Volunteers’ stories – Volunteering in the USSR before the fall of the Berlin Wall

To celebrate Volunteers’ Week (1-7 June), Helene (European Solidarity Corps volunteer at WCIA/UNA Exchange for the year 2019/2020) selected seven inspiring volunteer stories.

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. WCIA/UNA Exchange 2019/2020 European Solidarity Corps volunteers Helene and Loeiza interviewed Chrishan Kamalan, WCIA trustee, for the occasion.

Can you introduce yourself?

Hi, my name is Chrishan Kamalan, I’m a trustee at the WCIA – Welsh Centre for International Affairs.

We heard that you joined several workcamps. What was your motivation to do it?

My first camp was slightly different. I’d like to talk about that initially. I was very fortunate, looking back, to be able to go to the previous USSR, in 1989, just some four months before the fall of the Berlin wall, in what was what called a Peace Camp. But the principle of the Peace Camp was similar to a workcamp and the workcamp movement. That particular camp was organized by authorities in the USSR for delegates from both Eastern Europe and Western Europe at the time, to learn about each other’s experiences. Little did we know how quickly things would change politically some months later. I still remember people talking at the time, saying that the Berlin wall would stay up for another forty years. But then, that was people around the age of eighteen, which I was at the time, so we were not really informed by life experiences. But it was very much working principles of workcamps. These two groups of people behind the iron wall -iron curtain as it was called at the time- in Eastern Europe and Western Europe did not really have an understanding of each other. It was a good ten years before the internet came about. So information was limited. When I say the word suspicion, it was just a lack of knowledge, from both sides of the culture. And what happened, I can clearly remember going on the workcamp, I was about to go to University and there were people at my University already there on the workcamp. Some involved groups like Amnesty and so on, and they were trying to, in a sensitive way, outline concerns over freedom and human rights issues in various parts of Europe. And it was very much an information exchange.

What did you take from that experience?

That particular experience (Peace Camp in Minsk, Byelorussia) -and I’ll come on to other experiences as well- I think was hugely influential because three or four months later I saw the Berlin wall come down in real-time on television. At the time I couldn’t process it, now we all say that 1989 was such a significant year. I think there’s a course at Cardiff University where one of the international relationships modules focuses on 1989. For me obviously, at the time I just thought “Yes, this is unusual”. But it brought out to me how influential, I’m not saying that particular workcamp had a direct impact, but I was just thinking, especially for those who come from the Eastern European countries and USSR, they had to adapt – very quick change in mindset over that time and likewise, we had to.

The workcamp’s influence was going back to the principles of the international movement about the corporation between former soldiers who had fought each other during the First World War. At that time it was called the cold war and all of that was essentially between the governments. People did not really understand each other and maybe had prejudices and very strong opinions about each other. Being on the workcamp together just demonstrated the commonality of humanity, that we wanted similar aspirations. Maybe we had different views on how to achieve those, but that really had an impact, as I said it was the summer before I went to the University. Going to University I then joined groups like Amnesty International, which at the time were doing a lot of work on the promotion of human rights, especially in this kind of context, the European context. It also led to an interesting internationalism, European affairs… I’ve been fortunate, one of the few people, now I suppose, as a British official who could say that he’s worked in the European Commission for a short amount of time. So all those kinds of things – we are all related I think.

What was the aim of your workcamp?

That particular workcamp, the peace workcamp, was just to foster good relations between people who didn’t really know each other. There was very little information in the public domain about the various countries so going to Russia, seeing structures, I have to say that we were slightly protected maybe from the reality of what was going on at the time. But still, meeting other people, having open discussions, fact discussions, that was really helpful.

If I can answer the same question as well in relation to the workcamp several years later that I led – that was the camp that was known as the 1994 International Eisteddfod in Llangollen, North Wales. It’s an International and annual singing and cultural festival. I think it’s been going since the end of the Second World War, so the timing is interesting as well, so building on those principles of reconciliation. It’s quite funny because there was a very famous opera Italian singer, Pavarotti, whose career – he said, he is deceased – started when he went to the international I one, that was his first big break. There was a relatively small team of about six of us, helping with support during the I one. I remember the team now, there was an American lady, French and German males, myself and my sister. So I can remember particularly well that workcamp of five. We worked I think for two weeks – sorry I think it was a week actually, a week-long festival – just to provide the kind of support needed. Again this was in the mid-nineties, so again during the pre-internet age, and a lot of reliance on information supply as well, so giving out leaflets, that’s the way that people could get around the site. Having international elements so there would be a number of people whose first language was certainly not English or who needed assistance in getting around – the place was quite remote…. So it was a really magical experience. Again, thinking about it, very honoured too. On the last day, the performer who took part in the event went on to be quite famous and even at that time he was quite well know… But you look at these things, but you don’t know at the time… I was in Russia, how privileged you are to be in that kind of environment.

I think you mentioned a third workcamp…

Yes, so the third workcamp I was in, I was relatively older, thirty, possibly the oldest member of the group. I went to Alsace, for a three-week project. But firstly, I want to unpack the Alsace project, but I think this is very relevant in the context of workcamps. If we go back to how they were set up by returning French and German soldiers who had fought in the First World War. But almost immediately after the end of the hostilities, they started to think about meaningful and sensible ways in order to bring communities together. I think the workcamp movement is encapsulated about that.

It’s almost like very early restorative justice system I would say you know, not trying to address the issues of why their countries went to war, or why so many countries went to war, but on the individual level, having witnessed trauma and horrors, building up these relationships so that people avoid that, what’s pertinent about Alsace is it’s an area of land that’s been fought over by these two particular countries in numerous wars going from one to another in terms of ownership and as a result the people who had lived in that area, they can have conflict of interest sometimes because they have been ruled by these different powers so having a workcamp there was particularly important. I was involved in the renovation of a pond. That’s another big fact I wanted to draw up.

