Four Years Ago Today: How Volunteering Abroad Changed My Life



Exactly four years ago, I was volunteering in Morocco, surrounded by a group of ridiculously inspirational people and seeing this happy little face every day. I still think about baby Sawaya a lot and wonder if she found a new home with adoptive parents who love her as much as she deserves.

You need a bit of background on Sawaya to understand why she was so special.

On my first day in the orphanage, I didn’t notice her. I didn’t see her or hear her at all. There were thirty hungry babies crying and they all wanted feeding and loving and changing, right now! It wasn’t until half way through the second day that I noticed her – silently sitting in the corner of the massive play pen, facing the wall, rocking slowly. I think she found the noise even more overwhelming than I had on that first morning.

When I waved at her, or touched her arm, or even picked her up, she did nothing. Her eyes didn’t even move or register me at all. She was like a limp little ragdoll, but there was just something about her. Every day, I spent nearly all of my time with Sawaya, playing with her, interacting with her, encouraging her out of her shell bit by bit. At first, she just spent a lot of time sleeping on me, until slowly, we had tiny breakthrough after tiny breakthrough. She found her voice – she was so young that it was just babbles, but it was the first noise I’d heard her make – and couldn’t stop using it! She started actually moving around and taking an interest in things. She learnt how to push herself around in one of those wheelie little baby bouncers. During my final days at the orphanage, she actually pulled herself up using the bars on her crib to greet me each morning, babbling and bouncing up and down to say hello!

It absolutely broke my heart to leave her. It still breaks my heart today.

You see, Sawaya had been written off. Back then, she was a baby, and lots of people came to see the babies. Every day, we’d come in to find another baby gone. “Where’s Ruby?” we’d ask. Adopted, the nurses would say, taken home to a small town in Morocco, or Spain, or even America. But Sawaya clearly had some kind of developmental disorder – a doctor used to see her every day, and she struggled to interact with other people or respond to external stimuli. She was older than the other kids in her room, but they had all started to take shakey first steps while she struggled to move in her wheelie bouncer.

The oldest kids were in other rooms downstairs, without the cheer and without nearly as many visitors or potential new parents dropping by. The older the kids got, the higher the percentage of disabled kids in the room. It’s extremely difficult to adopt a disabled child in Morocco, and these kids don’t go to school. They just sit in orphanages and fester for the rest of their lives. The older ones are the ones who were left after all of the other kids were taken,

I was desperate to stop that happening to Sawaya. I even seriously considered adopting her myself, but I was just nineteen at the time – I knew deep down that wasn’t possible, and wouldn’t have been fair on her either.

My one hope was that she had ‘woken up’ during my time with her. Now, perhaps other volunteers would notice her. I made volunteers staying on after my departure swear to look after her, to tell others who came after them how important it was to keep interacting with her. Maybe if she started making progress, maybe they wouldn’t write her off so quickly. Even if she stayed in the orphanage, maybe, just maybe, she would have a chance to go to school.

It was a slim hope, but it was the only one I had.

I’m still in contact with the volunteer programme coordinators in Morocco. She’d be six or seven now. I could find out what happened to her, if she has a family. But I’m scared of the answer.

It was a very strange feeling to ‘visit’ someone’s life in this way, to pop into it for a month and pop back out again, then go back to your own life as though nothing had changed. But it had.

During that summer, I had the chance to learn just how addictive it is to feel like you’re making a difference in someone’s life, however small. Every life goal I’d ever had changed, and I knew instantly that I wanted to work in charity for the rest of my life, that nothing else would ever make me as happy as this did.

The experience and courage I gained in Morocco led me on a long journey, through Russia, Nepal, America, Canada, and finally here to Korea, all in search of being part of something bigger than myself – in hopes of making a difference. Everything good I will ever do with my life started with this little girl right here.

Thank you, Sawaya. I hope I had even a tenth of the impact on your life that you had on mine.


2 thoughts on “Four Years Ago Today: How Volunteering Abroad Changed My Life

  1. I loved this article so much. I almost most of my time think of people like Sawaya, especially children, when I am not using my equations of Maths to wonder about. I read your post almost constantly and sometime I dare to comment. If you by any way, I mean by any way, do not have any problem can you please keep me about Sawaya.
    I admit my communicating skill is terrible but I hope you get it that I am talking about.

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