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How to Volunteer Abroad With Refugees

Volunteering with refugees

Photos of two deceased refugee children earlier this year have triggered a worldwide response to a global refugee crisis that is the largest since World War II. With almost 60 million people in need of help, it’s no surprise that communities around the world have shown interest in helping with everything from hosting food drives to taking people in.

One way to help is to volunteer overseas with an organization focused on refugees. But what should you consider before buying a plane ticket? Where can you go? What qualifications do you need? And where do you even start the search? Read on to find out.

How Do I Choose an Organization?

Before picking any organization to work with, you’ll want to ask a lot of questions about any that you're considering. For example:

  • Are refugee issues their primary focus?
  • How long have they been working with refugees?
  • Do they employ any former refugees, or people of the same national, ethnic, or religious background?

These questions will help you get a feel for how much of a priority refugee work is, so you can decide if it’s an organization worth supporting. Read up on the organization’s history and see if you can find any financial information on their website, like an annual report. Generally, you want all the same traits you would normally find in a responsible volunteer program.

Where Can I Go?

While the Syrian refugee crisis is currently the one getting the most news coverage, people from all over the world are fleeing their homes due to civil war, political persecution, and natural disasters. Currently, many refugees are fleeing from Syria and Afghanistan toward Turkey, Hungary, the Greek island of Lesbos, and on to the rest of Europe.

But, there are also refugees fleeing Somalia, Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq, and more, and there are higher refugee populations in Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, and Jordan than there are in Europe. When deciding where to go, consider the climate, any language skills you may have, and the cost of flights, housing, and food.

Will I Be Safe?

Any reputable organization should take the time to answer all of your questions about safety, so don’t hesitate to reach out over email or Skype. You should also get the organization’s recommendations about what level of personal information you can divulge to clients and the rules and security protocols for your workplace. For example, some locations require special identification, while others recommend you leave before dark.

It’s good to ask whether you will be responsible for your own housing, and if so, which areas they recommend. Consider asking if you can be connected to other volunteers so you can share housing, which will allow you to travel to and from your volunteer placement together and watch out for one another. If the organization offers housing, find out where it will be and how you will get to and from the airport, your housing, and the work site.

You can also consult the official warnings from your home government, but keep in mind that these warnings carry their own bias, and can be used as a political tool.

How Should I Budget?

Your biggest expense will likely be your flight, but some organizations also require a fee to volunteer -- though this is rare among organizations working with refugees. While paying to volunteer may be counterintuitive, it’s not necessarily a red flag, since the fee may cover room and board, and there are many other good reasons why you should pay to volunteer abroad.

Refugee camp

Some larger organizations -- especially those run by the UN or national governments -- might provide you with a small stipend and do not require you to pay fees.

Aside from those major expenses, consider housing, public transportation, and food. If your organization hosts many volunteers they will likely have estimates for you, but you can also use the per diem rates per country on the US State Department website as a starting point.

What Do I Need to Bring?

Be sure to ask what kind of clothing is considered both professional and culturally appropriate for the setting. You’ll also want to take into account the climate and the type of work you will be doing, so you can be comfortable while volunteering.

The conditions in refugee camps vary widely, and there is also valuable work to be done outside of camps, but generally speaking you will want sturdy shoes and durable clothing in layers.

You don’t want to have to stop what you’re doing because you’re too hot, too cold, something tore, or your clothing is making anyone uncomfortable. And of course, remember that what not to pack is just as important.

How Long Should I Go?

The short answer is that when it comes to volunteering abroad, longer is always better. This is especially true of projects working with at-risk populations like refugees and asylum seekers.

When you stay at a placement longer, you get to know how the organization runs, and can be more help to them. Plus, as you get a chance to prove yourself, you will likely get to do more interesting tasks. And don’t forget that training new volunteers takes employees away from their usual work, so the longer you stay, the better the return on their investment in you as a volunteer.

That said, if volunteering with a refugee organization is important to you, there are ways to make it work. Be sure to ask if the organization has any minimum length of stay requirements so there are no surprises, and if all else fails, consider volunteering with volunteer organizations at home (more on that in a bit).

What Do Organizations Look for in a Volunteer?

First, you should be passionate about volunteering for this specific cause and have strong awareness of cross-cultural communications and sensitivity.

Second, be sure you’re up to the challenges, both emotional and physical, of the placement. There are many ways you can help, but if you don’t think you’ll be able to handle a tumultuous environment or working with a high volume of people, volunteering overseas with refugees is probably not the right fit for you.

