Volunteer Birutė Karakaitė: The state found itself in a difficult situation. We need civic engagement
Journalist Ieva Šepetytė
Volunteering is usually understood as work without any pay, but people who devote their time to educational activities with refugees, as well as provide them with material support, usually express how much they themselves have gained by benevolently helping others. Knowledge of the culture of different nations, foreign language skills, long-term friendships, and better self-knowledge – these are the daily earnings received by volunteers.
Birutė Karakaitė felt an obligation to help the refugees after a large number of people from Belarus arrived in Lithuania. The woman cares for foreigners in Kapčiamiestis, where, according to her, it is still difficult for the locals to understand the need for such help.
“It’s a small village, I come from that area myself and I know there won’t be many volunteers there. I found this activity useful, so I wanted to set an example for others.
The state found itself in a difficult situation. Certainly, without the communities and residents, it is not capable of solving such problems. It became clear to me that I had to get involved and help. After all, there is a lack of people, social workers, psychologists. We need civic engagement,” asserts B. Karakaitė.
The woman works with refugees who have been in Lithuania for only a few weeks, so her most important task is to provide necessary assistance to the newcomers.
“In Kapčiamiestis, we distribute food, drinking water, and help with grocery shopping, because those people cannot leave the camp territory. They make a list, and we volunteer to buy what they need. We also give charity, bring toys, warm clothes, blankets for children, because foreigners come with summer clothes, and the weather is already autumn-like.
Sometimes we help people connect with their loved ones. Their families do not know where they are or if they have already arrived in Lithuania, although they have been living here for a whole month. So, we organize at least ten-minute conversations with parents, brothers, children, in order to dispel that uncertainty,” B. Karakaitė shares her experience.
Volunteers interacting with foreigners who have recently arrived in the country have the best understanding of how vulnerable refugees are during their first days in Lithuania.
“Curious situation – people thought that the mosquito bites in our country are deadly. After all, these insects spread malaria in their country. So, when a few were bitten by mosquitoes, they called for help and an ambulance, as they were scared of dying. That Lithuanian insects are not poisonous is basic information that no one provided them. It seems self-evident to us, but the foreigners were very scared and did not understand why they were forced to work, left without medical care or any means for treatment,” recalls B. Karakaitė.
According to the woman, even in a short time, volunteers get attached to the newcomers and provide them not only material but also psychological help.
“We become psychologists. Refugees are isolated from the outside world, do not know what awaits them next. We explain the situation – that there are so many newcomers at the moment that some of them will have to return. That needs to be said. Some will have to accept that they will not be able to travel further and will have to stay here for their applications to be considered.
I made friends with Congolese girls who spoke French. They talked to me about their troubles, about not knowing what would happen to them, and everyday worries. They lived in one room with ten other strangers, so they had to share everything with each other. In such situations, conflicts arise, those girls were harassed and discriminated against by others on ethnic grounds. They were happy to be able to talk to someone, find out what Lithuania and Lithuanians are like. Until then, they had not even heard of this country. Eventually, the girls were moved to where there were more people from Congo. I no longer know where they are or if they are all right. Of course, I am thinking about it,” B. Karakaitė reveals.
Poems of Antanas Baranauskas from the lips of foreigners
Seyfullah Cezmi Acar from Turkey has been living in Lithuania since 2015. Two years later, he started volunteering at the Balturka Cultural Center.
“We organized dinners for different nations, prepared food for guests. In the Town Hall Square, we participated in the International Christmas Fair, where we sold candies, baklava, and donated the profits to charity.
We drive around kindergartens, organize performances and sing. We once played The Little Prince, which was taught to us by our Lithuanian language teacher.
However, my favorite event organized by Balturka is Under the Umbrella of the Lithuanian Language and Culture. I also appeared in it – recited a poem “Tamošius Bekepuris” by Kazys Binkis and “Anykščių šilelis” by Antanas Baranauskas. I really like this event. When I listen to foreigners who recite poems in Lithuanian, it sends shivers down my spine.
