Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Volunteering internationally: absolute 'do's

My first two English teachers came to Mongolia in the early 90s right after the transition with VSO, an international development organisation that works through volunteers who contribute to the local development working and building the capacity of the local people, obviously following their idealistic desire for changes they could contribute to, and of course, for adventure. Later I worked with volunteers, later still I ended up as the Education Programme Manager for VSO, its beautiful motto "Sharing skills, changing lives". All of my memories of the volunteers I had in my life as my teachers, later as my colleagues, are fond. Hell, I even married a development volunteer who came to Mongolia with AVI, Australian counterpart of VSO! How could they not be fond. 2013 January was the first time in my life that I had ventured outside my country as a volunteer -- paying my own, very expensive way from Mongolia to Ecuador, and living here out of my pocket -- because I believe in the LGBT rights, LGBT rights movement, and specifically, the nascent sub-movement within the broader LGBT rights movement: the transrights movement. After nearly three months here, I am ready to head back, and I thought I'd share my thoughts and experiences on international volunteering.

  1. Do find out about the organisation you're going to be working for, and I mean, everything. Do your research, contact people who have had working relationships with the organisation, contact counterpart organisations or organisations working on similar issues who may have had some contact with the organisation you are going to. If you know people in the country, ask them about the organisation and how it is run. If you can find out about the previous volunteers and can locate them, do talk to them to get a better idea of what the organisation is and to decide whether it is still your cup of tea. No matter how you think the organisation is aligned with your beliefs, it is still run by individuals who may have different interpretation of what they are doing, why. In my case, I completely trusted the founder of the Proyecto Transgenero, Eli Vasquez, had completely taken her word for what the organisation was without going through the basic rule number 1, because of my complete and utter trust. When I arrived, I began hearing the stories of how previous volunteers had done them wrong, how one tried to sue the organisation for human trafficking (because Eli promised him work before him coming to Ecuador, but didn't help at all, absolutely reminiscent of my case as well, with the difference that I am not suing anyone, but just kicking myself hard for being trusting and stupid), how one had a personal relationship with one of the PT management and had tried to take over the organisation, etc. Littlle by little I began hearing how the PT is not actually working within the broader LGBT rights movement (according to Eli: "We have different, incompatible issues"), that there was little to none cooperation with other LGBT NGOs because of various reasons that then sounded sort of legitimate (extreme insensitivity on the part of the director of one of the leading LGBT oganisations in Ecuador towards the two women of the PT at the time of their anguish). Having always stood for the unity within the LGBT rights movement between all the subcommunities of the broader sexuality minority community, having championed for cooperation and united front between all L-G-B-T people back in Mongolia from 2000 onwards, having dedicated my life to all LGBT people's causes, I found the last bit of information specifically troubling. All this information did ring my bells of worry, not of panic yet. Idealistic in my belief that I could and would contribute to the transrights situation in the country, because that is why they wanted me to come to Ecuador in the first place, I persevered. 
  2. Do find out about the staff as well as the board and other structures of the organisation. Within the PT, there is no accountability structure since the organisation is a legal amalgam of three people only, they don't have a board, or provide reports to the NGO-oversight bodies. Out of three one had been out of the picture for many years, making the organisation just two people + whoever volunteers for the organisation. When I realised that the organisation is simply two people doing ad-hoc events and advocacy, without much rhyme or reason through mostly the people they know within the Legislature and the Municipality, it began ringing bigger bells of worry, but I persevered, still. In February, two weeks after I came to Ecuador, I did my first workshop with the PT and PT volunteers to assess the needs of the trans community, and thus to start streamlining the organisation's efforts into a much more programmatic, rhymed and reasoned approach. After a day's workshop that was successful in that we mapped the most urgent areas of interventions for transpeople, I was told by Eli afterwards, very dismissively "That's not what we wanted. We wanted to know about fundraising". So I spent a different afternoon giving some very workable ideas to Eli on fundraising both in the legal personhood they are now in, and in a proper NGO legal personhood, if/when they choose to do so. The point: if the NGO doesn't represent the community they are supposedly working for, if they don't even have a board in any shape, if there is noone you can appeal to if things go wrong, don't panic, just try to work still on why you came: even if there is a lack of legitimacy and no democratic governing of the organisation, if the people who are governing the organisation are doing it for the right reasons, you may find it might work. But not in my case with PT. About two weeks or so into my stay here, I posted a bewildered, but still fairly innocuous post in my FB about how that day was a weird day. 2 minutes after the post, I was treated with paranoia and extreme suspicion "What is this post about? Is he trying to hurt your reputation?!" from the executive director of the PT. The post was about a mysoginistic and transphobic feminist who commented on the radio interview with two transpeople "They don't make radio programs about bearded women, but why make a program about bearded transman?!". It was deeply personally offensive to me because the radio program was actually highlighting the incredible agony transpeople have to undergo during the election times in Ecuador as the booths are gender-segreggated, and with the tiresome court-based system of changing the gender marker in the identity documents, most transpeople in Ecuador have their birth gender markers in their IDs, which is very, very, very problematic in every step of existence. But here was a feminist who didn't understand all of that, and simply jokes "They don't make programs about bearded women, why make a program on a bearded transman?!". Her so-called joke implied that she didn't see a difference between a mustachioed woman and a transman, which's extremely offensive, on all levels. Long story short, this comment in its context was never seen as offensive by one of the PT people, and the other freaked out when I posted about it. 
