Belonging through volunteering

19 Jun 2023 | Volunteer Stories

Rawan Saadi

I am an immigrant: a statement that isn’t very special in a place like Auckland, where cultural diversity has become a defining feature of our city. Almost everyone has an origin story, each one more intriguing than the next.

As normal as it has become for a person to declare themselves a foreigner, the experience of uprooting a life and replanting it elsewhere is undeniably stressful. This is especially true for those of us coming from low developed or war-stricken regions of the world. This more than often means that leaving home was problematic or even traumatic for individuals and families. After all, it is even more difficult to start a new life in a beautiful yet frighteningly different place when you have yet to achieve the closure you need on the life you left.

Even though I consider myself one of the lucky ones, having come here from the Middle East the age of nine with some family here, I still struggled to find my identity in a place where I am considered foreign. As trying as it can be, I soon found out that resettling and finding a sense of belonging is not impossible. Of course, each person’s journey is unique to them. However, for many of us the ability to give back and contribute to our new home can make it feel more like our home. For me, this started with volunteering.

Although I started working a paid role before I started volunteering, it was my volunteer roles that gave me a far superior sense of belonging. I started off with Conservation Volunteers when I was 16, an organisation I found through Auckland Volunteers. Personally, I knew that New Zealand’s unmatched nature was my favourite part about the country. Knowing that I felt both physically and mentally part of the land when I was out there weeding bushes and planting manuka trees. Despite having lived in New Zealand for seven years at the time, I gained a connection with my national identity that I didn’t think I could have.

I understood that I could find a balance between the motherland in which my roots stem and my current homeland in which my branches stretch. Feeling comfortable in my connection with Aotearoa, I then set out to find way in connecting with my Middle Eastern roots. I started by reconnecting with family as well as old music and movies I used to enjoy until eventually I felt the best way to honour my Middle Eastern heritage in a foreign place would be to help those that have been put in similar situations and most likely worst ones. My adoptive mother and her family, who all took me in when I came here, were refugees many years ago. Having heard their stories, I was touched and as such reached out, once again through Auckland Volunteers, to refugee organisations.

Eventually I got a volunteer role during my last year of College with RAS (Refugees as Survivors), working with their youth sector by helping run debate nights and holiday programs. I met all kinds of people from all over the world. Each of their stories, like mine and my mother’s, was not like the other. However, all of them shared with me the same concern: ‘I’m clearly different. How will I fit in here?’ It was a question I had known well and as heartbreaking as it was to see some of them so anxious, I was glad to be a friend they could talk to.

I am now an employee at RAS Youth, and have more opportunities to help create a fun and inclusive community for refugee background youth. Throughout my work at RAS I have learnt that volunteering is a shared method of creating a sense of belonging amongst migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. One of my former co-workers, who also did some volunteering at the Mangere Resettlement Centre, said that this work was special to her. As a young refugee herself, she felt that she understood far too well the experiences of these young people and wanted to give back to the place where her new life began.

Even as part of our programs at RAS we are always in search of volunteers, especially those coming from a refugee background. As my boss reiterated many times, this is a chance for newcomers to gain experience in their new home and make it feel more like their home.

Written by Rawan Saadi – Volunteer storywriter for Volunteering Auckland
Photo by – Ruth Jackson

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