Volunteering with Refugees: Attitude is Everything

Note: You can find part one of this series here. Part three will be published a week from today. 

Attitude is Everything

Last week, in our first installment of this series on the basics of volunteering with refugees, I promised that I would tell you what the most important characteristic is for effective volunteers to have. As you can see from the title, it has to do with approaching your role as a volunteer with a certain attitude. In order to serve refugees effectively, volunteers must, above anything else, have the attitude of learners.

Embracing the attitude of a learner is so crucial to working with refugees primarily because of the unique and difficult situations that refugees experience. A volunteer will never be able to completely understand the refugee experience if they have never been a refugee themself. Taking on the attitude of a learner expresses a certain respect and sensitivity to the refugees you serve, and I cannot stress enough how important that is.

[bctt tweet="Having the #attitude of a learner expresses #respect and sensitivity to #refugees you serve." username="refugee_review"]

In almost every case, a refugee will be coming from a different cultural background than the volunteer who is working with them. While a refugee is learning the different aspects of navigating life in a new country from various volunteers, those volunteers should also be eager and willing to learn about the refugee's culture. Knowing that their culture and ways of doing things are valued can make it much easier for refugees to adjust to the cultural norms of a new place. Our learner's attitude should communicate to them that they are not expected nor required to abandon their culture and heritage, even as they are learning a new one. Now that we've talked about the importance of exhibiting the attitude of a learner while volunteering with refugees, let's consider several specific ways in which we can actually do that.

Ask Questions

This is a big one. Students who want to learn ask questions, so if you're not asking questions, your learner's attitude probably isn't being communicated to the refugees you work with. Now, don't bombard your refugee friends with multiple questions as soon as you meet them. That will probably be overwhelming for them. Instead, let questions come up naturally and organically throughout the course of your time together. If you're helping them learn English, ask them how to say a few words or phrases in their language. I can tell you their eyes will light up with appreciation if you start saying a few things in their language (i.e. how are you? thank you, etc.). As their English improves you can ask other questions about their culture and customs, or about their family, or a job they might want to get, or if they want to go back to school. There are lots of options! Just start a conversation and have the attitude of a learner.

Important: While some refugee will want to tell you their story of flight and how they finally arrived in your community, others will find it very difficult to talk about what are often painful memories. Don't ask direct or pointed questions about why they had to flee their homes or what their time waiting for resettlement was like. Instead ask more general questions about holidays, family, cultural customs, etc. Those who feel comfortable sharing more of their story will; for those who don't, don't push it.

Celebrate Culture

For many of the cultures that refugees come from holidays are closely tied to their religion. For Christian refugees Christmas and Easter may be very significant while for Muslims it may be Ramadan and other religious holidays. Ask the refugees you're volunteering with what their holidays are, why they're important, and how they celebrate them. Then ask if you can celebrate with them! This is an excellent way to learn new things about their culture and religion while communicating that you believe their customs and heritage have value.

[bctt tweet="Ask your #refugee friends about their holidays and if you can #celebrate with them!" username="refugee_review"]

When your own holidays approach you can explain their importance to your refugee friends and invite them to celebrate with you in some way. Do you always make Christmas cookies in December? Make some for your refugee friends or ask them if they want to bake them with you. Do you always have a cookout for the 4th of July? Invite your refugee friends to join you in celebrating the freedoms that you enjoy in America.

Important: As I said above, for many refugees, holidays are primarily religious celebrations. Because of this, Western holiday traditions may be unusual, or even concerning to some refugees. For example, I have volunteered with Muslim refugees who were very upset by seeing Halloween decorations go up in October. They were appalled that Christians in America would have ghosts, witches, and skeletons decorating their homes. First, I explained that not all Americans are Christians, so some of the homes they saw decorated may not actually be the homes of American Christians. Second, I explained that most people who celebrate Halloween do not attach any spiritual or religious significance to it and that it is mostly about having fun dressing up and collecting candy. The same general concept applies to Christmas. While nearly all Americans celebrate Christmas, for many it no longer holds religious significance as the celebration of Christ's birth, but is simply a day to exchange gifts and spend time with family.

Eat Together

For most cultures food and hospitality go hand in hand and are very important. Use volunteering with refugees as an opportunity to learn more about the art of hospitality. Share meals together, cook together, and learn about each other's cultural food traditions. This can also be an excellent way for your refugee friends to learn English as you can practice the names for different ingredients and cooking techniques.

[bctt tweet="#Volunteering with #refugees can be a great way to learn the art of #hospitality. " username="refugee_review"]

Important: If you are cooking food with or for your refugee friends, make sure you ask if there is anything they cannot eat. For example, Muslims do not eat pork and often buy other meats from a halal store, which means it has been butchered in a specific way and prayed over. Refugees from other religious backgrounds may have dietary restrictions as well.

The attitude of a learner is the most important characteristic for anyone volunteering with refugees to have, and these are just a few ways you can embrace and practice that attitude. Next week, in our final installment of this series, we'll discuss some complex relational dynamics that come with the volunteering territory and how you can successfully navigate them over the long term.

Do you have ideas for more ways that you can practice the attitude of a learner while volunteering with refugees? Let me know in the comments and sign up for our newsletter so that you don't miss the last part of this series!