You are looking at numerous heartbreaking images whilst scrolling through your news feed, and thinking: What can I do to help? You read stories of volunteers and how they are helping in the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. You have this overwhelming urge to help, but don’t know if your small contribution will make a difference in such a large complex situation.
You may ask yourself: Do I have the time? Can I afford it? Will my friends and family support my decision? Do I have the skills? Will I be able to handle seeing people in crisis and focus on their needs? Can one person really make a difference?
These are some of the questions I asked myself before going to Kos, Greece, to help the refugees. And the answer to all of them turned out to be “yes”. I already had three weeks booked off work, but I wasn’t sure if my help was worth the cost of the flight and hotels. However, my desire to help far outweighed any logical monetary or math equations. I needed to ‘see’ for myself what was going on in the world, and I needed to feel like I was doing more then just depositing money into a charity’s bank account—where, I might add, you don’t actually know who the money benefits.
If you are coming from North America I wouldn’t recommend any less than ten days, this would maximize the value of your volunteerism. Flights are too time consuming and expensive to travel that distance for any shorter period of time. Keep in mind that your time in service should be more valuable then the cost of the flight and hotels. You will discover the time you can lend to volunteering is in demand, and you may find that you want to stay longer. Many volunteers who planned on staying one or two weeks ended up postponing their flights home. I ended up staying two months, and I met many volunteers from EU countries when I first got there who went home and came back again before I left. Once you realize the great need for volunteers, you will feel very guilty about leaving.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you are qualified or if you have one arm, two or none – anyone can volunteer. Some volunteer organizations have age restrictions, which is a bunch of hooey—look elsewhere. If you care about people and want to do something to help, there is something for you to do. A volunteer may do one job or fifteen. A wide variety of skills are needed: coordinating teams, nursing, purchasing and transporting goods, fundraising, sorting donations of clothes and shoes, getting donations to those who need them, improving conditions, cleaning the beaches, preparing and distributing food, making children laugh, or just being on the beaches to welcome the refugees with dry clothes and a smile. And everyone is capable of giving a hug.
If you are patient enough, you can get on with one of the larger NGO’s and have your travel and accommodations covered. Otherwise, count on self-funding your trip.
When I first decided to volunteer I applied with a couple of the larger well-known organizations, and after receiving their complicated application packages I realized that was too slow a route for me to go. So I researched online to find where I could best be of some help. I joined many Facebook groups that were organizing volunteers for the borders of Serbia/Croatia and Macedonia/Greece, and the Greek islands where the refugees first arrive to Europe by boats. I came across a news article about two ladies who had been to Kos to help in August, and were returning with a group of volunteers for a second trip in October. I liked what I read: these were two women who went out and made an impact. Their return trip was during the time I had off work, so I contacted them and asked if they would mind if I joined them. Meeting someone who had already been in the trenches, so to speak, took a bit of the worry off.
Van ready to go to Berlin with just over 1000kgs of donated clothing!
Once I had a definite plan of action, I told my family and friends what I was doing. I did not discuss it beforehand, as I didn’t want anyone to try to dissuade me. I made the decision on my own, but once I told everyone I realized I had underestimated the amount of support I would receive. My boss said he would pay for my flight, and my friends helped to put together a good list of supplies to bring for the refugees. They also helped gather donated supplies, purchased supplies and gave me money. They proved to be a tremendous support for which I am ever so grateful.
I purchased my airline tickets, reserved a hotel (recommended by the group I was meeting), filled four very large suitcases and a carry-on bag and super large purse, and travelled to Kos, Greece.
Do your research when purchasing flights. Coming from overseas means transferring flights somewhere in Europe before reaching Athens, and from Athens you need a domestic flight to whichever island you have decided to go to. This often means a seven-hour wait in the Athens airport, so be ready for that. There are some direct flights from the UK to the islands. There are many pricing options, and if you play with all of the cheap flight websites you will find one that suits your needs. And if you are coming from North America, be sure to set your web browser to incognito before using sites like Sky Scanner and then set the currency to Euro–when the computer knows you are from North America, the price is much higher. I looked at numerous flight options with a wide range of prices. For me, it was a bit cheaper to travel to Turkey and take the ferry from Bodrum to Kos; however to save time I opted to fly through Athens. I thought the seven-hour wait at the Athens airport was preferable to the extra flight from Istanbul to Bodrum and then the ferry to Kos. But next time I think I may go the Turkey route.
Many hotels will give a discounted price to volunteers. In fact, some are close to free. When you are looking at where to volunteer, get in contact with the page administrator—remember the Facebook groups you now joined? Each stop along the refugee route has a group page or pages with information for volunteers, and many have corresponding websites. Be sure to use the resources available – they are a valuable source of all kinds of information. Here you will find where there is the most need, how the refugee process is currently managed in that location, and what volunteer activities will suit your skills. You can also get tips on where to stay, the best ground transportation, and what to pack.
