Andy Petrochenko – English School Volunteer

A teacher back in his home country, Andy traveled all the way from Siberia, Russia to volunteer at the Scalabrini English School. He speaks about his time here below. 

“Cape Town is different from and the same as my home city simultaneously. Globalisation has made all big cities look alike, but at the same time, Cape Town has its own mood and pace of life. 

I used to be a lawyer, but then moved into the language sphere as it was much more appealing to me. It was my dream to become a volunteer somewhere overseas, and somewhere in Africa was the perfect destination. I wanted to serve and help people with what I could offer, and it happened that I am an ESL  (English as a Second Language) teacher, so my job at Scalabrini was teaching English.

“The Scalabrini English School has made me a more sensitive and empathetic teacher. It’s vital not to underestimate the importance of being careful and caring towards your students wherever you teach.”

Since the first moment of communication, I felt very welcome and cared for. The interview (with Vivienne) went in such a friendly way that my desire to work for Scalabrini grew incredibly. Upon arrival, I got lots of instruction, explanations, orientation days, exciting and educating integration seminars etc.

All my questions were answered in detail thanks to all the colleagues and especially the manager of the English School, Rhoda. Everyone really helped me with understanding the life and goals of Scalabrini and to align my efforts with them. 

There are so many things that I learnt at Scalabrini, I am still thinking about them. What I can tell is that I saw an incredible example of work discipline and devotion at Scalabrini, from every single person. It was awesome to see how engaged everyone was. I also believe that I learnt a lot about teamwork and atmosphere. Each member of the team tried to contribute his or her share and at the same strives to help their colleagues wherever possible. It was great to be in that kind of environment. Professionally, I definitely feel more experienced now, because I had a chance to see which teaching techniques and strategies worked and did not work in a completely new place. 

The Scalabrini English School has made me a more sensitive and empathetic teacher. It’s vital not to underestimate the importance of being careful and caring towards your students wherever you teach. I also acquired some new ways, tricks and methods to present my material or deal with classroom management, thanks to observing my dear colleagues and the workshops that Rhoda and the University of Cape Town held. 

I think I have two moments that I particularly cherish. The first one was the integration seminar conducted by Diana and Max. We had wonderful conversations about the ethos of Scalabrini as well as on plenty of very important topics. I was really thankful for that chance to be introduced to different ideas and discuss essential issues, to meet the others and to be heard. 

The second moment was the Space Café workshop. I organised it for the learners, basing it on my own experience with my English club back in Russia. Being a conversational event with several open-talk, creative locations, it received a massive response and positive feedback. I really loved how engaged, happy and interested everyone was. 

I have plans for the distant future to volunteer in South America or Asia, but before that I am going to work at a private English school in my home city, Krasnoyarsk for a couple of years. I have a lot of ideas I would like to implement and bring to life, as well as digest everything I learnt and experienced in South Africa.”

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Max Obmsacik – Advocacy Volunteer

Max came into Scalabrini with knowledge of American law, history and politics. He is half way through his time volunteering with Advocacy and will be taking home a plethora of knowledge by the end of it. Read about his experience so far below. 

“Cape Town is one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been. I just can’t get over the mountains juxtaposed with the water right there. There are so many different cultures coming together and you meet all these unique people, not just from South Africa, but all over the continent in this beautiful setting. 

“Working here has really helped reinforce that I do want a career in public service, whether that’s in the government or a non-profit I’m not sure, but being around all the people that work at Scalabrini who are so motivated and wonderful and doing such good has been really powerful for me. 

I had a very good friend who interned here in the Spring. I got a grant from my school and was talking to her, she would not stop raving about it (Scalabrini) so I messaged Sally and they had a spot. 

I’ve learnt so much, an absurd amount. My background is in American law and American history and American politics, so it’s been a non-stop barrage of information. I’ve just been learning a ton, especially about the lengths that migrants go to to get to the places that they arrive and hearing those stories has been pretty remarkable. 

