Yesterday, whilst being kindly driven back to another week of hospital placements by a fellow medical student I was asked the ritualistic question "So... what have you got up to this weekend?" As the conversation evolved they managed to squeeze out of me that I have spent every Saturday for the last 4 years at an English Class for asylum seekers and refugees in inner city Leeds and how I host destitute asylum seekers in my home. My lovely driver's response was "WOW, you're such an amazing person". Just to clarify, I'm definitely not. Read this, and you'll soon be dropping the 'amazing' and you'll realise you'd do the same thing too.
Picture this, first year of Uni. Cabin fever in halls. Too many conversations that went "what A-levels did you do?", "where did you go on your gap yah?" I was searching for normal people who woke up before 4pm. For people who didn't smell of stale beer and a garlic kebabs. I was looking for a reality check, an escape from the bizarre existence of fresher-dom. And what I found was 'Common Conversation'. A haven of real people who were dressed by 1pm, who washed, who made real home cooked food. And that's where my volunteering journey began.
So second year, every Saturday, I'm still at it. A dyslexic, non-linguist, medic, teaching English. It had become a comforting part of my routine in my peculiar student existence. And it kept the little medical student in my conscience at bay still bleating on saying 'I just want to help people'. But I was meeting people, people I'd never imagine knowing. Iranian. Sudanese. Eritrean. Libyan. Iraqi. Freedom fighters. Activists. Conscientious objectors. Brave mothers. Courageous fathers. Every Saturday my world was thrown into incredibly harsh perspective. I heard people's stories and it keep me coming back for more.
Third year I find myself in charge. Suddenly 100 people, eyes on me, expecting me to perform. The suggestions (complaints) come in. It dawned on me how much this place meant, not only to me, but to the learners that come. When the money ran out and destitute people, who I knew lived off nothing, thrust notes into my hand whispering 'please, please keep this class going'. I realised it was their lifeline, their community, their place of refuge, their place to find friendship, their fresh start. This is when volunteering started to change my life. All I wanted to do was show them that people do really care and they are valuable and worthy. I knew I needed to commit, not just my Saturdays but my time, my money, my energy.
Forth year came. I was seeing great progress in people's lives. Learners gaining refugee status. Learners with barely two words of English now studying at university along-side me. Learners became friends and let me into their lives. I knew their stories; the wars, the journeys, the pain. How could I not volunteer? How could I give up? That's when I started hosting people at my house too. When I got to know people, the dreadful situations they exist in, even in the UK, the only way I could respond was by opening my home.
Now, in my fifth year, and Common Conversation is thriving. There is a great team of dedicated students volunteering and learning exceptional interpersonal, organisational and communication skills. I've dropped the titles but I still go. I spend a lot of my life with asylum seekers and refugees now, at English class, at my house, at their homes. Just life. Nothing I can put on my CV. But it's all because when you volunteer, when you really see and connect with others, they change you, and you can't say no.