Volunteering in Palermo: an unforgettable & transformative experience with friends for life

Monday 6 November 2023

Home » Experiences » Volunteering in Palermo: an unforgettable & transformative experience with friends for life

As a Liberal Arts & Sciences: Global Challenges graduate who majored in Culture, History and Society, I decided to take on a new adventure and gain experience with social challenges outside of the classroom. So, I went to Palermo for two months to join the European Solidarity Corps and volunteered for CESIE supporting also some local centers in the city helping others. Volunteering here has been a way to help others, learn about myself in new ways, enrich my knowledge on social issues, and try to learn about global challenges in an individual, small-scale way. Working in local centers in Palermo and living with international volunteers was an unforgettable and transformative experience for me.

Among my experiences on was at Caritas Diocesana, where people with economic and social difficulties would come for a daily community lunch, psychological help, a shower, a place to sleep, and basic necessities. I helped at La Mensa (the canteen) with preparing the lunch, serving the food, cleaning, and more. I learned about the importance of the existence of such centers, their organization, the kind hearts of many Sicilians, and the difficulties that come with language barriers. Yet, after learning some basic Italian phrases, I got to know more about the people who come there as well as the local volunteers. The realities of poverty, addiction, mental diseases, and unemployment became clear to me here. I also saw how food is more than just a necessity to survive: it is a way to connect, to express identity and culture, and to find structure. 

Another center I volunteered at held workshops which I joined, one called “Lab Intercultura, Partecipazione Attiva e Orientamento al Lavoro” (Intercultural lab, active participation, and work orientation) and the other “Orientamento a Lavoro” (work orientation). These workshops supported young migrants and refugees in their experience arriving in Palermo, navigating cultural differences and civilhood, and enhancing respect and understanding for each other. They also learned about their personal and technical competencies and became prepared to find jobs in Italy thus becoming independent. The workshops also provided a community for the often isolated youths, who arrived alone and traumatised. I learned from some of the refugees how they made the crossing from Africa to Sicily, by boats where some experienced loss and extreme fear. I further learned about the realities of their daily lives. I saw how they worked extremely hard to learn Italian (very fast), make friends and connections, and put in an effort to make a better life. During the workshops, I would be a social connector, making sure everyone is involved. I would talk to them about their hobbies, dreams, and passions and see if this could be connected to their competencies and thus to potential ways to make a living. I learned how everyone, although we all came from many different social and cultural backgrounds, wanted to treat each other with respect and kindness. It was a place filled with cultural diversity: from differences in religion, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, to differences in languages and thinking about social issues. It opened my eyes to many things. For example, I learned that being open-minded also means respecting certain opinions that might be more conservative. I followed and participated in discussions about gender roles, sexuality, religion, and more, in Italian, which was extremely challenging but also rewarding when I noticed I started understanding more and more.

Apart from volunteering, I lived together with six other volunteers, all from different countries and cultural contexts. At the end of every day, we would come home with stories from our local centers. From stories about karaoke at a place for mentally challenged people, children becoming attached to my friends at the kindergarten, playing chess, repairing bikes in the city, or gardening, to young refugees getting help at a migrant center: every day, we could share, reflect, and learn together. We also shared stories and experiences from our own countries (Ecuador, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Serbia, Spain, and Turkey), cooked dinners for each other, and spent a lot of time visiting many places in Palermo and Sicily. By living in an international house where everyone is dedicated to working in culturally diverse centers, I felt surrounded by kind hearts. These two months went by extremely fast, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Not only did I learn more about and contribute to alleviating global and local challenges, but I also made friends and unforgettable memories for life.

Anouska Wright

ESC volunteer – Sharing solidarity 2023

Youth Unit