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Volunteering or voluntourism? Lessons from a volunteer legal assistant

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

When I first started looking for volunteering opportunities abroad, I desperately wanted to avoid contributing to volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’. Finding a volunteer position which is both impactful and which fits with your skill set and values can often feel like a minefield to start with, but having some mental guidelines around what to look out for can make a huge difference. Having now spent over six months volunteering full time for Fenix Humanitarian Legal Aid, my incredible colleagues have taught me a lot about volunteering in an ethical and sustainable way.


Prior to volunteering

Before applying to Fenix, I volunteered part time for a local pro bono advice centre. Starting locally is really useful. It is a great way to observe how a charity has a positive impact within your own community.

The lawyers I assisted navigated our clients through the complex small print of housing contracts, and I realised how much people relied on legal advice. This experience, as well as my legal qualifications, led to me deciding to volunteer as a legal assistant for Fenix.

In Lesvos, I met volunteers from every profession: social workers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, interpreters, communications and social media consultants, psychologists, sports instructors…. all of whom were using their different qualifications to volunteer for an NGO.

It is, of course, more beneficial for an NGO to have volunteers who are professionally qualified in their relevant area of work than it is to have solely volunteers in their pre-professional years. This is both so that the team has the necessary expertise to provide a high service to the people that they work to support, but also because often professional certifications are necessary to be able to carry out certain work within the country the NGO is based in. My volunteering experience was also more rewarding for me having just finished a law qualification. I used legal drafting skills every single day when writing applications on behalf of clients. I even got the chance to use my notes on EU law for legal submissions. Whatever your profession, there is a volunteering position which could use your existing skills.


What to expect in a new volunteer role

Although volunteer work is of course not paid, a professional approach is what your clients deserve. I treated the opportunity like a paid job and tried to learn as much as possible from my colleagues, like any intern in an office.

My coordinator in particular was exactly the lawyer I hoped to be in the future: dedicated, organised, and ready to fight for their clients until the bitter end. In return for working hard, I received more cases and more responsibility.

Fenix encouraged this professionalism among their volunteers by treating their clients with the utmost respect. Our job was to empower each person with the correct legal knowledge to make their own decisions about their future.

At the beginning of our work placement, we had a three-week intensive training. This included everything from the Greek legal asylum process, to how to work effectively with interpreters. This was a huge investment from Fenix in their volunteers, as they used time, energy and resources to ensure we met the standard required for their clients. Most of us had committed to staying for a minimum of six months. If you can stay for one month only, it does not make sense for you to join a legal (or similar) NGO.

The level of training required to work in emergency situations with vulnerable people is high. If it’s not possible for you to volunteer long-term (at least three months), then perhaps it’s not the right time to go.

That being said, volunteering long-term, especially abroad, is expensive. I was fortunate enough to obtain funding from my future employer. Another option would be to fundraise, or save up. The needs of local communities, and the organisations set up to support them, must be prioritised over your own. If you cannot afford to volunteer in a sustainable way, it is better to donate money to organisations which do. Staying longer will also benefit you more. I especially loved staying six months because I saw for myself the positive results of my team. Watching clients begin the lengthy legal process, overcome failure and rejection, and finally receive an acceptance, is what the work was truly about. Written by Emma O'Callaghan. Emma volunteered with Fenix as a legal assistant for 6 months as part of their family reunification team. She read history at university before completing her law conversion course in 2021. Cover photo is the team at Fenix Humanitarian Legal Aid

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