The organization I have the privilege to lead – United Nations Volunteers – is located in Bonn, Germany. I live there with my family, and opposite our home is one of the largest refugee processing centers in our city. We have seen busloads of people arrive and leave; we have seen their children beginning to play again with the toys they found on the playground; we have seen young men and women anxiously texting their loved ones; we have seen people silently cry, as they suffer from delayed shock.
We also see every day a large group of German citizens walk into this center to help – these are not the ones who are formally employed, but the volunteers who are reaching out because they have been touched by human suffering. The reception of refugees in Germany is carried out to a great extent by volunteers. We estimated in our office that in the 20 biggest cities of Germany at least 100,000 volunteers are active on a daily basis, participating in something that can be best described as a popular movement.
It is not only the German leadership who has taken a principled approach towards the reception of refugees in the country. The same approach has been adopted by a large part of the population through their volunteer efforts and through the donations of (winter) clothes, shoes, toys, computers, books, etc. Many of my German friends are themselves teaching German, introducing refugees to the culture and traditions of the country or helping out with the (necessary) bureaucratic processes. They are making sure that some young people can continue their education again, that sicknesses are diagnosed and treated and that slowly the refugees, who have arrived in this cold, dark, yet surprisingly welcoming country, start feeling human and valued again.
It is interesting how matter-of-fact everyone’s approach is about this in Germany. Based on long-held traditions of volunteerism in nearly every aspect of the German society, the blind assumption seems to have been that volunteers would be available to take on these roles. Only one year into this massive national effort, the realization sets in that this high level of volunteer engagement needs to be sustained over time. Yet, we have seen this time and time again in different parts of the world; volunteers will keep coming as long as they see that they are doing something useful, that they are supported and that their contribution is being valued. It is about time to raise the profile of volunteers in this refugee crisis and to celebrate “volunteer success” in Germany – the more deliberate we go about engaging volunteers and the more we recognize and value their role, the more they will be able to contribute.
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