We have clients that come with very different problems. A pretty interesting thing is that my department is often the very first stage. We see clients who are brand new to the country, many of whom do not speak any of the South African languages, but then I see my colleagues who work in the Employment Access Programme working with people with documentation, who are adjusting to South Africa and who are applying for jobs. It’s cool to see the entire process and I hope that this centre can remain somewhere that people can go and get help, whether it’s documentation, employment, general welfare assistance or education.

I think working at Scalabrini has really made me think a lot about what I want to do with my life and the position of privilege that I have, that I am able to go to university and I’m able to live in a country where there are lots of opportunities and I kind of have my choice. Working here has really helped reinforce that I do want a career in public service, whether that’s in the government or a non-profit I’m not sure, but being around all the people that work at Scalabrini who are so motivated and wonderful and doing such good has been really powerful for me. 

A high for me was the recent World Refugee Day. I thought that was so cool. A lot of the work that we do day to day is not always optimistic work because sometimes it feels like we are working against some powerful forces, but to see that day was just a celebration of these migrants who have come from all over this massive continent, all getting together and sharing their stories was definitely a high. A low is that the office can get cold, temperature wise, but besides that there haven’t been any big lows. It’s been a very positive experience. 

I’ve worked a lot of internships over the last few years and I haven’t had one that’s nearly as supportive as this. It’s been a wonderful, well supported internship experience. 

Danielle Harris – Advocacy Volunteer

Danielle came to South Africa, looking to better understand the praxis of international law and spent time interning in the Advocacy Programme. Read Danielle’s reflection on the ten weeks she spent here. 

“When I first saw Scalabrini, a building with an orange, red, and yellow facade, it looked like a place of hope in a grim area. For refugees, Scalabrini is exactly that- a safe haven. During my orientation, the facilitator asked us staff to traditionally introduce ourselves while also including a description of our daily commute to the office. There was a mixture of straightforward and convoluted paths, causing us all to approach our work differently upon arrival.

“But there were also many uplifting moments; translating for French-speaking clients and seeing a smile on their faces when they realised that they could be heard in their native tongue; assisting clients with certifications for permanent residency; and playing checkers (and getting beat) by men at a culture celebratory event on World Refugee Day.”

When I began to meet with refugees, I understood just how much our respective paths shaped us, especially since refugees took even more intense paths to get to South Africa. This discussion prompted me to consider how, unlike my journey from the United States, others were packed onto boats in conditions reminiscent of the Middle Passage, hidden under covers in trucks and buses, and had walked hundreds to thousands of miles to get to South Africa. 

Somewhere along the way, the clients learned about Scalabrini and they landed at my desk for me to either tell them comforting or unfortunate news. I would give a variety of responses to essentially tell someone that the journey they made to South Africa was for naught because they were not recognised as a refugee in terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention, or that they would have to travel for hours to apply for asylum. 

As an Advocacy intern, it was my job to assist clients with applying for asylum, preparing appeals, representations, and assisting with other legal issues that arose (i.e. hospital xenophobia, school registration, family joining). During my first week at the office, I sat with a colleague to shadow her during the client intake process. From 9am-12pm, we would individually meet with clients to hear their stories and problems, and offer advice on potential solutions.  

Throughout my ten weeks at the Scalabrini Centre, there were many heartbreaking moments: I met with people without refugee claims who literally carried their children in their hands and asked for help but could not be assisted; I had to tell people from Zimbabwe and other countries with economic and other claims that are not recognised by the Convention, and that they had to return home. 

But there were also many uplifting moments; translating for French-speaking clients and seeing a smile on their faces when they realised that they could be heard in their native tongue; assisting clients with Certifications for permanent residency; and playing checkers (and getting beat) by men at a culture celebratory event on World Refugee Day. I coped with work by finding beauty in the struggle and learning more about the clients’ lives outside of being a refugee, as well as hearing stories about their children, and talking with colleagues who had been at Scalabrini for years. 

A colleague of mine kept the following quote on their desk, “Helping one person may not change the whole world, but it may change the world for one person.” These words pushed me through times when I felt like I failed refugees because I could not directly or quickly change the problems within the refugee system or within their countries. Johnny Clegg’s song “Asimbonanga” also kept me going by reminding me of how many seemingly insurmountable battles South Africa has overcome, and that the battle for refugees here in South Africa can also be won.

