Volunteering With Refugees in Northern Greece 6: There’s No Such Thing as an Unskilled Volunteer

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.

The Barracks in Belgrade

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.

The skilled vegetable choppers in the Soul Food Kitchen

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.

Volunteers at Echo Mobile Library

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.

The Leitrim Community came together to volunteer with a Refugee clothing Appeal

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.

Volunteers in Calais were delighted to receive clothing and blankets

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.

English Classes in Belgrade

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.

Job Training with People in Need, Thessaloniki

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…

Nobody’s Perfect

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!

Diavata Refugee Camp in Northern Greece

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 refugeevolunteering@indigovolunteers.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!

Too cute to leave out 🙂

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.


13 Comment

  1. holly says: Reply

    Yes. Just yes!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply


  2. Laura says: Reply

    This is really interesting – and has made me realise I might be able to volunteer in Greece or Calais next year 🙂 Have fun island-hopping!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      That’s great Laura! I hope you do. Many hands are still needed and unfortunately it doesn’t look like this problem is going away any time soon.

  3. Ella says: Reply

    “The list is endless and every single ‘unskilled’ person out there has something to offer. Just be realistic about what that is.”

    That’s the point. I was working at Lesvos for three months last year, and I have been witnessing and hearing about too many situations where volunteers have done more harm than good. The problem was that too many people wanted to be where all the drama happened (the beaches, in other words). When I was there, there was often too many people at the beaches, and too few people sorting clothes, cleaning, etc. Many of the people working at the beaches had no training or experience with how to handle this kind of stressing situations, and even though they wanted to do good, they were not always able to.

    There was cases of kids being separated from their parents, as panicking volunteers grabbed them from the boats and then was unable to find the parents again in all the chaos. One time my friend spent two whole days searching for the parent of a small child after they had been separated by a volunteer. In another case, a stressed out volunteer ran down to the beach as a boat came into shore, and stuck a hole in the boat with his knife (which they usually did, but after everyone was safely on land) so the boat deflated and all the refugees fell into the freezing water. In the absolute worst case, two kids died of hypothermia in the ambulance after reaching shore, and some people argued that they could have survived if the volunteers working there knew how to handle hypothermia. Nobody will ever know the answer to this, but the point is, people should know what they’re doing before going into these situations.

    I was mainly working in the kitchen, and I realized quickly after arriving that I didn’t have the mental strength to work at the beaches. The work there is intense, sometimes traumatizing, and not everyone are able to stay calm and focused during those kind of situations. I think all volunteers can do good, but some people (myself included) will maybe be more useful sorting clothes in a warehouse or cutting vegetables. Sometimes you’ll be more of a hero when cleaning a toilet than scouting for people to save.

    I think this is one of the main reasons that people are frustrated about the “voluntourism” that’s going on, and it really needs to be addressed. But, as you pointed out, being realistic about what one is able to do should be the key point here.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      You’re absolutely right. The focus should be on responsible volunteering rather than telling people to stay at home.
      Those examples show exactly why people need to make informed and well researched decisions. They also highlight why coordination and training are so important. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Mark says: Reply

    There are plenty of blogs out there that point to the over-saturation of the market by supposed ‘White Privileged’. But where has the balance been?
    Thank you for writing a well-balanced article that balances out this argument by revealing the worth of people, as everybody has something to offer. We all have our worth!
    The part that you played, helped eliminate some of the struggles that these people faced. That small role that you played, will be remembered for years to come by these people. A small portion of society is doing this for negative reasons, but the majority are doing it for the right reasons. And they are being under-appreciated. This does nothing to help increase the importance that volunteering plays in the lives of the refugees who are faced with daily insurmountable odds.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Mark.

  5. Aisha Moolla says: Reply

    Really interesting article Ruth, thankyou!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Aisha

  6. I’ve read a couple of such articles talking about how volunteerism has done more harm than good. It’s just pathetic. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful article.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Tanyi

  7. Great article. I have always wanted to volunteer, the feeling of helping others is so inspiring.

Leave a Reply