Cuso International’s US Partnerships staff Shelina Aziz Gwaduri, based in Washington, reflects on her own volunteer journey.
The notion of volunteering, of serving your community, was ingrained in me during my upbringing as an Ismaili Muslim.
I volunteered as a child, and after graduate school, it was only natural that I would volunteer abroad. So I applied with VSO Canada, which would later merge with CUSO to form Cuso International.
Although I originally planned for a six-month posting as a youth volunteer, by the time I finished, I had worked in six countries, travelled to over two dozen cities, escaped violence, death and natural disasters but, more importantly, I had experienced the goodness of humanity.
I first worked in Mongolia and witnessed a country showing signs of modernity, yet held back by an infrastructure and at times mentality of the people that reminded me the old Soviet system was still intact.
My role as a Volunteer Development Advisor was to champion the cause of volunteering through advocacy and campaigning, developing and strengthening volunteer programs, and, in general, creating an enabling environment for volunteers to thrive. These efforts did bear some fruit.
In remote areas of Western Mongolia, near the Kazakhstan and Russian border, the local community I was visiting was so far removed from the capital that trying to receive support or resources was very difficult, and an impediment to development. I was able to help develop an action plan to strengthen communication and support to local organizations with the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and then to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
After my first placement, I went on to work in Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, all with a similar focus: championing volunteerism as a tool for development. And that energy and passion continued with me when I returned to the US and began working for organizations where volunteers were the focal point.
In April 2012, Cuso International decided to open a US Office in Washington, DC, with the objective of cultivating relationships and partnerships that were being established with American partners.
Four months on, my primary focus has been to implement Cuso’s first USAID (United States Agency for International Development) grant on diaspora engagement. It has been an exciting and fulfilling opportunity for me, and a pivotal time for Cuso International to be in Washington DC.
I have had the opportunity to represent Cuso at several NGO and U.S Government diaspora-focused meetings, explore potential partners for collaboration, and interact with our 600 plus returned volunteers in the US. Even better, my previous volunteer experience is coming full circle in my current position: a core part of our USAID-backed project involves recruiting US volunteers from various diaspora communities to continue promoting a deeper understanding of volunteerism as a tool for tackling global poverty.
I have heard many slogans and anecdotal stories of how volunteering overseas can be a life altering experience, but there is one story and quote that stands out. A few years ago, I met Dikembe Mutombo at a volunteer event. Dikembe is a Congolese professional basketball player who played for the Houston Rockets. In addition he is a well-known humanitarian who started a Foundation to improve the life of those living in Congo.
Towards the end of the event, I thanked Dikembo for being our guest speaker, and he expressed his gratitude for the hundreds of volunteers who had done a phenomenal job at this event. He said, “Shelina we have an obligation to help others. When you take the elevator to go up you always need to make sure to send that elevator back down because there are people who need that same elevator you took up.”
Thank you to all those for renewing the power of volunteerism and sending that elevator back down