What it is to be free

If you can’t change the present, and the past is made up of a continuous string of present moments, can it ever be possible to change the future? In the English language, we rarely plumb the word ‘volunteer’ for its metaphysical significance, but in Latvian the millennia-old debate on free-will versus determinism remains alive in what volunteering means to the people of Riga, not just in theory but in practice.

“In English,” Explains Ilze Norvaisa, Board Member of Trepes, the Latvian word for ‘volunteer’ “would sound [like] ‘free will.’ It means that it comes from you, and it can only come from you, it is a work from your heart and that’s why it’s so good, it’s so pure, it’s so valuable, because it comes from your heart.” Norvaisa’s organisation, Trepes, is largely powered by volunteers in its mission to work with newcomers to Riga integrating into Latvian society.

A step in the right direction

Trepes is a creative youth association for youth activities and intercultural education, a mission which includes raising awareness about discrimination, tolerance and peace. Examples include volunteers who practice studying Arabic with migrants in exchange for helping them learn about local culture. Volunteers also include young migrants who create social networks while helping out vulnerable groups such as the elderly. The organisation’s name means ‘steps,’ at once symbolising the step by step nature of social integration and reflecting the anecdote that people searching for the organisation’s first floor HQ were always being told ‘up the steps, up the steps!’

One volunteer Aladdin Nassr Allah has climbed those steps and further. “By volunteering work I was satisfied because I can give back to my community and country,” says Nassr Allah, who is the proud winner of a local volunteering award, having put in more than seven hundred hours of work for the community. He sees volunteering not only as doing good for others, but also as an opportunity to reap personal rewards: “I felt very happy because I can make somebody happy, and by volunteering work also I improve myself, personally, I got new skills, new experiences by participating.” He specifically sees the acquisition of Latvian language skills as a bonus.

I got new skills, new experiences by participating.
— Aladdin Nassr Allah

The snowball effect

Trepes is volunteer powered, but it also gets a boost from Riga’s local administration. The city funds the group through calls for specific projects in Trepes’ area of expertise. Now, through the EU-funded project VALUES, a project led by Eurocities and supported by MigrationWork and the European Volunteer Centre, Riga is sharing its way of working with volunteer organisations for migrant integration with the cities of Madrid, Cesena and Vantaa.

Since opening, Trepes has had to do barely any recruiting. Rather, there has been a snowball effect where the friends and family of existing volunteers get interested, and then bring their own friends and family and so on. When people come once, says Norvaisa, they are normally interested in returning, especially when they see the autonomy that they are offered within the organisation. That goes back to the Latvian word for volunteering – you can’t be told to do it, it has to come from within yourself.

Free your mind

While Norvaisa located the significance of ‘brīvprātīgais’, the Latvian word for volunteer, in the self-generative nature of the act, Evija Strupisa of the organisation ‘I Want to Help Refugees,’ considers an inflection of ‘prātīgais’ that is more akin to the English ‘mind’ than ‘will.’  “This is a very applicable thing to volunteering with refugees,” she explains, “because from such a society as our Eastern European societies are, you definitely have to have a free mind and an open mind. The experience with working with refugees and asylum seekers is definitely one that really broadens your perspective on life.”

The founder of the organisation used the freedom afforded by social media to turn his will into reality. It all started five years ago when he decided to create a Facebook group whose name expressed a desire: ‘I want to help refugees.’ Today that group is three-hundred-people strong and an active organisation on Riga’s integration scene.

The greatest value that volunteers can bring to refugees is the human connection.
— Evija Strupisa

‘I Want to Help Refugees’ offers second-hand clothes to refugees, language exchanges, and assistance with administrative tasks, not to mention friendship and emotional support. “The greatest value that volunteers can bring to refugees is the human connection that makes them feel like they have a friend here in Latvia,” says Strupisa. This works both ways according to Strupisa, as it appeals to the desire of younger people in Riga, who are “interested to broaden their view of the world.” It can also provide them with experience that looks good on their CV.

A safehaven

Harijs Kadikis of Shelter Safe House agrees that there’s a lot in it for volunteers: “It gives a person a skill set and broadens one’s perspective in a way that no other activity usually does.” For Kadikis, the emphasis of the word ‘brīvprātīgais’ is on the independence and the strength expressed by volunteers: “It means that nobody can coerce or make the volunteer do the thing that he is doing.”

Shelter Safe House provides an information centre for newcomers to Riga. The group organises cultural events, sports and music, language classes, business classes, and workshops where newcomers can share their skills. It also supports newcomers with understanding contracts, rental or employment agreements and provides free legal aid.

This organisation has one of the most diverse spread of volunteers, coming from Turkey India, Iran, Russia Lithuania and central Asia. According to Kadikis, motivations for participating include a desire to learn the language and fight the narratives of prejudice. One of the tools that they use for this latter goal is a podcast in which they air interviews with different a different migrant each episode.

Despite the independence of the volunteer, Kradikis stresses that organisations such as the one he works for cannot afford to be independent. Rather, work with refugees requires cooperation with different levels of governments and all sorts of different stakeholders who have an interest or can lend their expertise.

Respect and recognition

The Latvian state recognises the immense value that volunteers present to the city, says Ints Teterovskis of the state employment agency, through a ceremony which awards the most committed volunteers of the year. “We have a tradition of honouring the volunteers in Latvia,” says  Teterovskis. “It started in 2014 when Riga was European Captial of Culture, and the volunteers played a very important role in this huge event, and it’s good that this tradition is still alive.” The city and the state offer financial support to local NGOs through projects and competitions.

We have a tradition of honouring the volunteers.
— Ints Teterovskis

In Riga, ethnic Latvians are in the minority and the foreign community is growing stronger by the day. On the other hand, many migrants who arrive in Riga are hoping to go on to other EU countries like Germany, or may already have been sent back to Riga from these destinations, which is not an ideal context for integration to occur. Meanwhile, European citizens who move to Riga from other parts of the EU can sometimes end up feeling more alienated than migrants coming from other ex-Soviet states, as the language and cultural barriers can be greater.

The situation relating to volunteers is complex too, Teterovskis explains. It tends to be younger volunteers, rather than older ones, who are interested in volunteering work with refugees, but this age group tend to be less reliable. Further, state labour laws introduced in 2016 to help organisations that want to take on volunteers remain somewhat complex, and are in the process of being reformed once again.

Despite these barriers, the city is working hard to facilitate greater freedom around volunteering – freedom of mind, freedom of will and freedom of heart. While it means something a little different to everyone ‘brīvprātīgais’ is here to stay.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer