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Volunteer Review: Nicole Y., Refugee Project in Italy

Nicole with some of the other volunteers at her placement

I have traveled many times in my life, but never for a volunteer project. I was quite nervous and I really didn’t know what to expect when I got to Camini. As soon as I arrived, I was met by the Projects Abroad coordinator. During the hour and a half drive to Camini from the train station, she told me what the town is like and what my duties at the placement would entail.

She informed me that Camini was a dying town, with people abandoning their homes to flee to the cities to make money. So many people had left that they were even forced to shut down the elementary school. However, with the influx of refugees coming into the country, the town saw an opportunity to help these people while rebuilding their community at the same time. Now, they have welcomed so many refugees to Camini that they have reopened the school, the café, and the library.

My duties at the Refugee placement

  • Looking after children between the ages of three to five while their parents attended Italian lessons.
  • Attending Italian lessons so that I could speak to the refugees and the locals. Many people there don’t speak English.
  • Teaching English to children between the ages of four to eight.
  • Teaching English to adults.
  • Organizing teen nights and women’s nights.
  • Organizing exercise classes. Classes could be as simple as going for a light hike.
  • Working in the garden.
  • Visiting the unaccompanied minors center.
  • Working in the boutique/thrift shop.
  • Construction work is also available if you’re handy in that regard.
Volunteer and refugees spending time together

On some days, I started work early in the mornings, usually to avoid the hot afternoon sun, especially when I was doing gardening work. On other days, I didn’t start until 10am. On some days, I would be finished with my work at noon and when it was possible to get a ride into town, I could spend the afternoon at the beach. On other days, I worked until 11pm, but this was usually just when teen night was on. The Projects Abroad coordinators were good at ensuring I had as much work set out for me as I wanted to have.

My shared accommodation

Instead of being set up with a host family in Camini, I shared housing with the other volunteers and we all ate together in the dining hall at the office. The main hall and the office both have Wi-Fi, but it is usually more reliable in the office. The accommodation has a washer, air conditioning, a kitchen, and a balcony with an ocean view.

Volunteers at the Refugee Project in Italy

The food we ate was cooked by Cosimina and, of course, it was delicious because it was cooked by an authentic Italian nonna! Usually, we would have to ask for a container to take half of the food home, because she always cooked lots of extra food to make sure we had enough. Cosimina has such a positive energy and is always smiling. She loved it when we came into the kitchen to say hi when we came in for our meals!

Weekends in Italy

When there was no project work scheduled, our Projects Abroad coordinators were usually pretty good about getting us to the train to explore Calabria on the weekends. During my time in Camini, I had two weekends off and I went to Tropea during these weekends.

Tropea is a beautiful coastal town perched high on a cliff, where you can walk down to the beach and enjoy the views. Tropea was so beautiful and captured our hearts so much that we decided to go there for the second weekend off as well. However, other volunteers made their way to Naples or Pompeii and you could also explore the Reggio Calabria areas. The south of Italy is very different from the north and in my opinion, much more beautiful and laidback.

My recommendations for future volunteers

Volunteers doing gardening at the Refugee Project
  • I recommend brushing up on your Italian before going to Camini. Many of the locals and refugees don’t speak English. They usually speak Arabic and/or Italian. The app “Duolingo” is very useful to practice with prior to your arrival. It’s a good idea to use this app before getting to your project, as you need Wi-Fi to use it and the Wi-Fi at the main accommodation can be spotty at times.
  • Some of the volunteers came wearing fancy watches, shoes etc. This is only my opinion, I cannot confirm that it is the opinion of the refugees, but it saddened me when we went to the minors center where these young men have very little, and volunteers would show up wearing fancy clothes and taking pictures with expensive cameras. I think it is important to be mindful of the fact that many of these refugees don’t have many possessions.
  • I volunteered in Camini for four weeks and I found that that amount of time was really beneficial. During the first week, I got my bearings around the town, gained an understanding of what each of my duties entailed, and introduced myself to the community. During the second week, I was able to make connections with the refugees and the other volunteers. During the third week, I was able to deepen those connections and listen to some of their stories of how they came to Camini. During the fourth week, everything really came together, as I began to really see some of the changes that I had made in Camini. Some people were only there for two weeks and although I would still recommend going if that’s the only amount of time you have to volunteer, I found that after two weeks, I was really just getting started.

My overall experience

Volunteers preparing for a meal in the shared dining room

Overall, my experience in Camini was an emotional rollercoaster, but I’m so thankful that it was. The highs would not have been as high if I didn’t have the lows. The lows came in the form of hearing stories of how the refugees came to Camini, and just simply comparing their lives to mine. The highs came when I spent time with these people and when I began to see the changes I had made in Camini. These changes were sometimes as simple as creating a logbook for the English lessons to show future volunteers what had already been taught in class. To be honest, I had never taught English before coming to Camini. I simply Googled how to teach it and researched online for different educational games we could play with the children.

Volunteers with a banner to welcome refugees to Camini

I also created a banner to welcome new families to Camini with. One day, we were informed that a new family of 11 people would be arriving in Camini the very next day. The next morning I saw a beautiful thing happen. Many people from around the town gathered together to get a new house ready for the family. People were rushing around, cleaning, bringing in beds, cribs, and kitchen requirements and 10 people drove three hours to the airport to welcome them. When they arrived in Camini, we welcomed them to the town with the banner and other refugees. They were extremely exhausted from their long flight from Turkey, but they were so appreciative of their new home and our warm welcome.

I didn’t expect to make great friends with people my own age and to spend night after night with them in their homes with their families. I also didn’t expect to make such amazing connections with the other volunteers, some of whom have become lifelong friends. I will always cherish this experience we shared together. Projects Abroad is doing amazing work there and you can see through their efforts that they really care about the project and the people in Camini.

Nicole Y.

This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.

This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.

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