First Volunteering Shift with the Red Cross

I woke up at 5:30 am this morning. I rolled out of bed, almost simultaneously pulling off my candy cane stripped pajamas. I pulled on some black jeans lying over a chair and stopped for a beat considering which shirt would be appropriate. I was going to volunteer at the Red Cross at an overnight housing center for male immigrants and homeless men. I pulled up the approval email and read over the rules. I needed to wear neutral colors and cover my chest and arms.

I found some old t-shirt and pulled a jean button up over it. I walked to the kitchen where I grabbed two Baby Bell cheeses. It would be enough to hold me over for a couple of hours.

I took the elevator downstairs and entered the still dark plaza of Kringsjå. I walked towards the train thinking about how with the time change the day before, I could see the sunrise and not have to wake up so early in the morning.

At 6:20 am, I arrived at Majorstuen and followed my phone’s GPS in circles for a few minutes until I orientated myself and began walking in the correct direction. I found the address just across the street. I wasn’t sure where to find the entrance at the intersection. From the corner of the street, I saw a church in front of me and walked further around the side of the building. I tugged at two door handles, but they didn’t budge. I looked at the names on doorbuzzers but none of them read Røde Kors. As I looked walked back up the street, I saw a glass window that showed into the basement of the church. I went to the entrance where I met Khalid, the volunteer who would get me started.

He had been here since 9 pm the previous night and had not slept. Khalid pulled the laptop from his lap and introduced himself. I read over the information and filled out the form. I grabbed a vest when the second volunteer of the morning arrived. I learned she was from Boston. She took her Masters in Norway and never returned.

As we stood in the churches foyer, we asked questions about the those who were sleeping in the beds below. Most were Romanian immigrants who came to Norway to work or were homeless. Most spoke Romanian or a little English. Red Cross offers shelter in the church for a symbolic 15 kroner a night, which is about $1.60. Each person interested in one of the 51 beds comes to the church at 9 pm and reserves a space. They pay and can have the reservation for 5 days, paying 15 kroner for each night they stay there. If there are extra beds for the evening, they are given away on a lottery system.

Each person gets an IKEA bag with a duvet, a sheet, a small hand towel, and a cot that sits 18 inches off the ground. I arrived for the morning volunteer shift so I saw the process for the handing in of this large, blue bag instead of the distribution of it.

My primary role today was to pick up the cots and stack them in the storage room. Each cot had a small, square blanket that was excluded from the IKEA bag, and used by each member. After the other volunteer, Fey, and myself understood what we had to do, we got started.

At 6:30 am, Khalid woke up the sleepers by turning on the lights in the large room of the church where I would have expected to see pews. The men woke up a few at a time. They pulled on their clothes, washed up in the restroom, and folded up their blankets stuffing them back into the IKEA bags.

When I could start my job, I descended the stairs where I saw trollies with numbered sections for the IKEA bags. To the left was a large door where I saw dozens of white cots, surly with sleeping bodies beneath. As I walked past the threshold of the door, I was assaulted with such a strong odor. I imagined many of the men hadn’t had showers in days or it could have been the accumulation of their bundles.

I began picking up the cots one by one and taking them to the back room. I folded the blanket that was on each cot, which I assumed acted as extra cushion or sanitation. I maneuvered through the cots of men still sleeping to the storage room in the back. Beds were lined wall to wall.

It took an hour to get everything folded and stacked up. I would occasionally walk to the numbered trollies to make sure each bag was in the right order and it was then that I could see some of the men prepping themselves in the bathroom. As I stacked more cots, I observed some of the men. Some men were joyous and shouted good morning for all to hear. One man was well dressed and had good quality duffel bags that reminded me of a professor for some reason. Another man was ethnically white and had backpacking gear. It’s as if he knew about this resource and used this instead of staying in a hostel, then again, I don’t know his story.

One by one the room was cleared. When everyone was gone, I gathered my things and walked to the Tbane.

I wanted to become a volunteer because I have become increasingly interested in immigration and the narratives behind the bodies. Some people come here as refugees, escaping danger in their own country. Others come for seasonal work or rejoining their families.

