The Power of Volunteering in Welcoming Communities

The Power of Volunteering in Welcoming Communities

Vanja Pantic Oflazoglu | September 25, 2018

*Original publication in the September 2018 edition of SLOGOPIS


As global migration continues to rise and migration policies become more restrictive, an unprecedented number of ordinary heroes have started supporting migrants in communities around the world. In 2017, Church World Service, a refugee resettlement organization, reported that its volunteer base had quadrupled. Welcoming communities around the world have seen a similar uptick in volunteerism, and harnessing the energy, skills, and commitment that volunteers bring to the welcoming movement has become an integral part of strengthening inclusive communities globally.


Volunteers share skills, help mobilize resources, organize community activities, and act as bridge builders between long-time residents and newcomers. Welcoming communities benefit from volunteers who utilize their talents to help strengthen community connections. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the nonprofit organization Refugee Support Services runs the Fruitful Friends Program which focuses on newcomers’ needs for friends when they’re building their lives back up in a new community. The program matches newcomers with new friends (volunteers) who can serve as familiar faces and provide a support network. Theresa Matheny, Volunteer Coordinator at Refugee Support Services, says "Our volunteers dedicate 2-4 hours per week to help with reading mail, navigating complex services, and engaging former refugees in social-emotional experiences that can reduce stress and help them connect to the new place they want to call home."


Initiatives that promote newcomers and long-time residents volunteering side-by-side to achieve a shared goal help foster meaningful bonds. Colorado-based Intercambio Uniting Communities, which serves ESL students and matches them with volunteers, focuses on both helping migrants learn English and on fostering friendships by engaging the receiving community as volunteers. Their past volunteer survey results indicated that 83% of volunteers reported developing a better understanding of different cultures and that 87% of ESL students reporting that they saw their community as welcoming. This side-by-side approach to volunteer work is also utilized by Global Talent Idaho to help refugees continue the careers they had to leave behind. There, volunteers help with trainings, interview practice, professional English courses, and network building. Migrants themselves are also filling important volunteer roles around the world, as highlighted by Immigration New Zealand’s national Welcoming Communities initiative. There, Hamilton City Libraries runs a computer mentor program whose volunteers, predominantly migrants, help library members put together job applications and provide assistance with computer technology.  


Across the world, the story is similar. In Croatia, the social enterprise A Taste of Home (Okus Doma) promotes contact building through culinary experiments, language exchange, and intercultural action that enables migrant entrepreneurs to share their culture with their new neighbors. Through that business and initiatives such as cooking courses and public dinners, migrants are able to participate fully - civically, economically, and socially - in their communities. Emina Buzinkic, a President of the social co-op Taste of Home, explains “Community building is one of the most important strands of our work. We engage volunteers in our culinary events, food festivals, and other community events. Taste of Home thrives on the capacity of human souls connecting to each other in most beautiful ways.”


The work of Taste of Home was in part inspired by Skuhna, a social enterprise restaurant in Ljubljana, Slovenia which aims to increase the employability of migrant chefs and bring people together through diverse cuisines, a catering business, and community events that are hosted at the restaurant. In 2016, Skuhna hosted a dinner for a delegation of welcoming movement leaders who participated in the first Welcoming Week Slovenia, a set of events  hosted by the organization SLOGA Platform. In 2018, to strengthen the national initiative, SLOGA Platform will host follow-up Welcoming Week events as part of an annual series of global events that unite community residents and raise awareness of the benefits of welcoming everyone.


To promote these messages of inclusion worldwide, volunteers, civil society organizations, and governments alike can organize a sporting event, city hall dialogue, service project, or other event for Welcoming Week. However you choose to begin, know that a growing, international welcoming communities movement is there to support you in your journey towards a more inclusive world!


Vanja Pantic-Oflazoglu

International Program Manager

Welcoming America/Welcoming International

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