During our gateway orientation in New York City at the Queens Botanical Garden, my fellow Fulbright grantees and I did some “gardening work," where we delved into the soil, weeded out the parasitic grass, and created circles around the trees. The Construction department at Virginia Tech offered students the opportunity to volunteer on a construction site of houses being built by Habitat for Humanity. My wife Amal, who is also a Fulbright student, and I immediately registered for the event.
The Habitat for Humanity experience was really challenging, but it was one of the days that I enjoyed most throughout my stay in the US. First, we had to wake up early in the morning in order to be at the construction site at around 7:00 AM. It reminded me of my previous job back home where I always had to be early on site. The houses were located 40 miles outside of Blacksburg, VA in a residential neighborhood. I was very excited to work with my peers and to enjoy spending time with them, but what made me most eager to get started was that I was coming back to a field that I have built up a lot knowledge in over the years through my work experience working in construction. However, I was greatly surprised that we were going to work with wood! I was conscious that wood construction was very popular in the U.S., but before that day, the word "construction" had always meant "concrete and rebar" to me.
A few minutes after we arrived, we were introduced to our construction manager who briefed us on our tasks and gave us the appropriate tools and safety equipment in order to get started. I was expecting to see volunteers around our age but I was totally surprised to see the opposite. Most of the volunteers were either middle-aged people in their 60s, or even in their 70s or 80s! I was so impressed with these people's conviction to work, and with their team spirit and willingness to contribute to community development. They were devoted to the cause and some had been volunteering for over thirty years. They managed to stay devoted to the cause for so long even while having successful careers. This was a real inspiration for all of us and was a real life lesson for me.
Our work required coordination of people from different generations, from all around the world, and with different backgrounds and skills. It was obviously not only socially beneficial for the group, but it was also physically demanding! All of the team members were involved in building, erecting scaffolding, painting, installing vinyl siding, constructing and installing window frames, building cabinets, and also moving rocks out of the path of the workers. Our team accomplished a wide variety of tasks!
Our day ended at around 2:00 PM and our hunger was greater than our desire to get back home for a warm shower and well deserved rest. We had lunch together and shared some conversations with the other volunteers before heading back to Blacksburg.
The hard work and effort we put into the construction of these homes provided me with a new life lesson about the importance of community building and teamwork. I am very glad I came. Thank you Habitat for Humanity for this wonderful experience!
Khalil Benali is a Moroccan Fulbrighter pursuing a Master’s in Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech.