Volunteering with Refugees: First Steps

Note: This is part 1 in our series on volunteering with refugees. Here are part 2 and part 3 In this series on volunteering with refugees I want to talk you through the most important steps to becoming a successful volunteer. In part 1 today we'll discuss the first steps to volunteering and ways that you can prepare for your time as a volunteer. In part 2 next week I'll share with you the characteristic that I think is most important to a volunteer's success, and finally in part 3 we'll discuss some complex relational dynamics that are inherent to volunteering with refugees and how to navigate those in long-term relationships with the refugees you may be serving. To begin, here are three first steps you should take to prepare for your time as a volunteer.

Find An Organization

I have talked with dozens of people who, after reading about the refugee crisis in the news over the last two years, are interested in volunteering with refugees, but don't know where to begin. My first recommendation is always to find an organization that is already serving refugees in your city or community and ask them about their volunteer opportunities. Don't go it alone. Refugees who are being resettled have a complex set of needs (financial, legal, educational, etc.). In order for volunteers to serve them effectively, it is vital that they be acting as representatives of a larger organization that understands the complex process of resettlement on every level. If you are volunteering with refugees through a resettlement agency, you'll be able to direct difficult questions to the appropriate staff rather than trying to answer them yourself when you may not be qualified to do so. To begin searching for a resettlement organization in your area, check out our "How to Serve" page.

Identify Your Strengths

When you contact a resettlement organization with your interest in becoming a volunteer, you will most likely have to identify the capacity in which you would like to serve. This can be a difficult question to answer if you are not yet familiar with the refugee resettlement process and what the different volunteer roles entail. Here are World Relief's descriptions of some of their volunteer opportunities. Most resettlement organizations will have similar volunteer roles, so this can give you an idea of what might be a good fit for you.

Try to find a volunteer opportunity that utilizes your existing skills and fits with your personality. Are you a teacher or do you work in education in some capacity? See what opportunities there are to help refugee kids with their homework or work in an English class as a classroom aide. Are you a lawyer or paralegal? Take the time to receive a little extra training so that you can help refugees fill out their green card or citizenship applications. Do you enjoy making new friends and learning about other cultures? If so, volunteering as a cultural liaison for new refugees may be right up your alley. Are you interested in making a difference for refugees but not sure how comfortable you would be interacting with refugees who don't speak English? Start slowly by offering your time to help with administrative tasks in the organization's office. With a little bit of research you'll find that almost any skill or interest you have can be effectively utilized in some way when volunteering with refugees.

Attend the Trainings!

Most resettlement organizations will require new volunteers to attend an orientation or training of some sort. I have heard complaints from volunteers about the fact that because these trainings are often mandatory it can be difficult to find time to attend them. I realize that life is busy and you may just be eager to jump into your role as a volunteer without going through a bunch of red tape first, but please realize how important these orientations and trainings are. Most prospective volunteers are only familiar with the aspects of refugee experience and resettlement that they have encountered in the news, but unfortunately the media leaves many holes in what you need to know to be an effective volunteer. At a training or orientation you will be given a more complete picture of all the challenges that a refugee faces when they are resettled in a third country. By understanding this big picture you will have a better idea of where your specific volunteer role fits within the whole process. You will also have the opportunity to ask questions at an orientation that can be skillfully answered by resettlement professionals. So, attend your mandatory and optional trainings and be sure to take notes and ask questions! It will prepare you to be the best volunteer possible.

I hope these first steps will help prepare you for your time volunteering with refugees. Next Monday I'll tell you what I think is the most important characteristic every volunteer should have in order to serve refugees as effectively as possible. If you are already volunteering with refugees, let us know in the comments if you followed these first steps and whether or not they were helpful.