Volunteering During your Gap Year: The Refugee Crisis

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Over one million people were forced to flee to Europe in 2015, according to a report from the United Nations Refugee Agency. Ongoing conflict and violence in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world is causing many to risk the perilous journey over the Mediterranean to Europe in their attempts to reach safety. The European Union has struggled to cope with the crisis since April 2015, when the number of deaths at sea rose to record levels and asylum applications increased by more than 80% from the previous year.

Fear and insufficient resources have caused many European countries to greatly restrict the number of refugees and migrants from settling in the continent, with more and more people dying everyday in their attempts to reach safety. As Melissa Fleming from the United Nations Refugee Agency puts it, “The simple truth is that refugees would not risk their lives on a journey so dangerous if they could thrive where they are.”

Living in a world so globalized and connected makes it hard to be unaware of the of the plight and suffering many refugees are currently facing. And while being informed is of utmost importance, there has been little information on what individuals at home, or as Gap Year students traveling, can do.

Become Informed

In order to become involved with, and have a positive impact within the refugee crisis, you first have to understand it. That means more than memorizing a bunch of numbers and dates – it means understanding how you can be involved, and how to create a positive, lasting impact.

The point of any kind of volunteer work – related to the refugee crisis or not, is NOT to soothe our conscience. It is NOT to make us fall asleep better at night, knowing that we “changed a life.”

The point of volunteering; whether it be volunteering your time, money or voice, is to create lasting, positive change. While your heart may be in the right place, positive change cannot be made by paying $75 to be driven out to a refugee camp where you can hand out food and supplies to the poor family of your choice. As Daniela Papi states in her article for the Huffington Post, “It’s like buying food pellets at the zoo to feed the goats. Except these are people. Not goats.”

As Papi suggests, consider instead donating money to organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency, that can distribute these supplies through local power structures to ensure that high needs are prioritized.

That being said, every little bit counts. The key is asking questions first and taking action second. It’s about understanding how to make a lasting impact that isn’t simply about taking action, regardless of what that action may be. It’s about taking action in the best way possible to ensure that lasting change is made and that you are not simply participating in a “voluntourist” agenda.

Make a Donation

United Nations Refugee Agency – provides items like tents, blankets, cooking sets and other life-saving needs.

American Red Cross – ensures distribution of food, water, hygiene kits, baby supplies across countries all over Europe.

Bootvluchteling (Boat Refugee Founation) – assists the Italian government in ensuring safe crossing of refugees in the waters between Italy and Libya.

Volunteer Your Time

There are numerous way someone can become involved in the refugee crisis, including volunteering your time through an organization or directly through your community. Keep in mind that it’s important to use any specialized skills or experience you may already possess when volunteering.

For example, if you are a writer, you could write a piece on the effects of the refugee crisis you have noticed while traveling. If you are a nurse or have a background in healthcare, you might consider doing hands on work for one of the organizations listed below. If you find an opportunity to volunteer, do something that you know, that you’re qualified at and that you’re passionate about.

Bootvluvhteling (Boat Refugee Foundation) – volunteers needed for Lesbos and Samos, minimum age 21 and availability of at least 14 days.

Mercy Corps – volunteer positions available at headquarters in Portland, OR with the next orientation (required for volunteering) occurring February 27. Please note that volunteering overseas is not an option.

Support Refugees – this organization has compiled a list on countless volunteer opportunities throughout Europe. Also features much “need to know” information about volunteering that is very useful and important to consider.

Becoming involved with the refugee crisis does not require the affiliation of an organization – look for like minded people in your own community that are also interested in doing something positive for the issue. Discuss ways you can directly impact your own community, thinking on a local scale rather than a national or international scale.

In the fall of 2016 I had the opportunity to live in Germany on my Gap Year and get to know more about the refugee crisis firsthand. I got to know individuals personally that had recently immigrated to Germany from places like Syria and Iraq. I was able to see how individuals had used their time and resources to create change for newcomers to Germany. My own Oma (grandmother) had a group of eight Syrian men over for a traditional German Christmas dinner this past holiday season to welcome them to Germany. An anarchist squat I visited in Berlin called “Rauchhaus” converted old hospital dormitories into classrooms in the building they occupied to teach English to new refugees.

There are so many ways to become directly involved with the current refugee crisis – whether abroad or at home. You can write about the people you have met that have been directly impacted by the refugee crisis, or encourage your friends and family back home to raise money for organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency. As individuals traveling, Gap Year students are in a unique position to use their experiences and opportunities to raise awareness for, and to directly support, the refugee crisis.

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Image credit: Author: A picture taken along the River Spree in Berlin, Mitte this past fall. One of many pieces of graffiti and art that have become a part of the urban landscape that is Berlin. Notice the partially hidden lettering above the “Refugees Welcome!!!” which states “WE ARE PEOPLE.”

