The Cold, Hard Truth About the Refugee Crisis and International Volunteers

by Mary Ellen Dingley

There are over 50 million refugees in the world right now. This is the first time since World War II that so many people have been fleeing their homes on dangerous journeys to seek safe haven. That’s the population of an above average sized nation, homeless and running in fear for their lives.









Humanitarian aid woman giving water to a refugee child

There are many ways to get involved with the refugee crisis.

That’s hard for us to grasp, sitting in our comfortable homes, using WIFI to read this article. But, for others, their daily life right now is on the road, hoping for the chance to build a new life. The refugee crisis is complex, but let’s attempt an overview: the majority of the refugees are fleeing violence and unrest in the Middle East, with the top countries represented being Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. There are also refugees trying to leave behind crumbling economies and abusive governments, such as those from Kosovo, Pakistan, and Eritrea. The fact that some of the refugees are looking for economic opportunity, rather than running in danger of losing their lives, is why some news outlets refer to the refugee crisis as a “migrant crisis.” 

Almost 4,000 refugees died on their journeys in 2015. The majority of the refugees head to Europe, mostly by sea, and the country taking in the most refugees is Germany. While Germans at first welcomed refugees with open arms, subsequent attacks allegedly carried out by refugees has many people afraid and support for receiving refugees has plummeted. Hungary and Sweden have also taken in many refugees, even while Hungary has attempted to close its borders. Many refugees that apply for asylum have their applications denied. 

The world has been moved by the plight of the refugees, and while it might not be grabbing every headline as it was six months ago, the refugee crisis is still a crisis.

Many of us are asking, how can we help refugees? Can we volunteer?









Refugee camp in Pakistan.

If you speak a Middle Eastern language, there are options to help in many different locations.

The answer to that is - it depends. It depends on you and on where you are.

It is the height of the “white savior” phenomenon to think that we relatively privileged volunteers are always useful, all the time, just by showing up. Rather, many volunteers can make things more difficult by showing up without the skills and resources they need to support themselves, let alone truly help others. We saw it happen after the earthquake in Haiti. Well-intentioned volunteers flooded the island, only to be more of a burden on the struggling aid workers and local Haitians. After the Nepal earthquake volunteers were urged to stay home and send donations instead. Just as we must be careful as volunteers in responding to natural disasters like earthquakes, we almost must be careful in complex humanitarian situations like the refugee crisis.

If you can’t speak the language and show up in a foreign country to “help,” who is going to translate for you? If you don’t have the ability to house and feed and guide yourself, who is going to do those things? You could be using the valuable time of a local worker who already has too much to do. We must carefully assess the situation and our own skill-sets and strengths before jumping in and volunteering in refugee relief abroad.

Don’t give up on the idea of volunteering

We should not give up on volunteering entirely. When the refugee crisis first began, and desperate people flooded into Greece, it was volunteers and small, local organizations that were saving lives and supporting the refugees. While larger organizations moved slowly, getting everything in order, local volunteers leapt into action. Volunteering can, and often does, save the day! There is still a lot of need, and so if you want to directly volunteer with refugees, here are the scenarios in which volunteering could actually be useful.









Life vests on beach in Greece.

Refugees undergo dangerous journeys to seek safe haven.

1. You have a needed skill and experience.

Most volunteer opportunities with refugees require that you have some relevant experience, at the very least experience working cross culturally. Along with that, skills working with vulnerable populations, in resettlement, teaching, medical aid, counseling, and legal aid are all very useful. Experience in crisis situations of some kind is a must. Make sure that any organization you will be working with asks you about your background (and should do a background check), so they aren’t letting anyone unchecked work with vulnerable populations.

2. You speak the language.

Translators are always helpful! And this way no one else would have to take the time to translate for you. Do you speak Arabic, Pashto, French, Dari, Farsi, Albanian, or any other needed language? Awesome! And what’s great about language skills is that you can even help remotely by translating documents, news stories, or blog posts to and from different languages.

3. You can support yourself.

Have you been saving up all your summer job money just waiting for the right moment to spend it, and now you think this is your opportunity? Great! If you can support yourself, buying your flight, your housing, your food and travel insurance (don’t forget it!), then you won’t need to take up funding from any organization or raise funds yourself. That hopefully frees up those funds to go directly towards refugees.

Of course, many organizations are happy to help pay small stipends or travel expenses for skilled volunteers, and if they have the money, that’s cool! But being able to support yourself, and asking them to use the money where it’s needed most, would be even cooler.









Man wearing refugee-friendly t-shirt. 

Help refugees locally, in your hometown, and abroad.

4. You live in a place that is receiving refugees.

Many cities and towns around the world are welcoming in refugees, and if you live in one of them, you can help refugees right from your own stomping grounds! You can show them around, teach English, tutor kids, coordinate donations of household items or clothes, and make sure they know they are welcome. Organizations like International Rescue Committee have offices all over, and often need volunteer teachers, drivers, and shop organizers.

5. You’re mentally prepared.

Throwing this in there because after volunteers started returning from the Haiti earthquake devastation, there was a lot of talk about how witnessing trauma was affecting their mental health. Volunteering with refugees could be in your hometown, but if it is going to take you into the heart of a refugee camp, make sure this is something you are mentally prepared for. To help others well, we must be healthy ourselves. Take stock of yourself and if you are ready to volunteer abroad.

If you don’t feel like volunteering for refugees is the right fit for you, then you can always help in other ways! You can support a volunteer who does fit one of those scenarios, either financially or by sending needed goods for them to pass along. You can donate to reputable organizations. You can advocate for your local government to accept refugees. You can spread awareness about the refugees and their stories. In the tense political climate today, voices of reason and support are much needed.









Statue of hands reaching out for help.

Be mentally prepared, as volunteering with refugees is hard work!

Still think you’re ready?

If you’ve checked off the boxes and know that your heart is prepared for the task, begin the hunt for vetted opportunities to volunteer with refugees. You might start with volunteering with Syrian refugees and find refugee relief projects in Turkey, England, or Greece. You can also opt to volunteer with nonprofit organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, the UNHCR, or the Boat Refugee Foundation. Be sure to gather as much information as possible about the program prior to booking that cross-continental flight.

For all of these activities though, there is one caveat - research, research, research. Every context is different, and to raise your voice or give a helping hand, you need to know what is going on. Don’t let your passion or skills go to waste; find the best way for you to help refugees!