Notes from a first time volunteer

I travelled to Trieste, Italy, early in December 2015 with Gabrielle to support asylum seekers. As well as helping with the distribution of supplies to those in the most dire need, I got the chance to see where our collected donations end up, and realised how vital it is to have good systems in place to ease the process.

Here in Zurich, we have been very lucky: One of our generous supporters was able to secure us some warm, dry storage in Oerlikon, where we can collect and store goods for distribution throughout Europe. So far, donated goods from you have ended up in Italy, Germany, Greece and Hungary.

Our team with Volunteers for Humanity before they left for Greece with some of our donations.

I don’t know if you can imagine the logistical fun we have receiving, sorting, and repacking goods to be sent far and wide around this little part of the world. But that’s what we do!

The core collections team is made up of myself, Sirpa, Emily and Kim, and we are supported by many volunteers who give their time and energy to help out.

When we call for a collection, a lot of work of information gathering has already been done. Mainly with the local asylum centres and our local contacts on the field to find out what is most needed. Then we announce the collection on our Facebook page.

Collection days become a rollercoaster of frantic activity and periods of boredom. When someone arrives with goods to donate, we dive in to quickly check that everything matches our list. We feel terrible when we have to give things back, but sometimes the clothes we receive have holes, or shoes with soles peeling off, or blankets have dodgy-looking stains. Much of the time, the items just don’t match our list. Our storage is great but isn’t infinitely expandable, so we can take only what’s needed at any given time.

When I travelled to Trieste, we spent a lot of time working out what to take, how much of each item, and what would eventually fit in the van. We were overjoyed on the day we left when we filled the van with barely centimetres to spare! We ticked off every box in our inventory, printed out the list of goods for Italian customs, and hit the road.

Our amazing Finnish Tetris experts!

Except for Gabrielle’s singing, the journey itself, even in a heavily loaded van on Italian freeways, was uneventful. After a good night’s sleep, we drove to Trieste the next day to meet the refugees at their warehouse “home”. The distribution was a real eye-opener for me, finally seeing it from the other end.

The men entertaining themselves with a much loved game of cricket.

In our van we carried warm clothes, tents, sleeping bags, blankets, shoes, jackets, hats and gloves. We were told that shoes were the most-needed item now that the weather was cooling down. So before we even entered the area we emptied out the van in a parking lot and reloaded so the shoes were in one vehicle, everything else in another. Even though the men are polite, well-mannered, and friendly, there is still a constant fear of missing out because everything is in short supply. Even with our wonderful translator explaining that we had enough for everyone, they all wanted to be at the front of the crowd.

The key to a good and organised distribution is crowd control. For me, that meant putting on my best teacher voice and shouting, “Wait, wait!” while putting shoes in the hands of the men with the worst-looking shoes on their feet. The other volunteers were a little more stern, closing the van doors when they thought that the situation was getting slightly chaotic.

Once the shoes were distributed and gone, we still had a handful of men without, because the sizes were wrong. After promising that we had enough, it was a terrible feeling. (If you’ve read Gabrielle’s post, you’ll know that we bought some new shoes the next morning for those men.) Meanwhile we started to distribute the other supplies. Tents and sleeping bags, for the most recently-arrived refugees who were sleeping in the open. Blankets, for those who had sleeping bags but weren’t warm enough. Warm clothing for everyone.

These were the things that surprised me and really made me think, in my capacity as a collections coordinator:

  • We handed out toiletry kits — plastic bags with toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant. The men would take a bag and quickly return, making the universal gesture for spray deodorant. They preferred spray deodorant over roll-on, because then they could share it with their group.
  • Backpacks were incredibly popular, which make sense because they spend a lot of time walking the city, whether for water to wash, food, or internet access. They carry their dearest possessions wherever they go, out of concern that they might be stolen, or because the local police might return and hose everything down again.
  • Any item of clothing that looked even a little feminine was rejected. Jackets, sweaters, shoes, it didn’t matter. They would pick them up, ask the men around them, and then put them back in the box.
  • We had too few of many items (shoes and backpacks especially), and too many of some others. We came home with a bag of fleece blankets because they just wouldn’t give any real warmth compared to thicker wool blankets.

I came home with a better understanding, which I am passing on to you, our dear donors: Please, please stick to the list. We want to focus on doing exactly what is needed, and put all our energy into that. Secondly: if you’re not sure if an item is suitable, answer truthfully if the item is warm, comfortable or practical enough for you to use.

A refugee wearing one of our donated North Face jackets...and looking very warm!

Most of all, I was overjoyed to see how many smiles our donations brought to the faces of the men there. Those clothes and goods represented warmth, a good night’s sleep, dry feet. It was a privilege to be able to hand them on, on behalf of you all.

We were stunned at one collection when a donor came to us with soiled clothes with obvious wear. We said we wouldn’t take them, to which the response was (and I’m paraphrasing), “What’s the difference? Where they come from, they don’t care.”

One of the most important things we can give to these men, and to refugees anywhere, is dignity.

It’s not always enough to give them warm clothes and a hot meal. We can’t speak for them and make decisions for them. We can offer our help and support until they can get to a better place. And we should give them the best that we have to offer, because the people we are helping could easily be us.



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