Third, the requirements to volunteer vary by organization, but typically volunteer placements with refugees -- similar to those with disaster relief -- tend to skew towards more skilled volunteers. Nonetheless, there is a great need for skills, from photography and writing to cooking and teaching, so keep looking until you find the right fit.

Organizations working with refugees abroad

Job search engines for humanitarian work abroad

Hint: change the search to "volunteer" when looking for projects on these search engines.

What Kind of Work Can I Do?

Focus your search on skills you currently have. Some placements will require highly skilled individuals, but not all. For example, if you are a nurse, those medical skills could be incredibly valuable when working with refugees. However, if you have no experience or training in teaching, perhaps volunteering to teach English isn’t a good fit.

Think about it this way: would you want someone with your experience offering these services to your loved ones? Would your family have allowed someone with this background to work with you in this capacity? If the answer is no, please reconsider this particular placement.

volunteering with refugees abroad

While there are many refugees around the world in need of much assistance, they are still entitled to safe, professional care like everyone else. If you don’t have an in-demand skill set, consider working as unskilled labor, or assisting someone with expertise.

For example, while you may not have the necessary background to teach English, as a native speaker you could be a great conversation partner, or could assist a certified teacher who supervises your work.

Beyond that, many people could provide administrative assistance, such as answering phone calls, making copies, and stuffing envelopes. It’s not glamorous, but it’s work that needs to be done. Think about it this way: every file you alphabetize makes it easier and faster for refugees to get access to the services they desperately need.

Consider Volunteering From Home

The refugee crisis is global, and so are many of the organizations in this space. Consider putting on a fundraising event, like a bake sale, raffle, or concert.

You could also volunteer with the headquarters or a branch office of a global organization by making phone calls, mentoring refugees newly arrived in the U.S., collecting signatures on petitions, designing flyers, or spreading the word about donation drives on social media. The International Rescue Committee, for example, takes on volunteers to mentor recently arrived refugees / asylum seekers or teach English, and work in most major U.S. cities.

Of course, you can always make a donation yourself if you are able. Nonprofits often rely on donations, and they appreciate any contribution, no matter how small it may seem.

Remember Your Role

While it may be tempting to try to help every person you come across with as many issues as you can, that is not your focus. Carry out your duties well and with kindness, and refer clients to other resources, whether within your host organization, the local or home government, or with another NGO.

If you try to take on too much, you will not only burn yourself out, but you could accidentally create problems for the very people you’re trying to help. You don’t want to create false hope or give inaccurate information.

If an issue is outside of your purview, let the client know you will find an answer and get back to them. This ensures that your client will only get the most accurate, up to date information, and will get high-quality care.

Many refugees are dealing with a multitude of obstacles, from physical ailments and malnutrition to unemployment and mental health concerns. These are big issues that require nuanced assistance, and if you don’t have the right knowledge you could accidentally hurt more than you help.

Take Care of Yourself

Travel always takes a bit of a toll on the mind and body, and when you add volunteering with a vulnerable population the impact is more significant. You will likely see and hear upsetting stories of dangerous or unjust experiences, and that can result in feeling drained, hopeless, or upset. In its most severe form, this is known as secondary trauma, and it can affect those working with refugee populations.

Refugees in Malta

The symptoms can be similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but even people who don’t have a severe experience will likely still go through some intense emotions. Some people feel selfish for worrying about themselves instead of the folks they came to help, but remember the oxygen mask metaphor: if you don’t have your mask on, you can’t help anyone else.

The best thing to do is to be proactive about your emotional health, and to not be too hard on yourself: it’s completely normal to be upset by hearing about what refugees are going through.

The things we intentionally do to care for our physical and mental well-being are known collectively as self-care. Self-care can take a number of forms, from eating a favorite food or going for a run to dancing to good music or writing in your journal. Be sure to exercise even more self-care while working with refugees, since the work will likely be emotionally draining. Remember, you are at your best when you take good care of yourself!

Make an Impact

While all volunteer opportunities are great ones, refugees are one of the most vulnerable populations, and therefore need the most support. Wherever you end up volunteering and in whatever capacity, remember that you have an amazing opportunity to do some good in the world, and to learn a whole lot in the process.

While such a global crisis may seem overwhelming and scary, it is the collective work of people all around the world just like you that will eventually make a difference.

Look for volunteer projects with refugees abroad.

Photo Credit: DFID and Ann Wuyts.
Photo of Delia Harrington

Delia Harrington is a digital storyteller who has been working in international development since 2009. She was a study abroad student or in-country staff on eight different trips and was a study abroad administrator for three years. She is a documentary photographer and feminist activist, focusing on the intersections of travel, inequality, and gender-based violence.

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