I came to South Africa seeking a better understanding of the praxis of international law. Organisations like Scalabrini have shown me the necessity of on the ground work. As I return to the States, I will take with me the faces and resilient stories of many refugees. The country where Madiba stood tall in the face of injustice has taught me a lot of lessons on how to better the long walk to freedom for refugees.”

cape town volunteer all rounder shreyas

Shreyas Gupta – All Rounder volunteer

Spending a few weeks at Scalabrini has been very interesting for Shreyas, especially in terms of  helping him unpack his thoughts around his own immigrant status, living in the US. Shreyas was an All Rounder at Scalabrini. Read about his time here below.

“I’m originally from India, but I was born in South Africa and grew up in the US. Cape Town has been different for me in terms of personal exploration and growth, in the sense that I’m now at the age where I can be here without my parents and that supervision. On the city front, I think that maybe it’s the context of the work that I do, the people that I’m with or the programme that I’m in, I’ve become a lot more aware of some of the racial and class tensions. But, I have also really loved this city and all it has to offer. I always imagined Cape Town as a big city, but it is small, at least it is divided in a way which makes it feel small. 

“You have to be quick on your feet in learning small tidbits of things and then deep dive when needed. Given the nature of that, I’ve been able to interact with so many different people and I think I’ve really taken that personally in the sense that it’s been really rewarding.” 

What brought me to Scalabrini was generally the work around refugees and migration. I think the work is interesting in the sense that my parents are first generation immigrants, which has been more of a relevant conversation as I’ve gotten older. Also as the political climate continually progresses in the US and around the world, I’ve become much more aware of my immigrant status. 

I only got my citizenship three years ago. So just understanding a lot more of what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be a permanent resident etc.

My current position here is an All Rounder, but I spent my first three weeks doing EAP (Employment Access Programme) work. I would say that I have worked in almost every division at Scalabrini besides the Women’s Platform and BASP. It’s been really cool to get a larger sense of the organisation, but also to have honed in exposure of EAP. 

I think one of the most interesting things about the organisation is that it’s so dynamic, there are just things always moving. That has been an interesting learning curve, whatever is needed, you just have to adapt to. You have to be quick on your feet in learning small tidbits of things and then deep dive when needed. Given the nature of that, I’ve been able to interact with so many different people and I think I’ve really taken that personally in the sense that it’s been really rewarding. 

I’ve learnt a lot. I think factually a lot about migration. I didn’t know a lot of the statistics and a lot of the issues migrants face. One of the biggest things that I have taken away, was from a meeting with Miranda, she said that Scalabrini’s overall mission was to create a perception of migration being an opportunity. I think that has been so true of what is being said in the media and the way people view refugees, it’s always viewed as a crisis and that is always how it’s been taught to me. Since being here, I’ve realised there are a lot of things that have been misinterpreted and misinformed. It’s been humbling to say the least, even if that sounds cliché. It’s been humbling to see people coming in so determined and put everything on the line to make a better life for themselves and their families. 

I was helping one client make their CV and they were my age from Angola and in almost every single way he was similar to me, he moved here when he was three, he grew up here, had perfect English and is now an entrepreneur. I’ve done a lot of entrepreneurial work. I would have conversations with him like with someone back home. So it was interesting, because I was still having to help him, but he was highly capable. I had conversations with him and I learnt about him, he learnt about me, we shared something that I wouldn’t say everyone could have in common with someone. But again, the nature of the situation he was born into, we just had different upbringings, but to no fault of his own, obviously. I think that was really cool to have that connection. 

Future plans are very up in the air. So if I can find a way of hopefully tying all my interests together, then that would be really rewarding. Lots of conversations to be had, but I think I’m getting a better sense of this meaningful work. This is important to me, and as I said my status as an immigrant, coming to terms with that and what it means.”

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Emma – SIHMA & BASP volunteer

Emma is from Rhode Island where she was working as a paralegal. She is now coming to the end of her time volunteering with both SIMHA and BASP at the Scalabrini Centre. This has been her experience. 

