Modou Modou © Estereo Rum’s

Across the Universe

After the Spanish civil war, Manolo was like thousands of destitute Spaniards who had no choice but to leave their homes in Seville and migrate to Barcelona, searching for a new and better life. It may seem strange to imagine now, but for Manolo at the time it was like moving between two different worlds, from a familiar into an alien community.

This what Manolo, the Spanish migrant, tells Moussa, the Senegalese migrant, in the play ‘Modou, Modou’, performed in Estereo Rum’s in Terrassa. The play highlights how the ideas about the group of people defined by the pronoun ‘we’ shift over time, and how people from all over the world have to draw from the same well of hope and bravery to get by.

It was this narrative that made the play perfect for Estereo Rum’s, a theatre company in Terrassa that works with migrants to help them tell stories on stage. The theatre’s director, Nadia Zúñiga, arrived in Terrassa six years ago. “I think all stories about immigration have value, but they all also involve loss,” Zúñiga says. “People need to talk, and using theatre, which is what I know how to do. That’s how I became a volunteer here. It came from a need to hear other people’s stories, but also my own story.”

A two-way street

In her time volunteering at the theatre, Zúñiga has seen migrants transform from shy and withdrawn to engaged and outgoing. But for her, the idea of migrant transformation is also a dangerous and misleading one that has eclipsed the true meaning of integration. Integration, she says, is “a two way street.” It’s not just about a migrant changing who they are, but a society that comes to recognise their value.

I can’t take away the Mexican story that I have.
— Nadia Zúñiga

“I can’t take away the Mexican story that I have,” Zúñiga explains, “I can’t say to Mamadou: forget about your roots, or your culture or beliefs. We’re all living together in this country and I see myself more in this intersection of cultures living together. The aim of Estereo-Rum’s is to achieve interculturalism. For people’s voices and cultures to be heard. It’s hard work. I can’t say it’s easy because it’s very complicated.”

Zuniga is passionately committed to smashing stereotypes prejudice that surround immigrants, and her voluntary work at the theatre is central to that. “All of us who work as volunteers at Estereo Rum’s, it comes from here,” she says, indicating her heart. “We’re not doing it for money, we’re not doing it for recognition. We’re doing it out of necessity. We need to express ourselves, to be there for one another, and for people to see us as part of this society too.”

For others, for yourself

Zúñiga is not the only migrant to Terrassa who has found volunteering to be a source of solace and strength. ‘Super-volunteer’ Zineb El Gharbi has only been in Terrassa for three years, but she has spent an enormous amount of that time working for free at the service of the community. For El Gharbi, volunteering is less something one does and more a way of being: “Volunteering was a commitment I made to myself, rather than to the groups. Being a volunteer means that I’m there for anyone who needs me.”

I feel like I’m from the whole world.
— Zineb El Gharbi

Whether it’s teaching Catalan to other newcomers, doing food-drives for the homeless, or helping out at local festivals and in a Catalan popular culture association alongside her fire-twirling daughter, El Gharbi is enthusiastic about the community that other volunteers provide, which can help one feel at home in a new place. “I feel like I’m from the whole world,” she says, “but I was born in Tangier.”

‘Mandatory volunteering’

For Terrassa, residents like El Gharbi and Zúñiga are a godsent. The city is working to recruit more migrant volunteers, and is even cooperating with other European cities to do so. Through the EU-funded project VALUES, Terrassa is cooperating with the cities of Sheffield, Oostende and Zurich to understand how volunteering can be leveraged for more effective migrant integration.

Volunteering is already strong in the city. In fact, as Sònia Romero, Coordinator at the Point of Volunteering explains, “20 hours of volunteering at the service of the community is actually mandatory for Terrassa’s teens between the age of 14-16 years old as part of their secondary education. The city facilitates all of those who want to volunteer with a ‘Point of Volunteering’ a place where anyone interested can learn about local volunteering opportunities.”

The Point of Volunteering also gives technical advice and training to associations in the service-learning field in order to provide them with the skills, knowledge and techniques to welcome volunteering students. Besides this, the Point of Volunteering is a link between associations and secondary schools in Terrassa.

According to the city’s estimates about 6% of volunteers are migrants, most coming from places like Morocco, Venezuela, Peru and Colombia. The city wants to see this percentage, along with the absolute number it represents, go on the increase.

