There are various ways of getting to know the local culture, people and customs. You can read about it, you can go to all the recommended places, but you can also learn more about the parts that are forgotten also by some locals…
I’m writing this having just come back from a really great and eye-opening volunteering weekend. The programme I am supporting is dedicated to formerly homeless people and the aim is to help them get back to employment. It involves a weekend of confidence-building activities and workshops and it is then followed by a week of skills sessions, workplace visits and certifications as well as a period of one on one mentoring. A really amazing opportunity for these people to get back on their feet and start their lives over.
Why do I write about this on an expat blog? How does it relate to anything I wrote about previously? Why does it matter?
Let me tell you now.
Coming to the UK can be accompanied by a series of assumptions and stereotypes that you have in your mind. These assumptions can be about anything, including things like “The social benefits are great and easy to get in the UK” or “You might go there, without work and get some great money anyway living off the socials”. Myself, being from Poland and hearing a lot of (often not too gentle) comments about how Polish people invaded the island, are taking all the money and living off the benefits – I believed that and this was the kind of image I arrived with about the living standards of poor people in the UK. To some extent it is true, the benefits are really good and the support provided is much more extensive than for example in Poland or most eastern-European countries. There are also many more charities that focus on working with people from poorer backgrounds or trying to get out of homelessness. It doesn’t however mean that the problem of homelessness does not exist. It doesn’t mean that all the people know about the help options available for them.
Benefits of volunteering work
I get quite a few questions around how to make yourself feel more adapted to the new environment, how to meet new people after you move abroad, how to figure out your routine after relocating. I was asking myself exactly the same questions after I moved from Poland to London and my conclusion is that to do that you need to engage yourself in a variety of activities. It might be continuing a hobby you have already had before you moved; if you’re more extroverted it will probably be going to some general networking events like MeetUps or Internations. Or it might be volunteering and getting involved in charity work.
Volunteering in programmes like the one I described above is something that allows you to meet like-minded people, fellow volunteers, it allows you to learn about the challenges of the local community and policies around the charity you’re supporting. But it also allows you to feel needed. Feeling like you contribute to the local community, that you’re not just another expat who knows nothing about this place, feeling like you have a purpose in staying here. It is a very important need to meet when you move abroad, especially if you’re not moving entirely from your own will, ie. company asks you to lead a project abroad, you’re a trailing spouse etc. Especially if your move is not a short-term one it’s worth considering this option as a way of learning more about the local culture and reality.
For me, getting involved in this project was very eye-opening. Hearing all the stories of how people got homeless in the first place made me realise how unlucky life sometimes can get and how hard it is to get back on track once you’ve derailed. After you get rid of all the presumptions and judgments that come up in your head you can start opening up to creating a new image of the homeless people as well as the support (or lack of it for that matter) that is provided and learn a lot from their experiences.
The project, apart from obviously helping the participants to get the confidence and motivation back, helped me get in touch with some really great volunteers, people I enjoy talking to and spending time with, which is an additional benefit. It also let me confront the imagined picture of the underprivileged communities in the UK with the reality of it in London which I wouldn’t have done otherwise.
This post turned out to be quite personal, but I guess it’s because I really wanted to share with you the benefits of getting involved in volunteering charity projects, whatever they might be, when you have moved abroad. Let me know if that’s something you also consider doing? Or maybe you’ve already been involved in these? What were your experiences? Do you think it’s worth it?