Prompted by the images of migrants and refugees who drowned trying to reach Greece from Turkey, as well as those who remain stranded at the expanding refugee camp near Idomeni, on the Greek border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a growing number of people are expressing an interest in offering to help as volunteers.
In 2015, 16,832 Greeks offered their services via the Volunteer4Greece website, up from 14,587 the previous year. Meanwhile, a public awareness campaign launched by NGO Praksis last month has already attracted more than 250 people.
Volunteer management was the subject of a conference in Athens on March 9 of local and foreign experts which was organized by Volunteer4Greece as a part of the Bodossaki Foundation’s “We Are all Citizens” program.
“Many volunteers want to be involved in rescue operations, but these cannot be carried out without guidelines, even if you are a good swimmer or a professional,” Danae Vallianatou, human resources manager at Praksis, told the conference. Praksis currently coordinates more than 370 staff and 600 volunteers.
“Our team of volunteers has undergone special training. Meanwhile, our projects are carried out in prior consultation with the Hellenic Coast Guard and other NGOs.”
Interest is also strong on the part of foreign nationals, many of whom want to work as volunteers at refugee reception facilities. “In order to be able to do so legally, the Athens Medical Association says that candidates have to get a work permit first, which involves a wait of three months if they are EU citizens or more if they are not.”
“They all come with high expectations,” Vallianatou said. “We have to inform them of the reality on the ground without undermining their enthusiasm,” she said. The organization currently runs 35 programs. Praksis staff can be found at all refugee reception centers around Greece.
Candidates have to attend a special training course for volunteers while every program is supervised by a volunteer manager. Training seminars used to take place once a month, a frequency that’s increased to three times a month. The point, Vallianatou said, is to make the volunteers find the experience fulfilling, rather than draining.
According to the international nonprofit Points of Light, 62.8 million Americans, or 26 percent of the US population, takes part in unpaid volunteer activities.
“Volunteerism is part of our culture for we are a country of immigrants,” said Meridith Rentz, who is chief of staff at Points of Light. “Therefore we had to help each other out,” she added.
A great number of Americans have come to see volunteer service “not as offering financial help but as giving up part of your personal time and know-how,” she said. What they are interested in however is flexibility: They want to be able to volunteer whenever and in any way they can.
Flexibility seems to be key to successful volunteer projects and the experts at the conference pointed out that there is a great need for hands not just along the coasts of the Greek islands where migrants arrive, but all over the country.