Argentine Irena Balbuena took part in the South-North component of the weltwärts volunteer service. For her assignment with the Evangelical Church of Westphalia, she was posted to the parish of Hassel-Lukas in Gelsenkirchen. She worked with people from a wide variety of age groups – the focus being on “learning from each other”. In our interview, she tells us all about her time as a volunteer.
What did your work at your place of assignment involve?
Irena: My place of assignment was the parish of Hassel-Lukas in Gelsenkirchen. My role there involved working at the nursery once a week, in the community centre twice a week and at the senior citizens’ club twice a week too.
At the community centre, I mainly worked with children and young people and ran workshops, e.g. cookery workshops, or painting and crafts activities. At the senior citizens’ club, one of my tasks was to help organise the dance sessions.
I don’t think I would ever have experienced what I did last year without doing volunteer service.
Can you explain what motivated you to do your volunteer service in Germany?
Irena: In Argentina I work in a “centro comunitario” (community centre) in a suburb of Buenos Aires. I got to know the German volunteers who work there and that’s how I found out about weltwärts and the South-North component. My main motivation was to discover a new culture and a new language and to further my own personal development.
And did that happen?
Irena: Yes. I could have learned more German but I really enjoyed the year. Germany is a very interesting country.
How did your partner organisation prepare you for volunteer service?
Irena: The selection process consisted of three rounds. Once I had been selected, things started off with a one-week preparatory seminar to prepare us for our stay in our host country. Each volunteer was given a topic that they had to research. I gave a presentation on German cuisine and festivals. Others covered topics such as economic issues. The aim was to prepare ourselves as best as possible for our time in Germany.
In Germany and Argentina alike there are things that work well but lots of things that don’t work so well. That’s something I’ll be taking with me – and of course all of the good friendships that developed whilst I was here.
What did you learn in your year in Germany? Are you going to be taking anything back home with you to Argentina?
Irena: It’s difficult to give a one-sentence answer to that. I don’t think I would ever have experienced what I did last year without doing volunteer service. I know people in Argentina who think that everything always works properly in Germany, that everything is perfect and mistakes are never made. But I think we are all the same. In Germany and Argentina alike there are things that work well but lots of things that don’t work so well. That’s something I’ll be taking with me – and of course all of the good friendships that developed whilst I was here.
Did you learn anything specific that you will be able to use in your work with children in Argentina?
Irena: In the painting workshops I learned techniques that I will be able to use at work back in Argentina. But, above all, I’ve learned that the world doesn’t end in Argentina and that there is a lot more to see! That’s the most important thing I can take back and explain to the children. The children in the district where I work often think it’s normal that they don’t have more opportunities in life. If they can’t go to school, they accept that – but all children should have the same opportunities. But that’s something they have to learn first. They have to know that they have rights – to education, for example – and that there is someone to look after them.
What were you able to teach your colleagues here in Germany?
Irena: Well, one example was the murals I did with the children. They’re very popular in Argentina but nobody had heard of them here.
Can you think of any particular challenges you faced in Germany?
Irena: The language! Everything would have been much easier at the beginning if my German had been better. For instance, a fortnight into my stay, I got lost. Nobody could help me because I couldn’t ask anyone and everyone walked past so fast. It wasn’t very nice. But, obviously, that doesn’t mean you can’t go out anywhere if you can’t speak the language. But it would definitely have been better if I had started learning German back in Argentina. You settle in quicker then too. That would be my advice to future volunteers.
Have you got any other tips for volunteers looking to go on assignment with weltwärts in Germany in the near future?
Irena: It is very important that you make friends with the people who live in the area. That’s the best way to learn about the culture. If you only ever spend time with other volunteers from your own country, you’ll learn far too little about Germany.
And finally, what will be your lasting memory?
Irena: I met such warm-hearted people here. They were always thoughtful, looked after me and integrated me from day one. The people in the parish explained everything to me: the area in which my place of assignment was located, the history of Germany, current developments in the country. They also invited me to dinner, for example. By spending time with them I was able to learn a great deal about German culture.