HAVING DIRECT ACCESS TO THE RIGHT ADDRESS: COMMUNITY VOLUNTEERS

Selma Üner – Outreach Officer (Mardin)

I’ve been working in the area of humanitarian aid for almost four years now, taking part in different projects. My experiences so far gave me the opportunity to get acquainted with different cultures. I remember my first experience; it was a project that focused on delivering psycho-social workshops for Yazidi children living in a refugee camp in Diyarbakir. Following that, I took part in individual protection activities Support to Life was delivering in Kiziltepe, Mardin. This was an invaluable experience to get to know effective ways of addressing prevalent needs as well as how to respond the most effective way. One element that stood out for me back then, and that still is an integral part of the work I do today is this: The indispensable role of volunteers emerging amongst community members.

The primary aim of our protection activities is to inform the members of the Syrian community -who have fled war and found refuge in Turkey- of their rights and duties, and facilitate their access to the basic services that are offered as their rights. During information sessions, we had the chance to engage in long conversations with refugees, as we were trying to help them establish independent, self-reliant lives. Without exception, the words spoken and the answers given during these group sessions make some individuals stand out. Those participants have crucial significance for field workers like us. They become focal persons reinforcing our relationship with consulting community members and act as key figures that allow us to maximize our outreach.

My experience has been no different. As we got to know more focal persons, our information network grew neighborhood by neighborhood. It was almost a flawless division of responsibilities. Crucial to note here is the fact that civil society organizations like Support to Life must be most effective during that fragile state when the vulnerable community is striving to access information and capacity that will allow it to be self-reliant – a state we can easily call a transition phase. I remember; for civil society interventions to create lasting impact, we had not only to remember this cooperative framework, but also to communicate it with our focal persons. The permanent recovery that we were striving to active was going to be possible if and only if the community members themselves developed a sense of ownership towards our activities and disseminated them through their own channels of communication.

Fast forward and on to the present day… Support to Life added another important component to its protection activities in Mardin – which it is carrying on as Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe’s (DKH) implementing partner and with the financing of European Union through its Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. Today, the backbone of our activities is a team of volunteers. And my responsibility in this framework is to act as the outreach officer through direct interaction with our volunteers.

Our team of volunteers in Mardin consists of 15 refugee and 10 host-community members, with whom we began information provision activities. Once we began these activities, my inner doubts questioning my ability to sympathize from the correct angle and the stress that followed became irrelevant. I took a mental note of this as an ironic moment of relief for a humanitarian worker – and for good reason too. Because even in cases where I struggle, have my tongue tied or fail to make sense of the dynamics that take during our community meetings, this team of volunteers I work with is able to introduce their notions, their own language when responding. They are very much able when it comes to identifying the type of information meetings that are needed, and also able to plan them in a manner that makes sure information reaches the parties that need it. ‘Reaching the refugees through refugees’ is what we do now. Working with a multilingual, multicultural team of volunteers. This is the headline for my new experience.

The first thing we did once we got to work was to help our volunteer team gain some necessarily skills through a series of trainings. I can honestly say that it has been a tough an intense preparation phase. They had to give up engraved cultural codes willingly, knowingly and through awareness. What we needed was a common language on par principles of humanitarian aid. Our introductory meetings focused on strengthening the social climate within the group. We were hoping to enable a co-working culture capable of maximizing the social cohesion between 15 refugee volunteers and 10 host-community volunteers. Seeing them exchange sincere laughs after uttering some words they learned from one another, communicate through eye contact, and recognizing the excitement of learning the common language that was taking shape was the proof that our hopes were not misplaced.

The group activities during the trainings were conducted using dramatization techniques. The volunteers were able to reveal the child-like routines of these ice-breaking games and couple it with the excitement of obtaining new capacities. Above all, they lightened the mood with their communication and be productive.

The trainings were concluded and capacities were increased. Team members began questioning common misconceptions as they took more responsibilities. We could see it so clearly; while they joined earlier information sessions as participants, they were now well-equipped to lead their own sessions. And thus we were ready to engage in the field with these community members that had the insider’s view of the prevalent questions in the field.

Sure, there were concerns too. What our volunteers felt was a mix of nervousness and excitement. They all voiced similar reservations; “What if I cannot do it, what if I fail to provide answers.” I suppose this is where I come in. I try to get them thoroughly involved in the process – I give anecdotal advice based on my personal experience, I say they will overcome these concerns as time passes and I state that I am here with them. They listen very carefully. “Conviction” I say, “is the only thing that defeats concern, unease and fear of failure.” They smile elegantly. “Believe in yourselves and in each other, this is the essence of team spirit.” I add, “this is the coping mechanism.”

Then we draw up a monthly plan for our field work. We establish the field teams. We plan to work in coordination, support one another, cover for each other. The team spirit is there and we are off to work. The first information sessions are led by me and an assistant but the facilitation is done by the volunteers themselves. The first session has a total of five volunteers so that everyone can make the most of the experience. Hearing their voices and seeing blood rush to their cheeks, I can tell they are nervous. Work has been done in the neighborhood, people gathered for the information session. There are 43 participants. Although in our previous discussions we said an information session should be 15 people at most. They look at me and, in a confused fashion, note, “But we didn’t anticipate this many people participating.” I smile and thank them for their efforts, trying to put them at ease. They smile. We divide the participants into 3 groups.

 

We identify an officer who is going to be responsible for the children and hold 3 information sessions in 3 separate rooms of an apartment. Once we leave the neighborhood, we evaluate the situation so as to be prepared for unexpected situations in the future. We discuss our shortcomings and evaluate strategies to mitigate the risks and make the most of the information sessions. Everyone is excited to step into this new chapter as the notes are exchanged immediately…

This is how a new era starts with a new team of strong conviction. With our volunteer teams, we aim to be at the right address, at the right time.

Selma Üner

Support to Life Outreach Officer (Mardin)