When it comes to humanitarian crises, the contribution and support of individuals play a huge role: be it donating money, food, and necessary items, organizing campaigns to draw more attention to the problem, or volunteering.
If you are considering signing up for voluntary activity, maybe all you need is a real story. Therefore, let’s hear one from SAVA platforma – a Lithuanian initiative that unites different volunteering activities and provides an easy sign-up for them.
SAVA platforma team sat down to talk with Mehdi Alizadeh from Iran. Mehdi currently lives in Lithuania and volunteers at the migration camps. We talked about his experiences in Lithuania, lessons learned from volunteering, and much more.
Hello, Mehdi! Tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up here in Vilnius, Lithuania?
My name is Mehdi Alizadeh, I am from Iran. I am a physicist and have a Ph.D. in lasers; here in Lithuania, I am working as a researcher at Vilnius University on a project to study cancer using lasers.
Actually, I didn’t plan to come to Lithuania.
Long story short, I applied for a job at the University of Toronto in Canada, where one Lithuanian professor was working at that time. During the interview, he shared he was planning to establish a research group at Vilnius University and asked me if I wanted to join it. I got interested, so I came to your country.
What was your first impression of Lithuania?
I arrived in October 2021 when the quarantine and cold weather started, so it was a bit of a challenge.
However, everything got so much better once the weather started warming up.
I then started traveling around and had the chance to visit many cities while helping the migration department translate and interpret for migrants.
I also went to different migration camps that were at the borders. Not to mention that I had a chance to visit Kaunas and Klaipeda during summer by myself.
In general, I really like Vilnius and Lithuania. It’s a beautiful growing country, and I see its bright future.
Did you notice any cultural differences between Lithuanian and Iranian culture?
Well, I spotted a lot of differences. For instance, it is very different in terms of greetings. People in Lithuania greet each other very shortly or sometimes don’t do it at all.
In Iran, greetings are more essential, and they last way longer.
Also, I noticed that although young people are very warm and welcoming to foreigners, the older generation is a bit closed and slightly colder. But in general, everything else is excellent.
Interestingly, volunteering here and in Iran is a bit different. When I came to the EU and Lithuania, I realized that some people volunteer as a side hobby or part-time job. For instance, students or young people who do not have a job choose volunteering.
In Iran, volunteering is more like a part of our culture: if you want to help, you help; it comes naturally. For instance, I didn’t volunteer in Iran, but I always helped whenever there were problems in my country, like extinguishing a fire that’d once started in the mountains.
Tell me more about your volunteering experience in Lithuania. How did it all start?
As I said, I’m the kind of person who wants to help other people. I like feeling useful in society; it does not matter if I live in my home country or not. If I am among people, I better be useful and help those in need.
Last summer, I read the news that people from the Middle East were coming to Lithuania, and they were stopped at the Belarus border. It caught my attention, and I followed the news and soon realized that the situation was getting very serious.
In one of the articles, I read that most of these people spoke Kurdish, and there were no translators, so I thought I should help with that.
I then sent an email to the Red Cross saying that I could volunteer as a translator at the migration camps. Their team guided me to the migration departments straight away, and it all started from there.
What came next?
Well, then I saw on Facebook that people were looking for someone speaking Farsi to help migrants integrate into the society. Again, I contacted the people, and we started translating some presentations.
Later on, I gathered a group of Iranian people here. Now we are working on helping Farsi language-speaking migrants (from Iran, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan) integrate better into Lithuanian.
We give them all the necessary info about how to live here, find a job, and other important information that could help them become a part of this society faster.
What were your impressions once you started volunteering? Did you face any challenges?
While volunteering at the camps, I saw some situations that affected me emotionally. In the evenings, when I was at home, my mind was still processing those situations, which was challenging for me.
It is not easy to volunteer in crises where you see people’s lives on the line.
However, I also had some very nice moments during that time. For instance, I had the chance to bring some happiness to the migrants’ day-to-day. I went to talk to them and gathered them to sing and do some excellent activities, and it was fun.
I think they lack most are relationships and attention: social contact is one of the most important to people from our countries.
How are migrants in Lithuania integrating, based on your knowledge?
Lithuanian language is complex, and I think it is a central problem for the migrants. If they manage to learn it, everything goes better. They are more likely to find a job, and when they have a job, they can communicate with other people more often and integrate better.
What would you like to tell migrants planning to come to Lithuania?
First, bring warm clothes and a blanket. (laughs)
In all seriousness, just try to integrate into society as soon as possible, put all your effort into learning the language, and then find a job. That’s how your life will change.
But it is not easy; you need to work, and you need to take the first step toward integration.
In your opinion, what are the top qualities for someone who wants to start volunteering, especially with migrants?
Be patient and prepare to dedicate your time.
You need to be psychologically resilient. You have to understand that you cannot change people’s lives. You can, at best, help them a bit. And I think it is enough for a person.
What is the main lesson you took from this volunteering experience?
I am grateful for the friends that I found during this period. I did not know that there were a few Kurdish people in Vilnius, and I had the chance to meet them, and now we are friends. I also made many Lithuanian friends and friends from other nationalities: Afghans, Pakistanis, and Indians.
Lastly, I’d say – appreciate your personal life, love people, help them, and don’t expect anything in return; those are the main lessons I took.
Find more about volunteering in Lithuania at SAVA platforma https://savaplatforma.lt/