I volunteered in the Dignity Centre in Nicosia, Cyprus for five weeks in January/February 2021 during the strictest lockdown. Despite the lockdown having a major impact on my work and the activities happening in the Dignity Centre, I found the five weeks a very insightful experience that made it possible for me to see many things from a different perspective and learn a lot.
If I had to choose the three most important things I encountered during these five weeks it would be these:
1. The donated money and the people working/ volunteering with NGOs there are essential for creating a more bearable everyday life for the asylum seekers. The latter are in urgent need of basic necessities and services, as well as activities, social contact and services that give them the human dignity they are too often deprived of.
2. The second thing that you can never know before you do this kind of volunteering is how much you value and appreciate these people you meet and how seriously their lives touch you emotionally. This is something that is unfortunately not the case if one catches up with the refugee situation from home through watching the news, reading books, etc. It reinforces the fact that one often tends to overlook these problems if one is simply not emotionally attached to them.
3. The last major thing I take out of this experience, is something that, I believe, is the case for many volunteers: After doing it once, you will definitely want to do it again. In my case, having seen how badly and unjustly the asylum seekers are being treated by public authorities and the EU legislation, I will for sure try to seek out further opportunities to help those in need.
As I was writing a diary during the five weeks to better cope with the tough but also fascinating experiences I made, I am going to share a few snippets of what I wrote down during my time as a volunteer:
Jan 19th 2021:
The asylum seekers came in to get food bags that were assigned to them for that exact day, they show their registration card and we check whether they sent a message so that they could pick up their food. We also offer “Ladies’ bags” which were donated by Carry the Future. They contain pads, tampons and other products for women’s essential hygiene. We also finished up around 30 Corona face masks that asylum seekers working for the sewing co-operative made, so that we can distribute them to other asylum seekers for free. Everything’s perfectly organized.
Jan 21st 2021:
There was a lovely woman who came into the centre today and wanted to charge her phone and take a shower. Many people just charge their phone, since it’s a fundamental part of their life. It lets them stay in contact with their family and friends at home, helps them find their way around Cyprus and gives them opportunities to either find a job or humanitarian aid, like the Dignity Centre. She asked whether she can help me cut out the fabric for face masks and we had a lovely talk. She was very talented doing it and told me that she’s a very fast learner when it comes to handy jobs. She told me a bit about her past and current life. I felt so much respect for this woman. She told me that she was born with the talent of singing gospel, so she went to a church choir in her home country where they taught her how to improve her singing and she then found someone to record it and produce it as actual songs. She showed me on Youtube and we listened to her own song while cutting the fabric.
Jan 22nd 2021:
Today was an interesting day, I managed the area downstairs. During Covid that means showering and doing laundry in three of our washing machines. There are quite a lot of people who want to get showered since they have neither hot water at home nor a washing machine. The washing takes about an hour so they either wait inside or go outside until the laundry is finished. Most of them waited downstairs which was nice because we always had a nice time talking.
I talked a lot with one guy who was very nice and lively and really wanted to talk to me. He is 29, from Cameroon and his English was really good. He told me that he had been on Cyprus for a year now and that he went to medical school back in Cameroon. He told me that working in the medical field and helping other people is his greatest passion and that he has a strong dream of being able to pursue that career at some point in his life. I should also mention that he asked many questions about me and really wanted to understand why I’m doing this voluntary work and what I’m going to study, what life in Germany is like, etc. We also talked a lot about music, dancing and other day to day stuff.
Jan 25th 2021:
Some guys came in today to “just” print documents. I have never been aware of this being a service that can be essential for someone trying to find work or a place to live.
Feb 1st 2021:
There was a new member who I talked to and he explained a lot about the asylum seekers’ situation in Cyprus right now. He said that every asylum seeker in Cyprus right now is waiting to get an official status/their asylum in order to be able to travel further into Europe. The problem is that most of them cannot find work on Cyprus and therefore want to travel further. They have no idea about how long it will take to get the document and the government of Cyprus is not giving them any information so they literally have no idea whether they will be here for another couple of months or many more years. The lifestyle they have to live on a daily basis is extremely frustrating and psychologically exhausting.
Feb 2nd 2021:
We were able to open the barber service today (due to new lockdown rules) and it was nice to see what a “simple” haircut meant for many of the asylum seekers. The smiles on their faces were worth a million words.
Feb 11th 2021:
Today, I registered two new members who were just sent out of the refugee camp. They arrived in the camp in December 2020. Paula told me that the camp is making approximately 20 people a week leave so that they can live in their own housing. Despite getting welfare for housing, they have to pay a certain amount themselves which is simply not possible if you cannot work and you just got out of the camp during lockdown.