A Volunteer Report from Denmark
In Denmark, it’s common for students to take a semester off during their studies to either work as an intern in a company, study abroad to broaden their horizons in ways of learning, or, as I did, go travel. By coincidence I chose the United States and Mexico as destinations for my trip; as an anthropology and psychology student I was interested in learning about other cultures, but the primary goal with my trip was to get 6 months off and recharge my batteries before finishing my masters. Never would I have thought that the experiences I came to have could possibly have given me as much as they did, both in an academic and inspirational matter. Specifically one place still stands strong in my memory and motivates me to finish my masters, so I can actually get out in the field and as an anthropologist start using what I’ve spent five years learning at my university. Before visiting Wings of Angels I wouldn’t have thought that a small foundation/organization would have such a big impact on me. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it is, Wings of Angels did, that made my stay in Douglas unforgettable and that makes me long to go back as soon as possible.
To live in Denmark is to live in paradise, some people would say. Students are paid by the government to educate themselves, carrying weapons is illegal and nobody’s ever killed by guns. The few homeless people we have are living in the streets because they choose to, not because they have to, and health care is free. So in many ways we are a spoiled people. However, what I’ve come to learn through my studies of integration and volunteer jobs in the field is that we have a problem with those who aren’t like us. Immigrants and ethnic minorities, the others, are welcome to live in Denmark as long as they live under our rules. Immigration has only been going on throughout the past 40 years, and it seems to me that we are scared of other cultures threatening to destroy and take over “Danish culture”. The fear of something different seems to be keeping us from solving the issues we stumble upon when working with immigration and integration. During my time as a Danish teacher for immigrant women or back when I was working in kindergarten for children of ethnic minorities, I learned that common opinion between help organizations in Denmark was “Yes, we dowish to help you become integrated into Danish society, but only if we do it ourway.” The fear of the others seemed to be determining the strategies in which we wanted to help.
Observing which cultures we were actually dealing with was not relevant for the job, and considering the fact that there may be other and better ways to teach immigrants than the “Danish way of doing things” was not important. To me it seemed like a very judgmental and non respectful approach to things. “The culture of all ethnic minorities is useless in Denmark, and if they want to be helped, they need to give up their old culture, forget their identities and start living “Danish style.” Need I say that the outcome of these strategies have not been very helpful in the process towards a multifarious and integrated Denmark?
When coming from such a background, where, on the surface, everything seems to be perfect, but where hidden racism towards ethnic minorities flourishes in most layers of society, visiting Douglas and Wings of Angels was a great relief. I had never imagined experiencing a help organization with a less judgmental approach towards people in need. I still have lots to learn about the relationship between the United States and Mexico, but I could imagine that it is somewhat rather tense because of illegal immigration among other things. Therefore I was so impressed to see the corporation between two cultures, working their way towards the same goal; helping those who really needed it.
For some people it must seem irrelevant for a help organization to spend a lot of time considering whom it is, they’re trying to help and what the best possible way of approaching a certain culture and people would be. I agree that the most important thing is to get the help out there, where and when it’s needed. That being said, it’s also of major importance to consider factors such as culture, social class and the specific situation, the patient is in. Giving a man a new set of teeth is not very useful if you don’t also give him a toothbrush and teach him how to use it. Helping a starving little girl getting back on her feet won’t give her much, if her family isn’t taught how to maintain the girl’s new and improved condition. Having the patience to let the people you’re helping make mistakes when they’re trying to adjust to their new life is so important; getting used to a new life with new possibilities can take time, when you’ve lived the same life for so long.
I remember crossing the border from Agua Prieta to Douglas one time, waiting in line with all the other cars for the passport control. Dottee, the founder of Wings of Angels, was driving the car, and from her window she spotted a resident of Agua Prieta, whom Wings of Angels had given an artificial leg, so he wouldn’t have to be limp and walk around using crotches. I bet this guy was happy when he got his “new leg”, only problem was, that he wasn’t wearing it when we saw him! Dottee called him to her window and talked to him about it. It turned out that he was very happy with his new leg, but when he was begging among the cars in the passport control line, he would receive more money if he wasn’t wearing his leg; of course limping around with crotches would make better impression as him being a “poor beggar” that needed money. I don’t think Dottee approved, but she understood him.
This is just one of the reasons why my stay in Douglas was so enjoyable and why I got so much out of it; I learned that helping is important, but understanding the people you are helping is also a big part of it. Respecting those people both as a part of a culture and a social class, but also as individuals is a big factor, if you want to succeed. Victimizing patients as poor persons who can’t take responsibility and do anything by or for themselves will not make a help organization achieve their goals; on the other hand, teaching people that” you have a responsibility, we can help you get started, but in the end, you’re the one who is making it happen”, will help everybody help themselves and keep them being motivated for achieving their goals and a better life.
In a short term period, all this is not important. The important thing is to get out there and stop people from dying. But in a long term period, no help organization will survive if their only focus is to save lives immediately. In the way Wings of Angels involve themselves in the people, they’re helping; treating everybody with respect and as individuals and continuing to be there, even after the bleeding has stopped, I have no doubts that this organization will be helping those in need in Agua Prieta for many years to come.
– Mona Hølzer