Extreme volunteering – is it for you?


Volunteering is a wonderful way to give, and most of us, especially as we enter our retirement years, embrace it as a way to pay back what society has blessed us with.

But while volunteering usually involves putting our hands up to help out with local causes, there is also a demand for volunteers at an international level. With disasters coming thick and fast, and humanitarian crises that just won’t go away, volunteers from all parts of the globe regularly answer the cause to travel across the world to help out in extreme situations.

If you think this kind of volunteering might be for you, read on to learn more from a 65-year-old Kiwi (Karl) who’s recently returned from a month’s volunteering stint in a Lebanese refugee camp.


Prepare before you go

Refugee camp volunteering (and, I suspect, most international volunteering) isn’t just a case of jumping on a plane and turning up at a camp soup kitchen! You first need to connect with an organisation already working in the field and apply to be accepted. You can read about these organisations online – and there are a number of them, so choose the one you think will suit you best.

Make sure you get involved with a reputable organisation. Unfortunately, there are some so-called charities whose goal is to profit off well-meaning tourists – rather than help those in need.

Think about what you have to offer

In a humanitarian aid situation, a lot of people see themselves handing out food parcels, but what an organisation needs most from you is what you’re already skilled at. If you’re a builder, that will probably mean you’ll be taking your tools to take with you. If you’re a nurse, you likely find yourself in a medical centre or makeshift hospital situation. I was a music teacher so I took my guitar and taught youth, with too much time on their hands, to play various instruments. Don’t discount being a parent and grandparent as a skill, and if you don’t have a particular area of expertise, don’t worry – there’ll always be a place where you can help out.

The interview

Expect most organisations to request an interview with you. My interview (by Skype) was just what you’d expect if you were going for a job – with a few extra questions thrown in such as: “What experience have you had with troubled youth?” Security is tight at a refugee camp – are you prepared to follow orders to keep yourself and others safe?” If you don’t like being caught on the hop, ask your organisation for a list of interview questions ahead of time.


Be prepared for the fact that you’ll have to arrange your own NZ police check. Your organisation may also ask you to complete some online training in humanitarian aid (this usually involves some reading and multi-choice questions – and at the completion, you’ll be issued with a certificate).


Most organisations will ask you to be self-sufficient in all regards. This includes finding your own accommodation in the town closest to where you’ll be volunteering; arranging your own transport to and from your place of work, and providing your own meals. You’ll also need to have travel insurance that covers you in the situation in which you’ll be volunteering.


Wherever you find yourself volunteering, there will always be more need than you expected. I knew this ahead of time so a couple of months before I headed to the refugee camp, I set up a Givealittle page. The $2000 this raised enabled me to buy various pieces of equipment that were needed at the camp, including the musical instruments I wanted to leave behind for the youth I’d be working with. My Givealittle donors appreciated the regular Facebook updates I gave them about where and how their money was being spent.

Social media skills

From having your interview to communicating with your organisation at home and while you’re away, and connecting day to day with fellow volunteers in the field, you’ll be called on to use a range of social media. So get acquainted with WhatsApp, Facebook, and Viber before you go. And learn to use Skype.

Last word

If you want to be an international volunteer, I’d say ‘go for it’. You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you helped out, and you’ll also enjoy the camaraderie of other volunteers from around the world. And if you’re a man – you’ll be doubly in demand as most international volunteers (at refugee camps, anyway) are women.