Volunteering in Asia: Universality of Faith
By Leonie Nahhas
I stood there in front of the departure sign at Sydney airport waving goodbye to my family and my home country. This month marks one year since I left Australia and embarked on the most life-enriching, transformational journey that would not only challenge me, but humble me in the process. It was late 2015 when I received the news of my successful interview with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for a prestigious scholarship called The New Colombo Plan (NCP). The NCP is a signature initiative of the Australian Government which aims to lift knowledge of the Indo Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to live, study and undertake internships in the region for up to 17 months. Indeed, this experience has formed a significant chapter in God’s all-knowing and ever-perfect plan for me.
It’s true that we view the world through the lens of our own experiences and by undertaking this program my own lens has widened, and so has my worldview. From studying a year-long exchange at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, to working alongside organizations and local communities in Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines and Indonesia, I have grown and continue to grow a deeper appreciation of the customs, traditions and social atmospheres of Asian cultures. Importantly, I have come to value and celebrate the universality of the Church – that amid the polyphony of the various voices, the Church raises a single harmonious song to the living God. Over this past year, I am reminded of this bond that joins us – this spiritual pledge that we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, have taken to stay united as one people. To witness the Holy Spirit transcend geographical borders and express itself in every culture is a true testament to the beauty of this universal faith.
I began my NCP program in Hanoi, Vietnam undertaking an internship with a non-profit organization that aims to empower at-risk and disadvantaged Vietnamese youth to forge a better future for themselves and their communities. There, I worked in the training department creating and delivering English lessons to the targeted youth. Early on in my internship, I remember meeting a very bright young student and as we were conversing about our cultures one lunch break he asks me, ‘Are there any churches in Sydney?’ Taken back by the question, he proceeds to show me that he is Catholic by making the sign of the cross and mentions that he grew up with the religious sisters at the convent. Delighted by this, I showed him a picture of Jesus I carry around in my bag and we went on to share how much hope and joy our faith brings to us. Twelve months on, I still keep in contact with this brother in Christ who regularly updates me on his progress and how God’s hand is at work in his life. Despite going there to teach English, I left being taught much more. His conviction of faith despite ongoing hardship inspires me in my own faith journey.
With the students at the NGO Talent Show and Awards Night after placing 3rd in a drama and dance performance we choreographed together
At De Nang Beach with the students on their first ever trip to the beach (Beside me to the left is my dear brother in Christ)
Soon after, I decided to undertake another internship in the rural provinces of Western Cambodia. There, I worked at a training center with the Marist Brothers (international community of Catholic Religious Institute of Brothers), and through quality education and life skills training, I was able to do my part in the greater vision of shifting families out of the cycle of poverty. A personal highlight of mine was witnessing how receptive and enthusiastic the students were to grow not only in knowledge, but in character as well.
At the Marist Brothers Training Center with my middle school students
Fast-forward to walking off the plane at Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Before coming to the Philippines, I had anticipated it would be a culturally and spiritually enriching experience – and indeed it was. I felt an overwhelming sense of joy as I witnessed how faith formed the cornerstone of the nation’s identity. My dear Filipino friends have become like family – incredibly warm and welcoming with humble yet bright, vivacious personalities. It didn’t take long for me to experience a sense of local immersion and begin to call the place “home”.
My time in the Philippines was spent working at The Purple Centers Foundation in Tondo, Manila. The Purple Centers is a non-profit, education-centered organization aimed at offering holistic, integrated services to Filipino families from dumpsite and cemetery communities in the Philippines. What drew me to this was their mission to ensure children do not have to choose between school and their family’s survival and instead, safeguard each child’s right to education. At Purple Centers, I worked on a project that targets the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Good Health and Well-being. There, I designed and conducted a professional development workshop on how teachers can become mentors to their students. In addition, I delivered anti-bullying, goal-setting and team-building workshops for students, particularly those struggling with their emotional, social, academic and behavioral growth and well-being.
It has been a great privilege and pleasure to work with the staff at Purple Centers. Their warm hearts and genuine conviction to inspire and enable children to persevere through hardship and follow their dreams, has truly inspired me in my own mission to serve.
During the ‘Teacher as Mentor’ Professional Development Workshop with the executive staff along with the Education and Social Services Departments at Purple Centers
At the team-building workshop where we welcomed back students who have been absent from school for several years
At the goal-setting workshop featuring early elementary students
If there is one thing I have learned throughout my year abroad in Asia, it is that while our cultures and traditions may vary, certain human characteristics remain universal. While this experience has deepened my respect for differences, it has also left me more open to what really connects us all — our faith.