Volunteerism gets a bad wrap, and sometimes for good reason. We go into this “savior of the orphaned and downtrodden” mentality. It’s human nature to want to fix people and make everything better. Sadly, the only thing that will make anything better in the case of the refugees in Athens from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is if the wars and fighting stop and everyone can go home.
Because yes, all any refugee (for the most part) wants to do is go home. They don’t want to be immigrants and refugees in a foreign land. They want to go back to their friends, family and way of life. This will probably never happen for them though.
The Perils of Voluntourism
Voluntourism has become a buzz word in the travel industry. In some ways it is good, but too often there are bad news stories that go along with voluntourism. Some organizations aren’t set up to actually help. Some do more harm than good. You may have heard of orphan tourism, where tourists can go into orphanages in Asia to simply hold babies, which can do more harm than good. Yup. It happens. This is why it is so important to look closely at the volunteer opportunities available to work with refugees.
How to vet a volunteer organization
It isn’t too hard to vet an organization if you know the right questions to ask. Start with these eight simple, logical questions. Go with your gut and ask follow up questions. If you hit any road blocks or red flags along the way, make sure you listen to your gut. Any NGO with nothing to hide will be transparent with you.
- How long has the organization been working in this area of the world and offering short-term volunteer trips?
- Are volunteers able to speak to the leader of the teams before they commit to a trip?
- Look at the company’s mission statement- are they more interested in the impact on you or the impact on the people you serve?
- Are you doing projects that you can complete or add to? Will you have to start a project that may never see completion and help people?
- Are children involved? What rules do they have surrounding child interactions?
- How are they protecting the refugees you are working with?
- What are the photo and social media rules while you are working? Are there restrictions?
- Do they encourage you to be flexible? Volunteer situations can change all of the time. Are they sending you where you are most needed or where you will “look the best” in photos?
Organizations with short-term volunteer trips
- Servant Group International (religiously affiliated)
- Operation Mobilization (religiously affiliated)
- Samaritans Purse (religiously affiliated)
- Drop in the Ocean ( not religiously affiliated)
Short-term volunteer work you may be asked to do
Volunteer work is not glamorous. When you are helping people with basic needs, it’s not about you. It’s about what the other person needs. You may not get to kiss babies and deliver flowers all day. You may be cleaning toilets, scrubbing floors, and never see a refugee.
If that is what an organization needs to continue functioning and helping refugees in Athens that is what you need to be willing to do. Here’s a small sample of what you could be doing when working with refugees in Greece.
- Make tea- tea is a big part of Middle Eastern culture. It is a time to sit, relax and catch up with friends. Many refugee centers provide tea to give adults a sense of normalcy and community. The center staff need someone to constantly be making it. That someone will probably be you.
- Clean up after tea
- Construction and building maintenance
- Entertain kids who are out of school and bored
- Play soccer
- Fold clothes
- Hand out clothing and diapers
- Make meals
- Hand out meals
- Do laundry
- Sweep and mop floors
- Clean bathrooms
Volunteering with Refugees in Athens
Volunteering is important work. It can also be personally gratifying. It’s OK to feel good when you volunteer, but that shouldn’t be all you feel. If you only want to volunteer to “save” people from their troubles, you may want to rethink that trip. You won’t be helping them and you won’t be helping yourself.
Think a LOT before you decide to volunteer anywhere, especially with refugees. I thought for almost two years before I signed up for my first trip to Greece. My trip changed directions a week before we left. No matter how flexible I thought I was already, it changed in a way I never thought I it could, so if you decide to volunteer, stay flexible, because ultimately, the best organizations will send you where you will be of the most use, not where you will look the best.