  3. Do find out about the exact status you will have in the country because a regular status means a lot. I was told that I would have a regular status, that it would be a cultural exchange and that I would be able to work with it. That's what I was told before coming here. After my arrival, Eli told me that she did ask around and found out that the cultural exchange status doesn't allow them to work, that I should get someone to marry so I could have a regular status and work to support myself. Extreme bells of worry rang then, but I just joked it off by saying "Show me someone I might like and I will marry her/him." No matter, two months into my stay and still no effort was made to regularise my status here, and after my pressuring of Eli, she finally began the process of getting all the necessary documents to enable me to get a cultural exchange visa. Since I am still on a tourist visa, I am having trouble accessing healthcare, even. But yes, run, run, run if someone even jokingly suggests that you should get married to get a regular status! That wasn't what was agreed in the first place, so if that basic agreement is being reneged on, what else can go wrong?! Everything, be ware! 
  4. Do find out about the healthcare coverage, especially if you're coming for an extended period of time. In my case, I came here for a year. Starting from the third week of March, I began having nightly, very strong stomach pains. When I was telling the PT staff about it en route to a concert, one of the PT staff made a joke of it and laughed. I was deeply offended, because health is nothing to joke about. I wanted to be let out, but what I didn't know was that apparently we were on a highway. More of the nightmare: on 30 March I began bleeding. I freaked out because since my hormone replacement therapy began, I never had bleeding and there shouldn't be any bleeding. If there is, there is something absolutely wrong. I wrote to Eli about how I was freaked out, I asked her to please help, she said she knew two doctors, but never took me to them. Bleeding after nearly two years of HRT is bloody serious, it is a cause of panic. But no help from the PT. Then last week while I was playing with Yikee in the park, he grazed my arm with his teeth, of course, it was during a play, but since he wasn't vaccinated against anything (although I got him at 3.5 months and so he should've been vaccinated long ago), I freaked out. No help came from the PT people. I asked my beighbours and with my basic Spanish managed to find the health centre, argued for 20 minutes that I did need vaccines, and they finally gave me just one against tetanus saying that since the puppy is domestic, it wouldn't have rabies no matter how much I tried to explain that he was never vaccinated against anything and that he plays outside with dogs, I let him play a few times even with the park dogs. Because of the bleeding, and all that it might entail, i.e., huge, huge health issues, I am choosing to return as soon as humanly possible.
  5. Do have a little self-respect! After my workshop with the PT was dismissed, I said to myself "Ok, let's continue working with them as they want things to go". It wasn't easy as I found out that I was being completely left out from all the processes that the PT was involved in, that I was simply there as a decoration, a nice trans decoration. What made matters worse was I was shouted at on 23 March in front of all the ALER (the Latin American and the Carribean Association for Radio Education, the host rado of the "South-Trans-South") staff who somehow were in that Saturday, although they usually are not in on Saturdays. After a deep and absolutely unwarranted humiliation, I managed to finish the interview with one of the guests of the "South-Trans-South". After I left the ALER building, Eli came and said that I was making a hell out of her life, that she had better things to do with her time than take care of my visa status, that one of the transwomen was dying (who showed up very happily next week for the Slut Walk meeting), that I was culturally insensitive (referring to the fact that I was offended by that feminist's "joke" which was no joke), and how I was hanging out and being friends with people who tried to "f*ck the PT over" (referring to my greeting of the girlfriend of one of my Spanish teachers who has taught a number of classes out of good will and for free, so why shouldn't I be nice to her girlfriend?! Because apparently one of the PT management had a fling with my Spanish teacher's girlfriend a long time ago and somehow there are some hard feelings leftover!) She began crying saying that she may be extremely brilliant, but that she couldn't even tie her shoelaces till she was quite old, that she had suffered a lot for her work with transpeople, that she wants to give up her work for trans people because the internationally famous transrights activists do not respect her and think her as an illegitimate trespasser in the trans rights movement. For the Nth time since I came to Ecuador, I told her that there shouldn't be any bio-essentialism in the human rights movement, and not especially in the transrights movement, that she should just disregard all those attacks. I hugged her to calm her down, but inside all of the bells of panic, disbelief and disgust were ringing. If you find yourself in a toxic environment such as this, have a self-respect, simply walk out.
  6. Do have the organisation tell you exactly how they plan to support your living in the country. Although I was told prior to my coming here that everything will be figured out, that there would be consultancies to sustain me financially, and I had been asking Eli to start contacting people who have need someone with my experience, 3 weeks ago Eli told me that nothing she says is definite, and that you don't get work in Ecuador just because of your qualifications or experience, that you need personal relationships and contacts. If they are unable to contribute to your basic needs, or say they would help you figure out, but don't lift a finger, get out. Run as if you're being chased by a devil.

