How and Why to Volunteer at a Refugee Camp

I’m Kelsey, Olin ‘13. I recently spent several weeks volunteering in refugee camps in Greece. I recommend the experience, both for your own learning and for the impact you can have.

Before I went to volunteer with the refugee crisis, I thought it would be a huge commitment to go and do. It’s not. I was amazed how easy it was to just show up, with no particular pre-planning, and participate.

If you want to come, here are some useful roles:
– Teachers of English as a second language for adults and children- whether or not you have any particular certification
– People who speak Arabic, Kurdish, or Faarsi
– People who speak Greek
– People who are good with kids
– People who are construction savvy or otherwise handy
– People willing to lend a hand with whatever is needed
– Good listeners who can write

If you are creative, this work can use all of your skills.

Camps are mapped here, and there is typically an informative (if messy) Facebook group you can find for up-to-date information on each. You can show up on site and find other volunteers, ask them about useful work.

If you can cover the airfare, the rest can be pretty cheap. Specifically for Ritsona (the camp I volunteered at), you can get to Chalkida on a fast train from Athens and share rides to the camp with fellow volunteers. The hotel we went to, the nicest in town, had us for 35 a night with decent Wifi and a beautiful breakfast you could pack for lunch. Greece is in a recession, so groceries are inexpensive.

It is common to come for just a week. This was a huge surprise to me. Longer is better, but a week is all that many people can manage away from their regular lives. A month is better, but one week in this job feels much longer than it is.

I went as an “independent volunteer”, as opposed to with a program or organization. If you prefer to join an organization, they might make the logistics easier, and will tell you what tasks to do – and where and when. As an independent, I figured out where to go, and came up with my own ideas for where I could help. Different ways of volunteering appeal to different people.

Figuring out what to do was hard, sometimes. There’s a lot of day-after-day work that will be there tomorrow whether or not you do it today. Things like playing with the kids. Picking up litter. Collecting firewood. Making food. I did all of these things, with varying levels of success. I also used my tech skills to getting internet in the camp and helping people (displaced Syrians and volunteers alike) figure out how to be effective with their phones. Sometimes, the most useful I could be in a moment was to sing American songs for a family, or juggle to distract the kids.

In a lot of ways, the most important thing to do is be present and helpful. The people I met were frustrated; they felt abandoned, and not without cause. Being there helps, a little.

The most important thing: being there, you can befriend the people who are in this situation. You can talk to these displaced people. You can learn from them.

When I left on the trip, I felt selfish. I worried about being a “white savior”. I’ve read that it’s more effective to send money than go yourself to do humanitarian aid. But I wanted to see what our politics looked like on the ground, and to get a sense of perspective, so I went anyway.

Here’s the thing: I’m glad I went, and in retrospect I think it was better to go than to just send money. Money helps with humanitarian aid. But this isn’t, at heart, a humanitarian issue; it’s fundamentally political. It’s a war, combined with widespread xenophobia. The thousands of people trapped in Greece are a byproduct of political climates that don’t treat humans like humans. I was useful because I could meet refugees and talk to them just as people.

Sending money is good. It goes to food, and shoes, garbage bags, adult diapers, and all the little things that need fixing in the refugee camps. But the political problem is bigger than the physical one: the humanitarian problem would go away if the people in these camps had someplace to go. And this is what they’re asking for: don’t fix our tents, just open the borders.

You and me, we’re just people. We can’t change the course of politics singlehandedly. But we can tell stories, and we can burst bubbles. We can remind people who are here that lives are being held on pause there. We can be loud in our democracy. And human to human, that’s a start.


The United States has pledged to take in 10,000 people, which is not very much. We can ask for an Act of Congress to pledge more. You can find your Senators’ contact information at this link: and your Representative’s contact information by typing in your zip code in the top right corner on this website: . An email can be as simple as saying “I support resettling Syrian refugees in the United States.”

I spent time receiving refugees on the island of Chios (now most infamous as the location of the Vial detainment camp) and also in the longer-term Ritsona camp. If you’d like to read more about my experiences, start here:

If you want more information about volunteering, email me!

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