Dorothy (Abott) Guiborat – Archives of Service Civil International

Dorothy (Abott) Guiborat

I first heard of SCI when I was working with Friends’ Relief Service (Quakers) in early 1946, in South-East Poland, far from the peaceful Essex village where I had been brought up in England between the two World Wars. As I think back, I remember how we were wonderfully free, but also how hard were the physical conditions of life: no gas or electricity for instance. My parents came from London and my father continued to work in that city, but both wanted a country life. We had a big garden like everybody else, flowers and vegetables, an orchard, a dog, a ferocious pony and numerous cats. Later on, we had a tennis court which we made ourselves. There was no school, so my three sisters and I and a few other children walked to the next village, having a lot of fun on the way and were often late, especially when the pond was frozen or there was snow. There were no cars. School ended early and we loved wandering over the countryside or slipping under the barbed wire into the woods, returning home with arms full of bluebells in the spring or bags full of chestnuts in the autumn. There was no home-work.

Things were more serious at Brentwood County High School, but I had learnt to enjoy life and loved school, especially languages, history and sport, hockey and netball in winter, tennis and cricket in summer – for everybody – and matches against other schools on Saturday mornings. I then studied French and Latin at London University, with a final year in Oxford, marvellous Oxford, after evacuation from London during the
I was expected to become a teacher, but finally decided on a branch of social work – housing – which made a further two years’ training necessary, in London’s East End and Rotherham in the Midlands, where living conditions left by the industrial revolution were disastrous. The training included elementary building construction, accounts and preparation for social work. I liked the combination of technical and human. My first job was in Birmingham and it was there that I came to know the Quakers and joined their evening classes preparing for work in ex-Nazi Germany with deportees from Eastern Europe, who were living in deplorable conditions. Return to their home countries was uncertain as the Soviet Union began taking over.

In East Europe

The war was ending. I resigned from my job, had a further 3 months’ physical and cultural preparation in London (Mount Waltham) and our team finally left in 1945 for Holland. This because the Quakers could not accept the Army’s non-fraternisation rule for relief workers going to Germany. There, at an orphanage near The Hague, we looked after young children whose parents had either been executed as collaborators or were in prison. After three weeks, we were, nevertheless, transferred to Germany and set to work in camps near Wolfenbüttel. Conditions were bad and our first task was to obtain from the local ex-Nazi authorities blankets, DDT, school material and so on, then to work with the camp authorities to get things in place. It would be many months before the Balts, the Poles, the Ukrainians could return home, or go elsewhere (ten years later, I was on an old American troop-ship accompanying the last Ukrainian refugees to the United States).
While in Germany, I visited Bergen Belsen and other recently evacuated concentration camps, afterwards meeting a few survivors being cared for in Goslar, where we had been transferred from Wolfenbüttel. The utter horror of these camps, and especially Auschwitz which I saw later in Poland and where three million Jews had been exterminated, left me in despair. At that time, we thought that this could never happen again, anywhere in the world.
Less than a year late (in 1946) I was in Poland. I had been learning Polish for some months and could work without an interpreter in the villages. I was one of twelve members of a British Quaker team and our main work, at first in Kozienice, was to distribute food and clothing regularly in about fifteen villages, often totally destroyed as the German-Russian front had swayed back and forth on both sides of the Vistula. The Polish Authoritiés had distributed building material, but there were many widowed families that needed help. There was also the school to rebuild.
David Richie, well-known initiator of week-end workcamps in the slums of Philadelphia had joined our team and organized in 1947 in Lucimia on the Vistula the first international voluntary workcamp in Poland. SCI and IAL (the Swedish workcamp organization) sent several volunteers. I left the Kozienice team to join in the workcamp. Then Stefa, a Polish student, and I took on the job of recruiting for future camps and visited universities all over the country, while Alun and Mistek found suitable work projects. So we had camps the following spring and summer and during the week-ends.
In autumn 1946, all foreign relief teams were forced to leave and a year later I was sadly expelled too. It was difficult but possible to keep in touch with Warsaw friends throughout all these dark years (and to this day). The communist regimes in East Europe organized ideological workcamps for hundreds of young people, mostly nationals or from other East Europe countries, though it admitted some West Europeans, including SCI members.