Conferences for Gap Year Students to Attend

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Startup Stock Photos


When I was seventeen, on the cusp of adulthood, I boarded a flight to Germany that forever changed how I view education. In the four weeks I spent in Southern Germany, I realized that education and learning has less to do with a classroom, and more to do with a mindset. In those few weeks I learnt more about the world around me than I had in an entire year of sitting in a classroom. My classroom transformed from a small room lined with desks in Canada to common rooms in hostels, waiting areas in airports and cafés with good company. I realized that my previous association of learning and education with a classroom was completely wrong.

Learning and education is not limited to the four walls of a school – it continues wherever you give it the chance to grow. It was through leaving a traditional classroom and embarking on an adventure abroad that I learnt this.

By choosing to take a Gap Year, whatever shape or form it may take, you are giving yourself the opportunity to learn by your own rules. Whether that means joining a Gap Year program with fellow students or embarking on a solo trek through Eastern Europe, the opportunities to learn about yourself and the world around you are countless.

As Henry Miller once said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

No matter where you go, you will find opportunities to further enrich your Gap Year experience. Below are a list of resources in order to help you find these opportunities.

Attend a Tedx Conference

The focus of Tedx is to “share ideas worth spreading,” giving individuals across the world a platform to broadcast their ideas. Unlike Ted conferences, Tedx conferences are organized and planned independently and by a community. This means that often these conferences have a focus on issues and ideas that are relevant to the place the conference is being held. By going online to their website and using the Tedx conference searcher, one can see the countless opportunities across the world to attend these conferences, ranging from themes like “Choices and Chances,” to “Transforming the World.”

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These conferences are all held in English, making it infinitely easier to understand by the typical Gap Year student. There are a variety of different types of Tedx conferences, ranging from Tedx conferences organized by universities, youth events which are catered more towards youth and those in school and TedxWomen, a Tedx event with an emphasis on the topic of women and gender.

Experience a Student Leadership Conference

Designed to bring together like minded young people and to help you grow in your role as a leader, there are many student leadership conferences across the world that offer a unique experience. In the United States the National Conference on Student Leadership allows you to share your experience as a leader (and gap year student) with students from not only the US, but also the world. The International Youth Leadership Conference is another organization which offers events all over the world, mainly focused on discussing global issues and how to become a global citizen.

Conferences and opportunities for gap year students who are also student leaders are abundant. Universities often host their own student leadership conferences, and by participating in one of these conferences you can develop your own leadership skills while also meeting fellow students from around the globe.

Take a Stance!

In an article recently written by the Huffington Post, it was stated that “millennials are a generation overwhelmingly dedicated to social justice.” We do whatever we can to respond to the injustices we see around us. Whether that means checking in to Standing Rock on Facebook to show solidarity for the movement, writing emails to local government or marching in black lives matter rallies; millennials are a generation unwilling to allow the injustices of the past to continue unquestioned.

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Gap Year students are in a unique position to participate in movements and ideas around the world which are important to them. By remaining informed about the issues that interest them around the world, they can participate in a variety of forms of activism while traveling.

This includes participating in events like the annual pride parade in NYC every June or World Environment day, hosted by Canada on June 5 2017. For myself, this meant attending the 3rd International Youth Mental Health Conference in Montreal this past fall. There are a variety of opportunities for gap year students to become involved in forms of social justice while traveling by simply doing research on the causes most important to you.

Attend One Young World

A conference like no other, One Young World is held annually to bring together the brightest young change makers in the world. Last held in Ottawa, Canada this past September, the conferences always features many distinguished speakers, such as Justin Trudeau and Emma Watson. Over the course of a few days, One Young World allows young people around the world to meet with world leaders to work together and brainstorm lasting solutions on a variety of global issues.

This conference is aimed directly towards young people aged 18 to 30 years old who possess leadership skills and are committed to making positive change in the world. A range of issues is discussed over the course of the conference, including the impact of climate change, youth unemployment and how to create meaningful interfaith dialogue. If you, or someone you know is interested in attending, visit the conference’s homepage here to find more information!

Take a TEFL Course

A four week course that offers numerous opportunities, TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. A prerequisite to teaching English abroad, this certification is perfect for someone looking to travel and learn at the same time! With most courses starting at roughly $500 USD and requiring only 100 hours of class time, TEFL certificates can be attained at home before setting off on your travels or abroad, allowing you to learn and travel at the same time. Even if you don’t want to teach long term, having a TEFL certificate allows you to get paid while traveling, and to experience a foreign culture from an insider perspective.

So…where will your travels take you? Whether it means teaching English in South Korea or attending a Tedx conference in Toronto, the opportunities to self educate while on a gap year are endless. By seeking to learn more about the world around you, meaningful connections and lifelong memories will be made. Depending on how you look at it, any experience, good or bad can be a learning experience. It’s all about one’s willingness to learn.

Exploring the World & Myself: Why I’m Taking a Gap Year

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Everyone has different reasons for taking a gap year – whether it be simply a need for adventure and travel or a break from school. Preparing to begin my Gap Year has caused me to reflect on the reasons I decided to initially embark upon this crazy adventure.

