An American in Berlin: Moving beyond voluntourism

One of our most dedicated volunteers, Kurtis DeLozier, writes about how he sees the impact of his identity on his volunteer work. Kurtis has been volunteering with the GSBTB Open Art Shelter working with refugees at Tempelhof airport, and also with the GSBTB Open Kitchen.

As an American white cisgender male identity, I appear to be the epitome of the oppressor. There is a list of issues that come to mind when questioning my place in the refugee effort; The good-willed white, white savior complex, white privilege, and NGOs doing more harm than good. When it comes to partaking in projects that are important and are bigger than myself, I have the tendency to doubt my abilities. I worry that I will get in the way or do more harm than good. I am concerned that I will end up perpetuating the view of the stereotypical American trying to help, only to make matters worse. I don’t want to be that white person in Africa giving away candy and posing for pictures with groups of children. This issue has been regularly called “voluntourism” and The Huffington Post has an excellent article explaining its problematic factors. “At least I am doing something” is often the counter-argument when people are critical of NGOs or volunteers. However, simply doing something can cause more problems. I do not want to just “do something.” I want to be actively involved in making change for the better in at least one person’s life.

I discussed such issues with my friend Corey who works at the Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies, part of the University of Oklahoma’s College of Continuing Education. Corey explained that I have made the first step in addressing these issues. He explained that since I am aware that I could possibly fall into these categories that I could also avoid them. He assured me that what I was doing was a noble cause.

“You should still set out to do it, just do your best to be aware of what you are doing and what impact it will make.”

I also sought advice from my father who, as a licensed counselor, worked with Oklahoma to aid the Murrah Building bombing victims. My father said that awareness is the first battle and I should set out to learn. He also advised me to be present and to offer my assistance in any way. Overall, be available and be aware. Charged with good advice, I felt better about who I am in relation to what I was setting out to accomplish.

Give Something Back to Berlin (GSBTB) is the NGO that I am working for in Berlin. Unlike most NGOs, GSBTB does not have their own agenda. As the GSBTB website states, other organizations tend to be “highly politicized or focused on more traditional charity work that might be necessary sometimes but, if done wrong, can feel rather patronizing.” Instead, GSBTB works with refugees to understand their needs. The organization sends volunteers to community projects around Berlin that are often operated by refugees themselves. Not only does GSBTB listen to the needs of the refugees, but they also give them the power to organize volunteers to find positive solutions to those needs. According to their website:

“GSBTB’s first goal was to engage more people in projects and we started working directly with networks organized by refugees themselves to set up collaborations with and for them …GSBTB has created a tool for community integration that brings together more ‘privileged’ migrants, German locals and more vulnerable migrants such as refugees…

Our intercultural volunteering is positive, lively ‘think global, act local’ work, proving that everyone has something to share with others…a key focus for GSBTB is to create contact points between refugees and non-refugees.”

These goals are evident in GSBTB’s nine weekly projects. One of those projects is the Open Art Shelter, managed by Hania. She reaffirms these goals within the project. During one of the volunteer team meetings, Hania said that when we go to the refugee shelters we should not go in with a fixed agenda. Instead of being focused on what we as volunteers intend on doing before we even go into the shelter, she mentioned that it is important to have an open and flexible mind. For example, there is a project for women only at the shelter. This is a safe and open space for women to come and be women. One day, the female volunteers went in to the shelter with the idea of beginning a blog written by the women in the shelter in order to give them a platform to tell their stories. However, that day the women did not seem interested in writing a blog. The women seemed tired and wanted to just be, and that’s what they did. This is the flexibility and open-mindedness that Hania mentioned, and that GSBTB embodies.

It is unfortunate that other NGOs do not have the same standards that GSBTB does. A recent report comes to mind when I think of NGOs gone wrong. In Kenya, foreign NGO employees are being hired instead of Kenyans. These employees are being paid far more than Kenyans who could do the same job with the same qualifications. Therefore, the government in Kenya is attempting to pass new restrictions to curb such unfair treatment. Kenyans can find solutions to Kenyan problems better than a foreign aid worker can. This applies across the board to other NGOs in other countries. There is nothing wrong with foreign aid workers working for NGOs in other countries. However, it is a problem when foreign aid workers get jobs over qualified locals. GSBTB avoids this issue by connecting volunteers to collaborate in projects organized by refugees to provide solutions to issues faced by refugees. Another example is The American Red Cross in Haiti. With a mission to build homes for displaced Haitians following the earthquakes, the project quickly became questionable. With a lack of oversight, inabilities of foreign aid workers on the ground, and the lofty inflexibility of its agenda to develop brand new communities, the project failed. This example illustrates on a large-scale what can happen with a fixed agenda and without involving locals in the project.

 Since I have been in Berlin, the advice I received from Corey and my father have been reaffirmed. GSBTB is successful in its goal, because it works with its clients to provide solutions to their needs. The organization is open and flexible and learns from its clients. The NGO then spreads awareness of what it’s learned by educating and involving the community in its goal. This mindset is represented by its staff as well. Hania re-emphasizes the importance to go into a situation without an agenda. She encourages volunteers to enter with an open mind and heart ready to learn from the needs of those they serve. Not only have I learned from my experiences in Berlin on what I can do better, but I have also learned from research what I could possibly do wrong. It is important to be educated on what not to do. It is natural to worry about one’s own abilities. Doubt expresses awareness and worry shows that you are smart enough to think through all possible situations, and then how to avoid the negative outcomes.

I always come back to another piece of advice my father once gave me as a child. This advice has stuck with me ever since, and it is one of my main motivations for pursuing goals like the one I am living out in Berlin.

“You live a blessed life son. It is up to you to pass those blessings on to those who are not as lucky as you are.”

None of us are immune to suffering. We all could easily be put into situations where we need others to be open, kind, and aware to our situation.

By Kurtis DeLozier, who first published this piece on his blog. Photos by Trish Lauren, taken when GSBTB Open Kitchen was part of the United Street Food event at Markthalle Neun in July.