During the autumn of 1949, a Polish plane landed me, solitary passenger, in Brussels. From there, I took the train to Paris and was offered a job as liaison secretary for the nine organizations, including SCI and AFSC (Quakers), whose aim was specifically ‘for peace’. (By now, the workcamp method was being used extensively with various aims). It was very interesting work as it included staying for short periods in different camps – from Finland (KVT) right down to Greece, then getting to know the people in the secretariats and editing a monthly Newsletter for all. My office, or rather my desk, was at the Paris Headquarters of AFSC. I was not far from SCI’s International Secretariat, where I met Willy and Dora Begert, SCI’s first International Secretaries. From them, I heard about the work in India and, as my year with the liaison bureau was coming to an end, they encouraged me to apply to IVSP, the British branch of SCI in charge of work in India during the first years following Independence.


In November 1950, after a long sea journey on the moribund Scindia line with Bent, an SCI Danish carpenter, and time to read the Bhagavad Gita and to learn more Hindustani, we were welcomed to Bombay (Mumbai) for a few days by Fali Chotia, then set off by 4th class train to the new township of Faridabad, near Delhi, being built for Indian refugees from the newly created Pakistan. It was hot and the dust, oh the dust. Ralph Hegnauer was in charge, a severe leader, hard on himself as he was for all the team. Constantly in mind was SCI’s vocation to demonstrate how an international constructive service could replace national military service. Not only the Indian workers on this immense site, but also important visitors from New Delhi, were impressed by these unusual Europeans.
Following this short briefing and a day’s visit to the Taj Mahal, Bent and I took the train – days and nights, first to Calcutta, then on to Gauhati in Assam, terminating by boat, up the immense Brahmaputra river to Tezpur, by bus to North Lakhimpur and Land Rover through the jungle to Pathalipam. Here took place the first of a series of workcamps re-building schools with local bamboo after the terrible earthquake and floods that had devastated the low-lying region of North-East India between China in the North and Burma in the South.
Everything had been well prepared, thanks mainly to Mr Bhandari who had been an active member in South India of the Gandhian movement for Independence. He had been sent to Assam by Gandhiji and started a dispensary and a school in the remote village of Barama. He was loved and respected by all. Our camps were added to his other tasks by the local authorities. His wife and I became great friends and exchanged letters for more than 50 years. The children and even the grandchildren keep in touch. I also remember the help to SCI from Amalprava Das, an outstanding social worker who had founded the Assamese branch of the Kasturba (Gandhi’s wife) Trust for women’s work in the villages: she sent a member of her team to work with me, both of us mostly in the kitchen.

Sometimes I went on visits, squatting on the ground and chewing betelnut by way of communication. I also broke stones with the local women on the road-side when an occasional Englishman would whiz pass in his car, smothering us with dust (for there were still a few tea-garden managers and missionaries in Assam). They lost no time in sending a delegation to our camp to inform me that my behaviour was “below the dignity of a European”.
The all-European team, led by Pierre Oppliger (he called me “the sister”) was soon joined by small groups of high school boys from Norht Lakhimpur, Laksmi, Profulla and others, given time off to work a couple of weeks with us. Then Max from the US, Seiji from Japan, PK from N. Lakhimpur and others joined us. When the school was built we moved on to another village and then there were two teams, working in different places.
During the hottest months and heavy monsoon we worked in the beautiful green valley of Khajjiar, surrounded by snow-capped Himalayan mountains. There, North of Chamba and not far from Kashmir the men laid a pipe-line to bring water from a mountain spring to the village, more than a kilometre away. A small group of volunteers from a well-known boys’ high school in Delhi joined us, and two from Assam and work began with about 15 volunteers, including Idy Hegnauer and myself for the cooking. We both had counted on doing some other work as well besides all the domestic chores and were rather disappointed. We made endless chapattis at one point, late with breakfast and reprieved by Ralph. Idy threatened to return to Switzerland, which I think she did. She was a most warm-hearted but determined person and I missed her. The root cause of the friction was again the role assigned to women volunteers. I wonder if Devinder, who was in the group from Delhi, remembers these incidents? All in all, the camp was successful and the water from the spring reached its destination.

Between these two camps, I was back in much-loved Assam, further east, near Dilbrugarn, still school building. Then back to Delhi. After two years in India, I had been offered a job with the recently created women’s section of Bharat Sewa Samaj, but did not take it up for several reasons; including treatment I needed at the London hospital for Tropical Diseases. I would have loved to stay in India.