What it all comes down to is: after asking her to help out with my health issue, after watching the documentary "Legal Patrol" -- an homage to Eli and her work for transpeople, after Eli's out-all FB-ing about my interview with the first and so far the only trans politician in Japan while she never did so with my other guests, after her million times of saying that the international transrights activists don't respect her and want her out (while I actually don't believe it: she's been supported to go to many international trans events, while I've been to a single LGBT internaitonal event in all my life) -- no matter how good her and PT's intetions are, they are in it for all the wrong reasons. If they don't get the basic-most need of the transpeople they are supposedly working with/for, how can they get other points? And if they don't get the basic-most point, what are they doing working in the transrights anyway? Now here I am, with 4500 dollars less than I had at the beginning of the year, the money I could hardly afford to spend for nothing, the money that in the hindsight I should've spent on getting my second surgery, with my HRT-related failing health, disappointment and humiliation, I am now stuck here on the other side of the world from home. Thank god I got the round tickets, but even trying to change the dates is costing me money that I hardly have. I also have to give up the puppy, Yikee, for although Eli did say that she would help out with his transportation back to Mongolia, nothing she says is definite. So adoption of Yikee is the only option. 

Let no one ever have this kind of nightmare experience ever again.

PS: Well, to change dates of my tickets out of Quito to Atlanta cost me additional 500$ that I didn't have, which I had to borrow from friends. I asked the PT people to pay at least that, but they said they could give me back 200$, but no more as they had gone into various expenses (which in the bigger pictue of things do not come anywhere near in comparison to 5 thousand that I had spent literally for nothing). So that's that. The only thing I want to do is to get out of here, get home, and access some medical help.

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