Based on conversations with a few Norwegians, there seems to be a general, while not unanimous, attitude towards immigrants. Norway is the land of let’s work together so we can all benefit. Immigrants should be doing their part to support the benefits they also enjoy. Part of them doing their end of the work is apparently learning the language, because it is very challenging to get a job here if you don’t know the language. I have several qualms with those Norwegians who are angry at immigrants for not learning the language or not learning it fast enough. Yes there are resources to help them learn, but we don’t know their stories and there are numerous emotional, social, and cultural reasons it can be challenging for them to learn.

Although I couldn’t talk to any of the inhabitants of this church beyond good morning, I did see the diversity of their appearances. I want to know their stories and the why  and how they found themselves sleeping on a cot in a church in Norway. I continue to think that by listening with empathy, we can better understand others’ experiences, be less prejudiced or discriminatory, and shape policies to better address their needs.


Red Cross

Make an account, sign up for shifts – it’s that easy. This place is for the men’s shelter. There are other resources for women, children, and reception centers (where you can hang out and talk with them) that I am still searching for.



Plan an intentional semester around your motivations to study in Norway

When you ride in a kayak, one of the first lessons you’re taught is to paddle straight. A rule of thumb is to look forward, pick a stationary point, and paddle towards it. This method will prevent you from being distracted by the unstable and shaking tip, or bow, of the kayak. Having a point to follow keeps you balanced, stabilized, and moving in the direction you want to be in – a straight line.

It can be challenging while in Norway to stay on your own course, not being distracted by the different goals of those around you. Living in any one of Norway’s breathtaking cities, from Oslo to Tromsø, will be one of the best times of your life. You’ll be surrounded by people from all over the world, vast fjords, and mountains that seem to soar endlessly into the sky. Each of these aspects, and more, are significant and meaningful for your experience, however, they are not the only reason you are here. Like each of these world travelers you’ll meet, you have a unique reason for being here and its important you remember what that is.

Imagine you are in a kayak paddling around a pool, training for the rushing rivers you will paddle through during June. In this analogy, the environment of the pool is Norway and the bow of the kayak is everything you will experience here, from the various student clubs and coursework to the socializing with international students and the night life. It is your job to identify your stationary point you will work towards to avoid being distracted and pulled off of your course while in Norway. Remember, picking your own point to focus on does not halt everything going on in the pool – the water will still surge around  and other kayakers will be still be floating around you.

Before I arrived, I finetuned my motivations for being here. I wanted to make career related connections with policy workers, get volunteer experience to help me prepare for a research project I’m interested in, figure out if I wanted a masters degree in comparative  and international education policy.

Answer the following questions to help to organize your time here:

  1. What experience do you want to have?  
    1. traveling, career development, build and expand network, learn about European and Scandinavian culture
  2. Be more specific, and decide what do you want to do while here?
    1. Go to Lofoten/Ireland, information meetings with organizations related to my field, make friends and do things with international students and/or Norwegian students
  3. What do you want to do here that you can’t do anywhere else?
    1. hike through fjords, fjord boat ride, seeing the Northern Lights, special conferences related to your area of interest, learn about cultures by hanging out with people daily (it’s not the same to build a relationship via Facebook)
  4. Skills you want to develop?
    1. be more outspoken, developing research skills, time management, being self-motivated, maintaining relationships, cooking a Spanish Paella or German beer
  5. Which organizations or activities will help you achieve that experience?
    1. join a sports club, volunteer with the RedCross or at a student bar, attending office hours, organize a weekly dinner with international friends where you each cook a different meal

I answered each for myself and they have helped me to stay on track with what I want to achieve by the end of my time in Norway. You semester or year abroad will go by fast if you don’t organize what you want to do beforehand. Don’t let this time pass you by without doing something about it!! Plan and do it! 

A kayak is sensitive to the movement of your body and the waters around you. If you lean too far forward or your knee presses too hard to the top of one side of the boat, you’ll find yourself veering off. It may be challenging to go straight following your own path, but if you pick a point to follow, you’ll find that you’re kayak moves just where you want it to be – straight ahead, accomplishing your intentionally set goals.

Ps. its useful to make a bucket list of all the things you want to do and places you want to visit while in Norway. I will write another post about that later.