International Secretariat

I travelled by sea from Mumbai to Naples, where I left the ship to visit Pompei, Rome, Florence … and so to Paris. There I was offered the job of International Secretary, in partnership with Ralph, who had taken over from Willy and Dora Begert. (Willy had created the Coordination Committee for International Voluntary Service under UNESCO’s umbrella and was now working there full-time). Ralph would be mainly at the Zurich headquarters, while I would stay in Clichy, near Paris, where the French branch let three rooms to the IS. It turned out to be an extremely interesting and challenging job and I stayed for seven years (from 1953 to 1960), not paying much attention to the poor living conditions. Friendships were rich and varied. Devinder das Chopra was there for a short time, together with Mohammed Sahnoun. Yvonne Elzière came in on Saturday to do the accounts; Asian volunteers arriving in Europe would stay for a week or two, likewise some of the European or American (see Phyllis Sato and Valli Seshan) volunteers going to India.
The work as International Secretary kept me in touch with the European branches (about ten in 1953); Asian groups, the US group and Algeria, the CCIVS and workcamp organizations in general. Also under UNESCO’s Youth Department (see Arthur Gillette) which gave a yearly travel grant for Asian or African volunteers. UNESCO was interested in my efforts to include women volunteers and two grants in 1957 enabled four volunteers to come to Europe: Valli (see Claire) and Rohini from India, Alice Appeah and Rose Kwei from Ghana. Valli became well-known all over SCI, first in Europe and then particularly for her work in India and as Asian Secretary. Alice was deeply attached to promoting women’s status in Wes Africa.
I was interested in starting leaders’ training camps. At that time they were regarded with some suspicion by some of the older Swiss and French members of SCI, but the German branch and others were in favour and helped to find suitable places for manual work, plentiful in those post-war years, with study and discussions in the afternoons. Dorothea Woods (a former AFSC work-camper) from the UNESCO’s Youth Department came to some of the camps and helped lead discussions.
Another series I called “Orient-Occident” and there we concentrated on bringing together Asian, African, Middle East (Arab countries and Israel) volunteers. We worked together on the same pick and shovel job in the mornings and in the afternoons, with the help of outside speakers, discussed burning issues which separated our countries. Once on a bus in Germany I was explaining to a local passenger who we were when she said astonished: “Are Jews there too?” We rarely in SCI spoke of the Holocaust. Was it too close, too terrible or did we then think that it would never happen again?
Has SCI ever thought of in general of forming follow-up groups with the local people in places where we worked? We were, doubtless, too busy, too inexperienced. I know I neglected follow up, even among the volunteers. Now Jean-Pierre Petit’s preparation and follow up work with North Africa and Nicole Paraire’s with West Africa are admirable examples of what can be done. I did however, when I visited traditional camps, ask them to reserve one evening for discussing a peacerelated theme and this was usually well-accepted in spite of some branch secretaries’ doubts. There was always the lurking danger of being just workcamp organisers.
At one particular camp in Switzerland, just down the road from Lise Cérésole’s home – she had found us a place to stay – we concentrated on practical problems facing women volunteers in Asian and African countries when we were told to do “social work”. Paulette Rabier, a nurse and teacher who had been working in Tunisia and Algeria was there for First Aid and Hygiene, a doctor from the WHO visited us, a dressmaker came for several afternoons to teach us how to cut out and sew basic garments (shorts and shirts), Alice Appeah showed us Ghanaian cooking and so on.

From the United States to Pakistan and Algeria

There was not always enough money (subsistence) to pay to International Secretaries and during my six months’ compulsory leave period I got a job on an old troop ship taking the last war deportees (Ukrainian) to the “promised land” of America. Oh, the joy and emotion as we approached New York, the Ukrainian national anthem rang out as we fell on our knees and contemplated the glorious sunrise beyond Manhattan’s skyscrapers! I had been invited by the Quaker Social Order Committee to take part in their week-end camps in Philadelphia slums, then went down to the on-going work in Mexico and El Salvador. The main aim of this work was to introduce privileged young Americans to social problems, both in the U.S. and in Latin America. I returned to the States in time for the first US-SCI camp there. It was held in Indianapolis, where Bob Stowell had organized work for the group in a cooperative of Afro-Americans building their own houses. Bob emigrated soon afterwards to New Zealand, far from the incredible difficulties of the McCarthy period. Other outstanding volunteers carried on after him and developed SCI in the US.
As far as I am concerned, Ralph was not particularly interested in work study groups and each of us concentrated on what we had most at heart. But we met regularly to discuss the overall picture after exchanging copies of all our correspondence. We prepared International Committee meetings together and probably quite a lot of other things. For instance when Ralph joined in Lebanese activities I went to Israel, where we had volunteers, to join a camp run by AFSC. We had different temperaments however and
though we had worked well together for years, suddenly the weight of his personality got me down and we went our different ways. I stayed in Clichy and Noël Plattew joined me at the Secretariat. Ralph became international President I think. His life-long allegiance and contribution to SCI was very important and he influenced many volunteers (men certainly, rather than women, I think).
It must be in 1957 that I was invited by the CCVIS to a big UNESCO sponsored workcamp Conference in New Delhi. From there, I went on to a work and study camp near Calcutta, led by a professor from the university who had been taking his students regularly to work in the villages. From there I went on to Barama Ashram in Assam, to see the Bhandari family.

