Kenya Refugee Camp - first time volunteer
Replies: 13 - Last Post: Mar 4, 2012 5:15 PM Last Post By: Voyager_2002
Mar 2, 2012 12:05 PM
Kenya Refugee Camp - first time volunteerHi everyone,
I'm a first time overseas traveller planning a trip to Kenya this summer/fall. Volunteering in an East African refugee camp is something I've wanted to do for quite some time. I'm finding it quite difficult to find reliable information online regarding refugee camp volunteer placement and NGOs. It seems like (from what I've read) if you are trying to volunteer in a refugee camp like Kakuma or Dadaab you need expertise, such as medical training.
Here's a little information about me to help you guys out:
I'm a 22 year old Canadian male, just finishing up a bachelors degree in biochemistry. I've been working in the bioengineering field for the past two years. I have taught science/engineering to university undergraduates, grade school students, and grade school teachers. I have a lot of public speaking experience, grant writing experience, and teaching experience. I have University level math, science, ethics, and english. I will be traveling alone. I'm not sure how long I would like to go for, it really depends on the organization I go with. I do know I want my trip to be somewhere between 4 - 12 months.
I'm not quite sure what I would exactly like to do volunteering. I do know that I want to help-out in an effective way and make a difference, meet passionate people, and dive into a new culture I've never experience before.
I'm hoping that some of you can point me in the right direction, and shed some of your valuable insight. If anyone knows of any great NGOs to start contacting it would be of great help.
I have MANY more questions, but I'll start with this first and keep researching.
Thank you everyone for reading!
Mar 2, 2012 2:18 PM
1I would start by talking to Voluntary Services Overseas Canada (now I think merged with CUSO). They place a lot of volunteers around the world and can probably point you in the right direction, esp wrt other volunteer organisations and the right person to contact.
The hardest thing todo is find a position thats a good fit for you and thats actually effective at delivering help. Sure you might be able to help out anywhere, but can you actually have a positive impact? That is without taking others away from their jobs to guide, mentor and develop in you the skills actually needed on the ground.
Good luck. I know Medecins Sans Frontieres, Save the Children, Oxfam and other large organisations are actively involved in the camps in kenya.
Mar 3, 2012 2:57 AM
Whilst I understand your desire to help it is important to remember that volunteering is a complex business for recipient agencies. You, as a western volunteer, come with certain liabilities that will cost them time and resources to manage. They will need to organize your visa. They will need to house and feed you. If you get ill it is their problem. Or if there are security issues. So whilst you do undoubtedly have skills and experience, these may not match with volunteering at a refugee camp where people with specific skills who are possibly older and have been more widely exposed will be a better bet for them. If they just want a pair of hands that can take direction they can, and should, get this locally.
As the previous poster says contact well regarded agencies in your own country first for advice. There will be a role for you but it might be in a different field and it may involve some financial contribution on your part. I know a lot of people don't like the idea of paying to volunteer but rightly or wrongly that is the reality of volunteering today - especially for people who don't have certain key skills and prior experience. If you can commit to a longer period eg a year I thing you will find more and better opportunities come your way.
I hope I haven't put you off - as I said there will be a role for you and whatever you end up doing it will be a life-forming experience and one that I'm sure you'll value for the rest of your life.
Mar 3, 2012 4:26 AM
3As others have posted, you really need to have specific qualifications to work at the 'disaster' end of the NGO operations. You can't just 'sign on' - you will have to apply to the NGO concerned, have interviews and have any qualifications checked, some background training by the NGO itself into its policies and procedures and then wait to be 'posted'. This takes time and can be quite frustrating as even though the need for staff is continuous, there can be periods of downtime between missions, which are often longer than the period that you are intending to be available for work.
If you want to work in Kenya as a volunteer, might I suggest you visit the website of the OGRA foundation (http://www.ografoundation.org/?page=home) whose work I saw at first hand when I visited Kenya in January. They seem to tick all the right boxes as regards integrity and care for their volunteers as well as doing really valuable work in the community. Their volunteer handbook on the website might be a helpful starting point for anyone considering this type of venture, and give some ideas that can be used to compare other companies offering this type of employment in terms of hours, security, funding etc.
I hope that you find what you are looking for. It's good to hear of someone willing to give of themselves these days, but it can be frustrating and hard to fit the person to a placing simply because good will is sadly not always enough. Do persevere, and come back and tell us how things are going ... and what you eventually did!
