I think I don't need to explain that something horrible happened to my world in February 2022. Of course, horrible things happen all the time, but we often choose to ignore them. We (people residing in the West) are used to think that the age of wars is over, left in the previous century. There are many who would disagree - Syrians, Afghans, Serbian, Chechen - the list goes on and on, but it is convenient to forget. We are far enough; these are not our people; we don't feel responsible.
I was born and raised in Russia, and lived there until I was twenty. I grew up to my parents always leaving Echo of Moscow on; that's a radio station which was always more opposed to the government than the others (of course, it was shut down in 2022 following their coverage of the war). I have never liked the government; I don't think a lot of my generation do — perhaps, this part is my wishful thinking; perhaps, a more precise statement to make is my friends do not support the war.
I love my country very much, but I hate the state, Lumen's lead vocalist shouted in the early 2000s in the songs we listened to, way before mass protests, anti-LGBT laws, anti-adoption laws, Crimea and Ukraine and the mass murder of independent media.
I have felt that sentiment hundred times stronger when Russia attacked Ukraine.
I am immensely proud of all my peers who have courage to resist from inside the country. They are true contemporary heroes even if labelled villains by the state.
I needed an outlet for the shame that I felt on behalf of someone who didn’t seem to have any shame at all, and my humanitarian contribution was to help out with translation and giving the directions for the refugees on the Zürich main station. This was effectively my second job for two and half months in the spring (my first being the doctoral studies), which I did whenever possible. It was extremely rewarding, and I have met many amazing people while doing it. I also hope I have managed to make - however small - a difference.
So here go few tips for volunteers from the experience I've gathered, most of them subjective and rely on my point of view and my personality, but maybe some of you would find them helpful! They mostly concern myself and my relationships - with the refugees and other volunteers.
Refugees and yourself.
You are a human, with your own emotions and your own opinions. These are not relevant for your service; what is relevant is your ability to empathise, and be clear and direct in your instructions. People that are approaching you are in need of help, not judgement; your personality should not appear in the equation between you and them.
You must show the same friendly face to different, very different people of different backgrounds, different beliefs, different opinions, different religions. Control your reactions; don't take anything personally. Sometimes people say hurtful things, and that is their trauma speaking, not them.
You don't have a right to react in any way but a compassionate one. You are the mirror in which they seen their suffering and pain, and it has nothing to do with who you are.
You are also, for a short time, a rock that people can rely on.
It is hard to be individually empathetic when a lot of people come in. Still, try. Still, greet everyone with a smile. Still, say how glad you are that they are all here. Still, remember about the reason you came here.
A good mantra is "I came here to help these people, because everyone deserves to get the help they need." Your reasoning layers can be a bit different from that: for example, "I feel ashamed of what the country I'm a citizen of has done, and I feel the need to make amends", or "My fellow citizens are targeted by a maniac dictator with delusions of grandeur, and it's my duty to resist in the ways I can." But, in the end, it all comes down to the empathy and compassion you have. And the lesson I have learnt, is that when you're kind to people, (in most cases!) they are also kind to you.
You all agree: the war is a horror with terrifying consequences. You may disagree on many different things; in fact, you will disagree on many different things. They are not relevant. These people, just like you, have dedicated their time and effort and mental strength to the cause, and you have to respect them for that. They are your colleagues, your partners in arms, their empathy your shared resource, and you have at least one thing in common.
This is a job, like any other. You can become a workaholic with this one, too. You have to remember — there are hard limits on your mental and emotional capacity. You are the only one who knows these limits, and the only one who can stop yourself to take a deep breath and a break. You are more of use to people when you are rested and healthy, not when you are on a verge of a burnout.
Volunteering has an emotional aspect to it, and too much emotion can drain you quickly. Sometimes, people want to tell a story. Most of the times, these stories are casually horrible. Be prepared to take it, and if you think you cannot — quietly ask one of your colleagues to help you out.
Sadly, the world is still a dark, cruel, unforgivingly irreversible place - even more so in the last few years. But we still have one another, and sometimes it's just enough light to keep you company in the darkness.