Sahar was nineteen and in her gap year from study in the UK when she came to volunteer for three months with Lifestart Foundation in Hoi An. She is an extraordinary young woman who was born in Iran and after years of traveling with her family they settled in the UK where Sahar is now undertaking a degree in Psychology and Philosophy at Oxford University.
She had never been to Vietnam and undertook this volunteer experience on her own. With her engaging personality, maturity beyond her years and independent spirit it took no time at all for her to make friends and to fit in as part of the team.
Sahar was a very welcome, conscientious and valuable member of the Lifestart Foundation volunteer team and left a lasting impression on many of us. We hope that she will return sometime in the future and weave a little more of her magic over us.
I asked Sahar to write a blog about her experience volunteering with Lifestart Foundation in her gap year from studies in the UK. Here is her story.
'It’s been a while since I was in Viet Nam but the
hardest thing about writing this entry isn’t trying to remember what happened, or filling up a word count. It’s figuring out how I can get across the pricelessness of the whole experience in few enough words to maintain your interest. With the summer of 2010 being spent in ignorant bliss, September alongside wilting leaves and endless rain courtesy of British weather, brought about the seemingly never ending task of organising university as well as working as many hours as possible (without losing my sanity) to save up enough money to have a gap year I’d not regret. Leaving Viet Nam on June 6th 2011 5 minutes before my visa expired, I’m over the moon my choices led me to Lifestart Foundation in the picturesque town of Hoi An. Reading an entry on this blog I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with the work of the charity so I’d like to use my fifteen minutes of fame to tell you a little bit about the mark left on me in the three short months I was there.
I’ve moved around a lot as a child, being uprooted as soon as I felt like I could start to think about
Ken's last day...
Phuong took this photograph of Mai, Ken, and I - he's quite the photographer!
settling in and so the nauseous feeling at the pit of my stomach when I stepped out of the airport into Da Nang wasn’t fear. Nor was it from the particularly turbulent journey from Siem Reap, or the thick smoke filled air of the fourth largest city in Viet Nam. It wasn’t even due to the fact that I was pretty sick and arguing my way out of hospitalisation a few hours later (avoid hospitals in Hoi An if you can). I felt like my heart was in my stomach because I was on my way to meet people who’d had tough breaks in life, people whose biggest worries concerned their survival and that of their loved ones as opposed to whether they looked fat in a dress or what their friends thought of them. No, I’m not saying those are my biggest worries in life but what I am trying to say is that the people I was on my way to meet were pretty incredible, having faced real adversity and maintained a positive attitude in the face of hardships I find hard to even imagine.
Just under a week after arriving in Viet Nam I
was back on my feet and covering English lessons for Ruth while she was on a training course in Sai Gon. I’d worked in a similar role with children back in Bristol so wasn’t too worried about the kind of work I’d be doing at the Lifestart Foundation Free School - what I was a little nervous about was what the kids would think of me... I mean if you’ve ever worked with young people I’m sure you can appreciate how brutal they can be! Ken who’d been covering for Ruth before me was very helpful and I soon got into the flow of things. In the short time until Ruth’s return the boys and I became friends and even with the obvious language barrier managed to have a lot of fun and a mostly productive time, reinforcing and practicing work they’d done beforehand. Another aspect of Ruth’s many roles was working on English with the ladies in the Lifestart Foundation Workshop and this was also something I got involved in. I’d expected to meet some impressive characters before I got to Lifestart Foundation but I was genuinely blown away by their stories and even more so by their resilience.
By the time Ruth got back to Hoi An I’d met Karen and not wanting to waste any time, she introduced me to a family very close to her heart, Ngoc’s.
There are blog entries all about her and her family so I won’t get into the details here but highly recommend reading them if you’ve not done so before. When I first arrived, Ngoc’s mum Chau while very welcoming was pretty wary of my being there and kept a really close eye on me. However as the hours turned into days, and the days into weeks, the two of us managed to devise a means for communication and she trusted me more and more. Working with little Ngoc was amazing, it was incredible to see her reaction to new sounds and textures, and pretty humbling to see how much she was loved by her family and neighbours (who never seemed to get impatient or complain). One of the things I most looked forward to while in Hoi An was making the journey from my flat to the village in which Ngoc lived. I’d become such a normal part of their day to day life that it
really did feel like I could happily go back every day with no foreseeable end. Obviously there was bound to be an end but I think I was pretty lucky - the last time I saw Ngoc and Chau (and everyone else I’d met through them for that matter) was at Ngoc’s birthday party, probably one of the best goodbyes I could have asked for.