Mar 3, 2012 5:29 AM
Mar 3, 2012 7:21 AM
Maybe you can start here .
Smallmasterr sets out the scene brilliantly; and you can read up on some of the feeble (or should I say shoddy?) half hearted defenses - from people whom I consider "big time beneficiaries" of this despicable vice. This includes a director of one of these so called "volunteering agencies" who blatantly admits to profiteering out of your money.
Mar 3, 2012 7:37 PM
6Thank you so much to everyone who replied. I have a lot more research to do, and will have more questions at that time.
Great and important question. I have a few reasons for why I want to volunteer, why I want to volunteer in Africa, and why I want to volunteer in a refugee camp in Kenya. I have volunteered constantly for the past 5 years or so and find it extremely fulfilling, rewarding, and educational. I hope volunteering remains a significant part of my life. I don't want to start a studying for a P.h.D immediately, I don't think I'm ready yet. Until then I want to volunteer.
Why Africa, and why a refugee camp in Kenya? As I mentioned in my earlier post, I'm a bioengineer (synthetic biologist); an extremely new and flourishing industry. Many people have predicted this industry to be the most powerful, influential industry/technology on the planet within the next 20, 30, or 50 years, and is likely to be the number one wealth generator for all nations in the next century. Many of the leaders in my field are "harping" about the significant impact that this industry will make on the developing world. For example, one of the first large successes of my industry is the production of a much cheaper, more accessible, antimalarial drug. It should be on the market late this year! :) And the company (Amyris) is NOT doing it for PROFIT. Here is a statement from Oneworld Health on the break-though http://www.oneworldhealth.org/press_releases/view/pr_1227057050
When I first met members from Amyris who made the antimalarial drug I knew that I wanted to be in this industry. I just want to use my knowledge to help people who are suffering in this world.
I am in a point in my engineering career where I believe I can solve problems like water quality issues (my area of expertise), the food crisis, creating cheaper drugs, etc. I'm not trying to be arrogant, it is just very powerful technology.
I believe before I can work on some of these issues, I need to be aware of them, and know the issues inside-and-out.
I have been engineering organisms to clean-up toxic substances in water from the oil industry for the past two years. They sent me some water to work with, I started engineering. This was not initially effective. I would have been much more productive if I went to the site of the contaminated water, observed its affect on wildlife and locals. And really witnessed the problems first hand. I believe if Westerners (like me) who have strong science/technology backgrounds and a better understanding (first hand) of problems in the developing world, we would be much more efficient at solving problems.
I know that I will not be curing a disease, cleaning contaminated water, or solving the world hunger crisis while over seas. But I think that traveling is an essential part of the process... at least it is for me. Seeing is believing right....?
Refugee camps need a lot of help. To me it seems like refugee camps are confusing ,scary, dangerous places, with an uncountable amount of problems, and a high population density with many suffering people. I think I can learn a lot.
I apologize for writing a story. But its a very important question, and reading online, unfortunately, it seems like not everyone who volunteers (or who wants to volunteer) can answer this question.
Kenya_pip, itchyfeet38, alsacienne, & Mwenyeji:
Thank you for your replies. My reason for posting in this forum is outlined in your posts... I DO NOT want a voluntourism vacation. And the more I researched, the more I realized this may be my only option. However I did not want to settle for that. I realized that I may be selfish, and I will gain an extremely valuable education while in Africa, but I do not want to do it at the expense of a local.
However, I found that people who volunteer in refugee camps (even if there not a doctor or nurse) get to do a lot of valuable work. And get a real working volunteer experience. That is why I chose to stay a longer period of time. I initially wanted to go for 4 month, however, I believe I won't be a benefit to a refugee camp unless I stay for longer. I realize that I do not have a medical or teaching degree, however I do have skills that must be applicable somewhere... I'm really starting to think if I will ever get to see an African refugee camp...
I have worked hard to save up for this trip. I'm not wealthy, however, I realize that this will be a financial commitment as well as a time commitment. That being said I want my money to be spend usefully.
I really want to travel, work hard, and make an impact. I then want to come back to Canada go to graduate school and start working to solve some of the problems I witnessed while overseas.
Again, thank you for your replies. I'm off to research more!
Mar 4, 2012 2:18 AM
This is what I would do if I were in your position with your goals.
