Some Volunteers are Assholes – A Reflection from the European Refugee Crisis

By Kai Teo

"Refugees Welcome" demonstration in Malmö, Sweden. Picture: demotix.com

"Refugees Welcome" demonstration in Malmö, Sweden. Picture: demotix.com

The recent influx of refugees into Europe from neighbouring war-torn countries has brought out the best in some people, and the worst.

At Buddha Mag, we truly believe that a world without borders is the first great step forward to create a better future for our global citizens. With open borders, we give citizens terrorized by a fucked up system the option to simply pack their bags and leave for greener pastures. We know that this is an over-simplistic view and there’re loads of other factors to take into consideration. But yes, in our opinion, no borders > stupid immigration laws.

So, in support of this philosophy, many of us have been helping out in whatever ways we can. Be it donating good stuff, money, or volunteering at refugee centres, we’ve been making an effort. Seeing everyday folks holding up signs saying “Refugees Welcome” at train stations, cooking for hundreds at soup kitchens, bringing carloads of warm clothing to the refugees, was a clear sign that many people do actually give a shit.

But how much should we care?

I’ve been facing a pretty bad dilemma over the past few weeks, preaching about free love and volunteering when we can and all that. But at the same time, taking on 12-hour night shifts at the kitchen didn’t just take up most of my waking hours, it traumatised me in my sleep too. I woke up constantly because I dreamt that I needed to replenish the teaspoons, or fill up the empty fruit basket. And every moment I chose to watch Twin Peaks and Agent Cooper in action was a moment that I felt guilty because “I could have been helping out”.

And then there’s this thing about, “Oh, we can’t just be helping the refugees. We also need to send aid to hungry farmers in Gambia.” Altruism’s not easy. It’s a fucking slippery slope. Once you start volunteering, every moment you’re not doing it makes you feel like a selfish bastard. It’s easier to not give a real fuck, post some articles on Facebook, go to a few demonstrations, and then go back to the vegan pub to drink my pint of organic pilsner and talk about the colour of my armpit hair.

“Don’t feel bad about not doing enough. You are not Jesus Christ. Even Buddha, seeing the plight of humanity, chose to just sit around under a tree. He truly saw the light of not-giving-a-fuck.”

Yes, so instead of doing what I can, I’ve decided to do what I feel comfortable with. I mean, look, there’re 10,000 people who were screaming passionately for a free world at last week’s demonstration. If everyone put in an hour a week as a volunteer, we would be good.

But you see, the problem is, many don’t. It’s easier to post some shit on Facebook, share a status, give a ‘like’, or even carry the limited edition “No one is illegal” tote bag. But to really take time out and do some good work, “Oh I’m sorry, I have my laundry time booked today.”

But yes, to those who have put in hours and hours of real work, cleaning up the dining areas 24/7, driving to and fro train stations hundreds of times, making fresh beds everyday for our refugees, we salute you, from the bottom of our hearts. Your work is important, and you are doing fucking well. Keep the fire in you, because you know that without you, there would be no “Refugees Welcome.”

And lurking in the midst of these big-hearted people, there’re those who want others to think that they are volunteering but in actual fact, not doing much at all.

We’ve seen it, and we’re not sure what to make of it, really. You’re spending so many hours at the refugee centres, everyone in the left-wing circle has seen your face, but we’ve never seen you actually carrying the trash out. We do know that everyone has got well-defined job scopes, and yes you, as a translator, are an important asset. But instead of standing in the way trying to ask another volunteer out for a demonstration-date, maybe you could get off your all-important administrator throne and help me stack these cups up?

“Hold on, I need to post this on Instagram first. Need to let people know that we need more help here, #refugeeswelcome #iamagoodperson #thiswillgetmelaid.”

"Oh look! We need help here!" Picture: hongkong.coconuts.co

"Oh look! We need help here!" Picture: hongkong.coconuts.co

Well, so now you’re also in marketing and publicity. But really, are you really helping them? Or helping your own ego?

And as I’m writing this, am I writing this to remind our volunteers? Or am I here to make me feel better about myself? Both, to be honest. Writing this article, I hope that it’ll spread and serve as a little wake-up call for those volunteers who have been sleeping on the job, and a call-to-action for those who have yet to lend a helping hand (no, not the facebook thumbs-up kinda hand). And through this process, as I’m starting to realise with every didactic sentence, I’m feeling more and more hopeful that the message will be hard-hitting, and really make a difference in our volunteer scene. And that, would make me feel good. Really good.

I say this not in self-defence, but there’s nothing wrong feeling good about ourselves doing good. We’re hardwired to feel this way. If doing good felt like shit, no one would be doing it. But that self-satisfying warmth in our egos should never be the goal of us volunteering, because it is a mere side effect. Really making a difference, and really bringing a smile to someone’s face, should always be our intention. Because everyone can smell your insincerity if you’re not honestly helping.

Well, I smelled it. And the nauseous stench of self-righteousness went straight up my nose and blemished the beautiful impression that I had of the volunteers.

Let’s not even get into the activists that have been turning this whole thing into a political opportunity to spread their party’s message. It’s as simple as people helping other people in need. And this doesn’t involve your politics, not when one more meal we cook together today can make one less refugee hungry. So for now, let’s leave the campaigning aside and cut some fucking onions.

We’ve also heard that some conflicts have risen amongst groups of coordinators from different organisations because they are “stealing” their volunteer contacts. Erm, aren’t we doing this “No borders” thing? We’re all here to help the same people, stop trying to separate your organisation from theirs. “We are lefter than left! We are doing more!” Yea, maybe that’s why we don’t quite believe in political parties – the only good party is a techno (music genre debatable) party!

So yea, volunteering is a great act. But volunteering with the wrong purpose can instantly turn that into a despicable gesture. And here, before we sign up for the next 4-hour shift on the volunteer timetable, let us remind ourselves that we’re there to help them, not to Instagram. 


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