Creating confidence

One obvious advantage of having migrants working as volunteers, as far as the city is concerned, is that other migrants are likely to feel more comfortable and welcome using services where people from the same background as them are working as volunteers. This is certainly the experience of Juan Diego Motato, Monitor and Educator volunteering at Club de Lleure Els Globus. “When we’ve had families from Colombia,” says Diego Motato, “I think that me telling them I’m from the same country gave them more confidence to talk to me about certain things.”

It’s great for building up a network of contacts.
— Juan Diego Motato

He sees further benefits to the practice, not just for those migrants who avail of services, but also for the volunteers themselves. Despite how demanding, and how much time it takes up, he says, “it’s great for building up a network of contacts, and so you find out about all the things that are going on. The more people you know in the city, the more chance you have of finding a job, or learning about new projects, different ways of doing things… You learn how to deal with all kinds of people, how to coordinate and manage a team.”

A better you

Diego Motato isn’t the only one who sees volunteering as a way to build your skills and your character. “Volunteering makes you a better person,” claims Amine El Maddahi, Monitor and Educator at the Juvenile Association of Sarau. “It encourages you to think of others, rather than just yourself. If we think about others in general, we will have a better society and a better country. That’s what volunteering does.”

Volunteering makes you a better person.
— Amine El Maddahi

His organisation works with disadvantaged children to help them improve their education in after school hours. El Maddahi has long been well acquainted with their work, because before he began as a volunteer, he attended the programme himself. “I’ve been working in the centre for around eight years now. I started going when I was a child, but then I became an instructor.”

It gives you a sense of autonomy.
— Luisa Fernanda Vargas

Luisa Fernanda Vargas is in lockstep with this analysis. She is Head of Monitoring and Education at Cau Sant Pau where, like El Maddahi, she began as a child and now continues as a volunteer. “It helped me to meet people, and when you’re new to somewhere what you need is to meet people.”

Among the new skills that she feels her experience with volunteering has bestowed upon her are communication, empathy and leadership. “It gives you a whole load of skills that can be used later on, that can be applied to any job,” she says. Most importantly for Fernanda Vargas, in terms of the benefits volunteers reap from their action, “it gives you a sense of autonomy in the city you’re in.”

A strong core

Though the city is trying to push things further, it’s clear that it is already home to a strong core of enthusiastic migrant volunteers. A culture like this doesn’t spring up over night. Mohamed Marsoud, who volunteers in the neighbourhood association AVV La Maurina and is President of the la Union Islamic Association, still remembers arriving in Terrassa in 1984.

“Honestly,” he says, “I felt very welcome.” He’s determined to make sure that this welcoming atmosphere remains: “Now I help other people however I can.” His activities range from finding safe and pleasant communal spaces to pray, to co-organising intercultural community events.

Now I help other people however I can.
— Mohamed Marsoud

Raul Sanchez, who is president of the same neighbourhood association, AVV La Maurina, sees clearly the advantage for the association of having diversity within its membership. “Having people from different countries in the group helps us to get to know them better, helps us to communicate, helps us when we’re organising joint projects, so we can make sure they’re suitable for everyone.”

For Sanchez, communication is the key factor in the success of local programmes: “We encourage neighbours to communicate with one another, as well as with local administrations, especially the town council, which is the closest.” For its part, the local administration is working hard to make such communication smoother. This ranges from facilitating Catalonian language classes and free legal advice for newcomers, as well as promoting interculturality and anti-racism through the city’s action plan ‘Terrassa without racism’.

Copernican revelation

The city’s Citizenship Department also supports local volunteer associations with funding, providing an economic helpline that associations can use to present projects for support. A lot of work is done to raise awareness about volunteering in the community, whether through secondary schools, reception centres and libraries or other organisations. With a population of just under 220,000 people, the city boasts more than 1,000 associations doing their part to create social bonds within the community, and migrants are increasingly a part of that picture.

We are the ones who are in constant motion.
— Moussa, in ‘Modou, Modou’

For Moussa, the Senegalese protagonist of the play ‘Modou, Modou’, migration is a state affirmed not by communities, states or boarders, but by the discoveries of Copernicus. “Once, my father told me,” Moussa recalls, “that the sun does not move, but we are the ones who are in constant motion even when we sleep… We are all migrants.” Once, migrating from Seville to Barcelona was a daunting and difficult prospect, now the path from Senegal to Terrassa has taken its place, but whether local or newcomer, as attendants at Estereo Rum’s theatre can attest, we are all hurtling at the same enormous speed through the universe.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer