Updates about volunteering earn you lots of ‘likes’ on Facebook and I admit it, I enjoy the dopamine hits those little ticks trigger…
However Facebook affirmation is not the only reason I have volunteered in camps in Northern France and continue to do so here in Paris, either with Utopia 56 or The Good Chance Theater. Aspirations to altruism may have got me started but I suspect selfishness keeps me going. I like feeling like a good person. I like other people thinking I’m a good person.
I secretly know how gnarly I am in my head but when, for Utopia 56, I’m taking an unaccompanied minor to the A&E or bringing an Iranian couple and their six children, across the city by bus, to a little anarchist bookshop used as nighttime accommodation, I get to switch off my constant stream of self obsession.
Instead, for a few hours, I get to wonder at the resilience, courage and dignity of the people on whose journey I am actively honoured to walk a few steps.
Volunteering with Good Chance Theatre is even more selfish again. I do that for fun and inspiration! Founded in the Jungle of Calais, Good Chance occasionally does residencies in Paris. There, a medley of artists, refugees and volunteers partake in dance, art and music workshops, working on an equal footing towards a common goal, performing the ‘Hope Show’ for the public each Saturday.
I have gotten to make friends and experience cultural barriers and taboos crumble, as young men (and it’s mostly young men), forbidden to even touch a female non-family member in their own countries, throw themselves into partaking in unisex human sculptures or modern dances. At Good Chance’s last residency at the now defunct camp at Porte la Chapelle, I enjoyed helping Arif, a muscled Afghan, who, by morning, gave kickboxing workshops, create an elaborate feather headdress for a fashion show of couture ‘looks’ created from unsuitable clothes donations. I got to grin as Muhammad, the dreadlocked Sudanese who proclaimed “make-up for woman”, strode, an hour later, down the catwalk, his high cheekbones burnished with gold and glitter.
Also, as a forty-something Irish woman, I’ve even been compelled to subvert my own post-colonial prejudices. I remember having a drink in the ‘Paris-Go’ cafe where Utopia 56 and Good Chance used to converge, with Yann, one of the very French founders of Utopia. Almost despite ourselves, we ending up singing the praises of British millennials! After all, they are one of the driving forces of the volunteer movement.
Ultimately, while much of my motivation to volunteer is to feel like a ‘good person’ I desperately want to avoid feeling like ‘a good German’. When history looks back on these strange days I suspect we will be judged harshly for our dire treatment of people in such desperate need. I want to be able to say ‘I did know. I did do something.’ Defensive? Maybe. Selfish? Probably. Still, it keeps me volunteering so that’s good enough.
Audrey O’Reilly lives in Paris. She spends her time writing, volunteering and trying to learn the violin.