SCI had started work nearby in Pakistan two or three years earlier and I appreciated this opportunity to see the work that had been done and the follow up. It was strange to be a lone woman in Karachi – object of curiosity among the men (only) in the crowded streets or among the women in the buses, where they were huddled together in a small enclosed space in the front, just behind the driver; or elsewhere in accompanying the “begums” in their beautiful silk saris, to see the social work they sponsored.
Continuing by train up the Indus valley, I next visited the village of Barbaloi where Marius and Marianne Boelsma had left an indelible mark. It was a bit frightening never to be met at all in these strange places, for the atmosphere was very different from anywhere else I had been. Did they not want me to come, though I had written and been accepted? Where should I sleep and eat? I was an enigma to fellow passengers, but it was thanks to them that at last I got to people’s homes and was welcome! I had read
books about Islam and extracts from the Koran, but the reality of practical life was still very unfamiliar to me. At one place, I was introduced by my host’s wife into the ‘purdah’ world at a sort of club for women. It was fascinating and friendly.
My Pakistani friends in Lahore (whom I knew from UNESCO) did not meet me either, but I found their house in the end. They guided me round this beautiful town where life, at least among the educated people, was more open to strangers. I think it was in Lahore that I discussed with Minjah, our first Pakistani SCI secretary, questions relating to the exchange of volunteers. All that was a very long time ago.
Algeria, though essentially a Muslim country, had at this time a large French minority. I had been in Algeria for about six weeks in 1954, in Algiers where most of our members lived and at the workcamp near Orléansville, after a terrible earthquake which had destroyed many villages. While the men helped to re-build, I accompanied an Algerian nurse in the team along barrow mountain tracks to different villages where we were greeted by numerous barking dogs. They alerted the people and then only we get to work.
During the war for independence SCI was regarded with suspicion by the French Authorities in Algeria. When individual members were arrested, limited financial help was collected by the International Secretariat, coming mainly from Britain and Switzerland. I transferred this aid to Simone Chaumet on the spot, who took the risk of getting it to friends in prison or to their families in need. It’s profoundly sad but necessary to add that Simone was shot in the lawless period towards the end of the war, along with Emil Tanner, former SCI secretary.

Back to Paris

My second child Daniel was mentally handicapped and finally this problem took precedence over everything else. My husband went along with my efforts to get some education for him and tackle other problems, but he really had little time or aptitude for this. Years later, when Daniel was about twelve years old and getting an appropriate education I started a club for leisure time (week-end) activities for mentally handicapped teen-agers and young adults, under the auspices of the French organization for handicapped people, but also of the French branch of SCI. The latter was never very interested, but the General Assembly gave its approval and a number of individual volunteers were keen, including Michele Lelarge, and we assembled a good team. Some SCI members were high school teachers and got their students interested, others heard about us elsewhere; Ali, the a student and now a University teacher in Fez, will never be forgotten, nor Mohamed, a nurse, living and working in France.
Our club, “Loisirs et Intégration”, lasted for about 25 years with regular and very varied activities, two week-ends a month and several holidays abroad. We also arranged educational visits for organizers between France, England and North Africa. We sent several volunteers abroad, to Denmark, to the US. Parents of the handicapped and friends would cooperate by inviting us all for a hot meal on winter days, when we went to museums or shows in their part of Paris. I should mention that other SCI branches, particularly the British, worked with handicapped people on a much larger scale, as reconstruction was no more a priority and social problems were coming to the fore.