I walked into my first class and saw a room full of girls whose appearances closely resembled mine; dark hair, brown skin, and deep, energetic eyes.
I sat down at a table with some of them and didn’t say a word.
I noticed their eyes wandering around the room, anxiously waiting to meet their new American teacher.
I stood up, walked to the front of the class, and introduced myself. A wave of chattering that I couldn’t understand rushed throughout the room.
I went over to my coworker, and she told me the girls were expecting a blonde haired, green eyed woman. They were confused as to how I could be their teacher because I didn’t look “American”. This was in Morocco, but repeat this same scenario with details only slightly differing in both Nepal and Vietnam and this was the framework for my first days of class across countries during my post-high school gap year.
I had read about the concepts of “voluntourism” and the “white savior complex” in depth before I began traveling. However, this was the moment when I fully grasped their impact in local communities. I recognize that my experience as a brown Muslim woman who has done volunteer work in different countries provides a different perspective than what I had been used to hearing. I would often listen to inexperienced white Americans who had gone on mission trips or volunteered abroad reflecting upon their harmful experiences in countries portrayed as “exotic”, “impoverished”, and “in need of help”. However, this is not what occurred for me since our differences in identity created two very different realities for us.
When I was young, I thought light skin and straight hair was beautiful. Before the concept of “white savior” was even part of my vocabulary, I would read history books portraying the United States and other European powers as the ones who brought technology, education, and religion to other parts of the world. Teachers acknowledged slavery and war of course, but it wasn’t until I became older that they dissected and identified their lasting impacts on communities of color. My ancestor’s stories have been the ones buried and replaced with those of white intervention and the benefits of colonialism, causing me to have an empty connection with history unless I did my own research.
I remember going to the countries I was volunteering in, with the recognition that I was brown and many of my students were also brown. I wanted to show that success for them isn’t unattainable because they weren’t white and they didn’t come from a country of immense power, since my family didn’t either. I wanted to use my appearance as a method of empowerment, and my first interactions with all of my students showed how necessary this was. Yes, I am an American, but I am not the American that any of my students were expecting, and I am an American that none of them knew even existed.
So much of my work was listening, asking, and answering questions about myself and the communities I was in. As volunteers, we need to understand how crucial this is to build relationships in the communities we serve in. We cannot give them what they don’t ask for, we cannot provide off of empty promises, and we cannot expect to be of help just because of how we are perceived by the world. I recognize that we cannot be blind to taking advantage of our privileges of power and race when we travel to help.
Each person in the world has a unique set of skills and knowledge, and volunteers are special because they are the ones who are willing to offer what they have in the service of humanity. I have seen volunteers of every race, gender, and social status leave a sustainable and positive impact on the communities they served in. Imagine a diverse group of volunteers and the various skills and knowledge they each bring to the table if no two have the same experiences. There are many different ways to look at a problem, but also many different ways to solve it. This is how we should be shaping the way we look at ethical service.
I cannot say that I did everything perfectly as a volunteer. I had a lack of proper training, both culturally relevant and skill focused. I found myself in communities sometimes teaching what has already been taught, and I thought “If I wasn’t here, then someone else would be doing this worse than me, so they are lucky it’s me”, but this isn’t an excuse. It does, however, shed light on how volunteers find ourselves in places without the skills to effectively provide what is truly needed in communities. In situations like this, we can provide only what we know, which is often very limited, unsustainable, and can even be detrimental to the communities’ development.
I can simply state one difference between the mindset of a voluntourist and an ethical volunteer that I learned throughout traveling: I loved my students because I saw myself in them, not because I saw their lack of futures if it wasn’t for me.
Ambar Khawaja is a recipient of the 2018 Global Gap Year Fellowship through The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently finished her post-high school gap year, where she volunteered in three countries and traveled to eight others. Currently, she is a freshman at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and plans on studying international business with the hopes of opening an NGO.