By Ömer Ongun, former AFS/YES student to USA in 2004 and volunteer in AFS Turkey
“It was such a hard decision for me to make when I was asked to go to Kenya for a week in January 2010 by the AFS office in Turkey. An orientation camp was going to be held in the city of Mombasa for both volunteers and 2010 YES candidates I, as 2004 returnee, current alumni-volunteer, was involved with various selection processes and orientation camps in Turkey but this was different…and it was going to be in Africa…
Africa? What did I know about it? Kenya to me was a ‘safari country’ and that was pretty much all. Well, I made the decision and got prepared for the orientation. I decided to take couple days off in Kenya before the camp so that I could get to see around a little bit. Ahmed, Fatima and Athman, from AFS-Kenya took care of me for two days in Mombasa. They were so welcoming and hospitable. It was just amazing to feel the connection that we all are volunteers doing pretty much the same things but in totally different regions.
Swahili Resource Center which at that time hosted AFS Kenya was one of the greatest culture centers that I had ever been to. I was amazed by what they had succeeded there. SRC offers intensive Swahili language and cultural studies for the foreign exchange students, and it has a small library that has various books and written resources for the interested. I had a chance to read about the tribes of Kenya, Swahili food and clothing during my stay. I felt like I knew nothing about Kenya or Africa in general. SRC and the AFS staff of Kenya were a great opportunity for me to learn and I was very glad that those are the people that ‘do AFS’. While Ahmed was showing me around in Mombasa, there was also the orientation preparation rush going on. We went to the street markets to get some items, went to the hotel for negotiation and photocopied materials. It was very meaningful for me to be part of their rush. Ahmed and Fatima were planning everything in details and it was unbelievable that they have been volunteering for only about a year and doing such a good job.
Orientation started with volunteer training and the students were supposed to arrive the next day. There were 16 volunteers coming from different regions of Kenya. I was impressed by their passion, sense of responsibility, willingness, and excitement. From the very first moment, I felt that I was with the right people. Although I was much younger than all of them, they were carefully listening whatever I told them and each appreciated my experience. It was such a learning process for both them and me. Volunteer training took about a day and then 41 candidates arrived at the orientation site. Together with students, we did activities such as ‘iceberg’, ‘expectations circle’, ‘bingo’ and so on. We only had 20 scholarships so only half of the group made it but I personally wished that we were able to send all 41 students. Each had great potential and I could imagine how successful they would be when given a chance.
Now, it makes more sense to me what I am volunteering for. It is not only the paperwork or another orientation rush but our volunteering makes a huge difference. Kenya experience showed me that link which keeps all of the volunteers throughout the entire world excited and connected although we never know each other.”