Cathy Aitchison found fulfilling work - and a husband - helping refugee s at a volunteer camp
If a year ago anyone had predicted that I `d be spending January waiting for my fiance to come over from Morocco, I'd probably have told them to check for crossed wires in their crystal ball.

Yet there we were: Ali, on his way from Casablanca, having travelled back to his village in the Atlas mountains to break the news to his mother; me, creating some space in my London flat, then welcoming him to Heathrow in the rain.

We met during the summer as volunteers at an international work camp in Switzerland. Nine volunteers, from almost as many different countries, spent two weeks living at a refugee centre near Berne, organising leisure activities for the residents, talkingand listening to them and trying to understand something of their lives and situations.

The centre was home to more than 50 refugees of almost 20 nationalities, all waiting to discover whether they would be allowed to stay in Switzerland. Among them were families from Bosnia, Somalia and Poland; young men from Palestine, Kosova, Turkey; a mother and her son from Angola. They were not allowed to work, and although the centre was run in as relaxed a manner as possible, the tensions of their lives were all too visible.

We were there to provide a structure and diversion during the holiday period. We organised sports tournaments, visits to the swimming pool and trips into the mountains. In the mornings we played games with the children; in the evenings we sat out on the terrace, drinking endless cups of coffee and communicating in a mixture of German, English, French, Arabic, Italian, Slovenian - with smiles and gestures where all else failed.

This camp, like hundreds of others every year in Britain and elsewhere, was organised by Service Civil International (SCI), a voluntary organisation that co-ordinates volunteer exchanges in more than 40 countries. Groups of people of different nationalities live and work together for between two and four weeks to carry out a variety of social, environmental and study projects.

Last year's list of camps included planting trees at a forestry research institute in Mongolia, helping to build a mosque in Turkey, and studying inter-ethnic problems in Armenia; volunteers could also choose to work with handicapped adults in France, ata nursing centre for the elderly in Russia, or at a community circus school for children in Northern Ireland.

Most of the camps take place in the summer, and many of the volunteers are students, although there is no upper age limit and older volunteers are actively welcomed. On our camp, with most of the other volunteers in their early twenties, I was by far theoldest. Within the group, I found no difficulty with this; indeed, among the refugees my age was an advantage, as I was able to relate more easily than the others with the older women.

The volunteers pay their own travel, but once at the camp they usually get accommodation and sometimes pocket money. We slept in tents in the grounds of the centre, receiving the same daily allowance as the refugees (about £6.50 a day).

One of SCI's main aims has always been to promote international understanding, so the mixing of nationalities in the camps is as important as the actual work being done. SCI was founded in 1920 by a Swiss pacifist, Pierre Ceresole, who organised international work camps to help rebuild villages devastated by the First World War. He believed that, in a small way, this kind of international contact and co-operation could help overcome the ignorance and suspicion between nations that had led to the war.

The idea soon spread: the first British work camp was held in Brynmawr in South Wales in 1931, and International Voluntary Service (IVS), the British branch of SCI, was founded soon afterwards. Similar organisations sprang up in many countries. Morocco now has more than a dozen work camp and volunteer organisations: Mouvement Twiza, to which Ali belongs, was founded in 1985 in Khemisset, a small town not far from the capital Rabat.

"Twiza" is a traditional word in the Berber language which describes the kind of mutual help that villagers would give each other, for example working together without pay on each other's harvest until all was gathered in. As well as organising international camps, the group carries out regular conservation and repair work in the town.

In Britain several local IVS groups do similar regular work in the community. For several years, Jeremy Davis has been involved with his local group in Croydon, which does gardening or decorating for pensioners and people referred by social services.

He felt that such projects would also make a good work camp, so he organised one for 12 international volunteers in August 1993. They stayed in a local Scout headquarters and camp site, surrounded by a triangle of woodland.

The volunteers included Athena, a teacher from Athens, who later became his girlfriend. They liked each other immediately, but didn't begin their relationship until after the camp had finished. "I was very busy organising the camp - driving the minibus, marshalling everyone, making sure they had enough tools, and so on. But after about two or three days, we both knew we were quite keen on each other. The main thing I noticed was how comfortable I felt with her. At the end of the evening we just sat downand talked."

Relationships on work camps can be a problem, he agrees. "It's something that always comes up in training sessions. The main thing about a work camp is how the group relate to each other, so if two people find they are very wrapped up in each other, thatcan detract from the group feeling."

A work camp can be a very intense experience, he adds."You get very close to people, whether or not a romance starts."

n Applications for most overseas work camps are made through IVS. Tel: 0206 298215 (South); 0532 304600 (North Wales); 031-226 6722 (Scotland). A complete listing of work camps for 1995 (in Britain and overseas) will be available in April.