and responded to the world. None of this was world changing, but maybe moment changing.

The more important reason I take long flights to places very far away is to learn more about the people and their cultures. I believe that if we can learn about people who live differently from us with regards to their religions, laws, customs etc., won’t that help us to be more understanding with people who are different from us in our own country? In our state? On our streets? I had a friend once ask me if I was scared being around so many Muslims after I returned from volunteering in Morocco. Afraid? No, I wasn’t afraid. The better word would have been inspired. We form ideas about people and their cultures that are quickly dispelled when meeting in person, when we find our common ground, regardless of what the media tells us. Getting to meet people with such a strong dedication to their Muslim faith – and is the 2nd largest religion in the world next to Christianity, was eye-opening to me. We only hear about the radicals and not the classroom filled with young adults, so eager to learn English, or the cab drivers who went out of their way to keep us safe or the women in the Hammam who helped us let go of our modesty and embrace the tradition of joining a roomful of naked women for a weekly ritual and scrubbing. Those are the people I now associate with Muslims. If I can impart even a tiny morsel of the lessons learned when I return home, then my success with volunteering outside of my country will extend far beyond the fleeting smile or the kiss on the cheek. It’s uncomfortable when people are different from what we know – in their customs, their dress, their religion, their world views. I’m trying to find my own piece of comfort in the discomfort of the unknown.

The question of fear also came up for me before volunteering in a Syrian/Afghan refugee camp in Greece. Wasn’t I afraid? Of the place or the people? I did have to clarify that I was not actually going to Syria to volunteer, which I would have most definitely been afraid of. But the people? Who fled? The mothers and fathers who put their children on an unsafe raft and traveled great distance because the place they were leaving was so dangerous? Those people opened up my heart and left me with a lump in my throat that had me holding back tears for the duration of stay. I’m guessing it’s the word “Syrian” people fear, not the actual people.

That’s my rambling explanation as to why I feel the need to leave my borders to volunteer – to enhance my understanding of the world and our place in it. Add to that, my curiosity of cultures, so great that it became my major in college, never realizing at the time that all the cultural anthropology classes I took would become such a gift to me later. Oh, and I love to travel.

That being said, I’m leaving in a few days for my first volunteer trip since the spring of 2019 and I’m not bringing my passport. I’ll be working in an underserved area in southern TX near the Mexican border. This isn’t about politics or policy – just people. This time, I won’t be able to say, “yes, but at least this isn’t going on in the United States….” I’m sure I’ll learn things, see things and experience things that will make me angry, discouraged and sad, but also, as with all my other volunteer trips, I’ll come away with an even greater sense of gratitude that what I left with. Stay tuned.

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