We didn’t exactly plan for our refugee donation drop-off event to take place on the hottest day of the year — 118 degrees F would scare most people into staying home directly under the air conditioning vent.
But we’d planned the Lifting Hands International event for weeks and couldn’t cancel it two days before, so we announced that it was still happening and crossed our fingers that some people would come drop off donations at our Phoenix warehouse. LHI is a nonprofit organization I started in January 2016 that provides humanitarian relief for refugees abroad, as well as those getting resettled in the Phoenix area, and donations are a big part of what we do.
People showed up — all day. In fact, our warehouse ran out of room, and we had to borrow a moving truck and storage space to fit everything in.
I learned that people want to help. But it’s not always easy to know how. Donating items to an organization is just one of several ways to help refugees, both at home and abroad.
When deciding the best way to help, there are several things to consider. The first thing to do is get informed in detail about the reasons refugees are fleeing their homes. Then look into ways to volunteer your talents in your local community or donate to grass-roots groups that are on the ground. Some people also choose to volunteer abroad.
1. Get informed
We all know that refugees are fleeing their homes due to persecution, war or natural disasters, but that isn’t always enough to truly understand their plight. Every refugee’s story is unique and personal and is molded by the particular struggle they’ve escaped.
The knowledge you gain will transform into empathy and understanding. It will also help you wade through the sands of often conflicting political arguments, media reports and public opinion that isn’t always accurate.
Read about the current crisis:
Statistically speaking, refugees who get resettled in the USA have found the ultimate pot of gold. Out of 65 million refugees in the world, only 1 percent of them will get resettled. Half of that 1 percent will resettle in the United States. Local resettlement agencies can get overwhelmed with an increasing number of incoming refugee families and limited budgets.
There are many volunteer roles with local organizations, such as teaching English, mentoring families, translating, making welcome kits, preparing international shipments, and others.
In Phoenix, for example, LHI reached out to local agencies and learned their caseworkers were getting bogged down with gathering federally mandated furniture for homes. Agencies are required to provide a minimal amount of furniture; however, any furniture comes out of the family’s limited stipend, which is barely enough to cover rent. Many families end up with just a couch and a few mattresses in order to save money.
Our teams now collect all sorts of household items from a list in advance, so that once an agency gives us a referral, we can mobilize and furnish the apartment a few days before the family arrives. It helps refugees feel more at home and saves them money for rent. It also frees up time for caseworkers to actually do their jobs.
Furnishing apartments is not for everyone. To find ways to use your particular talents, check JustServe.org for service opportunities or reach out to the local arms of the following agencies that resettle refugees in the USA. Keep in mind that local branches of these agencies often have different names from the main organization. Not all agencies have offices in your city. For example, Phoenix only has four. Salt Lake has two.
- Church World Service (CWS)
- Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) (secular)
- Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM)
- Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
- International Rescue Committee (IRC) (secular)
- U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) (secular)
- Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS)
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)
- World Relief Corporation (WR)
Donating goods is good. Donating cash is often better. Cash donations can be used to purchase supplies on the ground in countries where refugees live, contributing to the local economy and ensuring that people get exactly what they need.
There are dozens of grass-roots organizations on the ground that provide basic necessities to refugees directly and hands-on. For example, LHI uses donated money to purchase vegetables, cooking oil, rice, lentils, tea, sugar, flour, dish detergent, laundry powder, shampoo, soap, diapers and many other basic items for the 525+ refugees in our camp.
Some organizations doing good work on the ground that could benefit from donations include:
- Lifting Hands International (full disclosure: my own organization!)
- Drop in the Ocean
- Move For Humanity
- I am You
- Dirty Girls of Lesvos
Volunteering is an expensive and difficult job. Unless you are absolutely determined to see the situation for yourself or you have highly desired skills, it may be better to donate the cost of your trip to a grass-roots nonprofit that will put the money to use directly and swiftly.
People with highly desired skills include trauma specialists, translators and medical personnel. Most organizations require a minimum time commitment of two weeks.
A good way to find organizations you can volunteer for is through Facebook pages, such as the Information Point for Greece Volunteers. Representatives of several nonprofits are members and can guide you to their most up to date needs.
Hayley Smith is the founder and director of the nonprofit organization Lifting Hands International. She also worked as a freelance Arabic translator for Deseret News InDepth editor Allison Pond on a recent reporting trip to Europe.