Get to Know Germany Through Volunteering | DW Travel | DW | 16.03.2008
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Get to Know Germany Through Volunteering

They might not sound like fun, but for young people wanting to make a difference, volunteer work camps are an opportunity to make a contribution to the country they're visiting -- and a way of getting to know it.

volunteers with rakes

It's not all about work

In Germany last year the International Youth Community Services (IJGD) organized 120 camps in Germany for 1400 young people.

"For the volunteer it's a way to learn the language and to visit Germany," said IJGD's training coordinator, Ute Siebler. IJGD is just one of a handful of organizations running volunteer camps in Germany.

Just one of the camps on offer in Germany last year was organizing art and craft activities for disadvantaged women and girls. The camp was based in Burg near Magdeburg in Saxony-Anhalt, eastern Germany.

Volunteers at another camp in Heiligensee, in Berlin's northwest, worked to preserve a war-time graveyard and in the evenings slept in a castle. South-east of Berlin, volunteers helped create parks on the site of an anti-racism project and studied German.

volunteers cooking

Volunteers live and work together

Conservation work is the focus of many camps in Germany, such as the camp in a forest in the Eifel region near Cologne, western Germany. The highlight of the camp, said leader Ilka Waesche, was staying overnight in a hiking shelter the group built. Participants also restored riverbanks and planted trees.

"It was a great experience for me to spend three weeks being responsible for a group -- it was a real challenge," said 25-year-old Waesche, who studies environmental science. Her group of 18 volunteers from 11 different countries worked five hours per day for five days a week and in their free time enjoyed swimming in the nearby lake.

Getting to know the local culture

volunteers with camp information signs

Volunteers use creative ways to communicate

While all the camps involve doing volunteer work for up to seven hours per day, there is also plenty of time to explore the surrounding area and take part in recreation activities as well as learning about German culture.

"When you are apart of everyday life in a country and work in that country you get to know a lot about it," said Waesche, who shared a German-style breakfast everyday with her campers.

"One of the highest motivators is not only to volunteer but to get familiar with the culture and with the local hosts living in the work camp location," Siebler said.

To many, the term "work camp" smacks of the Third Reich. But in fact, the first work camps in Germany only began in the post-war period, when a group of students from Hanover organized camps to promote reconstruction and to reduce negative stereotypes through international meetings.

In July 2007, Can Oz from Turkey took part in his first work camp in Germany. While Oz liked Germany's cities he thought German people were strange.

"Some of them are absolutely kind and behave friendly, but I also saw some people in the cities who weren't happy about us being in Germany and they didn't even talk to us," he said.

Live, work, play together

camp in the Eifel

Camps have a diverse cultural mix

At the work camps in Germany, volunteers aged between 16 and 26 also learn about their fellow campers' culture while sharing daily tasks like shopping, cooking and cleaning.

"It's about bringing people together," Siebler said. "For some volunteers that can't speak much English they are still able to work together."

English is usually the common language of work camps in Germany, though volunteers also have the chance to learn some German.

Jeong-seon Jin, a 21-year-old from Korea, said working together was the skill she learnt most during a conservation camp.

"If we didn't cooperate then we couldn't do things," she said. "When I wanted to do something then I would ask the other person to help because through cooperation everything is possible."

Cultural difference was sometimes a problem at meal times. According to Waesche, "some people found it difficult to understand why the Turkish boy wouldn't eat pig meat or why the Italians screamed whenever anyone put ketchup on pasta."

"It's all about different cultures living together," said IJGD's training coordinator Andreas Kunz. "It's cheap and it's a kind of holiday where volunteers from different countries meet."

Not like a package holiday

Work camps aren't unique to Germany. The IJGD has over 43 partner organizations from over 30 countries that also operate similar camps.

While volunteers are responsible for their own travel costs plus a registration fee to their local organization, accommodation and food are provided. But they shouldn't expect a five-star hotel -- volunteers are expected to experience the local conditions of the place they're working in. In Germany, volunteers usually stay in a school hall, but sometimes they might stay with a local family.

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