Oberlin Blogs

Students and Samaritans

February 1, 2009

Alice Ollstein ’10

Today, all six members of my program went to a voluntary meeting for Samaritans, one of the several local organizations that drives through key points in the desert to give water, food and first aid to migrants. Everyone at the meeting was either a college student or a retiree (the two groups that have the time and resources to do such work, I suppose) and it seemed that people had come for pretty diverse reasons--political, humanitarian, etc. One man said he was moved to join Samaritans because he had just been in the hospital for dehydration and didn't want anyone to go through what he had been through.

The presenters explained the current situation: Border Patrol initiatives like Operation "Hold the Line" in Texas (note the military jargon, characterizing migrants as an invading enemy) and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego haven't deterred migrants from crossing, but have instead forced them into the dangerous deserts of Arizona, where they have to walk anywhere from two to five days before getting picked up. The presenter explained why such "operations" haven't reduced the number of people attempting to cross: "It's not like, 'I want a better job.' It's like, 'My kids only eat every other day.' " According to the organization, more than 2,000 men, women, and children have died trying to cross since 1998. There's an illuminating and thoroughly depressing documentary called "Crossing Arizona" if anyone's interested.

Another speaker explained what we might see on a day with them in the desert, everything from migrants with badly blistered feet and severe dehydration to a group of 20 or 30 migrants being detained by a single Border Patrol officer. "You might wonder how one person can make 20 or 30 people obey him," said the presenter. "It's because an act of terror probably happened before you got there." In that case, you hope that the officer lets you give food and water to the detainees, and lets you talk to them and ask if they're okay or need medical attention.

The group explained that they practice civil initiative, not civil disobedience, and thus cannot break the law by giving a migrant a ride. For some bizarre reason, letting a migrant use your cellphone to call his or her family is also illegal. But they do just about everything the law allows them to do, though they say the most important thing of all is simply being an advocate and a witness.

We've been talking a lot on my program about service work--whether it's better to directly help migrants through programs like Samaritans or do policy work that makes sure they aren't suffering in the first place, and what is the right attitude to have. We all share a mutual distaste for programs that send rich, U.S. to impoverished places so they can foist a project on the locals, then leave after two weeks feeling great about themselves. We're especially grappling with this as we prepare for our trip to Mexico. I hope that the more I learn (both academically and experientially) the closer I can come to finding a meaningful, beneficial way to serve those in need.

Responses to this Entry

Hey Alice, your experience so far sounds truly wonderful. But, for the sake of discussion, allow me to ask about your last paragraph. Surely the programs that send these guilty rich kids, so called, to impoverished areas can't be all bad? Is it really necessary for a volunteer to invest countless months in a foreign land to do any good, and does their motivation (be it altruism, guilt, religion, etc.) ultimately matter in working towards the end goal of a better life for another human? Do programs really exist that specialize in instigating schools and houses and leaving the townspeople to finish the job against their will?

It seems to me that there's no surplus of well-meaning first-world citizens trying to make a difference, and so we should celebrate and encourage those who do regardless of their motivation. A spring break spent teaching Guatemalans computer skills through Safe Passage isn't going to make Guatemala City any more livable, but it certainly isn't going to hurt either. I am wary of any ideology that discourages anyone from working to impress a positive impact on an impoverished region.

Posted by: Will on February 3, 2009 12:23 AM

I appreciate your point, and I believe that people should use whatever motivates them to pursue service work. However, I still maintain that individuals who go into such work with a patronizing attitude, an air of superiority or obvious cultural insensitivity (all of which is fairly common), they can hurt a community more than they help it.

Posted by: Alice on February 3, 2009 12:20 PM

Also, while many affluent US volunteers attempting to provide whatever sort of aid may have the best of intentions, often these people (or the organization they operate with) do not have the appropriate understanding of how to implement aid. I have a good friend who recently experienced this phenomenon in Uganda -- that is, Western programs that visit needy nations to bring help. This kind of attitude fosters the appropriate reaction: the Ugandans my friend visited couldn't help but to think of white westerners as saviors who could solve any problem, and didn't have any conception of their own power to improve their lives, and lived even more desperately for that reason. Western programs need to learn how to visit a needy region and bring power to the people to help solve their own problems, rather than starting a cycle of savior-and-saved. This is the problem I've seen with many Westerners who volunteer in needy places. Often they have the right intention, but a new organization can create a much better living situation for everyone.

Posted by: Anonymous on February 3, 2009 10:03 PM

But this seems to create an impossible standard for volunteer organizations/volunteers: namely, first-world citizens volunteering a little bit of their time aren't able to do anything constructive, but first-world citizens who volunteer a ton of their time by founding an organization often end up making things worse by issuing handouts rather than fostering self-determination...Is the solution, then, to only have volunteer groups that teach a man to fish rather than selling him the fish?

I still have a hard time believing that these "savior" foundations are ultimately counter-productive; if a group of people build a school in Uganda, it may yield a "savior-and-saved" cycle (though I might contest this notion, too--it sounds too much like the argument against social welfare programs, which I would argue has been largely disproved in the US), but it also yields a school where once there was none.

It also seems like the (painfully) obvious happy medium between these two is to have organizations work with people, rather than for them, to achieve their goals. As I am devoid of conscience (and thus guilt) I have never participated in any kind of outreach program, and so I will take you at your word about this "savior" cycle. But it remains hard for me to swallow, this idea that a bunch of pilgrims from industrialized countries would just invade a town and build a bunch of stuff and then head home.

Posted by: Will on February 3, 2009 11:32 PM

You can build a school in Uganda and pat yourself on the back, but what if the village would rather have had a hospital? What if they culturally prefer to homeschool their children? It's all about putting yourself at the disposal of others and truly working with and for them, asking them what they want done and how they want it done instead of assuming that as wealthy, educated folk we know best. Look up a speech called "To Hell with Good Intentions" by Ivan Illich for more thoughts on this topic.

Thank you for reading and engaging with my blog!

Posted by: Alice on February 4, 2009 9:17 PM

And I mean it's not like every aid organization is doing all the wrong things in whatever place in the world. There are plenty of organizations that know how to plan correctly for the proper buildings in a place, and volunteers who can only come for a week obviously can do a lot of good helping to build that building. It's all a matter of context, really. I think it's not helpful to paint a picture only of extremes when considering volunteering for needy places -- but I think it is helpful to consider that some organizers and some volunteers don't have a proper understanding of where they are going and what the community needs to help itself. I generally agree with you, Will, that people from industrialized countries (these days) are going over with better intentions than that of colonizing invaders, but sometimes their involvement can have the effect of colonizing. So I mean, these 'savior' cycles (a good term, I think) are out there, certainly, but I think that restructuring programs and better volunteer education can help change their strategies, and the like.

Posted by: Anonymous on February 8, 2009 5:09 PM

Alice, I've really enjoyed discovering your blog. It sounds like you are on such an interesting study abroad program. Just a thought, though: when you say "We all share a mutual distaste for programs that send rich, U.S. to impoverished places so they can foist a project on the locals, then leave after two weeks feeling great about themselves" I think you don't mean it to sound as harsh as it comes off. It does sound a little self-satisfied. I appreciate that you're searching for meaningful and beneficial ways to serve those in need, but an important step is not alienating others who are, as Will says, with the best of intentions. In fact, American students who end up on programs like the ones you describe would probably be extremely enthusiastic to hear about worthier alternatives. Learning about what works and what doesn't is an ongoing process, but ultimately I think curiosity is always to be lauded over apathy.

Posted by: Prospie on February 18, 2009 8:25 AM

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