When I am at that event, I think and imagine a lot. For example, I have a list of people I would like to talk to. One of them is Duke Gediminas, I have read about him. It was a ruler who invited foreigners to Lithuania, he was tolerant of them”, says S.C. Acar.
S.C. Acar is learning about the country’s culture and history through volunteering, and he has mastered the language so well that he graduated from Mykolas Romeris University with a degree in Lithuanian law. Education is one of the most important things in his life for S.C. Acar.
“Language would be the first thing a newcomer has to learn here. However, it is not the ultimate goal, but only a means to achieve a better life here.”
Volunteers themselves enrich their knowledge of the Lithuanian language
One of the most important tasks of volunteers is to help foreigners learn Lithuanian. Emilė Brožaitytė and Mindaugas Jonaitis provide such assistance to newcomers from Belarus. Every Saturday, the girl teaches foreigners rules of grammar, conducts live conversations, and the guy devotes an hour and a half per week to revising all the knowledge they have already acquired.
“In order to get a good job, you need the Lithuanian language. I have great respect for people who are determined to learn it,” says E. Brožaitytė.
M. Jonaitis admits that while volunteering he is also learning:
“It is useful because I also have the opportunity to take a fresh look at my mother tongue, improve my pedagogical competencies and communication skills.”
Volunteering turns into a beloved job
The volunteer coordinator of VA Caritas Foreign Integration Programs is Regina Krukonienė, who started her career by giving benevolent assistance to newcomers.
“People choose where to volunteer based on what is close to their heart. You can give it a try; it is not necessary to sign the contract immediately. Perhaps the future volunteer is still looking for the most acceptable activity for himself. Some want to work with children, others are afraid of them and just want to organize events. Some prefer to become friends of families.
I myself used to be a volunteer and came here not yet knowing what activities I would like to join. We sat down with the coordinator and chose which unit might be right for me. Later it became my job, I even started studying social work. Volunteering has changed my life. I would never have thought that I could enjoy speaking in public. Until then, I was sitting at a computer and working a remote job,” recalls R. Krukonienė.
The volunteer coordinator assures that there are no special requirements for doing such activity, but it is important to have a lot of willingness and determination. Languages would be an advantage, but not a necessity, because communication in Lithuanian is useful for foreigners. According to R.Krukonienė, it is common to assume that volunteers are usually young people, but in reality their age is from eighteen to fifty years.
Working with newcomers who stay to live in Lithuania covers more areas. There are educational activities, various celebrations, the Caritas community also always anticipates and willingly accepts the ideas of volunteers themselves.
“A lot has changed during quarantine. In the past, volunteers were responsible for people’s leisure time, events we organized at our center. As a result of quarantine, all of this has disappeared, but new responsibilities have emerged, such as helping children who are learning remotely. This is a very important area to which almost all volunteers have moved. We have a lot of them at the moment. We put up an ad that we needed people to help, and we were pleasantly surprised by the number of enquiries. People are interested and understand the need for this help. After all, the parents of newcomers cannot help their children who are learning the Lithuanian language.
We also have a day center in Pabradė, where our colleagues work with asylum seekers. We compensate them for the trip from Vilnius by train.
Events are also gradually being renewed, but it is difficult to get back on track after quarantine. I, as a volunteer coordinator, always say that we are very much looking forward to and encouraging ideas from volunteers. We may not implement all of them, but they often have really great thoughts, ”says R. Krukonienė.
According to the coordinator, volunteers often become friends of newcomers. There are times when they go on vacations together, interact in families, and they don’t even notice how work becomes leisure time together.
“Volunteering brings a lot. You can discover talents of your own that you didn’t know about before. When people go to volunteer, they think they are giving away the most precious thing these days – time – but at the same time they are getting a lot back. They get bolder. Intercultural communication is very useful. How much do we know about other nations other than what we learned in school? When communicating with newcomers, you become interested in learning more about their countries. You can even learn the basics of the language. It enriches you,” says R. Krukonienė.