“I love Cape Town, it’s really sad to leave. It kind of feels like my second home now. Cape Town is certainly a modern city, but I’ve found it’s very different (to Rhode Island). There are just so many different types of people that I’ve met and a lot more cultural variety than where I’m from, which has been a very interesting and cool experience. 

I was placed here through a study volunteer program. I basically told them all of my interests, my background and they placed me here. Everyone was really friendly and welcoming when I first arrived.

“I’ve definitely grown professionally as I’ve become a lot better at explaining and being interactive with people. SIMHA has greatly helped with my writing skills and making connections.” 

I definitely was challenged in BASP as I had no teaching experience and I didn’t really know how to go about coaching these students. I’ve never really thought of myself as being good at explaining things to people, so I’ve definitely grown professionally as I’ve become a lot better at explaining and being interactive with people. SIMHA has greatly helped with my writing skills and making connections. 

My most memorable experience was the BASP graduation, it was the first graduation that they had, the first cohort of students that graduated with their associates degree and they are able to get their bachelors now. It was a really emotional, celebratory experience and everyone was really happy. It was cool to see their accomplishments.” 

I have to go home and return to my job, but I foresee myself beginning to apply for law school and pursuing that. “

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Leo – UNITE volunteer

Leo got the opportunity to work on his PhD in Cape Town. He has been living here for the past three years and has spent some of that time volunteering with UNITE. Read more about his time here below.

I grew up in the northern French Alps, near Switzerland, and lived on the countryside. My hometown had 800 inhabitants, so this environment is really different. Before moving here, I had been living in a big city in France for a bit so the transition was not too difficult.

I have been in Cape Town for three years now, so it’s really starting to feel like home. Being near the mountains reminds me a lot of home, actually, and I enjoy being able to do things like hiking. The only downside is that I don’t always like the superficial, plastic side of Cape Town, but that comes along with life in any big city. 

I ended up here because while I was doing my masters, I got a proposal to do a PhD in South Africa through a partnership between European and South African universities. It worked out and I got a scholarship to come here and work on my PhD. Originally, my area of focus was going to be about using sports as a tool to promote social cohesion. When I got here, I was put into contact with NGOs that focused more on migrant-related work, so my topic shifted to that. The field was fascinating, because that was when the refugee crisis was at its height. It’s been so cool to see how other countries deal with issues of migration and social cohesion.

“I’ve learned a lot since coming here, like how to effectively lead a session, how to engage teenagers on complex issues, and how to explain these issues in a way they can understand. My PhD fieldwork has been heavily informed by this experience.”

I studied sociology in university, and I’ve always been a very curious person, trying to make sense of the world. I think I got that from my mother. Sociology has taught me that everything is complex and layered, and through it I’ve learned to decode and try to understand the world better.

Here at Scalabrini, I’m a UNITE volunteer. On a typical day, I come to Scalabrini and myself along with the other UNITE members go to a school and facilitate workshops. We cover three main topics: diversity, integration, and identity, and lead activities like debates or reflections to get the kids thinking critically about these issues. I’ve learned a lot since coming here, like how to effectively lead a session, how to engage teenagers on complex issues, and how to explain these issues in a way they can understand. My PhD fieldwork has been heavily informed by this experience.

My most memorable time here was during our UNITE camp last August. It was great to get to know the kids in a more casual setting and to bond with the other program leaders, being outside and doing fun team-building activities. Now that UNITE is finished for the year, I’m focusing on writing my thesis and hope to be done by the end of next year. My initial plan was to work for an international organization, but now I think I would like to carry on in the research field and possibly continue my work in the NGO setting, which I have really enjoyed. My advice to anyone coming to Scalabrini is to set concrete goals, reach them, and along the way to really invest in the culture and grow from it.”

Ryan English School volunteer

Ryan Musser – English School volunteer

Before coming to the Scalabrini Centre, Ryan had experience working with children with behavioural issues in an educational setting, but this would be his first time teaching adults. He spent six months volunteering at the Scalabrini English School. This was his experience. 

“My six months in the Scalabrini English School has allowed me to grow as a person and as a professional. The people that I have met and worked with have driven me to exceed my own expectation of myself. The mentoring I have received has been invaluable in my development as a person, a professional and as a teacher. My experiences have enabled me to think in creative ways to better help the clients at Scalabrini learn English. One of my biggest lessons has been how to implement a system where it continues to function in a high turnover system.

