European Voluntary Service an opportunity to make a difference and break free from borders

Liliya Faskhutdinova of Kyiv used to work for Air France. But at 29 years old she decided to volunteer in Turkey through the European Voluntary Service (EVS), helping refugee children access an education. When asked what prompted her decision, Faskhutdinova says, “sometimes it’s useful to take a pause in your career and change something; live a different life in a different culture”.

What was the experience like? How did it influence her life? And what does she plan to do next? We sat down with Faskhutdinova to hear her story.

Was it easy to find your EVS project?

I spent about six months looking for the right project. I knew I wanted an opportunity to work on solving social problems like working with orphans or refugees. For example, I applied for a project in Spain working with teenagers who committed serious crimes. I wasn’t looking for an “easy” experience.

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In total, I submitted about 25 applications, but it turned out that number wasn’t as huge as I thought. When I met other volunteers, I learned some of them had submitted up to 150 applications before being granted their projects. That said, others might have sent in only 2 or 3 applications before being accepted into the EVS.

I applied three times to the project to which I was eventually accepted.

Do you have any tips on how to apply for EVS?

I still don’t fully understand how the choice is made. When I applied for the third time to my project, I wrote a fairy tale about myself. I figured the commission wouldn’t want to read the same motivation letter for the third time, so I decided to put it differently. And it worked!

But that doesn’t mean this strategy will work in every case. Some of my EVS friends were accepted with very standard applications. So, I’m not sure there is a ‘universal recipe’ for acceptance.

How did you choose your project?

I found it through the European youth portal. The project was described as dealing with refugee children from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq in Turkey. These refugee children really need help, but there are not many projects directed at them. That’s how I made my choice.

Was there anything you were not prepared for in the place you worked?

Actually, I adjusted quite quickly. The most shocking part of the experience was that our living conditions were quite poor. Turkish people typically have very clean homes, but our host organisation tried to save money on us and our apartment was quite dirty. But we settled in quite well and tried to stay positive about the challenges.

Did you get enough pocket money?

Yes, and I even managed to save some money for traveling. In the last two months I was in Turkey, I managed to visit many parts of the country. We were given a spending money and food allowance of €180 per month.

What was the city you lived in like?

I lived in a city in the southeast of Turkey called Gaziantep. The city is famous for its meat cuisine. When you say you don’t eat meat, they serve you chicken. They don’t really understand what “vegetarian” means.

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Gaziantep is one of the biggest cities in Turkey, with two million inhabitants, of which about one-quarter are Syrians. There is a lot of social tension in the city as a result of the refugees, housing prices, and rising unemployment.

How did you start working with Syrian kids?

Me and my friends volunteered at Mercy Corps, which is a US NGO working with refugee kids. Mercy Corps was not our host organisation, but they agreed to provide space for us. The centre was a sort of kindergarten visited mostly by children from wealthier Syrian families.

But in the city there are lots of kids running around the streets barefoot. They are unkempt and dirty, wearing torn and poorly-fitting clothes.

My fellow volunteers and I went to work with these children. We went to the streets and invited these children to join us. Mercy Corps hosted us at their facility.

We went out on the streets three times per week and the kids would be waiting for us. They would run to us, giving us hugs and kisses – they got used to us fast.

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No one cared for them. They either ran around on the streets or worked, for example, selling napkins or bread, or cleaning shoes on streets; these kids start working around six or seven years old. Some Syrian families from rural areas may have seven or eight children and parents usually don’t have time to take care of all of them. If a child is seven years old, he or she is considered a grown up and self-sufficient.

No one makes sure these kids go to school or teaches them how to behave. We decided it was not enough just to play with them; we taught them math, drawing, crafts, and social skills. By the end of the year children were less wild – they were always fighting at the beginning.

But even that was not enough for us. We wanted to bring these kids to school, giving them a real chance for a future. We went to schools and visited Syrian families to arrange classes.

I think that the main reason why Syrian kids don’t go to school is parents’ unwillingness to deal with it.

Parents don’t think it’s necessary?

There are several reasons. For example, if a mother asks her son, “Do you want to go to school?” he will likely say “no.” She doesn’t have time to force him, her husband died in the war, the only thing she cares about is that her children survive. Besides, these women are not educated themselves, so they don’t necessarily see the value in it.

Another family we met was planning to just send their children to school when they returned to Syria. They refused to accept their children were growing up in Turkey. The children didn’t even remember Syria.

Another excuse for boys not to attend school is that they need to work. There was one case where we helped a boy get admitted to school, and he left it because he found a job.

It’s different with girls. Some Syrian parents think girls don’t need to study at all; the most important thing for them is to get married. One 15-year-old girl we met was dreaming only about her marriage.

How many kids did you manage to get admitted to school?

We registered around 15 kids, mostly the older children we worked with. It’s hard to give exact numbers, because everyday there were new children joining the group. When the EVS project came to an end, our friend Olena stayed in Turkey longer to help get the rest of our kids into school.

I was really happy that she managed that. Actually, our idea to promote education for Syrians was not supported by our host organisation; they thought it was hopeless.

I don’t want to sound like what we did was heroic or anything. We didn’t risk our lives and we weren’t able to support all the kids that need it. It is just good to know that we helped at least some of them to get a better future.

Still you’ve accomplished quite a lot in one year…

In addition to helping kids go to school, we visited refugee families and compiled a dossier for each family about needs of their children. Some families lacked milk, others needed shoes or clothes. We collected clothes, and put together a charity concert at the local school. We distributed packages of food and clothes to the families.

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How did you change after this experience?

My environment changed me quite a lot. I was lucky to meet many volunteers from different countries. Their stories inspired me. I used to think that it was too late for many things when you’re 30. Now I believe anything is possible – you just have to dream it! This experience set me free from borders. I now feel everything is ahead of me.

I am thinking of getting a master’s degree and working with an NGO. I am looking for a job related to addressing the issue of IDPs [Internally-Displaced Persons]. The situation with Syrian refugees is actually quite similar to IDPs in Ukraine, and I want to help improve it.

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The EVS (European Voluntary Service) is an international volunteer programme funded by the European Commission. It enables all young people from Europe, including Ukraine, aged between 18 and 30 years, to carry out a volunteer service. It provides reimbursement of travel expenses (90%) and complete coverage of the costs of food and accommodation for volunteer.

Photos from Yulia Steshenko, Liliya Faskhutdinova

Published in cooperation with Platfor.ma