Angus McDonald with Efi Latsoudi the founder of Lesvos Solidarity that operates the ex_Pikpa open refugee camp in Lesvos. The camp is staffed by volunteers.
“Volunteers might be more ‘behind the scenes’ than activists, but their passion and dedication is equally as vital in defending human rights.” — Amnesty International.
Volunteering is an increasingly popular and essential role required to fill the gaps left by governments. In the refugee and migration area, the 65 million displaced across the globe people need support. Across the world, hundreds of organisations and thousands of people dedicate themselves each day to supporting refugees and helping them to retain hope and rebuild their lives.
For people looking at volunteering for the first time, it can be challenging to find clear information about options online. There are a massive range of organisations that seek assistance all over the world but no central hub to browse the oppurtunities to volunteer.
Most larger humanitarian organisations have established processes by which they recruit volunteers both online and in person.
To get involved with smaller, grassroots organisations and NGOs, a little more investigation is required but they are also more informal which might suit you better. Often, many excellent local organisations may have a small online presence because they dedicate all their resources to helping those in need.
Our main tip: Do your homework, make some calls. Often, the deeper you dig in the research and planning process, the greater the liklihood of finding the most appropriate volunteering experience.
The numerous volunteers we met on our travels and were some of the most fulfilled and purposeful people that you’ll ever meet. It’s a fantastic way to get personal exposure to the people and the issues. Volunteering is satsifying and helps you understand the core principle that human beings everywhere are more similar to us than different.
Volunteering can also be a confronting experience because many of the people volunteers support are traumatised and vulnerable. But they are often resilient too and the relationships you form while volunteering can be lifelong.
Learn as much as you can before you go — research the organisation, the cause and also learn what you can from experienced volunteers. Ultimately, this personal challenge will contribute to real positive change in people’s lives — including, your own.
A few simple steps and a few things you need to know:
Find people to talk to who have experienced volunteering already. They can share their own experiences and also give you a clear up to date picture of the situation on the ground. They can also refer you personally to the organisation. Generally, people in the volunteering field are happy to help.
Choose a cause and an organisation that speaks to you. Research online, sign up and contact the organisations you like.
Save money. Organisations and NGOs, no matter the size, will generally expect volunteers to pay their own way — from airfare to living expenses.
Choose a time period that suits your lifestyle: many organisations offer and require training for volunteers and set minimum time periods to ensure the resources used for training you is worthwhile.
Know your strengths and abilities: many organisations are in need of specific skill sets. Human Rights Watch, for example, hires volunteers for established jobs in the organisations. The UNHCR requires a university degree and life experience. Smaller organisations may need people with particular training in areas including translation, heavy vehicle operating, medical support, teaching and online support. They might also just need bodies on the ground. Some organisations have minimum age limits.
Be prepared to roll up your sleeves: organisations large and small rely on volunteers to keep operations running smoothly and to provide daily essentials to the people in need.
Consider the off seasons: volunteer numbers tend to follow holiday seasons. Organisations may have excess help in the European summer, for example, and then are short on help in autumn and winter. In the off-seasons, these groups are even more grateful for dedicated people on the ground.
Keep in contact: subscribe to online newsletters and watch for volunteer events and announcements on social media. Humanitarian situations are always evolving and often help is needed at the last minute where a new situation unfolds quickly.
Last, if you're lieing on the couch, watching something unfold on the news and feel strongly about getting involved. Make a plan and go. We met so many people whose volunteering experience started just like this. You will never regret it and you'll make a massive difference.