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Voluntary Service in Turkey shaped the person I am

Working five years for an airline in Kyiv, Ukraine, was more than enough for me. I yearned for a fulfilling experience and looked for volunteer opportunities with socially disadvantaged groups. When I found a small youth NGO working with refugee children and rural communities in Gaziantep, Turkey, I thought I ticked all the boxes. I applied several times before finally receiving my long-awaited invitation letter. I started a new chapter in my life, it was challenging but absolutely worth it.

I arrived in Southeast Turkey without any experience in the field and from the first glance things were promising. Many activities seemed simple but interesting and useful. Mercy Corps educational workshops for refugee children, support to families with kids having mental conditions, animation at the children’s hospital, English lessons at the local orphanage or conversation club with the teens. We were around 20 young people from all over Europe, full of energy and motivation. We tried to befriend our beneficiaries, teach the basics to the Syrian kids who did not go to school, open the horizon for the local high school girls, and give everyone some attention they lacked from their parents, who struggled to make a living while caring for multiple smaller siblings. We made suggestions, networked, got in contact with educational institutions and INGOs and wrote proposals. We also travelled a lot. The region undiscovered by mass tourism is full of historical and natural gems, and hitchhiking in our hospitable Turkey was perfect for the unpaid volunteers.

Liliya hitchhiking from Adana to Cappadocia with a friend, end of December 2015. Photo taken by Zhozefina Dayer.

Gradually, we started noticing the lack of care, zero training and curriculum and the simple standards with regards to kids not being met. We believed that we could do better. Surprisingly, we realized that not everyone in the organization was on board. Our suggestions were not welcomed by the leadership, our activism bothered them, they could not understand why we wanted to do more if no one asked for it. The alleged collaborations with other NGOs were dragged for months only to hear at some point that it did not work. We felt like we were stuck doing the same thing and there was no progress. We also experienced financial issues, bought materials for the activities with our own money, heating was off in our shared flats while it was snowing outside, our allowances were always late. We saw the coordinators less and less, it felt like they did not want to deal with us anymore.

Fortunately, there were other fellow volunteers ready to work for more meaningful results. We created an initiative group and continued our communication with the potential partners. We found local youth wanting to help with interpretation and visited together refugee families living in poverty, listened to their stories drinking countless cups of tea and built trust. We used those moments to talk about the educational opportunities for their children, the benefits of education and the importance of it for girls. We found sponsors who provided the school supplies and we followed the enrollment process and offered support during the first months of studies. And step by step it worked: children from our activities joining school benches and another batch of volunteers taking over what we started.

Personal photo of Liliya, somewhere on the way hitchhiking from Gazantiep to Adana, end of December 2015. Photo taken by Yulia Steshenko.

Five years since my return, unfortunately, I don’t know how life turned out for our kids. I would be happy to think that we changed something for them, but to be honest, I don’t know. Yet, I know one person that was deeply impacted. This person is me. Living, working and overcoming challenges with people from so many cultures, so different paths and experiences changed me, my attitude to career, money, education, relationships, age. I knew that those who really wanted would find solutions even from the craziest difficulties. I was no longer afraid to take risks or do what people around me did not approve of. I felt freer and my dreams grew.

The Voluntary Service was just the beginning of the journey that still continues today. Back in Kyiv, I was determined to make my way into the new field. I started almost from scratch and it was scary, but I believed that I had what it takes to fight. I volunteered, networked, made friendships until I found a job in a human rights program that made me finally feel at my place, the one that for the first time in my life I really loved. I worked for several years before taking another step. This time to study Human Rights at the UniPD. Am I scared of having traded my career for a student's bench again? I can not lie, of course I am! Like I was at every new turn I took. But this time I know that if we want something, we should go for it, because most probably this is exactly where we need to be. And yes, it might make it harder to return to the ‘normal’ life. But who said that we need this ‘normal’?

Written by Liliya Faskhutdinova

Pictures courtesy of Liliya Faskhutdinova


Originally from Ukraine, Liliya Faskhutdinova graduated from Sorbonne University, Paris, with a Bachelor's Degree in Languages. She worked in the private sector before starting a new career in the non-profit which she never regretted. She worked providing support for refugees and internally displaced people, fighting the stigma of people living with HIV, as well as developing LGBTI Inclusion Program in Kyiv, Ukraine. Currently 2d year HRG student at UniPD, Liliya is committed to pursuing her career in mainstreaming human rights and gender equality after graduation. Follow her in Linkedin @Liliya Faskhutdinova.


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