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When I came up with the title, “Why do people help?” another question popped up: Why don’t all people help? Indeed, this article is neither a form of preaching, nor my attempt to judge your individual lifestyle routine. However, the process of writing this article, from my first interview to the moment my fingertips found their way onto the keyboard of my computer, has resulted in me falling in deep thought. I often catch myself iterating excuses of why I’m not doing as much as I would like, and during moments such as this one, I am no different from the reader Duffy refers to, whose “eyeballs prick with tears,” but only temporarily. The effect is ephemeral, and rarely results in any drastic action.
Engaging in voluntary work may not seem like such a big decision at first, but as I have learned, it requires a lot of work and dedication. While spending time with the volunteers within the scope of my internship at “Wir sind Paten Leipzig”, it occurred to me that I am not fully aware of why people help, of why they start, and even of why they keep on helping. Curious as I was, I interviewed 3 of the people who -for a long time now- have invested a lot of time and energy into making this project work.
I was surprised to learn about the diverse activities the volunteers partake in for more than a year now: From providing help with applications and German, to translating and bringing refugees with other volunteers into contact, everyone helps in their own, unique way. I was impressed with Aziz’s passion, who said to me: “A lot of people could be doing something to help, but they are not aware of it. That’s why I’m helping these people find ways, in which they can help.”
Two of the people I interviewed were students, which urged me to ask why they would prefer to engage in such a project, rather than invest more time in themselves, and whether working here equals to them having less time for their hobbies or their student life. Their replies did more than leave me stunned, as both said that they did not see their work here as an obligation at all, but instead as a free-time activity. I remember Nicolai saying characteristically: “Being here every week is a free-time activity. You laugh a lot and you get to know new people” and Aziz adding: “For me working here does not mean having less free-time, but rather having the opportunity to share my hobbies and the things that I find entertaining with others.”
When asked which part of their routine here is the most fulfilling for them, Bianca said, with a big smile on her face: “When people come here with a problem and I can help them. Then, they go home, having one less problem.” Aziz and Nicolai focused on the element of ‘surprise’ in their job. They both expressed their interest in people’s diverse background stories and experiences, while Aziz also added that he is intrigued with the possibility of being able to implement his personal ideas and develop his own projects.
Another question I posed was why people help. That was a question, which got them thinking. Among the reasons they named were: being in a privileged position, which allows you to help, getting a feeling of inner peace, and helping because you would wish that someone would do the same for you, if you were in a less favorable position.
I was curious to see whether their personal incentives were different from what they believed to be people’s collective motives, so I asked: Why do you help? As expected, I got the most interesting and heartfelt answers. Although, each interviewee had slightly different motives, they all had a common denominator. Aziz- always with a shy smile on his face- gave me a simple, yet genuine response: “Helping people makes me happy.” On a similar note, Bianca said that she wanted to give something back to the world, and Nicolai declared that he found it best to contribute by directly and actively helping people, rather than by making a donation, for example.
As the conversation developed, and their passion for what they do became clear, I was interested to see how they confront situations, in which no matter how much they wish they could help, they are unable to do so. All three of them agreed that they are doing the best they can to help, and in case that does not work they refer them to another individual who is in a position to assist them further. Notably, Aziz stressed with certainty: “No is not an answer.”
It seems, though, that volunteering and working at “Wir sind Paten” does not only benefit the refugees, but also the volunteers themselves. Bianca and Aziz confessed that working here has led to them becoming more open to people and more self-confident, while Nicolai claimed cheerfully that every Friday, after his volunteer work he goes home in a good mood!
If there is something human history has taught us, then it is that we need each other. We need to lend a hand, as much as we need to take the hand of someone else. We need to extend our circle of love because as humans, we are born compassionate, and this capacity to empathize is our gift to all of humanity. The people that I have met here, who always have a moment to spare for someone in need, are a reminder of just that: together, we are stronger.