How a resident of Baranavičy went to volunteer in Portugal for a year
Inna Sumskaya, a 25-year-old from Baranavičy, Belarus, went to Portugal a year ago as a volunteer. The woman shares how she became a volunteer, whether speaking a foreign language was a decisive factor for participating in the programme, what she learned and things she regretted.
In 2015, I graduated with a degree in hydrometeorology and got a job at a hydrometeorological centre in Minsk. I worked with databases of agronomical observations, travelled to meteorological stations in Minsk Region, checked the work of specialists and equipment.
On volunteering programmes
I had never been a volunteer before; however, I had always looked at the information shared on social networks about various volunteer programmes. Thanks to that, I knew that there were two NGOs in Minsk that were looking for volunteers to work abroad: Fialta and New Faces. One time, I saw the EVS (European Voluntary Service) programme on Fialta's website. The programme was looking for volunteers for the Portuguese NGO ‘H2O Associação de Jovens de Arrouquelas’ for a year. I decided that it was a good opportunity and submitted my application, which included a CV and a cover letter. I received a phone call over the course of the next week and I was invited to Minsk for an interview. By the way, I did not speak English very well, but it was not an obstacle and I received an offer to become a volunteer.
After the interview, programme representatives from Portugal got in touch with me and told me more about the programme and conditions for volunteering. It turned out that I would have to work with children of various ages and organise different events for them, such as games, competitions, trainings and youth exchanges. They told me about my living conditions (sharing a two-storey house with other volunteers) about a car that I would be able to drive if I had a driving license and about pocket money in the amount of 200 euros, given out each month for personal expenditure. I was told volunteers do not receive a salary.
I did not agree to go immediately. The main reason was that I had to go for the entire year. It is a foreign country and I would not see my parents for a long time. Additionally, I did not have any volunteering experience. However, in the end I decided to go.
After that, I had to prepare documents, including medical certificates about the state of my health, insurance, a signed contract and a year-long work visa, which is granted upon invitation. It took me about a month to collect all the documents and obtain the visa, which was the hardest part. The Embassy of Portugal is located in Moscow and I had to go there twice: first to submit the documents and then to pick them up. The good thing was that the organisation fully covered all expenses, such as my visa, flights and accommodation.
On work and Portuguese lessons
My first day in Portugal was exciting and interesting. It was a new country for me, new people and new knowledge. There I met other volunteers working within the framework of the same programme, from Estonia, Turkey, France, Macedonia, Spain and Romania. Generally, the main language of communication was English. At first it was hard for me to overcome the language barrier, but everything fell into place with time.
Besides improving my English I had to learn the Portuguese language, as we had to speak it with the children. So if I had at least some knowledge of English, Portuguese was another story… When I heard about this requirement, I was at a loss. However, it turned out that this problem could be resolved as well. Twice a week, Portuguese lessons were organised for volunteers in the evenings.
We worked five days a week. The working day consisted of a few stages. At 10 in the morning, I went to an organisation where I helped pack food for low-income families. After that I went to school, where I worked with the children until 17:00. There were autistic children in one of my groups. At first it was not easy working with them, as they tended to be more closed and harder to communicate with. I had to find an approach and it took time.
On travelling around the country and meeting the president
On weekends, I travelled around the country with others. I travelled almost all over Portugal, learned about its culture and history. All this is another great advantage of volunteering. We did not need a lot of money for our trips, as we stayed with other volunteers or took advantage of CouchSurfing (a website helping people find free accommodation).
Also, it is easy to take a photo with the president here. One time, my friends and I went to Cascais, where we decided to take a walk on the beach. I heard from people that the President would come to take part in a swimming competition with the young people there. I was pleasantly surprised [to find out it was true]. The President, as if he were a regular person, got changed on the beach and swam with everyone. After briefly speaking to him we said goodbye the Portuguese way, kissing on both cheeks.
On the advantages of volunteering
I think that volunteering can be popular in our country, too. However, the problem is that we do not have enough NGOs that work in this area. Not many people know about volunteering in Belarus. This subject is not well-advertised: there are no billboards or mass media ads about it. It is the opposite abroad – there, volunteering is financed and conditions are created so that young people can participate in volunteer programmes while they study or work, so they can improve their professional qualifications and exchange experience abroad.
My programme term is coming to an end. At this stage, I do not know what I will do next: maybe I will get a job, maybe I will take another trip. I am still trying to find myself. However, I can confidently say that volunteering was an excellent experiment in my life which changed me, taught me a lot and expanded my horizons. I regret only one thing - that I did not do it earlier.
I am grateful to the president of the volunteer organisation H2O Associação de Jovens de Arrouquelas, Alexandre Jacinto, for providing support to the team of volunteers during the entire project.
Article published in Russian by Intex-Press.by.