A Promise To Return

I still can’t get over all of these disaster and poverty tourism posts and discussions. It’s a conversation I’ve wanted to have, but I can’t seem to articulate. But Saundra Schimmelpfennig wrote this great post about volunteering overseas. And I agree with her point: good volunteer projects require a significant commitment of time. So here I go:

In the Fall I studied in Egypt. I had wanted to start my own sort of Kids with Cameras program in Menshiyat Nasr/Moqattam, i.e. “Garbage City.” While KWC did a program with kids there, I wanted to work with the women as well. I didn’t want to sell their images; instead, I wanted them to tell their own stories, but not to be sold. Photography has been an empowering experience for me, and I wanted to share that with others. (A typical philanthropic photography student’s ideas, I know.)

When I arrived, however, my ideas changed, just as I had expected. I found an organization called Association for the Protection of the Environment, which had worked for at least 20 years to clean up and develop the area. I knew going into the A.P.E. development that these people needed pretty much anything that wasn’t a camera, and photography could, in fact, create greater problems for the residents.

My friends and I had gone because we were told that the women working in the recycling centers wanted to learn English. I had also wanted to help them rebuild their website, but after I showed them my ideas, I was told that they didn’t know how to change their website. From what I gathered, the original webmaster never left instructions or passwords or anything for them to update the website.

While one friend taught the women English (he was Egyptian-American and made the women feel more comfortable), my other friend and I worked in the nursery with the women’s children. We played with the babies and put them to bed, but we didn’t feed them or change them. I loved going because I could practice my Arabic and I grew attached to the children and women working in the nursery. I felt, however, that I wasn’t doing anything productive. We could only go every Sunday for a few hours, and I was just playing with babies. I wasn’t teaching them English or photography, and I wasn’t building their website.

But at the end of the day, I felt better for being there. I was learning about what they really needed, as opposed to what I originally thought. I arrived with one set of ideals, and left in a completely different mindset. If I hadn’t volunteered that semester, I probably would have the same ideas about development and outreach and volunteer work. Schimmelpfennig makes the point “Significant time is needed to truly understand the local needs, their abilities, and how you can best contribute. This requires that either you or the organization understands the local language, culture, and politics.” I agree, but within this whirlwind of arguments against various “tourisms,” one can’t really understand the community until one has been apart of it or seen it. Most people may not have the opportunity to emerge themselves, and so taking a vacation seems to be their next best option. Is that so wrong?

She also makes the point that “Organizations can be hurt if they invest more in a short-term volunteer than they receive back.” I understand her point, but I looked at my work through this lens. My presence likely did not create much of a helpful effect for the women and children there. But because I spent time there and learned more about Coptics in Egypt, I feel I can be more helpful now. And although I’m not fluent in Egyptian colloquial, I tried. I learned from these women, and I hope we shared something valuable with them, whatever it may be.

Ultimately I realized what I want to do (for now, at least): I want to work in my own community. I love the women and children I worked with, but I was always thinking about how I could help my own community. The Coptics have plenty of issues I could work on with them, but in the end, I cannot greatly improve their lives. Egypt does not care much for the Coptic community, and in order for their standard of living to truly improve, Egypt and its government will have to go through a huge make-over.

I know I can work with my community because I have a greater understanding of their needs. I wanted to work abroad and help people with whom I have no connection except that we are all members of the human race…but I can’t. It’s what I wanted to be, but it’s not who I am. I understand this backlash against poverty tourism, and I agree with many points these blogs make. But if I hadn’t gone abroad and volunteered with A.P.E. for the short amount of time I did, I wouldn’t have realized my place in this philanthropic space. I don’t think we should be so quick to criticize and write off these organizations. If we really wanted to talk about the roots of all these problems, let’s talk about the UN and the international community. We’ll save that for another day.

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