I would contact some charities/development agencies that seem to fit with your skill set. Water provision/sanitation is obvious, there may be others. Perhaps also contact the social responsibility departments of bioengineering companies. Pitch them your ideas and see if you can't arrange some kind of placement or to join a research project in the field. Perhaps in conjunction with any charities/development agencies they have ties with. Aim to get over to Africa and apply your science on the ground.
I'm afraid I still don't think an NGO is likely to consider you for a placement in a refugee camp. They will have other priorities and a very specific shopping list for their staff. But wouldn't you get the same kind of satisfaction and possibly better and more relevant experience working with a local community to help solve their water needs?
Mar 4, 2012 7:41 AM
I believe if Westerners (like me) who have strong science/technology backgrounds and a better understanding (first hand) of problems in the developing world, we would be much more efficient at solving problems.
Ah yes.. The age old, all-important condescending attitude that forms the thrust of our "need" to volunteer in a third world country..
Usually the ensuing dilemma would be: Should I give my £3000 to an organization that is currently shipping vaccinations to Kakuma, or should I spend £2,000 on flying half way across the world and paying some "agency" the balance so that they can allow me to be treated like a VIP while I pretend to do some helpful work?
Hmmm... (Rolling my eyes and thinking aloud) The thing is: if I give the £3000 to Médecins Sans Frontières, it will be the point where there is highest value-for-money. But: (1) I will receive little satisfaction for it (I will most probably be forgotten as soon as they receive my money), (2) I will miss the opportunity to claim I have "worked" in dire conditions for needy people - and working in the real world comes with competitive job applications, interviews, stress, grief from managers etc etc... I just want to get the recognition for working with needy people - and be pampered for it (3) I cannot travel the world - which is what I really want to do, but I would also like to claim some humanitarianism, but I don't have the money for both...
I'm a bioengineer (synthetic biologist); an extremely new and flourishing industry. Many people have predicted this industry to be the most powerful, influential industry/technology on the planet within the next 20, 30, or 50 years...
I am in a point in my engineering career where I believe I can solve problems like water quality issues (my area of expertise), the food crisis, creating cheaper drugs, etc….
This reminds me of my younger days, when I had just graduated and full of ambition. Spurred by the pep talk of my lecturers and industry leaders, I talked about my plans to my colleagues at my new job. Often, I got a polite “That’s nice, but could you make 9 copies of this report – and have them stapled?”
I have been engineering organisms to clean-up toxic substances in water from the oil industry for the past two years. They sent me some water to work with, I started engineering. This was not initially effective. I would have been much more productive if I went to the site of the contaminated water, observed its affect on wildlife and locals…
Not to put you down in any way, but in the corporate world, everything has its place, and every place has its rightful things. You may want to go out and see things first hand, but you come to accept your role is to wait for samples to be brought to your lab, where you do your bit, period. If you felt additional data from the local population, animals etc is required, there is a chain of command for this – and experts in those fields will be brought into the equation.
Sorry – none of this has anything to do with travel – which is what the forum is about … I just sense there was a time I was on the very path you are now treading.
Mar 4, 2012 11:59 AM
Thank you for your replies itchyfeet38 & Mwenyeji, your advise and time is much appreciated.
I may get the same kind of satisfaction and possibly better and more relevant experience working with a local community to help solve their water needs. However, I'm not sure, I've never volunteered in Africa. I know have I water treatment experience, however I doubt it is relevant in the field at this point (although I may be completely wrong). An NGO placement in a refugee camp may not be a possible choice for me. Thats what this post and the research I'm doing is all about. Again, I don't think my experiences in engineering are as applicable as a chemical engineer or a mechanical engineer, the technology is MUCH more powerful, just not as developed. I would not have the "tool box" I need to remediate contaminated water overseas.
I feel I don't want to be focused on a single problem, or work in my industry overseas. I think it would be more beneficial if I left my industry completely during this trip. Focus on something else, and returned to it with a new perspective of where this technology needs to be directed to make a significant impact on the world (like the antimalarial drug I mentioned).
I'm feel I'm having difficulty relaying my point across regarding a reply to your post. I'll think about it more and may re-post. One thing I would like though is if anyone knows of any NGOs (specific names) to let me know, so I can contact them. If some were stationed if refugee camps it would be extremely helpful, if some weren't that would be helpful too. Then I can talk to them and see what there opinion is as well.
Thank you for your reply, and I appreciate the blunt nature of your replies. They are helpful. I'll just reply to your replies in numerical order.
