Volunteering the time of pandemic

The beginning of this whole pandemic situation and its circumstances have caught me in Germany, as I have been volunteering for three and a half months in Trier now. I arrived here at the beginning of February, when we were only getting to know the virus by its name.

The first month being here was about learning the language, therefore, I have been taking language courses every day. It was not just my situation, as eleven other volunteers who came from countries like Ukraine, Rwanda, Burkina Faso and Bolivia did the same. To help us integrate more easily in the German culture, in the first month of our stay we lived as guests in German households.

We were so excited about our new experience that some of us, volunteers, decided to go to the Cologne Carnival in the second half of February. I find this important to mention, because that was the last mass event many of have attended, where we could enjoy ourselves, party and dance before the safety measures of the pandemic took effect.

Later, in March we all started working at our designated workplaces. I have started working in a place where persons with disabilities spend six hours a day. Alternatively, this place is a cafe, where the people can have a coffee, read the newspaper or play games after they arrive, and then we have lunch together at noon, after which they can spend the afternoon with more games, drawing, DIY or even take walks, if the weather allows it. My job is to be there with these people throughout the day, to be their companion in their activities. This was actually how it went in the first two weeks. Because later, because of the Coronavirus, the cafe was closed. The following week it needed to be cleaned and sanitized. Now, as a kind of transition (for a yet unknown amount of time), I am working in a house where three (initially four) people with disabilities live together. Under normal circumstances, these people are all working. The work I do here is similar to the one I did at the cafe: following my arrival, we have coffee, read the newspaper, we sometimes do crosswords or play games. Then, together with my colleague, we cook for these people and have lunch together. After lunch, we usually draw, paint or create something interesting, we sometimes watch movies and try to spend our time meaningfully.

How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect my life and work?

Firstly, I would like to emphasize that in this region of Germany the situation has not become as serious as in Romania or other countries: we have never been restricted from leaving our homes and never needed to complete forms in order to do so. Because of these circumstances and because I could work the entire time, I have had an altogether different experience in this period.

I am happy because we did not have restrictions concerning leaving the house, as I could go for long walks to enjoy and admire the beauty of nature and spring. It was nice to see that, although this virus reduced the pace of our everyday lives, it could not disrupt the nature and the spring arrived just as powerfully as any other year. For me, it was very important to observe the arrival of spring from up close, to go out and see the little changes every day.

I am happy, because I had the possibility to work during this period: it helped me live in the present and avoid thinking about the changes of tomorrow. It helped me to stay focused on the important things. Although I have not worked with people with disabilities before, I feel like I learn something from them every day. I learn from the way they live their everyday lives: how they seek joy in everything they do and have an interesting attitude towards their activities, as if they have never done such things before. I also learn a lot from the way they expect or welcome changes and people in their lives: when they know the reason behind these arrivals, they are very open and welcoming towards new possibilities. I learn from how easily they express their feelings and if they like or dislike certain things or people, if they got hurt, if they like your cooking or not, if you look bad or not.

Is there life beyond work during the pandemic? If yes, what is it like? Yes, there is. As I have already mentioned, walking has been allowed the whole time, alone or in pairs, and we took advantage of this. Cycling was also allowed, so we did that too: we have discovered the city and its surroundings on two wheels. At times, we gathered in groups of two-four volunteers and cooked together, getting to know each other and our cultural backgrounds. We tried to enjoy what we still had ─ this is yet another lesson we’ve learned: to enjoy and to value what we were given. I know it sounds cliché, but did you imagine that your most recent train travel, bus ride, flight, handshake, concert and so on, were your last ones for a long time?

Thinking about the way I imagined things and the expectations I had before starting this journey, I feel that it could be better, but thinking about what my life would be like if I were not right here right now, I feel that it could not be any better than this. Because putting the circumstances aside, I am given the opportunity to learn something every day ─ to get to know new cultures, to learn a language ─ and every day, I get to step outside my comfort zone. It is a fact that I have never imagined things would be like this, but I am very happy and grateful to be and to work here in these tough times.

Csilla Szász

Translated by Razman Noémi-Katalin