What can humanitarian service achieve? With faith and dedication, it can achieve almost anything.
For centuries, many charitable souls have tried to help less fortunate people in other parts of the world. It is an endless task, but one which provides endless rewards.
When Sri Chinmoy founded The Oneness-Heart-Tears and Smiles program in 1991, it had a similar premise to his previous projects for world harmony: with each individual served, the world moves a little closer to perfection. Rather than providing foreign aid, the volunteers are encouraged to see this as a humble service to their brothers and sisters.
Ashirvad gets to know the locals in Africa
The benefits of this service have been tangible. Working with national leaders and local NGOs, they have sent millions of dollars' worth of supplies to over 50 nations. The program has had several focuses. Clothes and toys were sent to India. Urgent medical equipment went to hospitals in Russia and Tibet. More recently, volunteers have been sending equipment to agricultural science labs in East Timor. (As often happens, this followed a request by that nation's Prime Minister.)
One of the most popular operations, in 2002, was The Friends of the Children of Angola, which sent supplies to the African nation, ravaged by 40 years of civil war. Within a few weeks of the project's launch, volunteers in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand had collected enough supplies to fill dozens of large sea containers. Some were sent to Angola; others to Mozambique and South Africa.
Mission accomplished? Not completely. Perhaps collecting the material, appealing to people's kindness and generosity, was the easy part. The next challenge: getting the goods to the people who needed them.
"It wasn't happening at all," recalls Ashirvad Zaiantchick, who lives in Brazilian metropolis of Sao Paulo. "Trying to do it by telephone wasn't working. Someone had to go there, and they wanted someone who spoke Portuguese." Ashirvad had been a volunteer on the project. He now found himself offering to perform one of the most challenging tasks.
The first obstacle was Customs. "Everything is so complicated, so corrupt," he says. "It was really a miracle, what we achieved in Africa. Other NGOs were really shocked. They said, 'Why are you sending things to Angola and Mozambique? It's hopeless. We'll never send anything there. We tried to, but we never got through without paying a lot of money.' No other NGO did what we could do: getting things out of Customs without any bribes."
Once the goods were safely through Customs, he now had to ensure that the sea containers reached the people. The shipment included clothes, toiletry, hospital equipment, educational supplies, and hundreds of computers. "We were sending computers because that is a way of getting people to learn," says Ashirvad, who notes that Africa has fewer computers per capita than anywhere else in the world. "They need to have those kinds of skills, so they can produce more. The Angolans want to become part of the world, in all aspects. It not just helpful on a practical level. If they are able to use a computer, it means so much to them."
Angolans were not the only ones to be educated through the project. Ashirvad himself admits that he had never thought very highly of Africa. "But at the same time, I feel a sort of connecton. When I had a chance to go, I immediately said yes.
"Brazil was also a Portuguese colony, and received a lot of slaves from both Mozambique and Angola. So parts of the [Brazilian] culture are very, very similar to Africa. For me it was not such a big culture shock as I thought it would be. But what shocks you is how deprived these people are, and what a terrible situation they face. You really feel moved to do something."
He would travel from village to village, distributing the donated goods. At one village, a tent had been set up as a place of prayer, but only small children and elderly people were permitted. "There could be some serious trouble if they had grown-ups or teenagers [there]. They could really fight."
Despite the rules, fighting was still a frequent problem in the tent, where, on occasion, some 300 people would endure the hot and dry conditions at the same time.
At this village, like all others, Ashirvad and other volunteers (representing local NGOs) handed out toys. "I was so puzzled, because I saw these little kids and even some teenagers who were truly amazed by the toys," he recalls. "And I realised, they'd never seen a toy before. They were getting together in groups, and one child would pass the toy to another. They would ask each other how to play with that. So they were figuring out how to play.
"I was in tears, because we take it for granted. We had so many toys in our childhood, but these kids never saw a toy. For them, this single little toy could make a difference to their whole childhood."
Ashirvad still treasures the memory, but does not intend to rest on his experiences. "This project is growing," he says. "If we can work together for these kinds of projects... even impossible things can be done."
Can a humanitarian service really achieve the impossible? Ashirvad is certain. After all, he says: "We saw that happen in Africa."