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The Importance of Volunteering with Refugees

Organizing games for refugee kids

Every year, adventurous altruists leap at the chance to volunteer abroad in the midst of crisis. They help rebuild homes in communities ravished by cyclones, hurricanes, and earthquakes and take care of children orphaned by HIV and AIDS. Less widely talked about, but just as in demand, are those who leave and stay at home to volunteer with refugees.

Volunteering with refugees and asylum seekers is a significant task, as volunteers are crucial in helping them to integrate into a new and oftentimes mindboggling culture, and improving the basic quality of life within refugee camps. Furthermore, pretty much all of the non-for-profit organizations providing refugee care and assistance are lacking in resources and rely on volunteers to carry out essential work. There are more than a handful of refugee volunteer opportunities out there, many at volunteer refugee camps.

Read on for insights on refugee volunteering and the importance of working with refugees.

What is a Refugee vs. an Asylum Seeker?

According to the UNHCR, a refugee “is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence… [and] most likely cannot return home or are afraid to do so.” An asylum-seeker, though similar, is technically a person that has asked to be legally recognized as a refugee and is not yet granted the same legal protection and material assistance as a refugee. Those who left their home countries to improve their economic situation, known as economic migrants, are not considered refugees. Africa and Asia produce more refugees than any other continent.

Frequently, asylum seekers put themselves in risky situations when fleeing their country, like crossing oceans in homemade boats. Too many stories exist of people dying and loosing loved ones along the way and it can be a difficult journey to escape a difficult situation. However, once refugees and asylum seekers have found their way out of the conflict zone, they can either end up in a refugee camp in a neighboring, politically stable country, or in the hands of a refugee organization in places like the United States, Europe, South Korea, or Australia after being granted asylum by the host country’s government. In some cases, asylum seekers without proper documentation spend time in a detention center before being granted permission to enter a country.

Where are Refugee Volunteers Needed the Most?

Volunteer working with kids

Unsurprisingly, volunteers are most needed at home to assist refugees with resettlement into their new home. Every country that sees a high number of asylum seekers and resettled refugees has at least one organization that deals focused on giving them material and informative assistance, such as the International Rescue Committee in the U.S, The Refugee Council in the U.K, Refugee Council of Australia, Auckland Refugee Services in New Zealand, and France Terre Asile in France.

The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and Red Cross work internationally and all of these organizations have volunteer opportunities. If you are unable to travel abroad, this is a great way to keep yourself immersed in an international community and put all your worldly knowledge to use for a great cause at home. If you are more interested in volunteering abroad, the prevalence and location of these committees means that you won’t necessarily have to travel to the edge of a battlefield to get involved with refugees.

But that’s not to say that volunteers aren’t needed in refugee camps or close to the conflict. At the time of writing this article, some examples include working with Burmese refugees in Thailand, Congolese refugees in Rwanda, Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, Somali refugees in Kenya, and Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Apparently, the standards of education in Burmese refugee camps in Thailand, which rely heavily on volunteers, is high enough to inspire some Burmese to set off for the camps in the hopes of a better education.

What Type of Work does Volunteering with Refugees Entail?

Refugee committees and charity organizations in countries that give asylum (like the U.S. and EU nations) mostly need volunteers to assist with the resettlement process. This includes teaching ESL, computer skills, and all the everyday stuff we take for granted – like how to take a bus or shop for food. For example, volunteers with the IRC in the U.S. are paired with an individual family mentor them through this adjustment. If you end up doing this, the IRC and similar organizations prefer volunteers to make at least a 6-month long commitment.

Every country that sees a high number of asylum seekers and resettled refugees has at least one organization that deals focused on giving them material and informative assistance.

Within refugee camps, skilled volunteers are in higher demand because the organizations working in these camps prefer to give basic assistance tasks – like handing out food and water – to refugees living in the camp in order to provide them with a source of income. Again, a major task is teaching ESL, computer skills, and essentially prepping refugee camp residents with the skills they need to enter a job market once they are resettled in another country or sent home when the conflict is passed. Other potential jobs for volunteers would be providing basic health care, updating databases, fundraising, or doing website development. The best way of finding a volunteer position within a refugee camp is to decide first who you want to help and where, then research which organizations work with them. After that, you generally apply to volunteer directly with an individual NGO or charity group.

Things to Consider Before Working with Refugees:

Holding a refugee child

When working with refugees it is important to be culturally sensitive (put those anthropology courses to work!) and keep in mind that the people you are working with may have had some seriously traumatic experiences. It means being sensitive to these experiences, and if you are working for a proper organization, volunteers should undergo training that prepares them for possible situations they may face with refugees and how to face them.

Reading a book chronicling the experience of a refugee can also be helpful to help you understand those you wish to help. In addition to what they learn in a training patience, ability to work through language barriers, and a creative approach to problem solving are essential to being a successful volunteer. While these experiences can truly have a positive impact on the lives of people who have experienced hardship, it is not a task to be taken on lightly.

Look for volunteer projects with refugees abroad.

Photo Credits: Loyola University Chicago, ChangeStream Media, and BidnaCapoeira.
Jessie Beck

A Washington DC native, Jessie Beck studied in Dakar and Malta, taught in Costa Rica, and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Madagascar before ending up at Go Overseas as Editor / Content Marketing Director. Find her on her personal blog, Beat Nomad.