Me, the volunteer

I helped in a refugee camp, I volunteered in an NGO, I met with hundreds of refugees, I cooperated with dozens of volunteers. Here are my ten commandments.

Wikimedia Commons, Author: Radim Holiš

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I helped out at an improvised refugee camp in Röszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border in September 2015. Since then, I have volunteered for an NGO called Helping People on the Run (Pomáháme lidem na útěku). In March 2016, I went to Idomeni, a former refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border. I met with hundreds of refugees face to face and cooperated with dozens of volunteers. These are my solutions and responses to the most common criticisms of my work, my Ten Commandments for a Volunteer.

Helping does not mean supporting

I help people in need. Understandably, I do not jubilate over migration. It’s the same with other volunteers I have met. I have not seen any who would blindly shout “Hurray, everybody come over here!” The slogan “Refugees Welcome” is for me more of a symbol, an expression of acceptance of my moral responsibility to help, and an act of solidarity. By distributing hot tea and dry socks to soaked children and adults, I do not support mass migration. I actively respond to a present situation that I did not want and did not choose. But I choose to mitigate the already great suffering of people in need, and thus hopefully contribute to reducing, not escalating, tensions in society.

Their problems should be solved in their homelands

Sure, they SHOULD be. So why do not we do so? 1 The Visegrad countries are at the very bottom of the rankings of states offering overseas development assistance (ODA). We do not meet our mandatory commitment as a member of the United Nations to devote 0.7% of our GDP to this area. Moreover, solving the roots of these problems is not my role. I’m not Staffan de Mistura; I am an ordinary citizen. Let’s everybody do what he or she can. By the way, I do not know if these young, burly men should be fighting in their home countries anyway, although many do choose to fight back rather than leaving their homelands. 2 And I also know that if a war broke out, I wouldn’t want my son or husband to be sent off to it. Would you?

Other volunteers?

A very disparate group. I met a few high-schoolers, a lot of university students, people with vocational training, owners of small businesses, both managers and labourers, many social workers. I personally went to Röszke with a scientist, a manager of a multinational corporation, a PR specialist for a multinational ad agency, a translator, a freelance photographer, a student and a public servant – people of various political attitudes and religious faiths (or no faith), coming from different income levels. However, I noticed one common denominator: I often ran into those with whom I had already worked in northern Bohemia after the floods, or in southern Bohemia in the fight over Šumava National Park. Those in my circle who were interested in assisting people throughout the whole year – whether it meant helping the homeless, fighting for animal rights, defending democracy or fighting corruption – were active again on this issue. So much for “Why do not we help out here at home?” To indulge in polarised discourse for a bit: at least we help people. Our critics, on the other hand, never appear anywhere outside of Facebook arguments.

Islam is not Islamism

Islam is not Islamism, period. I reject assigning collective guilt because you need to put things into perspective. 3 The question for me is not simply “Yes or no?” but “For whom, how much, when, how and under what conditions?” Seriously, we have heard enough of slogans such as “We won’t let our republic be subverted!” Can we move on?

Sure, I also want rules

Having said this, I do agree with some points of criticism. I also want the checkpoints at the external borders of the European Union to be working properly. Yes, all those incoming should be registered; I also do not like that large numbers of unidentified people have been flowing into Europe. And I also found a consensus with the overwhelming majority of other volunteers on that. But the rules of international law also say that the refugees are still people, and are entitled to be protected. Both children and adults, both the poor and the rich – war is not picky and expels entire neighbourhoods, villages and towns.

Not whether, but how much, how and when

While the hostile Visegrad Four has buried itself in a sullen unconstructive not, the old member states have developed policies 4 on how to best integrate the refugees into society – and thus the gap between the East and the West continues to widen. Again they will be ahead of us, again they will have the know-how, not to mention the much-needed manpower. 5

Where would we be if this crass attitude of ours had been held by the old member states during the EU enlargement process of the past? Let us have no illusions. They also feared us: the unskilled labour, even our level of knowledge of foreign languages, which was not – and a quarter of a century after the revolution, still is not – magnificent. 6

But the advanced democratic societies focused then on how to solve our problem in the same way they are doing now. How to integrate us, when and under what conditions. Because they knew that it was (among other things) an economic win-win. Today the question is still not “Yes or no?” and we are once again lagging behind.