Next to everything I’ve rambled on about above I did odd bits and bobs too. From taking photos for the Etsy website (which you should have a look at!) to contacting schools and doing general admin, I was always kept busy. I was lucky enough to be involved with the fun day in Da Nang for children attending the Free School - they went bowling, had lunch, and watched Rio in 3D (their faces when the film started were hilarious). I even ended up being roped in to cover for a very ill Ruth on a visit from an international school from Saigon. I was very aware of having to come up with a lesson plan and activities which would be as interesting for the visitors as well as our kids who’d
have to repeat it four times in one day... 10 year old kids have a lot of energy (and answers) so it was very handy not being much older than them and being quite happy to answer back! As it turns out, I definitely do not want to be involved with children full time, but annoyingly that I don’t want to not be involved with them at all.
While the work (for the most part) didn’t feel like work and was more than enough to keep me happily occupied, there was also a lot I learnt and experienced away from the workplace. In my short time there I managed to make a lot of friends: local, expats, and Germans. I ended up going to two weddings, being shown the local side of Hoi An by Phuong, and was even invited to a lovely rooftop BBQ by Sinh. Sue
and Rob also made me feel very welcomed, inviting me on days out with them, for beer and peanuts, looking out for me when I was ill, teaching me to ride, and so on. This hospitality was everywhere I’d turn and while I’m doing so I’d like to also
mention Ruth for taking me under her wing as she had done the Germans. The Germans I met are pretty wonderful people and at the time were working at different places throughout the town. They quickly became a big part of my life and with them I did a lot of exploring... from building fires and camping on the beach on one of the Cham islands, missing numerous flights due to being distracted by fireworks and ending up asleep in the wash-room of a hotel, exploring the major cities of Ha Noi and Sai Gon, jumping off boats into Ha Long, riding Hai Van, and eating everything from beating hearts to cat. I could go on much longer about the people and the places but while it brings back memories for me, unless you’ve been there and watched the sun rise at An Bang, seen the riverbank lit only by lanterns and floating candles, ridden through the rice paddies or settled down to a café sua da, it’s not the same.
Nearing my last week, having had an unexpectedly welcoming and supportive group of people around me, I felt like a pro. When friends of mine timed
their stints in Asia such that they could come visit before I left, I showed them my favourite places, I let them in to some of the secrets of Hoi An, perhaps rather forcefully for fear of not having enough time to show them all I wanted them to see. I think I can now say they got through enough Bahn Mi, spent enough nights at the Beach Club, and enough hours roughing it on Cham for me to feel like they got a taste of the Hoi An I’m so very much in love with!
Karen wanted me to write this as a travel blog to show a younger audience that volunteering isn’t about making huge sacrifices or single-handedly changing the world - to be quite honest no one expects that and (maybe a little depressingly at times) that rarely ever happens. The point is to make your efforts count and for me the experience was priceless because I was lucky enough to go over to Viet Nam to work with an organisation that delivered everything they’d claimed and more. I had the chance to see first hand how when given a platform, people in seemingly
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hopeless circumstances thrive. It was a pleasure and privilege to be part of the team and if you were to ask me whether I would change anything about the experience my answer would be this: không cảm ơn (not even the hospital part!)
Lots of love,
xxxx Are you thinking of volunteering??
Arm yourself with as much information as possible about your host organisation, read their website thoroughly and I would suggest that you read this blog on International Volunteering
For those of you who are little techno challenged like myself if you click on any of the words in blue it will automatically link you into that subject. Don't forget to have a look at our new website and find out how you too can support us from anywhere in the world.Lots of Love from Karen www.lifestartfoundation.org.au
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77 Phan Chau Trinh Street, HOI AN. VIETNAM You can read the blogs of previous Lifestart Foundation volunteers on the links below. Al and Robbie Meet Trisha from New Zealand Art Classes with Lone from Denmark 9th August 2011 Ruth: Teaching English in Vietnam 31st May 2011 E: Why Vietnam Rocks 9th Dec 2010 Sue: Capacity Building and Cleaning Up Mud 29th July 2010 Mark and Mary: Teaching English as a Second Language November 2009 Tropical Storm Ketsana - A picture is worth a thousand words Cycle Vietnam for a Worthy Cause – Jan 17th 2009 Doctor John – Jan 14th 2009 Memory Portraits – Jan 14th 2009 Birdman Returns – Jul 15th 2008 Meet Sherry – A dream volunteer – Apr 30th 2008
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