Interview with Christian Jones, an experienced camp leader with UNA, conducted by UNA Exchange 2019/2020 volunteers Helene Chaland and Loeiza Stucker.
Did you know that 2020 marks a special anniversary? This year we are celebrating 100 years of workcamps and international volunteering for peace! A hundred years ago, Pierre Ceresole created what is known today as an International Workcamp. The first international voluntary project took place on the former battlefield of Verdun in France in 1920.
UNA Exchange 2019/2020 European Solidarity Corps volunteers Helene and Loeiza interviewed Christian Jones, an experienced camp leader, for the occasion.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name’s Christian. I’m from Pontypridd.
I have done thirteen projects with UNA. Ranging from two weeks, one month, to a year. On the top of my head, I think I can remember most of them! So I’ve been to Russia on three occasions, Belarus and then all the rest of my projects were based in Wales, as a camp leader. I’ve been to two or three trips abroad. I’ve lived in Iceland for two years, playing professional football, going on family holidays. It wasn’t a great shock to travel abroad.
When did you start volunteering? What was your motivation?
So I began volunteering in 2013, to this day. I went on a group project to begin with, with an organization [called] Saint John Ambulance where I met the leader of that project. He told me a few interesting stories. I came back and I went on a leader’s training and
in the Summer I decided to do a two-week camp just because I enjoyed my group project and I wanted to travel.
What did you take from all these workcamps?
I was a primary school teacher back then and I was of challenging myself to work with people who, maybe their English was not really good, but
I wanted to help them improve their English. I gained a lot of confidence from them.
[Encountering] different cultures – it was a test for me. Some of the food I tried were not to my liking but I got to experience it. And also, a lot of good memories from the projects. And cooking! I was never a good cook, my mother always cooked for me! So that was one of my challenges on the workcamp–not just cooking for one person but for the whole group. To this day now I just cook for myself all the time!
Do you have a striking memory of one of your workcamps – something that changed your perspective on life?
So our group project was with disable children. Seeing how they adapted to disabilities and were willing to give a hundred percent and everything,
that made me think if they can do it, so can I.
When I was teaching I never experienced being with anyone with disabilities. It was scary at first but I came back from the workcamp with really good memories.
What was your biggest culture shock?
The Russian winter! Sometimes it was minus thirty.
For me it was a shock to my system –I had to wear five layers of clothes.
One day it was so cold I couldn’t feel my feet –they almost froze off. But when I got used to it, I kind of adapted to the weather and now I can’t deal with the hot weather or when I go abroad.
Sometimes [it was] the language barrier, I was lucky that in most of my projects we had people translating for us but when I went to the shops or bars or wanted to order food, it was quite a struggle. For my long-term project I had to travel thirteen hours on a train from Moscow to Kiev. Because I didn’t speak Russian, I couldn’t order food, so I had to starve all day.
Do you think travelling changed you to the core?
I got to see places when most people I know, stay in Wales -they won’t travel abroad. Their comfort zone is Wales or maybe England, but
I wanted to see more of the world.
What do you still carry with you?
I got a lot of memories, gifts… On one of my projects Russian hats were given to us volunteers. There were four of us volunteers and there were only four hats ever made so I’m proud to own one these hats. And then again, coming back from these projects I’m still cooking for myself these days, trying different recipes. One of my favourite recipes at the moment is Borsch, I know it’s not Russian it’s Ukrainian but I like to cook it. I just moved in a new house and my housemates got to try it!
Would you encourage young people to go on a workcamp?
It’s a good way of travelling, you get to meet loads of different people.
Every workcamp I’ve done –the work has been really good.
If you don’t want to go straight abroad, try a workcamp in Wales or England and
that can be a stepping stone into travelling abroad.
I think it benefits not just yourself and the host, but I think it also benefits the community.
On one of my projects in Wales, the children we worked with had never seen a foreigner
and got to talk to him so it benefitted them as well a lot. I’m still in contact with them today, and sadly the project did end but their experience of meeting foreign people [had a big influence on them]. They’ve come to an age where they are old enough to do a project themselves and I think some of them would be interested talking about volunteering.
Are you still in contact with some of the people you met during these workcamps?
Everyone I think! On Facebook, the Russian version -VK… I like to keep in contact with volunteers because you never know. When travelling abroad, you might end up in their city and maybe they can host you for a night or two.
Did these workcamps make you more aware of the political and social context of the countries you visited?
I went to Russia when the West was seen on the news on the dark side… The UK and America were ganged up on Russia so I had one or two experiences where I went to a bar and foreigners were asked to leave. I was asked a lot of questions when I was in schools etc. but politics- I like to keep out of it because people get to know me for myself not for what they’ve heard on the news about Wales, the UK.
I would say, just try a workcamp. Again, whether it’s in Wales or abroad, because if it is anything like my experience -it changed me for the better. I don’t think I would have travelled as much as I have, it also changed my work. When I came back I decided to give up teaching and I went on to another profession so it worked well for me.