Help me volunteer at a refugee camp!
October 4, 2010 9:21 AM   Subscribe

I've worked with refugees in the US, now I'd like to volunteer abroad at a refugee camp / with internally displaced persons -- how can I make this happen?

I'm a US citizen in my mid 20's who has worked and volunteered at domestic refugee resettlement agencies off and on for the past few years, and I would really like to volunteer (or even work) at a refugee camp abroad. As I've mainly worked with East African refugees, I am particularly interested in volunteering in East African camps, but I'm completely open to other locations around the world.

You would think (as I did) that given my connections in the resettlement field in the US, it wouldn't be too difficult to find someone who would be able to help me figure out how to arrange such an opportunity, but so far everyone I've asked has come up empty handed.

Potentially relevant information:
--I can afford to pay my own way, but I'm somewhat wary of volunteering companies that require you to pay them (rather than the organization you will be volunteering with) thousands of dollars for the opportunity.
--I have some experience working in Sub-Saharan Africa, although not in East Africa.
--I have some ESOL teaching / tutoring experience.

So! Are there any MeFites who have volunteered / know someone who has volunteered a refugee camp or with internally displaced persons abroad? How did you arrange the opportunity? Could you recommend an organization that accepts volunteers? If paid programs are the only options, is there a program that you could recommend?

Anonymous because colleagues at work know my handle, but don't know that I'm hoping to volunteer abroad for an extended period of time. For questions / comments, please email me at
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think the UNHCR runs most refugee camps in East Africa. Here's the UN volunteer page. This is noteworthy, I think:

Volunteers are skilled professionals with an average age of 37 and 5-10 years of working experience.

A lot of stuff that anyone can do is done by refugees, as I understand it. So think about the unique skills you have to offer--and I would think an East African language (Swahili, Amharic, etc) would be a huge asset. I suspect the people who work in camps have lots of training, and training volunteers can be expensive.

If you are looking for other volunteer opportunities in East Africa, think about the NGOs who work there--the World Health Organization, Red Cross, etc.

Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:07 AM on October 4, 2010

You mentioned working with East African refugees- what agencies helped them? Were they in a camp (find out where, names of people who 'ran the show')? Assuming an individual is comfortable disclosing the information, use names and sources to look up more information; I've volunteered for a couple of NGOs overseas that had no internet presence and hadn't been heard of overseas but were respected and well-known in country. So maybe some investigation there?

For aid workers going into refugee camps, skills in strategic planning, logistics, resource management etc are considered to be a valuable asset. Figure out what skills are in demand and acquire them if possible (i.e. a recognized certificate of some sort).
posted by variella at 11:44 AM on October 4, 2010

If I ever knuckle down and get serious about volunteering with refugees abroad, this is the first place where I will look.
posted by kat518 at 12:37 PM on October 4, 2010

Just going to throw some ideas in here.

First up, you probably want to take a long hard look at your skills and experience. Do you have skills and experience that are going to be directly useful to refugees in a camp? I'm looking at the English teaching and previous refugee experience and thinking "possibly", but I'm also thinking some practical skills (eg medical, nutrition, sanitation, plumbing, building etc etc) and local language might be helpful.

If the answer to the above is yes, then put together a resume/CV just as you would for any other job, but emphasize those skills and experience. It makes sense to treat this exactly as you would searching for any other job or career. Even if you're self funding and highly self reliant, you need to be able to put something on the table to show that you're not just going to be a annoyance, burden or danger to those you work with.

Then get a grasp of the "employment market". Think about bodies that might work in the field: Governments (yours and others); International Organizations and their subsidiary organizations (UN, UNHCR, WFP, WHO, EU, AU, the various African regional organizations); international NGOs (bit of a list here); International Church charities (World Vision, CRS, Caritas International, etc); local NGOs (just like charities in your own country, some will be church related, some not, some will be big, some small - you can usually find a coordinating body of some kind by googling (eg) "Uganda NGO Council/Committee" and that result should then give you a list of names and contacts); and finally there are commercial aid contractors (though these tend to want lots and lots of very specific experience from their employees).

Next step is to match any of the organizations above to the type of work you want to do, and the place you want to do it in. Who specifically works on (eg) education projects in camps in northern Uganda. For bigger organizations, you can do a fair bit of this research on the internet. For the smaller ones, as someone said above, you may need to be on the ground and knocking on doors. From this research make yourself a shortlist of groups for whom you might want to work.

Now, make yourself as aware as possible of where precisely each works and what each does there (try to narrow it right down to camp names and specific programs). And research the heck out of the organization itself. Working for free for a body with institutional problems, or a lack of local respect, or which doesn't support it's volunteers just sucks and is best avoided.

Also do as much research as humanly possible into the history, politics, economy, prevailing social conditions, and culture of the place(s) you plan to work as humanly possible. This sort of knowledge ends up being part of your skill set, but it also makes it so much easier to assimilate once you're there.

Then, go back to your CV/resume and rewrite for the specific requirements and demands you think each of your candidate organizations might place on you as a volunteer.

If you find there's a gap between what they're likely to need, and what you've got, start thinking about doing a whole lot of learning as fast you can. Language being the usual suspect at this stage.

Now comes the foot in door bit... If your skills and experience have ended up being suitable for an international body of some kind, and they have a base in your own country, contacting them and asking about volunteer programs and opportunities is relatively straightforward. But if you do manage to get into the applications process, expect to have to show a lot of willingness and determination. Volunteer positions at this level are desirable as all hell. Not wanting to dis the Peace Corps or anything, but the institutional support at this level is the equivalent of Volunteering Platinum Class..

Contacting organizations in other developed countries is not much more difficult, with the exception that if you need to physically knock on doors or attend interviews, you'll be paying for some international flights just to get the ball rolling.


If you end up finding out that the NGOs you want to work for are based only in the country where you want to work, or you've got a shortage of skills and experience, your best chance may well be to get yourself to the country in question and then start looking.

This has a downside (money, lack of training and orientation), but a whole lot of upsides. You'll find there are NGOs working in the field that you never heard of on the internet. Many smaller organizations will want to check you out in person before even talking to you about volunteer positions (emails and phone calls often get ignored, whereas taking someone to lunch and establishing your sincerity and ability to support yourself while having a chat may well work wonders.). And here's your real opportunity to learn some local culture and language (you'll have little choice).

A further upside to doing it this way is that if you can't find a volunteer position quickly, it's often possible to get yourself a job as (eg) an English teacher or tutor, and continue learning while you keep trying to find something you really want to do.

As a final thought. You might want to consider planning to first do a bit of work outside a refugee camp for a local NGO in whatever country you end up heading for. Refugee camps can just be a bit.. hellish.. is all.

Good luck.

and sorry about the length
posted by Ahab at 10:26 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Doh. I am so sorry. I forgot to state the obvious right at the start. Organizations that don't have specific programs for volunteers will often take you as an intern or (once you're there, if it's legal) a local-hire employee. So don't automatically write off bodies or groups without volunteer programs. Push a bit, and you'll find that self funding will go a long way towards getting you inside.
posted by Ahab at 3:11 AM on October 5, 2010

Send me a me-mail. I have contacts at JVA and a few other organizations working with refugees in EA, including the one I work for. If you can get me your CV, we can go from there.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:34 AM on November 3, 2010

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