Cyber volunteer in danger zone
PICTURE : Volunteer Maisie Tremain connects with Habiba in Peshawar.
FROM the comfort and safety of her Plimmerton home, Maisie Tremain does volunteer work in the Pakistani hotspot of Peshawar, where two aid workers have been killed in the past few weeks.
As an “armchair volunteer”, teaching English online to an Afghani refugee, she is one of a handful of people worldwide offering their help to central Asian women via the internet.
An educational psychologist, Ms Tremain says she is acutely aware of the difference between her home overlooking the sea and the arid and dangerous environment her pupil comes from.
She has to be careful which subjects she talks about: “You can never be sure if somebody’s listening.”
After the gunning down of a British aid worker in Kabul, volunteers were warned that the Afghan women in the programme were more worried about going to computer centres for class. More absenteeism is expected.
Using Skype‘s free computer-to-computer phone service, Ms Tremain spends 45 minutes two evenings a week chatting with Habiba on a range of topics to improve her English.
Habiba can’t access a webcam, so tutor and pupil do not see each other. But Ms Tremain says she prefers it that way.
“When we see people in newspapers and on TV, it can make us worry about the differences, but people are people the world over.
“We both go shopping at the weekend, she goes to the bazaar and I go to the mall. We both cook chicken and rice. She has a sick mother. We have many things in common.”
Only using sound and no visuals means idioms, such as “sleep like a log”, can be difficult to work with. “It was fun trying to explain what a log is, without being able to draw a picture.”
A photo of sea spray on Castlepoint Beach was hard to explain: “Habiba couldn’t understand that it was water – she has never seen the sea.”
Armchair volunteering in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan is organised by the Alliance for International Women’s Rights, a US non-profit organisation.
The aim is to support women leaders and future leaders in central Asia, where their rights are lagging far behind. By connecting them to professionals in developed countries, the alliance hopes to improve their English and provide development assistance.
The internet opens up a new way of volunteering and Ms Tremain encourages other New Zealanders to apply.
“It’s fun, Habiba’s got a great sense of humour; it’s worthwhile – and I learn as much from her as she learns from me.”
The alliance would welcome more New Zealand volunteers as our time zone fits well with the countries targeted.
*Not her real name