There’s no such thing as an unskilled volunteer. It seems like an appropriate discussion for my final volunteering post. In line with the five previous posts in the ‘Volunteering with Refugees’ series, I had hoped to write my last post about the Get Shit Done Team, who carry out essential construction work in Refugee Camps in Greece and beyond wherever facilities need improvement. As it happened, though, the timing didn’t work out. I couldn’t get as involved as I would have liked and so my knowledge about the team and their activities is too limited to justify a whole post.
Getting Shit Done
It turns out, though, that not spending time with the Get Shit Done Team was a good thing for two reasons. First of all, the main reason that timings for volunteering with the team didn’t work out was because most of the team’s volunteers were relocating to Belgrade. You may remember my post about the appalling conditions at The Barracks in Belgrade. With summer on the horizon, the threat of illness and disease was on the rise due to the growing problem of untreated human waste and the lack of bathrooms. Thanks to the Get Shit Done Team, the sanitation standards are improving. The team have been working to build a mobile shower unit and to install toilets for the residents of the Barracks as part of a wider clean-up of the camp.
So if it meant that my blogpost took a back seat to facilitate improving the basic needs of the guys at The Barracks, then I was quite happy to forego the research.
There’s No Such Thing As An Unskilled Volunteer
The second reason that it was good to miss out on the opportunity to volunteer with the Get Shit Done Team was because it has given me an opportunity instead to use this blogpost to remind people of how valuable volunteers are in this environment. I’ve been growing increasingly concerned about the amount of online posts I’ve been reading which criticise ‘voluntourists’ and accuse ‘unskilled’ volunteers of causing more harm than good. One such post went so far as to shame volunteers for massaging their ‘white privilege’ egos.
I refuse to link to these posts. I will not contribute to increasing their reach. If you wish to find them, I’m sure google will help you. Take it from me, there are plenty. There is so much wrong with these posts that it’s hard to know where to start. I guess the ‘white privilege’ is a blatantly obvious jumping off point. I’m not sure why that particular writer assumed only white people volunteer. The ignorance of that assumption alone invalidates any other argument she makes.
I understand the basic point these people are trying to get across. We need to volunteer responsibly. We need to make sure that we offer value to the communities we work with. We need to inform ourselves and ensure that we’re not a drain on local resources. We need to be self-sufficient. Absolutely, these things are important. And I agree that short term volunteers shouldn’t put themselves into a position where children or vulnerable people will come to depend on them, only to be separated a week or two later.
The key is to make informed decisions about where to volunteer and in what capacity. The solution is not necessarily, as these recent posts have suggested, to stay at home and simply to send money. Every volunteering experience, every country, every crisis is different and while money is the most vital contribution anyone can make, hands are absolutely needed. Let me repeat here to the people I’ve spoken to and to anyone else who has been put off volunteering with refugees because of these posts – YOU are needed.
There’s no such thing as unskilled when it comes to volunteering with refugees in Northern Greece. You may not be a Warehouse Manager, but can you sort and fold clothes? You are needed. You may not be a chef, but can you chop vegetables? You are needed. You may not have a HGV license, but can you drive? You are needed. You may not be a teacher, but can you speak English? Or Greek? Arabic? Farsi…. What about those of you who are good at admin, handy with a hammer, kind to children? The list is endless and every single ‘unskilled’ person out there has something to offer. Just be realistic about what that is.
Volunteering With Refugee Organisations Across Europe
Take me, for example. I’ve spent four months volunteering across Europe with refugees. I’m unskilled in the eyes of these volunteer elitists, but has that stopped me from making a positive contribution?
I think not.
In that time I’ve gotten my community in Ireland together to gather winter clothes and blankets for hundreds of refugees surviving the harsh winter.
I’ve delivered a van-load of supplies from Leitrim to Calais. I’ve sorted and folded clothes in the Care4Calais warehouse in France and in the Help Refugees warehouse in Greece. I’ve visited people held in detention centres in Calais just so they weren’t alone as they faced deportation. I’ve cooked for the refugees sleeping rough in Northern France. I’ve driven around France to get supplies to people living in welcome centres around the country.
I’ve taught English in Belgrade, I’ve fundraised for and organised a winter clothing collection for Refugee Aid Serbia. I’ve written about the people and the conditions they are living in. I’ve helped in a mobile library in Thessaloniki and taught English to adults and children in Greece.
I’ve chopped onions and potatoes and all sorts of vegetables at the Soul Food Kitchen and delivered food to the undocumented migrants and the homeless on the streets in Thessaloniki. I’ve packed and distributed fresh fruit and vegetables to a community who don’t have sufficient access to nutritious food. I’ve done plenty of admin. I’ve helped organisations improve their social media accounts. I’ve organised training programmes for people looking to improve their chances of finding a job.
And do you know what? That’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to most of the people I’ve met along the journey. So don’t be bullied into believing that you’re unskilled or that your contribution isn’t valuable. You may not be a one-man humanitarian messiah, come to save the world, but that’s ok. Messiahs tend to leave epic messes after them…
And do you know what else? It wasn’t perfect along the way, either. Some organisations were in need of more organisation. Some didn’t communicate brilliantly. Some had inexperienced people at the helm. Some were poor at planning. Some were slow to respond to changing environments. Some were cliquey. Some didn’t look at the bigger picture when making their own plans and did some things that were counterproductive. Some were insular and didn’t work with others to do better, more constructive work. In other words, they were flawed, just like every organisation in the world. Ever.
The difference? Every single one of these organisations cares intensely. And every single volunteer is there at their own expense, out of the kindness of their heart with one mission only – to help people. So don’t let a few judgemental, preachy articles tell you that your help is not of value. Just make sure that you are responsible, that you do your research and that you make the best decisions about your volunteering work that you can.
As for me, my volunteering adventure has come to an end, for now at least. After four months, It’s time to put my head down to some work and replenish the coffers so that I can responsibly take on the next challenge!
How To Be A Responsible Volunteer
If you and all of your skills are thinking of volunteering with refugees in Northern Greece or in Belgrade, I’d highly recommend contacting IngiGO Volunteers at firstname.lastname@example.org who co-ordinate voluntary activities in the region. They provide a free service and have a responsible approach to placing people where their skills and interests are needed and appreciated. They also work in other areas, so just because I’m focusing on refugees in Greece and the Balkans, doesn’t mean you have to!
Don’t Be A Stranger
As always, I love hearing from you. Don’t be shy, please leave a comment below. I’d love to know your opinion on ‘voluntourism’.
What’s Next for Rambling Ruth?
From 24th May, I’ll be Island Hopping around Greece. Quite the departure, I know, but I hope to take as many of you on my adventures as I can fit in my virtual backpack. To keep up to date, make sure to follow Rambling Ruth on Facebook and Instagram.