Volunteering with Crisis Refugees in Europe

by Brooke Lake

The humanitarian disaster spilling into Europe as a result of the mass exodus of refugees the majority coming from Syria, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, South East Asia is a result of war and violence. Subsequently, millions have been displaced from their home and/or forced to leave their country due to instability and unsafe conditions.

For many of those displaced, their utter survival can rely heavily on the kindness of others. Therefore, volunteering abroad with refugees is not for the faint of heart; it is a delicate, albeit highly relevant matter that needs to be approached with the end goal in mind.

Here’s how to make your time as a refugee volunteer abroad as effective and sensitive as possible:

Know the Context

Like any type of traveling, if you choose to volunteer with crisis refugees in Europe it is in your best interest to have an understanding an evolving situation and its historical frame of reference. Knowing the context of the crisis provide you with a better understanding as to how to be most effective volunteer in a traditionally conservative and dynamic population. This might include taking time to review the migration map, familiarizing yourself with the plight the majority of refugees, and knowing what they are escaping and the goals of their journey.

The time of the refugees and volunteers are of value; thus, equipping yourself with knowledge prior to arrival is a great way to honor the time of everyone involved. Due to the critical nature of the situation, the interactions spent between volunteers and those affected by the crisis deserve to be informed and meaningful. Volunteers have a responsibility to come equipped with as much knowledge for the inevitable questions which will arise. The goal of every volunteer should be to avoid traumatizing an already traumatized population. Information and understanding combats this confusion on behalf of the volunteers. 

Refugees getting off the train 

1. Language. Traveling demands the recognition of language. Choosing to travel by means of volunteering abroad follows a specific set of courtesies. Take a crash course in Arabic, it will work wonders for your communication skills, considering the majority of refugees in Europe come from an Arabic speaking country.

Channel your YouTube addiction for good and master a few basic greetings and relevant vocabulary for this type of volunteer work abroad. 

In a multilingual environment, a lack of a common language can exacerbate an already stressful situation; cross-cultural communication woes should be a main concern for every volunteer. 

2. Religion. Beyond the hard language skills, volunteers should be familiar with common courtesies within Islam, as the majority of refugees that end up in Europe come from conservative cultures. By gaining a broader perspective of the type of people you’ll be typically engaging with you will feel less awkward and avoid perceivably inappropriate situations.

3. Location. Choosing a location to volunteer with crisis refugees abroad may be difficult in the beginning stages. Do your research before you choose a country and as best you can prior to arrival, but don’t be surprised if the majority of connections and information will be acquired once your own two feet are on the ground. Expect to be always on the move in order to follow the need of the people; not the other way around.

Most recently, Hungary, Croatia and Austria have been central in the receiving and transiting refugees as they transition into Europe. Volunteers are encouraged to contact local aid agencies to obtain locations of registration camps, contact information for site coordinators around the country, and basic information about the status of the refugee situation. 

Additionally, Greece continues to be a location in desperate need of more volunteers and less media. Since this is a destination where many refugees are crossing by boat, arrivals often require immediate medical and humanitarian attention. Arabic translators are highly needed, as well as trained medical, emergency response personnel.

How to Be Most Effective and Helpful

Donation of resources (winter clothing and non-perishables), time, and money are meaningful in alleviating problems associated with the mass exodus of people into Europe. Donating your expertise and time is of particularly high demand, however. Interested volunteers should first determine how their personal expertise and experiences can be utilized within a humanitarian capacity to support refugees in Europe.

Refugee keeping warm in a blanket 

Flexible, organized, professional, experienced volunteers are specifically needed in regards to translation, medical training, and the distribution of information and goods to crisis refugees in Europe. Volunteers with particular experience working with refugee populations is an invaluable wealth of knowledge needed for the emergency situation afflicting hundreds of thousands of people.

Once expertise can be pinpointed, volunteers are then encouraged to seek out organizations with relevant volunteer opportunities. 

It’s a Match

A multitude of humanitarian organizations providing aid relief to crisis refugees exist throughout Europe. Some of the major, well-established organizations, which have the luxury of an online presence, include the International Red Cross, UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders, Karam Foundation, among others. Depending on the capacity of each volunteer, there are a range of available opportunities to volunteer in refugee relief in both Western Europe and Eastern Europe, which give volunteers the chance to make a real difference on the ground.

While there are many operations on the ground that are locally based or small bands of like-minded individuals responding to the humanitarian crisis, volunteering with these types of groups will require you to get your boots on the ground before you find a project with a need for your assistance (instead of vice-versa, where you enter the country knowing exactly where you are going and what project you will be working on). So, it is recommended that volunteers secure a volunteer placement with a reputable organization before traveling abroad.

Volunteers with migrants in Europe

Be Patient, Be Flexible

Due to the fluidity of the refugee crisis in Europe, rules and circumstances can change at the drop of the hat, which is what naturally happens when millions of people are averting crisis. International laws regarding exiting, entering, and registering as a refugee within Europe are constantly changing. Therefore, aid groups on the ground in Europe have necessarily adjusted to these unstable conditions, in order to best serve the cause. These groups recognize the need to predict the transit of large groups of people based on border restrictions. Refugee relief volunteers on the ground are expected to demonstrate patience and flexibility in the face of such unstable conditions.

Important things to keep in mind: Depending on the type of refugee volunteer work, volunteers tend to work long hours, sometimes through the night, since the majority of aid workers are needed during the cold and dark hours. Also, wifi and cell phone reception is never guaranteed, you should pack for winter weather, and bring a flashlight, your driver's license, and lots of antibacterial. Lastly, keep your phone, contact information and a pen handy as being on the ground requires high levels of communication.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know

Aid convoys typically transport independent volunteers looking to be a helping hand wherever need be. When in country, you may inquire about established local outreach projects with headquarters at centers for public transportation, such as train stations, bus stations, border crossings, etc. It takes knowing one contact who is abreast of the ever-changing situation to ensure more valuable time will be spent toward meaningful participation rather than waiting around for action. Luckily, if you secure your volunteer placement ahead of time, your host organization will do most of this brunt work for you. 

In Conclusion...

Refugee relief volunteer projects might not get the fame and fortune of more popular international volunteer gigs, like saving turtles, but these are still very important and frustratingly present issues that need immediate attention and resolve. Do your part today to make the world a better place tomorrow, for not only others, but yourself too.

All photos featured in this article are courtesy of Samantha Pollock, taken during her volunteer travels in Europe in 2015.