A picture from one of the events at Deichman Tøyen Public Library.

I Volunteer, Therefore I Am

My experiences in some voluntary organizations in Norway

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The best way to be with people is to help them and the best way to help is to volunteer. My volunteering journey in Norway started at a public library; then I became a mentor for kids and joined an organization that promotes diversity in society. Here is what I’ve gained and learned from all this.

Performing at Deichman Tøyen Public Library

One day in May 2022, while I was sitting at home and reading a book, typical cloudy Norwegian weather outside, a friend of mine called me and said, “Deichman Tøyen Public Library is opening their new scene at the end of this month, and I am going to play guitar and sing there. It is going to be a voluntary activity.” Then he asked, “Would you like to join me?” A little bit surprised and ashamed that I didn’t even know that there was such a library in Tøyen that is so close to where I live, I hesitated. 

I hesitated, because it had been a while since I performed on stage. I played guitar in the streets, in subways, and at schools in Türkiye, my home country. But I had never performed at libraries, and I had no idea what kind of audience would be there. But like Nietzsche who said “Life without music would be a mistake, an exile,” I didn’t want to make that “mistake” of being away from music and therefore being in a kind of “exile,” and thinking that it would be fun to play and sing songs there, I accepted. My friend, who was already volunteering for the library, contacted them and told them that one more person would like to join. The library accepted, and so I was also scheduled to play and sing at the opening ceremony of the library.

I chose my songs, one song in Turkish, and one in French. The Turkish one was an Anatolian Rock song named “Dağlar Dağlar” (“Mountains Mountains”) by my favorite singer Barış Manço, while the one in French was “Maman” (Mom) by a French artist Louane. Both are about the feeling of missing the beloved ones, so, they felt fitting to me, since I myself was thousands of kilometers away from home.

I rehearsed the songs over and over again, until my fingers and my throat hurt. At the end of May 2022, on the day the new scene was going to open, I was ready and went to the library. The scene was at an adjoining hall to the library. There, Dijana Ribac Sekulic, who was responsible for cultural events at that time and was in contact with volunteers, welcomed me. I had my last rehearsal with my friend before the opening ceremony and waited for my turn to play guitar and sing.

A picture of the scene, taken later – the scene of Deichman Tøyen Public Library.

Then, people started to come. My performance preceded a short meeting with the most famous teacher for foreigners in Norway, Norsklærer Karense. She teaches Norwegian on YouTube and has over 100 thousand followers. I also watched many videos of her to improve my Norwegian. 

Because of all these reasons combined, the new scene, the diversity of the local community, and a meeting with a famous teacher, there was an enormous audience and such diversity between them. They were from different cultures, from different countries, and, as I later learned, some of them were volunteers or participants in other library activities, such as language cafés. The place was almost full, and the level of my excitement climbed to the highest point.

Later, my turn came, and with my hands shaking, I started to play and sing. While I was performing, I saw how incredible the audience was. When I talked to some of them towards the end of the opening ceremony, they told me that they especially loved the song “Maman,” because it touched them deeply. Once I read a sentence in French, “Ce qui vient du coeur va au coeur” (“What comes from the heart goes to the heart”). I believe that I sang that song from my heart, and it went to the hearts of other people. I really loved to be there at this new scene with all of them, so I decided to become a volunteer at the library and perform at other events.

Later on, I was again invited to play guitar and sing songs. At one of them, I gave a mini-concert to other volunteers, and another took place during julebord (literally “Christmas table,” an event where people come together for Christmas, sometimes before Christmas, eat, have fun, and celebrate it). I played songs in Turkish, English, and French.

In all these events, I saw that music brought people together. I also understood why being a volunteer was such a meaningful job: It was a joy to be in front of all these wonderful people. I felt like I really integrated into Norwegian society while at the same time still having and representing my own culture. It was an amazing feeling.

When I contacted Michael Emre Altayli, the project leader at Tøyen frivilligsentral and the one responsible for voluntary activities at the library, I asked him about the improvement that their activities brought to society and realized that what I felt and got from the experiences at the library was shared by the local community:

–  According to your Facebook page, you organize so many different activities for many age groups, like language cafés for adults for different languages, social activities for kids, and tours to art places. What kind of improvement have all these activities brought to society? 

– We have seen and documented the effects activities have had on local society. These are namely increased inclusiveness, learning, joy, interaction, cooperation and motivation amongst children, youth, adults, and the elderly. At the same time, all the factors mentioned serve residents in benefiting from avoiding exclusion, loneliness, and isolation.

I also asked Michael about the volunteers:

How do you recruit volunteers?

– There are numerous platforms from which volunteers are recruited. The most effective tool we have is the website frivillig.no, which is a simplified process for anyone to register themselves as volunteers. However, we also recruit many volunteers from face-to-face interaction in other activities, events, and meetings. There are also people who are referred to us by existing volunteers.

Mentor for kids: MentorUng (Mentor [for] the Young)

Through my experiences, I have realized that I was able to touch different groups of people. This gave me motivation to continue as a volunteer as well as immense joy and happiness, because I felt that what I was doing was a service to society. And I was doing it with my own skills and with my own identity, in other words by being myself. Given that most foreigners in a foreign country, including me, struggle with how to be a part of that society while at the same time keeping their own identity, this was an ineffable feeling for me.

I decided to continue on my path as a volunteer. This time, it was me who was going to ask if I could volunteer at an organization, and not for adults but for kids. Earlier, I worked for some time as a teaching assistant at a high school, and I liked it. I thought that it might be good to be a volunteer for kids. As it is said in one of my favorite books, and the first book I read in French, The Little Prince, “All grown-ups were once children. But only few of them remember it.” Considering that I am one of these few, I contacted MentorUng in August 2022, an organization that works with voluntary mentors for kids, and asked them if I could become a mentor there. They accepted my request, and thus my journey and my path as a volunteer led me to some kids this time.

The office of MentorUng in Tøyen.

I became the mentor for 5 kids whose ages varied between 10 and 12. I helped them with their homework and school. I did my best to share with them my life experience and my knowledge. Having said that, I also learned a lot from them. Kids are different from adults in so many ways. 

For example, they can easily get distracted. I saw that when we read books together, some of them started to get bored after a short while. That is why the best way to teach them is through games, so we played Playstation, table tennis, football, billiards, etc. I realized that all this helped increase their motivation to learn. 

All kids are unique, their character is different, they all have different talents and different dreams, so it is important to know how to communicate with them and to speak with them in their own language. For example, in the group of kids I was a mentor for, some liked sports (like football or basketball) more than others. That is why it was important for them to do or talk about sport. I needed to learn more about NBA basketball games and players to communicate with them more easily and to catch their attention. Some liked computer games, which was something very alien to me, so I tried to learn more about them to be able to talk in the kids’ language.

It is also so fun to do other things with them such as watching films, singing, listening to music... Furthermore, when you see that they are growing up, which they do so fast, and learn more and more, it makes you very proud. Thanks to this experience, I learned a lot, but above all I learned that I, like so many other adults, had a lot to learn from kids.

I reached out Gørkem Yüksel, the project leader of MentorUng, and asked him about the timeline of the activities that they have been organizing for kids:

You organize different activities for kids. How long have you been organizing them?

 – MentorUng has been organizing various activities for children for several years now. Our commitment to providing enriching experiences for youth has remained steadfast since our foundation. 

I also asked Gørkem about his impression of the activities they organized:

How would you evaluate your latest activities compared to the first ones?

– As for evaluating our latest activities compared to the first ones, we continuously strive to improve and adapt based on feedback, changing needs, and emerging trends. Over time, we have refined our approach, expanded our offerings, and strengthened our impact within the community. While our early activities laid the foundation for our work, our latest endeavors reflect our growth, innovation, and dedication to empowering children and youth.

Singing for Older People: Mangfoldshuset (The Diversity House)

After these experiences at the library as a volunteer and at MentorUng as a mentor for kids, I got my confidence. I was ready for new opportunities. And new opportunities came. Another friend of mine, Fırat Bahçıvan, who works at Mangfold (“diversity” in Norwegian), another voluntary organization, invited me to an event at an omsorgssenter (care center for older persons), for the celebration of International Day of Older people on 1st October. I was going to play guitar and sing songs for them. 

The celebration of the International day of older persons at the omsorgssenter.

I didn’t have any hesitation. I said to my friend that it would be a good service to these people to sing for them, and I accepted. I was going to sing some Turkish songs again, but I was also going to sing and play the French song “Maman.” That song was special for me, it was a special day, and I had received really good comments about it before. 

When 1st October came, I went to the care center with a friend who picked me up. The care center was close to Drammen/Asker region and was located in the middle of a forest-like area. I went to the hall where I was going to perform and rehearsed there while other volunteers from Mangfold were preparing the hall and decorating it. 

When the people came, it was an emotional moment for me. Some of them seemed really sick, most of them were in wheelchairs, and others could barely walk and talk. Some of them couldn’t stay for the whole celebration because of their physical state and had to go back to their rooms. There were some people who had to get help and assistance from the nurses to come to the place where there was going to be the celebration. 

There was also an incredible moment I witnessed. I remember that one volunteer had come to the celebration with her baby. There was one older woman, around 80-90 years old, who was sitting in a wheelchair and couldn’t walk. The volunteer talked to her while her baby was in her arms. All of a sudden, the baby grabbed one of the fingers of the old lady, and this gave her such a beautiful smile. Even today, I still remember the joy she had in her eyes.

Overwhelmed by all these emotions, I decided to pull myself together to be able to sing and performed in front of all these people. They applauded. Applause makes every singer proud and happy, but the applause from these people was one of the greatest moments of happiness for me. My songs were, maybe, a voice which spoke to them and a hand which reached them.

I stayed in contact with the organization, became a volunteer for them, and followed them on their social media. They organize events to gather people together through dialogue and in this way support diversity. I asked Fırat Bahçıvan about the contribution of such events to society and about the mission of the organization:

According to your social media accounts, you bring people from different cultures together and organize events that introduce the cultures to each other. How does this contribute to society?

– Bringing people from different cultures together through our events contributes to society by fostering understanding, empathy, and mutual respect among diverse communities. By promoting cultural exchange and dialogue, we help break down stereotypes and promote social cohesion.

Also, again on your social media, you describe Mangfoldshuset’s mission as “a nationwide non-profit organization that is organized according to local interests and needs.” What kind of local interest and needs have you seen in society and how do you help the society on this issue?

– As for our mission, we address local interests and needs by tailoring our activities to the specific cultural landscape and challenges faced by each community. This could involve language classes, cultural workshops, or events that celebrate the unique heritage of different groups within the community. Ultimately, our goal is to empower individuals and communities to embrace diversity and build a more inclusive society.

A gift from other volunteers at the omsorgssenter.

This has been my journey as a volunteer in Norway so far. What have I found? Here, I should refer to the philosophy of my life, my compass in it, which is summarized perfectly by British philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: The longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” 

In this journey I found love: Love for art, love for humanity which we are all a part of, like the different branches of the same tree. I found knowledge: Knowledge of other cultures, of other ideas, of other perspectives, and of other people from every age. Last but not least, I found the possibility to help some people for whom I felt compassion. All this has made this journey and my life more meaningful, happier, and overall better. Because I believe that to live a good life is to live a meaningful life, and being a volunteer is one of the most meaningful things a person could ever do.

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