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ECHOES FROM MOZAMBIQUE
The Testimony of a Portuguese Salesian Volunteer
My name is Sandra. I am 35 years old and was born in Portugal, but I consider myself a world citizen by option, teacher by vocation and with a heart of a volunteer.
Once I understood, when I was teaching at the university, that my knowledge, my work in the education field should have a greater purpose. I decided to leave the chair, the office and become a salesian teacher, so that I could be closer to the youth in that crucial age. Don Bosco opened new horizons to me and invited me to fly. A few years later, it had become clear to me that in spite of the huge change I had made with my life, it was necessary to change even more… because more important than doing or than being in an European school yard, was being and, if possible, closer to the poorest. I needed to live the gratuitousness experience. Giving to others, to the truly poorest, the gift of knowledge by giving them new expectations in life, new opportunities, by “teaching them to fish”, but mostly by giving them hope and the testimony of true love - Jesus. So, I accepted the “Don-bosquinian” challenge: the missionary appeal of teaching with the heart!
First, I made two short time volunteer experiences (in July and August 2008 and 2009), during my summer holidays. But being part of the Mozambican reality, poverty and limitations, as well as the love for our orphan boys and for my “new family” (the Moamba`s salesian community) made me feel extremely uncomfortable in Europe when I returned… To sum up, the calling, the vocation spoke louder and I decided, with the agreement and support of the portuguese salesian province, to leave Europe and come to Moamba.
Moamba is a small and very poor Mozambican village where time seams to have stopped and where the people are like the brickwork houses: forsaken themselves by time and by the hurry modern world! Here misses almost everything and everything is expected to be done… That is why even the slow passage of time doesn`t give us enough time to do everything needed.
My life in Moamba goes on like the Incomati river running waters…I teach Portuguese language at the professional salesian school, and I’m also teaching an English course; I take care of the 112 internal orphan boys (both as a nurse and as a mother); I develop some raising founds activities, in order to feed our boys in the best way possible. However, the greatest project in which I’m focused and involved is in the construction of a bakery, so that we can reduce the costs with the daily bread and to make us able to supply our students` (both internal and external) greatest food needs.
Concerning the relationship between me and the salesian community, I consider myself a part of the family. I live like them and have a similar daily routine. I teach Portuguese and English languages to the noviciate students and from time to time I’m a part of the apostolate missions in the inland villages. I have no weekends nor timetable. I rest when is possible, and hopefully will rest in paradise, as once the master Don Bosco said.
The end of my volunteer mission is sine die and intends to give knowledge to the local people so that one day they can walk alone, building and developing their own country, their own future. But, above all, my mission consists in donate myself to others, serving God and loving without limits, because there is no stronger will, no stronger heart as the heart of a volunteer.
Cheer Don Bosco, cheer Jesus!
ECHOES FROM HAITI
“ I didn’t have much time to prepare myself before I left for Haiti. In fact, I didn’t even realize I was going to Haiti. I thought I was only going to the Dominican Republic. But once we arrived in Santo Domingo, its capital, I was told I’d be resting one day before leaving for Port-au-Prince. And that’s about the time I started dreading my decision to come. I was terrified of what I’d see, do, experience, and wanted to turn around and go home. Or at least just to stay in Santo Domingo and help from there.
Throughout the entire nine-hour bus ride, I was knotted with fear and regret, sure I was getting myself into something that I would regret. I didn’t think I’d be able to help, and that I’d just end up using what little resources were available and wasting everyone’s time. I wasn’t happy about the time length either. A month seemed too short to be worth it and too long for an emergency setting. Everything about the situation just didn’t feel quite right and it was very unsettling.
My time in Haiti was a tightly wound spiral. I started out focusing on the only thing I knew: myself and my own fear and misgivings. I was very concerned with how I’d be able to handle the situation, seeing all the poverty and suffering, knowing that I had no search and rescue training, knew nothing about surgery or medicine, had no contacts in high places to ask for donations.
Then, two days in, I met fifteen-year-old Sandra. She was trapped for eight days in the rubble of her school, already mourned for as though dead, and received by her family with such suspicion after she was pulled out, it was as if she were just an illusion. The joy of recognition and the miracle of her survival was enough to open my spiral a little wider.
When we took her to the University of Miami’s tent hospital at the airport to treat her fractured hip, we saw exhausted volunteer doctors, exasperated nurses, and patients staring into space or curled up within themselves. Back at the house, we had forty orphans who were all home when the earthquake hit. They hadn’t even been outside the walls to see the damage on the other side. Their schools had been flattened and they had no family. They had nothing. But, oh, can they sing! When we decided to take the orphaned girls on a field trip to see their own history, we swung by the airport to sing there. Everyone stopped what they were doing. The smiling doctors and nurses brought out their digital cameras and started filming. The patients became alive with the sound of their own singing, songs that were a part of them. Their spirits were lifted, their cups filled, and my spiral opened a little wider.
When we moved Sandra to a different hospital for therapy, we brought with us some donations we’d received that we couldn’t use, mostly medical equipment. It was exactly what the doctors had run out of the day before, and they offered to trade us some baby diapers and food that they couldn’t use, but we could definitely make use of. As we traded goods and donations with the doctors there, I realized we would have to do things for ourselves. If we waited for the government or some other leading body to take charge, it would be a losing effort. By taking the responsibility and the action into our own hands, we were making the experience our own and finding solutions to seemingly impossible riddles. With that friendship in place, my spiral opened a little bit more.
Later that week, we brought the doctors to the camps we were feeding. We had 8,000 people under our care and needing attention but we couldn’t take them all to the hospital. So we brought the hospital to them. Having the team of doctors in our driveway, performing major surgery under the tarp, and watching them help the people in a way we were unable to was a small victory as well, and the spiral opened.
Being there on my birthday away from family and friends, away from a celebratory atmosphere, without internet and no way for people to contact me, I was expecting a dismal day. However, I had just the opposite experience. All the sisters congratulated me, they offered the Mass for me in the parish, the girls sang to me, gave me a hand-embroidered cloth and a party with singing, dancing, poems, and general silliness. It was the icing on a more delicious cake than I expected or deserved, and was a reason to celebrate amidst the sadness. My spiral was opened wider yet and stayed wide throughout the rest of the trip.
By the time I had to leave, I was exhausted, but fighting the urge to offer to stay longer. Knowing full well that my mission was over, that I’d come and done all that I could do, nothing more and nothing less, I left with a sense of peace. But with such a love for Haiti’s people that I can’t forget them or their needs, the time we shared, and will continue my mission of loving them even if it has to be long distance. My self-centered spiral had grown so large that I myself disappeared in the infinity of the experiences around me.”
“I stayed at the Provincial House of the Salesian sisters in Port-au-Prince for one month. I am a volunteer with the lay volunteer organization VIDES, supported by the Salesian sisters. The Province has six houses in the affected area and was the only house that stood. None of the sisters, nor students in the sisters’ schools, were killed by the earthquake because school was not in session. The schools, however, were all destroyed and will need to be rebuilt. Meanwhile, people of the surrounding communities are living on the campuses in tents, and the congregation is struggling to feed and care for about 20,000 people.”