Volunteering With Refugees: A Two Way Street

Note: This is the final installment of our series on volunteering with refugees. Here are parts one and two

Last week we discussed that the most important characteristic for a volunteer to have is the attitude of a learner. This week's post builds off of that idea, but instead of focusing on the beginning of a volunteer's relationship with refugees, we're going to consider how that relationship dynamic changes after you have been volunteering with refugees for some time. As your refugee friends become established and independent in their new home, it is even more important to be a willing learner. Here are some ways to make sure your relationship with the refugees you volunteer to serve is a two way street.

Give & Take

In the very beginning, you will spend a lot of time helping your new refugee friends. You'll be helping them pay bills, enroll their children in school, look for jobs, get their drivers license, learn English, and more. As time passes, and those you are volunteering with become more and more comfortable doing these things, they will need your help less. This is a good thing, but you may suddenly feel as though you are no longer being very helpful. You may spend your time together chatting, sharing meals, and socializing. Don't feel as though this time is wasted. This is the easiest way for your refugee friends to thank you for all the ways you have helped them. You do not always have to be the benefactor and them the beneficiary. In fact, it would be unhealthy if you never let them reciprocate through hospitality, gifts, or other means. Volunteering with refugees must be a two way street.

Let Them Do Things For You

My family volunteered with a refugee family from southern Asia. In the beginning there was a lot that we were doing for them and helping them with, but whenever we visited their home, we were treated to a feast. Hospitality was their way of expressing their gratitude for our help. Nearly a year later, the family had begun their own business and were entirely self-sufficient. We had become good friends, so we continued to visit each other's homes, and plan outings together. A few weeks before Christmas, we had them over to our home for dinner. Our friends do not celebrate Christmas themselves, but they came with Christmas gifts for each member of my family. We were thrilled at their thoughtfulness, and so glad that they no longer saw us just as volunteers, but as friends.

You Can Be Friends

When hospitality, gifts, and assistance begin to flow both ways in a relationship, it is a sign that the relationship is shifting from one of benefactor and beneficiary to friendship. While some volunteers may want to maintain a bit of distance in the relationship and even end the relationship when their formal volunteer commitment is over, I am not an advocate of doing this. Refugees have lost everything, and while they certainly need practical assistance when they are first resettled, many of them ultimately need and want friendship. Furthermore, if you are a Christian volunteering with refugees, your vision for the relationships you have with refugees should be much larger than just helping them to get a job and then checking out.

Maintaining Boundaries

I've been going on and on about how volunteering with refugees should be a two way street and how eventually volunteer relationships should transform into genuine friendships. However, I don't want to end this post without reinforcing the concept of boundaries. Boundaries are important in any relationship, whether with family, friends, or the refugees you serve. Having boundaries does not mean that you put up an impenetrable wall between you and the other person and only you get to decide when to cross it. Instead, having boundaries means that you can say no to a request and not feel guilty about it.

Volunteering with refugees can be taxing, especially in the beginning when they have a lot of needs and you may be one of the only people they can call for help. But you may have a family, job, and many other responsibilities as well. Establish early on that you cannot always come immediately when asked for something, and that sometimes you may have to say no because of other commitments. This will not only help you to avoid feeling guilty when you do have to say no, but will also encourage your refugee friends to reach out to others for help from time to time, therefore expanding their network.

If you volunteer with refugees, have you had to deal with any of these relationship dynamics? Tell us about it in the comments!