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Silvia Romano and the Volunteers Like Her: Who They Are, and What They Actually Do

This article was originally published on Esquire Italia
(thanks to Annika Gialdini and Paola Natalucci for the translation)

Three years ago, after a long time spent working in a number of fields, I went back home. I went back to what I had been doing for a while when I was the age Silvia Romano is now: working in Palestine and in Burkina Faso, and in Italy, too, amongst the homeless, those displaced by earthquakes, and migrants. I went back because I wanted to feel useful, that’s for sure, because I saw how much work was needed, and because I thought I could play a part in making a difference; but I also went back because doing what I do now gives me an opportunity to work closely with people like Silvia

I went to Greece to work in refugee camps that housed (and still house, even though most people seem to have forgotten) refugees fleeing war in their homes of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Together with other volunteers, I created Second Tree, an NGO that works to create a brighter future for these people.

For the last three years, my job has entailed evaluating, getting to know, and finally working alongside individuals like Silvia. I think it’s worth telling their story – who they are, what they do, what leads them to do it – to push against the meanness spreading all over the internet and the news these past few days. And the reason why this is a story worth telling, is that living a life surrounded by people like Silvia is a privilege, and telling their stories feels like sharing this privilege with my readers.

Obviously I don’t know Silvia personally (I’ll still call her by her name; that’s what we all do, here) and I’m not familiar with the details of her everyday life, her aspirations or desires; but the volunteers I’ve met all had something in common, and that’s what I want to talk about. You’d be surprised: it’s not about their being good people, or being generous. Of course they are. But there’s more.


The first thing to understand is that volunteering as an aid worker is not easy. Anyone who’s ever applied to volunteer abroad knows that the selection process is tough – really tough. It’s not as simple as packing your bags and going. We don’t just need good people: we need skilled professionals who can effectively, positively impact the lives of refugees. At Second Tree, a first two-hour interview with me (the operation coordinator) is followed by a second, one-hour interview with the coordinator of the specific programme for which the volunteer is applying. On average, we take one volunteer onboard for 20 candidates.

All this is for an unpaid role? Yes, that’s correct. We offer accommodation and transport to the camps – other organisations can’t even offer that. And still, volunteers are among the most prepared, passionate, generous people I know. Sure, many other people help from home, for instance with fundraising or communication. But the ones who come here, do so because they’re irreplaceable. Working in a refugee camp is delicate job, one that is not for everyone. In addition, every volunteer represents a cost for the organisation – and money is always very tight. So, if you know someone working as a volunteer in an underprivileged area, you should look at them with prejudice – a positive prejudice. They’re not naive hipsters; they’re aware, responsible people sharing their talents in addition to their proverbial “big hearts”.


So what pushes them to make this choice? That’s always one of my first questions during an interview. Their answers are as plain as they are honest. I went back to read what I’d written on the topic, about ten years ago, trying to respond to the same question. In there, I read the echo of their answers: the awareness that the world can’t be changed with a teaspoon, but that you have to start with something, anything, even as little as a spoonful. With no saviour complex, but a good dose of optimism and willpower

Contagious optimism. I am about 10 years older than them, and the reason why I am confident that things will indeed get better is because I see volunteers in their twenties actively choosing to help other human beings. They are part of a generation that is often vilified, but in reality does more than is publicised. Volunteers come from many countries, from Europe and the rest of the world. They harbour no self-hatred for being born in a place of privilege, but they are aware of it. And that’s why they work hard


According to sociologist Bruno Manghi (author of a slim but delightful book, Doing good, published by Marsilio when I was about Silvia’s age and I’d just decided to be a volunteer), volunteering as a phenomenon is as old as time; but it didn’t develop into a pervasive social (and post-ideological, so to say) practice until about 30 years ago. You don’t need grand philosophical views on life to understand Silvia and other young people like her. They don’t just benefit others by doing good: they inspire other people to do the same. As Manghi puts it, this new generation of volunteers “dare to defy the tide of evil and reveal new ways of existing.”

These new ways of existing – revealed by people like Silvia – are exactly what make the unenquiring parts of us uncomfortable. They force us to confront ourselves, and that can be unpleasant: what do we see when we look in the mirror? What does that say about the idea we have of ourselves? I am convinced that the cruel comments people have been making about Silvia, and regularly make about the volunteers I have come to know so well, say more about those making the comments than about the volunteers themselves. They’re not worth responding to.

Many people – way more than the detractors, I believe – see the value of Silvia’s choices, even if they make different ones themselves. Theirs are the voices I’d like to hear. You don’t need to devote your life to others to appreciate the work of those who do. Maybe it’s true that it’s not within everyone’s means to volunteer in Africa; But not disparaging those who do, is

Esquire contributed to this article with a donation to Second Tree. If you too would like to give your support, please click on this page.

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By |2019-02-28T07:06:13+02:00November 26th, 2018|Vittorino|0 Comments


L’impatience, se dirent Jérôme et Sylvie,
est une vertu du xxe siècle. A vingt ans,
quand ils eurent vu, ou cru voir, ce que la
vie pouvait être, la somme de bonheurs
qu’elle recelait, les infinies conquêtes
qu’elle permettait, etc., ils surent qu’ils
n’auraient pas la force d’attendre. Ils pouvaient,
tout comme les autres, arriver; mais
ils ne voulaient qu’être arrivés. C’est en
cela sans doute qu’ils étaient ce qu’il est
convenu d’appeler des intellectuels

By |2019-02-28T07:15:02+02:00October 20th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments