14 young people from 9 different countries. 21 days in September. A small village 1300 meters high in the mountains in the South of France. Working together as volunteers in the National Park, living together in a small mountain hut, eating together, spending free time together.
This is what my September looked like this year. Why am I writing about it? What has it got to do with Europe? After all, many of us have participated in summer academies, seminars and workshops, together with other young people from all over Europe; many of us have worked as volunteers, or spent some time in another country. So there is nothing special about spending three weeks in France, together with other young people from different European countries, you could argue.
Well this experience has far more to do with Europe and the European Union than you would think at first. In a so-called workcamp (which I have never done before), together with a group of other young people, you volunteer on a specific project or task for a few weeks, you live together and you organize your work and free time together in a democratic way (i.e. there is no program planned or prepared for you). At first, I thought this might be just a nice opportunity to improve my French, to work outdoors (instead of spending time with my books in the library) and to get to know some people.
But after the first few days, I realized that a workcamp is actually much more than that. It is a way of creating tolerance, patience, and an interest in and understanding of other cultures in a very direct and practical sense. It challenges you to reflect on your own cultural values and beliefs, and it also challenges you to learn and develop as a person – in a way, it is the perfect setting for informal learning. Every participant, whether in a conscious or unconscious way, is able to learn and to develop the things he or she needs and wants – be that speaking a foreign language, learning how to clean and cook, overcoming fears (in different ways) or improving patience and tolerance.
Workcamps are organized during the summer in many different European countries, by different organizations whose first and foremost aim it is to contribute to peace and international understanding in Europe, and to strengthen democratic awareness, tolerance, and civic responsibility. For example IBG e.V., the German organization to which I am affiliated, was founded in 1965 for this very reason: to create and protect peace in Europe by enabling encounters between young Europeans through a voluntary civil service. Keeping this in mind, one could say that a workcamp is a way of creating – and maintaining – peace between different countries, nationalities and cultures.
You may say that exactly the same happens when you attend a workshop or a summer academy, or when you spend time abroad in another country. And of course these are all different ways of international and intercultural engagement, different ways of getting to know other cultures and reflecting on your own culture. In a way, a workcamp, and especially one where you are living in a small hut in the mountains without internet or phone connection, is just a very intense version of this – and yet it is very different.
By working together, doing tough manual work, through the experience of accomplishing something together – in our case to clean a small river, which is the only source of water for the village we stayed in, to build walls and to seal leaks in the river bank – by living together with very little privacy and without the possibility of escaping into the vast realm of the World Wide Web or phoning friends and family back home, a bond is created between people, between cultures, languages and countries that has no equal. And there is something very gratifying about doing voluntary work, too – it gives you a sense of giving something back to a wider community of which you are a part. A European community, which relies on each of its members to contribute their share, their strength and their visions to the success of this community. It relies on each and every one of us to add a piece in order to peace Europe together – one piece at a time.