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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Volunteering in Paris

So, I find myself, summer of 2005, in Paris, ready to go to work. Who would have thought Paris a likely location for a volunteer project? Of course, the moment I saw the listing I was ready to go. The project was to work with an arts association, in a housing development where most of the tenants were immigrants. The building was constructed around a courtyard that had fallen into disrepair, and where some of the young adult tenants would hang out late, to the frustrations of many of the other tenants, some elderly, some with young families.

The project had been described in the listing as to design a garden with a human rights theme. Some of the volunteers had interpreted that as actually constructing the garden, and were frustrated to discover that we were going to theorize and design the garden, which would actually be built later on. I, however, had interpreted it as the arts group, Compagnie Resonances, had intended, which was definitely my preference!

We were housed in a dorm like -building where foreign students rented rooms. It was much more creature comfortable than any of my previous volunteer stints (real beds!) but certainly less luxurious than any of my previous stays in Paris, except perhaps for my "maid's room" during my own student days. (I think all those garret cubbyhole rooms have since become chic studio accomodations.)

Much to my delight, the building we were working in was a few blocks from my favorite flea market, at Clignacourt metro, to which I scooted over during any opportunity.

Many days, we went on excursions to various Paris parks and playgrounds, in small groups of volunteers with kids and adults from the community. Other times, we brainstormed and built models of our conceptions of the courtyard design, again along with community members. One day, we visited the Paris mosque. I had been there before, on a previous trip a few years back. I don't think most of the residents of our building, many of whom were Muslim, had been. We arrived to discover that the mosque was being renovated and wasn't open for tours. But our group leaders apparently convinced them, and we did get a guided tour. Although the mosque is not terribly old, they were stripping all of the mosaic tiles on the floor, walls, and pillars, to be replaced with newer ones. I was sad and elated at the same time. There seemed to be no need to replace the beautiful mosaics, but on the other hand, perhaps we could recycle them? I had one of our group leaders discuss it with the mosque folks, and, next we knew,plans were being made to send a truck to bring some of the blue and white, gold and silver tiles back. The kids also collected a few and put them in their pockets. So did I.

The volunteers each designed our own visions of what the garden should be. Mine included, of course, mosaic tiles, along with words of peace and understanding. On the last evening we all presented our proposals to the community at a wonderful pot-luck prepared by the residents. After supper, we had an amazing dance presentation but a small group of Sri Lankan children. A couple of the girls had danced for us the first night, at a welcome party, and we had been so enthralled that we had asked them to dance for us again. This time they wore intricate costumes, and make up that it took their parents about an hour to apply. In the audience, in addition to us volunteers, were a variety of people from the community. One elderly white woman, who had appeared at several events during our stay, and seemed to perhaps suffer from dementia ( I imagined that she had lived in the building for many decades, before the population had become largely immigrants) sat watching, a small boy from an African family sitting on her lap. It is an image that stays with me strongly.

I don't know, and continue to wonder, if the garden actually was created and if so, what it is like and how it is used. And if it never did materialize, does that negate the whole experience for the volunteers and for the residents? I think not, although I certainly hope there is a garden there, and that it, and most of all, the people who live there, are thriving.

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