10 Tips for Individuals Volunteering in a Refugee Camp

Moria Refugee Camp, Lesvos, Greece, November 2015

I’ve just come back from my second trip helping refugees in Europe (first Slovenia, then Lesvos), and want to share a few quick tips that can help any first-time volunteers. It can be daunting to pack up and go help in a refugee camp, especially when you’re not under the banner of an NGO, and when people will tell you that it’s better to join one (this is NOT true!) The truth is that you can, and with a dose of common sense and a lot of empathy, you WILL make a big difference to many people, even if all you’re giving is your time. Here are a few tips to give you confidence and to help you get through/avoid some potentially tricky situations:

1) Observe & make a quick plan. I don’t want to, in any way, discourage people from just packing up and going. That’s what my friends and I did, and it worked. But we spent the first few hours of our time in each camp observing the situation, asking non-intrusive questions (where possible) of other people in yellow vests so that we could get the lay of the land. It’s not that we thought others were “in charge” and we needed permission to work, but we wanted to understand if any effective systems were already in place that we might contribute to, rather than trying to fight the tide. It quickly became apparent that there were a few systems in place, and we were then able to dive in and help. And it can’t hurt to ask around with a few different people, because some know more than others. Just be sure to time your questions right. There is always some emergency unfolding in a refugee camp, so be sure not to interrupt important work.

2) Make eye contact and smile. If you go to a camp, you will have direct contact with refugees…and probably more so than you expected. They will be looking to you to help with any number of things. You must exude confidence, but more importantly, WARMTH. Your yellow vest will help with the confidence, but you must back this up with a smile and by showing your humanity at every turn. I made it a point to smile, make eye contact, and say “hello” to just about every refugee I met or saw. If time permitted, I would also follow it with a “Are you OK?” This lets them know you are there to help, that you care about them, and that they should not fear you in any way. When I saw female refugees who looked sad or were crying, I also put my arm around them or gave them a pat on the back to show that I cared. This little act goes a long way, and can even transcend the language barrier.

3) Write your name on your yellow vest. This is straight-forward. It helps volunteers identify each other and also gives refugees something to shout out if they need help. Write it on the back and the front of your vest in big letters.

4) Use non-verbal communication. I don’t speak Farsi or Arabic. But I do speak human. It is amazing how much communication can take place across languages and with small gestures. Of course, many refugees know a few words of English (“hello”, “please wait”, and “OK?” go a long way). When there was no bilingual refugee or volunteer nearby, I relied heavily on symbols and hand gestures. The first thing I established in every case was “Do you have a baby/family?” by pointing to them and gesturing that I was cradling a baby. It’s important to establish how many people are traveling together in one group before you begin to troubleshoot or try to help. The last thing you want to do is break up families or have anyone get lost. If a father approached me alone with a child I asked about “Mama?” and he would point to where she was. Once I had them all accounted for, I could move on to other non-verbals for “food”, “water”, “tent”, “ticket” “doctor” and so on. I surprised myself with how well this worked. Just be confident, speak and gesture clearly, and maintain eye contact so they know you are still helping.

5) Don’t show aggression or anger…ever. It can be tempting, especially when you’re trying to calm or control a crowd, to scream and shout and to show your own frustration. Please don’t ever do this. In fact, don’t even get frustrated. It doesn’t work, and it’s a waste of your energy. There are effective crowd control tips available from various sources, which are super helpful. Read them before you go. But the rule I observed was “confidence, not frustration.” The moment you express rage, anger or frustration, you are patently NOT in control and people will sense it and either become frustrated with you, begin to fight with you or others out of fear, or stop listening to you altogether. If you are unable to control a whole crowd, try instead reasoning with individuals and asking them to help you help the crowd. There is strength in numbers, and you are not a hero. Just ask yourself: If you were in a new country and didn’t speak the local language, and someone in a yellow vest began shouting at you with rage in words you couldn’t understand, would you want to work with them? Refugees can and will (if you ask them) be your allies in tense and difficult situations with the police, or other authorities.

6) Always be willing to help. There is always something you can do for another person, even if it isn’t specifically what they’ve asked for. I carried a large waist bag around with me stuffed full of cereal bars, non-prescription medicines, rehydration salts, kid’s balloons, baby wipes, a few pairs of gloves, socks, hats and women’s underwear (trust me –women’s underwear are in high demand, but no one will ask you for them! Female volunteers — buy a few packs of these before you go and hand them out discreetly when you can.) If someone asked me for baby’s socks and I didn’t have them, I could at least use a pair of adult socks to cover their legs/feet, and then give the mother a cereal bar. Try not to ever leave a refugee interaction having said “No”, and be ready to MacGyver some situations. Alternatively, smile and ask them to “Please wait” while you go and get help…but don’t get distracted and forget to return!

7) Take short, frequent breaks for yourself. I read advice like this before I left for Lesvos, and kind of laughed it off. But trust me, a 5-minute break can be used in many ways and is really vital to your ability to be useful. In my case, I spent a few 5-minute breaks crying in a corner, getting hot tea to warm up my frozen hands after I had given my gloves away, finding somewhere to use the bathroom, checking on my friends, and texting home to let people know I was safe. It’s easy to get caught up in the madness of a refugee camp, but you’ll be better off if you just take a minute for yourself every now and again. You may also find that a lot of refugees will ask you to rest and eat, as well, and will try to give you their own food and comfort. (One man from Afghanistan saw me working without gloves. He then warmed his own gloves up over a bonfire and brought them to me. This, of course, moved me to tears, and I then needed another 5-minute break to cry…ha!)

8) Make friends. You’ll be working very hard and long hours to help people in so many different ways. Inevitably, you’ll also find small pockets of down time to talk to refugees and ask them questions about their story. Many will share very willingly. Never pry, but also don’t be afraid to make small talk and to share things about yourself in turn. I made a few dear friends in a short period of time, and am now tracking their progress along the refugee route as they head for Germany and other countries. In my mind, conversing and helping refugees feel listened to can be just as important as other types of assistance. Open your heart to their stories and let them know you care and are listening.

9) Tell refugees about yellow vests. When I parted ways from a person or family in Lesvos, I made sure to tell them “When you get to Croatia/Slovenia/Austria, look for the people in this vest. They will help you!” The volunteers in yellow, hi-vis vests are typically individuals and aren’t with an NGO. From my observations, they are best able to be flexible and help in a variety of ways without governmental restrictions or having to clock out at a certain time. I made it very clear to my refugee friends that yellow vests are the good guys.

10) Your tip goes here. (If you have experience working in a refugee camp, please add your tips in comments.)

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