Like many things, my decision to take a Gap Year started with high school. I’ll be honest – high school was not at all an easy or enjoyable time in my life. While I did make some amazing memories and had many friends as well as very good grades, I found it extremely hard to match my inner feelings with the happy persona I showed to everyone. I may have appeared to be a happy, go lucky girl, but in reality there were many mornings I simply didn’t think I would be able to get out of bed and head to the school that caused me so much anxiety and stress.

To put it lightly, I suffered from an extreme case of cognitive dissonance – my inner dark feelings colliding with my happy, go lucky appearance.

I have a particular photo on my phone of myself and some friends at a conference I helped organize. We’re all smiling with our arms around each other. We look like a very happy, tight knit group of friends. And to be fair, we really were. Unbeknownst to the eye however, in the moment this picture was taken I was in the midst of a panic attack and tears were pouring from my eyes. It was at this point I knew something needed to change. Fast – before it was too late. A couple weeks later I found myself in the emergency room of the local hospital. My eyes and cheeks were burning from the tears that had been pouring from my eyes for the last five hours. It was there that I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and the symptoms of depression that come with it. That was the definitive breaking point.

I went on antidepressants to control my mood swings (and to give my poor eyes a break from crying). Those few weeks in between that visit to the hospital and the medication taking effect were the scariest weeks of my life. I couldn’t trust myself, I felt like I wasn’t in control of who I was anymore. I was honestly scared for my life.

Thankfully, a year and a half later I can barely recognize that person. I am still on medication for my anxiety and depression, but I have come miles and grown leaps and bounds since that cold spring evening last year. One thing I knew then, and still know now, is that I needed time to explore who I was away from an institution like school or a full time job. I needed to figure out how I could become the best version of myself possible before I headed off to any kind of university or college.

A Gap Year to Explore the World & Myself

This is when the idea of a Gap Year first came to mind. In August of last year I made a spur of the moment decision to visit my family in Germany for a month before completing my final year of high school. This trip marked a decision that has impacted my life ever since. The decision to once more begin taking risks, to once more begin living. It was there in Germany that I realized life (and travel) is all about taking risks, taking a chance, daring to leap without looking back.

In Germany, meeting my cousins for the first time

In Germany, meeting my cousins for the first time

I felt myself again for the first time in many months in Germany. I felt alive in a way I hadn’t for a long while (as cliché as that may sound). I began writing again, something I hadn’t done for a long time. It was during this time that I began blogging about my experiences with mental health and travel. I not only fell back in love with travel, but I also fell back in love writing, with putting words to page in a way that was honest and made me vulnerable.

That month in Germany stitched me back together again. I begged my mother to let me stay in Germany, to let me finish high school there. (You can read about that experience here.) Ultimately, due to the wrath of my mother and pleading from my father, I came back to finish that final year of high school. But things had changed. No longer was I having panic attacks on a daily basis (I actually made it an ENTIRE YEAR of not having a single panic attack on the bus). No longer did I care so much about the difference between a 90% and a 94%.

I had changed. That change brought on my love of travel. I experienced first handedly how travel can change a person. Make no mistake – I’m not advocating for anyone to quit their job and travel in hopes of fixing all their problems and becoming a better person. Adventurous Kate wrote a fantastic article about why we can’t expect travel to fix all our problems. But for me, that month away from home and in a completely different environment completely changed me.

Complete, unapologetic happiness at Schloss Crottorf, Germany.

Complete, unapologetic happiness at Schloss Crottorf, Germany.

Doing the Hard Work

So, for the past year I have been working hard to make my dream of travelling and returning to Germany a reality. I have spent countless hours on my knees weeding gardens, have babysat many a screaming toddler (on top of maintaining a decent grade point average in order to eventually go to university) and in the past two months have worked a full time job. It is only now I am ready to embark on my journey. And make no mistake – I have fought, hard, in order to make this experience possible. Many assume that if you are travelling often or taking a Gap Year, or in my case writing about the best parts of travel, that you must not be working for it. There is a common myth that in order to travel you must have rich parents.

While it is true that I have been blessed with wonderful, loving parents, it is my work ethic and love for travel that has enabled me to embark on this year long trip.

I’m going with little more than nothing in my bank account. I am relying on the hospitality of loved ones (and their couches) and the kindness of strangers. I realize I’m naive and young and stupid and all the things an eighteen year old girl preparing for her first solo trip can be, but I am prepared for whatever hurdles life throws at me. I can take it. I’ve proved that over and over again. I have survived storms and tsunamis (though internal they may be), I have climbed mountains and have had my fair share of battles. I can do this (I repeat in my head as I prepare to step on the plane, as I say goodbye to my perfect family).

I am broke but happy. Anxious but hopeful. I have a backpack on my back and a camera by my side. There’s nothing more I could ask for in the world.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health please see a professional as soon as possible. You can find a list of mental health resources HERE. Know that while friends are also great to talk to, there is nothing more helpful than talking to a certified professional about what you are feeling.