“My six months in the Scalabrini English School has allowed me to grow as a person and as a professional. The people that I have met and worked with have driven me to exceed my own expectation of myself. The mentoring I have received has been invaluable in my development as a person, a professional and as a teacher”

As time went on, my responsibilities increased. I started by keeping record of the class registers and assisting in some classes. By the end of my time, I was stepping in to teach classes where the teachers could not attend and running my own class. I was also assigned the duty of creating, scheduling and organising our enrichment workshop for our clients.

I developed three workshops. A dating workshop where clients discussed the cultural differences when it comes to dating, a workshop on friendship in different cultures and a history of South Africa workshop, focusing mainly on Apartheid. I worked closely with other departments to coordinate extra opportunities for clients to learn about different subjects. I worked with an individual who facilitated a health workshop for our clients where he educated them about HIV, AIDS and safe sex practises. I also coordinated an Advocacy workshop in which one of our staff members educated our clients about detention, deportation and answered any questions about papers. 

Our team has grown close over the past six months. We have all moulded into our roles and developed a chemistry which makes our program run at a maximum efficiency. One element that has allowed our program to function smoothly is having a full time staff member who can teach and complete administrative work. Our program becomes extremely busy at certain times of the term. 

In conclusion, the time I have spent at this organisation has influenced me the most in my life. I would recommend Scalabrini to anyone who is looking for an experience that will enrich their humanity and broaden their view of the world.“

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Fanny – BASP, WP and EAP volunteer

“I was born and raised in Umea, Sweden, and am currently attending university there, where I study social work and social science. I was drawn to this field because I consider myself a people person, and want to work with and help those in need. My field is pretty common in Sweden, actually.

I first came to South Africa in November 2017 to conduct a field study through my university. I did my research at a boy’s home here in Cape Town, and wrote a paper about my results. In the process, I fell in love with the city, the people, and the weather. It works out great because there’s so much to do in the field of social work here and it’s approached so differently from Sweden; it’s fascinating! Almost everything in Sweden is mandated by the state and NGO’s exist, but are few and far between. When I got the opportunity to come back to South Africa this  year, I was really excited. This time, I’m here for 5 months. 

“I’ve always identified as a feminist and it’s nice to contribute towards efforts to uplift women. I also love the way the program puts the power in the women’s hands and allows them to empower themselves through their own strength and skills; it’s great to see them build a network and a community. So many women come back to teach or lead programs, which is great to see.”

I was placed at Scalabrini by my university, through a program called African Sunrise. I knew I wanted to work in the NGO setting and was initially placed in BASP. Although I learned a lot while upstairs, I like my current position, a mix between Women’s Platform and EAP much better. I really love Women’s Platform. I’ve always identified as a feminist and it’s nice to contribute towards efforts to uplift women.

 I also love the way the program puts the power in the women’s hands and allows them to empower themselves through their own strength and skills; it’s great to see them build a network and a community. So many women come back to teach or lead programs, which is great to see.

My work varies a lot from day-to-day. I always start out doing travel stipends, and beyond that, it’s mostly behind-the-scenes work updating spreadsheets, making phone calls to follow-up with graduates of the Women’s Platform, and other administrative tasks. I recently got to help with the workshop that was organized for Mental Health Awareness Month in October, and I loved that. On Fridays, I’m in EAP, and enjoy that role because I get to meet clients and feel my direct impact.

I’ve learned a lot since coming here, especially during the integration workshop. It taught me about privilege and set the tone for the internship. I think my general perspective of people has opened up a lot, and it's only continuing to spread. My advice to future interns is to be open to challenges and to ask about what you’re interested in and pursue it. I’ll be going back to Sweden in January, and have a year left of school. I’ll write my thesis, which will probably be a comparison between Swedish and South African refugee communities, and plan to graduate in January 2020.”

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Carley Cook – EAP volunteer

“I was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I ended up going out-of-state for college, and currently attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My parents were super supportive of me going to school there because they actually met in North Carolina, so it was one of those “full-circle” kinds of experiences. I’m studying psychology and political science at school, and ended up here in Cape Town through my study-abroad program.