An alternative?

I “like” criticising the EU without providing any perspective or proposing any realistic alternatives. The European Union is one of the greatest achievements of post-war Europe, even with all its flaws. Yes, we can talk about reforming it, but the main idea is brilliant and deserves to be fought for. I have been living in Ukraine for the last two years, and all the EU’s guarantees and NATO’s assurances that our people take for granted I perceive as great inventions, both economic and the military ones. I find it naïve to fight the whole institution to which we owe our well-being instead of strengthening, cultivating and reforming it. It is easier to criticise than to create, to break away rather than to fight for something – something we well know, as a country with one of the highest divorce rates in the world. 7

Who are the naïve people here?

I am still thinking about who are actually the naïve ones here. I find it naïve to fight something we actually know very little about, be it the EU or migration. I find it naïve to not accept lessons from the past. I find it naïve to look up to something we, again, know very little about. I spent three months in Russia as a foreigner, and I would not want to become a Russian citizen even for a day. I find it naïve to believe in something that never happened. I find being too incompetent or lazy to verify information to be naïve and dangerous. And it is dangerous to spread false reports about events that never happened. It is silly to share the fabricated lies of paid propaganda sites. It is naïve to not even know which sites these are. 8

Yes, I’m afraid too…

… of driving on the highway, of bears and of the safety risks of migration. A bit. I am most afraid of the first one – that on my way to work I will smashed by a drunken driver, in accordance with the statistics. 9 But despite my worries, I do not forget about data, 10 experience and reason.

We are what we read

A nice student project called “Choose the Info” was established at my alma mater. It provides advice on how not to get fooled by fictitious reports. 11 I also recommend a nice overview of other similar projects and a manual on how to recognise such fabricated reports, hoaxes and fake news. 12

Notes:

  1. OECD, Official Development Assistance 2015, http://bit.ly/2ngRPTb (accessed March 20, 2017).
  2. The Syria Campaign, http://bit.ly/1szJDFQ (accessed March 20, 2017).
  3. Religion Prof, The Blog of James F. McGrath, http://bit.ly/2nEIFRI (accessed March 20, 2017).
  4. BBC World Hacks, http://bit.ly/2mK3ztm (accessed March 20, 2017).
  5. Getting the new arrivals to work, The Economist, December 12, 2015, http://econ.st/1UcCef9 (accessed March 20, 2017).
  6. Europeans and their language report, Special Eurobarometer 386, June 2012, http://bit.ly/1fqdqAx (accessed March 20, 2017).
  7. World Divorce Statistics – Comparisons Among Countries, http://bit.ly/2mK3KVy (accessed March 20, 2017).
  8. Zvol si info/Choose the info, http://bit.ly/2mOQwYy (accessed March 20, 2017).
  9. The top 10 causes of death, WHO, January 2017, http://bit.ly/1c9a3vO (accessed March 20, 2017).
  10. Andrew Shaver, You’re more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist, November 23, 2015, http://wapo.st/2ngIgDQ (accessed March 20, 2017).
  11. Zvol si info/Choose the info, http://bit.ly/2nMnjyp (accessed March 20, 2017).
  12. TIP#272: Jak poznat, že ta zpráva, obrázek či informace je prostě hoax, podvod či čistá lež? / How to tell a hoax, fake news or a pure lie?, http://bit.ly/2mna61P (accessed March 20, 2017). See also On the media, http://bit.ly/2n2rAOg (accessed March 20, 2017).
Zuzana Pilzová

Zuzana Pilzová

is HR and fundrasing consultant, activist and traveler, fancing ultralight travel and a minimalist lifestyle. Originally from Prague, she currently lives in Kyiv.