The blog has been written by Inès Decoster, who is one of our Taught Master’s bursary winners for the MA in Humanitarianism and Conflict Response programme at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI). The blog relates to his 3 month volunteering experience with Inter-European Humanitarian Aid (IHA), a German volunteer-based organisation in Northern Greece that support asylum seekers in the region.
After graduating from a bachelor’s degree in Social Anthropology, I wanted to engage in the humanitarian world. I previously volunteered in Calais in 2016 with asylum seekers and felt the need to gain further experience to obtain a better sense of the field and the challenges of humanitarian practice. I previously met IHA volunteers in various settings and hearing about their projects, enthusiasm and integrity convinced me to join their team. Upon joining, I became involved in community centre activities which IHA operate for the asylum seekers living in the Lagadikia camp, near Thessaloniki. The video below provides an overview of the type of activities undertaken at the community centre.
At the community centre, I taught English to the residents of the camp. It was a challenging endeavour at first, due to my limited teaching expertise and understanding of my student’s expectations. In turn, the unpredictability of student attendance and variety of language levels also added to the challenge, with an ongoing arrival of new students requiring constant adaptation and levelling adjustments. Over time, I learnt to address the challenge by listening to my student’s needs, setting specific goals and preparing interactive and flexible lesson plans which enabled me to create a dynamic, fun and rewarding learning environment. I found it particularly helpful to organise meetings with teacher-volunteers from other organisations across Northern Greece. The meetings enabled advice to be shared relating to how to manage the challenges that might arise in the unique educational context.
During my time volunteering, I was also involved in a drama workshop with some of my students, which enabled self-expression in both verbal and non-verbal ways. I found it enjoyable to be in a position to collectively design a safe and comfortable environment and provide practical tools to my students which could alleviate their everyday suffering, be it even temporarily. Additionally, I also engaged in other volunteering projects such as food distribution for homeless asylum seekers in Thessaloniki, as well as sorting and distributing donations across other camps in Northern Greece.
Upon reflection, the most challenging aspect of my volunteering experience has been my struggle to come to terms with the ethical, moral and emotional implications of short-term volunteering. Academics (Agier, 2011, Knott. 2017, Malkki, 2015) for instance argue that whilst short-term volunteering is always better than doing nothing; volunteers often lack the required skills, understanding of the situation and ethical training on how their humanitarian practice might do more harm than good. As such, volunteer-based organisations can often unintentionally contribute to politics of control, containment and management. From this perspective, I was aware of the potential practical and ethical dangers relating to the practice of humanitarian volunteering when entering the field.
Nevertheless, through my volunteering experience I developed confidence, tolerance for adaptability and a diverse set of skills including critical thinking. The experience enabled me to get a deeper understanding of how European asylum policies shape the everyday lives of asylum seekers and the practices of humanitarian workers. Due to the experience, I now wish to take further action in this specific humanitarian challenge.
After my volunteering experience, I continued my studies through the MA Humanitarian and Conflict Response course at HCRI, to build on my volunteering experience and further explore the practical and theoretical aspects of humanitarian issues. My time at HCRI has been an enriching and diversified learning experience. The lecturers and my fellow classmates have a variety of backgrounds and experiences that gives me access to a broad range of perspectives on the practical and theoretical challenges of humanitarianism. I have particularly enjoyed engaging in the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Humanitarian Crises and Young People in Conflict and Displacement course units. They have enabled me to cover issues I have encountered in the field such as the mental health impact on individuals in the asylum process, or the specific challenges that unaccompanied minors face as a result of displacement. In this context, my volunteering experience is proving to be a valuable asset whilst studying at HCRI. It enables me to connect theories, with the realities of the field which I have experienced and make insightful contributions to class discussions through highlighting practical experiences.
Moreover, through the optional Humanitarianism and Displacement: Researching the Legacies of War course unit, I have been given the opportunity to participate in a research trip to Uganda with fellow peers. During the trip, I engaged with several humanitarian actors, government officials, affected communities and refugees who shared their expertise and challenges. Given my past volunteering experience with asylum seekers in Europe, I was deeply motivated to explore the differences and commonalities in the European and Ugandan management of asylum seekers. The research experience also enabled me to reflect further on the ethics of interacting with asylum seekers in a humanitarian context.
With the tools gained from my past volunteering experience and current studies, I have been able to engage in a student led volunteer group, which provides conversational English classes to refugees and asylum seekers living in Manchester. Through the group, I can stay connected to the realities that we address and seek to understand in my studies.
Apart from the lectures, events organised by the institute often enable me to meet humanitarian actors who share their projects, expertise and experiences. It has been particularly enlightening to hear from professionals working at Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children.
Overall, my volunteering experiences has provided a strong base to engage more with my academic studied. In turn, my masters’ degree is helping me to develop a robust skill set, insightful knowledge and a network that will enable me to secure exciting opportunities throughout my journey in the humanitarian world.
Agier, Michel (2011). Managing the undesirables. Refugee camps and humanitarian government. Cambridge: Polity
Knott, Alexander (2017). Guests on the Aegean: interactions between migrants and volunteers at Europe’s southern border. Mobilities, 13(3): 349-366.
Malkki, Liisa. H. (2015). The need to help. The domestic arts of international humanitarianism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.