We aren’t ones to post stories like this. Neither of us care for the ‘hashtag volunteering’ kind of thing, where people broadcast their goodwill efforts all over social media, making you question their motivation for volunteering in the first place. Are you helping because you want to help, or are you helping so you can get some likes on Instagram?
However, we felt compelled to share this particular story; not because we want to give ourselves a public pat on the back, but because we hope it might inspire you to do something special.
While we were in South America, we met more Venezuelan immigrants that we can count. People forced to leave their homes due to no longer having things like running water, food and electricity – things we take for granted every single day. Families forced across the border into Colombia, simply because they need to buy medication, and cannot do so in Venezuela anymore – just walking into a pharmacy and seeing the medicine you need is not a reality for them. Men who used to be doctors and engineers in Caracas, now selling hotdogs on the side of the road in Buenos Aires, just so they can send a small amount of money back to their wives in Venezuela to feed their children.
The heartbreaking thing about this all is that, apart from just handing these people cash to help them get by this week, it’s so hard to actually help.
There are volunteer agencies out there that claim to set you up with a stint ‘helping’ these people – for the small fee of $2,000. These volunteering ‘fees’ don’t cover anything like your accommodation or food while you’re offering your time; it’s going straight into the pockets of a money-making agency sitting in between you and the people in need.
Don’t get us wrong, we had a marvellous time in South America. But when we left, there was a part of us that felt a bit empty; helpless about the fact that even though we were privileged Australians, there didn’t appear to be a way we could contribute in a real, lasting way. Everything we did seemed a bit like a band-aid.
As we moved on to Europe, our first stop being Greece, we were faced with it again. Hundreds upon hundreds of Syrian refugees, who had made the trip on foot through Turkey to Greece, simply in search of a safe place to settle. Somewhere to live where their lives are not in danger every single day; somewhere they can send their kids to school without fear of that school being attacked; and somewhere they can leave their house for the day without worry that by the time they return home, it’s been overtaken by militants.
The feelings of helplessness we previously had were replaced with feelings of embarrassment – and even a little bit of shame – as we began questioning what we were even doing.
Why are we travelling?
Is it because we want to be more ‘worldly’, while there are people out there whose only desire is just to be safe?
Is it because we want to get some nice pictures, while there are people who just want to feed their children?
Or is it because we ‘need a break’ from the ‘stress’ of our jobs, while there are people who desperately need a job but cannot get one? And when our stress over paperwork and office politics is actually nothing compared to the stress of gathering your children in the middle of the night and fleeing the country?
It was then a fellow traveller introduced us to an organisation called IndiGO Volunteers. This company connects people with real charities and causes all over the world that actually need help.
And they do it free of charge.
You pay nothing other than your airfare to Greece, Bosnia, Kenya, Laos, Mexico or one of the many other countries they offer opportunities in. And the places they connect you with actually need your help – no matter what your background. You don’t need to be a doctor so you can give medical advice; you don’t need to be a teacher so you can teach English; you don’t need to be a builder so you can build a school. Nor do you need to have extensive volunteering experience. All you need to have is a willing attitude to be an extra set of hands to a charity that truly needs your assistance.
We went to Bosnia to help at a refugee safe-house, where families from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan can stop to get rest, food, clothing and a tiny bit of normalcy back in to their lives. Despite neither of us having much volunteering experience, we were put to work for the week we were there. And despite the fact that Damien is the qualified teacher in this relationship, it was Kirsty who ended up doing more English teaching with kids while Damien was tasked with being a food supply / clothing donations driver. We don’t say that to toot our own horns – we say that because Kirsty thought she would be useless in a classroom due to ‘not being a teacher’; however we quickly found that in these situations, no one is useless.
The point of this blog is this – if you are planning a trip, we cannot recommend enough that you register as an IndiGO Volunteer.
Not only did we actually contribute to a real cause, but we met incredible individuals. The people who volunteer long-term at this particular safe-house are some of the most wonderful humans we’ve ever met. They give their time to ensuring the day-to-day running of the house is smooth and orderly, and do it with zero praise and often minimal thanks.
And then there are the refugees themselves. Children who wanted to help us pack food boxes and sort clothing donations. Kids who banged on classroom doors and followed us around asking for more math worksheets, hungry for any type of education after being deprived of it for so long on the road.
And beautiful people who – despite having next to nothing – wanted to show us kindness. Kirsty’s 30th birthday fell on our third day of volunteering at the house, and one of the refugees who was a formally-trained chef in Syria made her a birthday cake. The kids sang her happy birthday and drew her birthday pictures.
Whatever continent you’re planning your next trip to – Europe, Africa, The Americas – there will be a charity on indiGO Volunteers you can help at. We urge you to do it. Even if you can only dedicate one or two weeks; even if you think you don’t have useful skills; or even if you think it will be too daunting or overwhelming. Don’t get us wrong, it definitely was overwhelming – but it has changed our outlook and perspective on almost everything. And it will definitely change yours too.
Want to become an indiGO Volunteer? Apply now.