Joining the federal volunteer service program can give refugees and migrants the opportunity to get to know the German job market and to contribute to their local community. InfoMigrants spoke to refugee volunteers and an organizer for the program about their experiences.
Whether it's in kindergartens, hospitals, retirement homes or refugee shelters: many public institutions and charities in Germany depend on the work of volunteers. But the contribution of a few hours a week after work or on the weekend is often not enough to carry the workload. That's why the federal state runs the so-called "Bundesfreiwilligendienst" (federal volunteer service). This program allows people ages 17 and older to work for charity or state organizations for 6 to 18 months, while the state pays for their health insurance and a small stipend to cover their living expenses.
In December 2015, the federal volunteer service started a special program for refugees. On the one hand, volunteers work with refugees in shelters, on the other hand, it is also aimed at refugees themselves. Those who have received asylum or are likely to be granted to stay can become volunteers in the program.
Eskander Abadi conducted a roundtable discussion for InfoMigrants with several refugees and migrants who are active participants in the volunteer service program to talk about their motivations: Hamida Simo (HS) from Syria and Reza Hasheminia (RH) from Iraq help refugees find their way in Germany. Bahran Serata (BS) from Eritrea and Sabah Hassan (SH) from Somalia work at retirement homes. Marina Khanide (MK) also joined the roundtable. Khanide is a coordinator for the volunteer service programs run by the Protestant church, which oversees 14.000 volunteers. The church is just one many organizations that employ volunteers, along with charities such as Friends of the Earth Germany and the German Red Cross.
InfoMigrants: Ms Khanide, what can people hope to get out of a volunteer year?
MK: Volunteers get the opportunity to contribute to society. A volunteer year also gives them time to find out what they want to do in life. And for some, it can be the first step in their career, because quite a few find a job or an apprenticeship in the field they volunteer in.
What can refugees in particular get out of the volunteer service?
MK: We have volunteers helping out in services that serve refugees, so these refugees obviously profit from their work.
But we also have refugees who themselves are volunteers. Doing the volunteer service can be interesting for both younger and older people new to Germany because it allows them to familiarize themselves with the day to day life in a German workplace. They get to experience life outside of the refugee shelter and get to know some German people.
DW: How did you hear about the volunteer service?
RH: The pastor at my local church suggested that I do the volunteer service, he said that I would be particularly qualified to help refugees in the community because I'm a refugee myself.
HS: I was already doing volunteer work before, translating for refugees I met in a café that had been set up in Bonn, where I live, as a meeting point where refugees could socialize and seek help. I've been living in Germany for 17 years, I speak the language well, so I helped out a lot with translations for people who didn't speak German yet. Another volunteer suggested that I should apply for a volunteer service year because I was already doing the work.
BS: I did an internship at a retirement home, hoping that I'd be able to do an apprenticeship there afterwards. When that didn't work out, my boss suggested I'd do a volunteer service year there instead. Initially, I was a little hesitant, because I had to commit for a whole year for just a small monthly stipend, basically no money? But then my friends advised me to do it because it was an opportunity to gain work experience and improve my German.
DW: What is the day to day life like, doing volunteer service?
HS: My job is to guide families from the mass shelter in Bad Godesberg [editor's note: a neighborhood in Bonn] in their search for an apartment, to help them with their government agency visits and to just show them how life works here in Bonn.
RH: If a refugee has a problem and needs someone to translate for them, I'm there. If someone has to go to the hospital, if someone has an appointment with the foreigners agency, if someone has to go to the job center or the social services agency, I'm going there with them.
What if problems occur during the volunteer time?
MK: There is pedagogical support for the volunteers, so they are not left to fend for themselves. They have a coach who guides them through their service. The volunteers also get 25 seminar days per year, where they get to meet other volunteers and talk about their work.
What advantages did the volunteer service have for you?
BS: During my volunteer year in a retirement home, I was finally offered an apprenticeship in elder care, which is a huge step for me and makes me immensely proud.
HS: I moved to Bonn two years ago and didn't know that many people here. Through the volunteer service, I now have a broad social circle of volunteers and refugees. It's really gratifying to help people, to help improve our community. I feel that, as a person, I am contributing and that I'm an active member of society.
SH: I gained a lot of confidence and learned how to work as part of a team. My colleagues are all very supportive of me, which is great. It's also really gratifying to be able to help people.
You can visit the website of the protestant church's volunteer service program to find out more. There are also plenty of other organization seeking help – you can find them on the website of the federal volunteer service umbrella organization. (Unfortunately, both are only available in German.)