This is my first time in South Africa. It’s been, to put it simply, jarring and beautiful and exhausting and exciting. I’ve only ever lived in New Mexico and North Carolina, so being here almost feels like I’m in a time warp. South Africa is not that far removed from its apartheid past, and at times, that reality it glaringly apparent. Oppression is more visible here than anywhere else I’ve been, and it’s shocking and frustrating.

“I’ve learned too much to put into a sentence. People are more resilient than I ever thought possible; my clients are kind and patient and gracious and carry themselves with honour even though the world seems to be against them.”

I’ve loved my time at Scalabrini. I’ve learned too much to put into a sentence. People are more resilient than I ever thought possible; my clients are kind and patient and gracious and carry themselves with honour even though the world seems to be against them. I’m so grateful to feel like I’m having a tangible contribution here rather than just sitting back and taking up space, which happens a lot at mid-college level intern roles.

Because of this experience, I know I want to do something in law and social justice, but I’m still not sure what form that will take. I could see myself working for innocence project, a non-profit in the US that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing and more generally promotes criminal justice reform, but I’m also really passionate about the issue of domestic violence. Being at Scalabrini has definitely helped me feel comfortable working in a nonprofit setting, which has been great.

The most impactful moment I’ve had here was actually quite emotionally challenging. Did you know you have to have a phone to create a google account? Well, I was working with a client one day and was already frustrated because I couldn’t find the job postings he’d come in intending to apply for, and he’d already been waiting for a while so it was really frazzling for me. Eventually, I found one of them, but he didn’t have an email and, we discovered, you need a valid phone number to make one, which leads to a lot of barriers and roadblocks because of this unjust and elitist system. I just felt really hopeless. I distinctly remember the moment he left just because, throughout these challenges, he was so gracious and didn’t look upset or disappointed but carried himself with dignity and honour. Now, I’m trying to get Scalabrini to get a cell phone so we don’t have to face that roadblock for future clients. 

After I leave Scalabrini, I’m going back home and taking the LSAT in January and applying early to Law School. I hope to take a few years after college to teach internationally, and then pursue a law degree.”

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Emiel – Advocacy volunteer

Emiel came to South Africa wanting to put his theoretical knowledge into practise. His time at Scalabrini has not only enhanced his skills and personal development, but it has also opened his eyes. He spent six months volunteering in the Advocacy Programme. Read about his time at Scalabrini below. 

As a volunteer, Emiel would spend most of his day providing supervised paralegal advice, practical assistance and referrals to vulnerable individuals and groups from refugee, migrant and asylum seeker communities. The clients that he would deal with came from many different countries around Africa, some have spent many years living here and others are new to the country. 

“He says that his time here has awakened him to take notice of the problems South Africa faces regarding migrant and refugee rights. It has been a big reality check for him. One reads about refugees and migrants in different parts of the world in a newspaper, but it is very different when sitting across from a person with real problems, asking for help.”

Being able to speak French would often be very useful as many clients come from countries where French is their first language and Emiel was able to step in and help his colleagues when there was a language barrier. 

He says that his time here has awakened him to take notice of the problems South Africa faces regarding migrant and refugee rights. It has been a big reality check for him. One reads about refugees and migrants in different parts of the world in a newspaper, but it is very different when sitting across from a person with real problems, asking for help.

Emiel realised that when you look at the impact that you are making on a daily basis volunteering in an area like advocacy, it can sometimes feel relatively small and on a micro level, but when you hear that your effort made things work out, it gives you a feeling of satisfaction. He acknowledges that making an impact on a micro level is already very valuable for the individual client. 

He has learned a great deal while volunteering at Scalabrini, including information about the ins and outs of South Africa’s asylum system and the practical everyday barriers that many asylum seekers, migrants and refugees face in South Africa. Emiel has been able to put his theoretical skills and knowledge into practise, making it possible to make a difference for Scalabrini’s clients. 

Having had to return home to Belgium, Emiel says he might not be there for too long. He would like to work abroad , preferably somewhere where he can be involved with the protection and rights of refugees.”