I think the movement has been ahead of its time in looking at environmental projects. That was in the 2000s, so that was quite late on, but ever since the onset there has been a big focus on restoration, repair and protection of the natural environment, because I think it just goes to show that those kinds of projects are meaningful to people. That’s why people are very interested in living in villages or even in towns. That’s been a common concern or passion. The reality is that there’s not always resources, human resources to be able to do that, so you have a workcamp element, which is introducing an element of fun. From that particular of 2003, we had at least ten people with European backgrounds and also a French Canadian attendee as well. For me it was really interesting because, I talked about my first experience in 1989, and just over twenty years later, there were people from the modern-day Russia, and seeing how the workcamp ethos had extended, had gone beyond the Western Europe where it was originally designed for, also I think the person from Quebec mentioned that it was something that was certainly familiar with, in Canada.

Just bringing people together in the nicest possible way, in a rough way, no-frills, we had to learn how to quickly get along together. We had to accept that for three weeks the food and so on would be the food that we would prepare, it may not be what people were used to, likewise in terms of accommodation, but we were also determined to put on our own activities, our own sort of amusements within the workcamp. It was striking a balance between hard work but also play as well and enjoying ourselves. I could see because I was really, familiar with that region, which was not that far from Strasburg but in a rural area, that the locals were taking quite a strong interest in what was going on as well. At first they were just questioning because it was the first one I think, that particular renovation scheme, but then they could see what benefits it could bring for the local people but also I think they felt quite honoured to have people coming in from so many different countries with this interest in renovation and environment restoration. And they wanted to just observe and then, take it on. So the important thing, with all workcamps –this is true especially when there’s a project involved-, is once it’s been done,  hopefully links have been built up with the community so that maybe another workcamp can take that forward in the following years but ideally that would just be taken on by the community itself.

Did you see a significant change in the youth you connected with during the workcamp?

Yeah I think I did. I was a bit older so it was probably easier to say that, all were eighteen, but for some people it was their first experience and again it reminded of my first experience going to Russia. First experience of going abroad, they may have had certain ideas about different groups of people but I think that commonality came out quite quickly and yes where people never had sort of experienced other cultures, being able to mingle together, eat food… They broke down barriers.

Last question how much has the workcamp experience influenced your personal life?

It’s been a common theme really. I mentioned at the onset of the interview that I am a trustee at the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, so going on the workcamp with what was then the United Nations Associations International Youth Service was my first exposure to that particular building here, the Temple of Peace, and at that time the WCIA was a sister charity, they were both set up in 1973. Common aims but separate ideals that reflected the fact that the International Youth Service had a stronger association with the United Nations Association then. For me, what that led to was a really interesting sort of international aspect of what per se.

In time I became more involved with the WCIA, I joined them through the legal affairs committee because I’m a qualified lawyer. I became chair of that committee and from that, and the ability to bring speakers along, in conjunction with Welsh Universities and others as well, speakers from all around the world, I became a trustee at the WCIA and I become chair -I was chair from 2016 to 2019- so for me it’s been really interesting in terms of timing. I mentioned 2016 to 2019 and it would be amiss of me to say, today of all days, the day that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, that certainly ideals of international corporation are more important than ever. We may not know what form it takes but again it’s interesting just thinking about the camps themselves, not realizing how important they were in terms of being… As of today, there’s a lot of uncertainty, but I think all of us would want to see a proper sense of international corporation, a lack of distrust amongst various groups.

Coming back to what you asked me – How do you do that? You do that really by actively mingling with different groups of people. Arguably almost being forced to do so. Dare I say, sometimes people go on holiday and they come across different groups of people. But unless you are really engaging with another person, you just see the person as the other. The workcamp is unique in that, being realistic about it, it’s quite basic structure. People have different levels of expectancies about what they want to experience out of it, but I think that’s what the great strength is, because there are some tailored-made projects these days where experience of international work, how can I say, is sometimes slightly protected. Everything is done for the person sometimes. Your hear of schemes where taxis, transport or somebody picks them up from their house, takes them up to and from the airport and take them where they are going to work. The beauty of the workcamp is that you have to do a lot of that yourself.

First, it tests your resilience, it tests your desire. Going back to Russia in 1989, getting a ticket to Moscow was very difficult. I grew up in a town called Neath, which is not far from Swansea. I remember catching the train, and the […] travel shop –which is one of the few shops which has retained their original place, it is in the same location as it was in 1989- and I remember going there and the staff being so helpful explaining how difficult it would be to get a ticket to the USSR for a number of reasons. But that, if anything, made me more determined to go and so when I went I really felt the value of having had to struggle to get the visa and all the clearances. But then going to the workcamp itself, being immersed in a different environment, realizing that in order to make the most of that experience you have to forego some of your, not just your assumptions, but some of your expectancies, and try and work toward a common goal. So what I am saying is I can’t really think of something comparable, in which you are, at a young age, asked to engage in this way. Arguably Erasmus offers let’s say these schemes, but very much for individuals going to a particular country where, say, there’s a dominant culture. The beauty of the workcamp movement is that you’ve got all these different nationalities and cultures and you try to find a common goal.

Coming back to the specific question you’ve asked me, it gave me this passion for internationalism. I mentioned I was fortunate to spend a short amount of time at the European commission but I also traveled to other places. I was able to go to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. My background is Sri Lankan and Tamal. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say unless I was unexposed to the workcamp in my early stage, my life wouldn’t have panned out, and certainly, my interests wouldn’t have panned out than the way than they have.

Thank you so much!