Be careful with the supplies you bring from home. Remember that baggage limits vary with each airline, and in most cases you will need to pay extra for excess luggage. When planning what to bring for the refugees, think about what is more economical to purchase at home, and what is lightweight and small enough to bring with you. And again, ask someone on the ground what is needed. You may end up bringing something they already have plenty of.
This is what I packed (most of which was collected/donated by those lovely friends I mentioned):
260 emergency blankets
100 rain ponchos
120 toothbrushes and toothpaste (50 were cool kids’ ones)
60 small packages of Wet Wipes
100 disposable razors (in hindsight-I would bring more, as they are much cheaper at home)
50 small bottles of hand sanitizer
50 hotel-size bottles of shampoo (skip the shampoo if watching the weight)
100 hotel-size bars of soap
50 Emerg C packs to mix with water
100 hair combs
144 fruit bars (SunRype brand flat fruit snacks,
72 in a box for $8 Canadian)
10 packages of playing cards
50 small stuffies for the children 4 packages of coloured chalk
10 pairs of socks
5 pairs of men’s shoes
The last three items I recommend purchasing when you arrive (unless they were donated). It is much cheaper to get shoes, socks and toques there, and it helps support the local economy – in addition to saving weight and space in your suitcase. Also, next time I would skip the hand sanitizers and add more fruit bars. The adults and children absolutely loved them, and they were getting so little vitamin C as it was.
Don’t forget to pack your own clothes! I had very little room left for mine, and actually ended up wearing layers of them to save room in my case. Be practical when making your list, and check out the weather before you leave – and prepare for rain! I live on the rainy British Columbia coast and I have never experienced such torrential downpours as I did in Kos.
The majority of the volunteers aiding in the current refugee crisis are self-funded. The amount of money you need to volunteer depends on a variety of factors (e.g. flights, hotel, ground transportation, food) but you should try to do everything on the cheap, so that more benefit can be given to the refugees. You do not have to be rich, and it is not necessary to bring extra to donate to the refugees. Your time and service is desired, invaluable and priceless. However…
I planned my trip thinking I would be responsible for all of the costs. At the time it didn’t occur to me to fundraise for it. I was lucky enough to have my employer pay for my flight as his way of contributing to fighting the crisis. I came prepared with a budget of my own costs, and a dollar amount of what I could afford to spend on supplies for refugees. I planned to figure out once I was there what to purchase for the refugees, and/or what I would give organizations working on the ground. But once I arrived and talked to many other volunteers, and took some time to analyze how the NGO’s, the smaller volunteer organizations and the individual volunteers were contributing, I realized that it was the groups of individual volunteers that were providing the majority of the aid – either with their own money or with money they raised through fundraising websites like GoFundMe.
Since the start of the crisis, and in the height of it – all throughout the summer and up until after I arrived in October – not one of the large well-funded government or NGO’s were paying for any food. Not one. Over 750,000 of our fellow human beings would have starved if not for the volunteers who fundraised and set up food programs. Then there is the problem of shelter…did I mention the torrential rains? At each stop on the route there are tents set up by the UNHCR, but these are greatly inadequate for capacity, privacy and security. Each place on the route has volunteer groups who have dealt with the shelter situation in varying ways. On Kos, the volunteers discovered a way to use the hotels as shelter for the families, the disabled and the elderly—by paying for them. Finding funding is so important – needs can change every day, and volunteers on the ground can see what’s missing and go out and fill that need, immediately.
So in short, prepare to want to spend more, and prepare your friends. Start a fundraiser, or campaign for a volunteer group on the ground that has one. I started mine after I arrived and saw the desperate need. Trust your friends, family and colleagues—they will want to help you out. That being said, do be careful how you spend the donated money. Think about where your donors’ money is going to be used, and how you can maximize the benefits from donations by helping the most people.
Can you handle seeing fellow human beings in crisis and focus on their needs? I believe you can. My biggest worry going over was how I would handle seeing children in crisis when I can barely handle watching children get hurt in the movies. I am not experienced in crisis. I am not a first responder, a nurse, psychologist or anything like that, and I do not even know first aid, though I do have children who somehow survived childhood. I wasn’t sure if I could handle it, but I knew I had to try. I won’t go into detail of all the different situations of crisis I faced while in Kos, but I will tell you this – The human capacity of love and the yearning to help a fellow human being in crisis conquers all fears. You will be able to give comfort, to enable them to feel some dignity and to encourage them to have hope. You may cry after in your room or break down in another volunteer’s arms, but you will handle it and go on to give comfort, hope and faith again and again.
You will make a difference. I have faith in you.