Volunteer with Somali
Refugees in Denmark
Exhausted and exhilarated after my 11-hour journey from Chicago to Denmark, I stepped off the train at Aarhus Central Station and found my way to my home for the next four weeks: a Danish grammar school. My bedroom was a gymnasium floor shared with 19 other people. The school locker-room served as our communal bathroom.
When I entered the gym, I was surprised to see a very diverse group. Volunteers ranged in age from 18 to 45 and came from many different countries around the world. Our group leaders were soft-spoken Danes, both in their early 20s, and their enthusiasm for the project was infectious as they described the mission of Solidaritet 2000, a partner with the Council for International Exchanges.
Our job was to help integrate the large population of Somali refugees in Denmark into mainstream Danish culture. While Aarhus was a safe haven from the chaos of war, I watched in shock as some Danish parents refused to bring their children back to the camp upon discovering that Somali children also attended. The camp sought to break down these damaging stereotypes at an early age by having the children play together, physical differences aside. The most vital part of the mission was to assemble a diverse team of people from around the world to collectively operate a children's summer camp focusing on celebrating other cultures.
The other volunteers and I organized plays, art projects, and team sports for over 50 children ranging in age from seven to 14. Though the language of the camp was English, most of the younger children only spoke Danish or Somali.
The children were completely unaware that they were a "social reform" project and simply found themselves having a great time, regardless of skin color. In fact it was the volunteers' attitudes that were most changed. After one full month of sleeping, cooking, working, and playing together, we had all grown fond of one another's differences, learned each other's recipes, and national anthems, and made lasting friendships.
Our last night at the camp, the Somali families cooked dinner for the volunteers at their homes. They told us of the continuing struggles in Somalia and what war has done to their homeland and families. It made each of us reflect once more on the importance of peace and international tolerance.
For More Info
If you have an unquenchable urge to travel with a desire for total cultural immersion, check out the following organizations to find out how to get started.
CIEE (www.ciee.org) offers everything from high school exchanges to work abroad programs. Orientation, housing, and 24-hour emergency support are included in the program fee.
Volunteers for Peace (www.vfp.org) specializes in international workcamps. Age limits depend on the camp chosen. Program fees start at $450 with a VFP membership. VHP also offers teen and family camp options.
Cross-Cultural Solutions offers three types of programs: Volunteer Abroad, Intern Abroad, and Insight Abroad. Volunteer Abroad and Intern Abroad programs operate year-round, and range from 2-12 weeks. Volunteer placements are with CCS Partner Programs, local NGOs or community organizations within each country, and are based on an individual’s skills and interests. Contact: Cross-Cultural Solutions Headquarters, 2 Clinton Pl., New Rochelle, NY 10801; Tel. 800-380-4777; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.crossculturalsolutions.org.
VANESSA NICHOLS is a full-time editor and freelance writer based in Chicago.