I would not consider myself condescending or my motives for volunteering condescending. You mentioned the source our need for volunteering in a third world country. But, I have not met many people with similar motives as mine. If you know of any please let me know, they would be helpful to talk to.
In the short term my money is better going to a organization currently shipping over-priced, chemically synthesized or crop grown vaccinations to Kakuma. I agree completely. However, I think if I spent my money gaining experience of these things first hand. I may be able to help in the future. I'm not looking for something to put on my CV. If I was doing that I would take an engineering job. I've been padding my CV for 5 years. I'm happy with it. This trip is not about that.
You are right in saying I am looking for satisfaction. However, I look for satisfaction everyday. I do not want to claim I have worked in dire conditions, and I don't want to be pampered. Again, that's a reason for my original post on this forum. I was finding many volunteer-tourism organizations where you are pampered and go on safari s and do all these fun activities. This is NOT what I want. I simply want to work, I don't care if I'm only in one place, I don't care about showers, or what type of food I eat, or what type of roof is over my head. I want an experience. Experience that won't take away from a local...
I feel I am (and will be) dedicating my entire life trying to direct the synthetic biology industry in a direction where it will benefit developing countries, and green technology. Before I do this I need to know the direction, I need perspective. I know the technology, I know how it works. I don't know the problems.
It is very unfortunate to hear that you graduated "full of ambition" but your position, job, or colleagues let your hopes fall. Fortunately for me this is not the case. In fact it is the opposite. I know I'm biased because I'm in the industry, but there is a reason I'm in it. Which is truly because it is an industry with unlimited potential, and the most powerful technology this planet has. My colleges are excited, all of them globally. This technology will impact the planet potentially more so than computers and the internet did. I'm sure, and it will be exiting. I'm not worried about making 9 copies of a document. I assure you I'm not in that type of position.
And I don't think my role is entirely in the lab. I wont accept it. I am trained to read graphs, analyze data, and read tables. But no data set or graph in the world is as good as witnessing the results first hand.
You sense you were on my path at one point...? Where did that path end-up taking you?
Again, I'm not looking to be pampered. I don't want to brag back home that helped dig a well in Africa (when in reality a local could have done it better). I want to spend my life helping the developing world, while in a lab. Before that, I need to see the developing world. However, I simply will not do it if it taking something away from a local.
I assure you, Mwenyeji, I do not want to take away from African locals. And I won't. But is the only way of avoiding this to send my money to an organization, stay in my cold canadian lab forever and work on solving problems people have on the other side of the world?
Again, thank you both for your replies. I greatly appreciate you time and efforts.
Mar 4, 2012 1:07 PM
10Mwenyeji put it well. I personally I am a development professional, not a humanitarian one, but have worked at refugee camps. There are different kinds of camps (big, small, some are very old, some getting constant influx of people) but if we are talking about the ones currently receiving refugees, they are very demanding places. They are not for volunteers to practice their ideas. You cannot move around alone, you will need a car, an interpreter/guide. They can be violent/dangerous places. And there are moral codes which govern the work there which you need to know as well as to know how the camps function. To deliver this all to you would use the scarce resources which are available. Altogether I don't understand why you need to get to a camp, just working in a poor neighbourhood would already give you much wider understanding of life in Africa.
So if you interested in developing your technical skills towards that direction, I would suggest you check what organisations such as Practical Action and Engineers without Borders do. Perhaps they would have some intern or similar schemes.
Mar 4, 2012 1:37 PM
Mar 4, 2012 2:26 PM
12I have sent you what I hoped was a helpful PM. NGOs I mentioned included International Rescue Committee and Wateraid, both of whom employ WatSan and WatHab personnel. Don't lose sight of your goal, but maybe the way forward is a specific course in refining your water skills. Again my PM has suggestions.
Of course if the PM has not arrived, please let me know.
Mar 4, 2012 5:15 PM
13Jvigar, my working life concerns the appropriate application of new technologies to the problems of the developing world. I welcome you to this area, and suggest that you look at MSc courses such as those offered by SPRU And I assure you that a refugee camp is a very bad place to gain relevant practical experience. If your focus is going to be drug development, you could try to attach yourself to a teaching / research hospital clinic; if your focus is innovative methods of producing drugs you might want to spend time in a pharmaceutical company (loads of good ones in India)... You get the idea!
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