There are those who let refugees drown in cold waters then there are those who travel overseas to help

Holly Penalver is an active volunteer who works with indiGO volunteers to help thousands of refugees. She explains why she risks her life to help refugees and why she encourages everyone around her to do the same.


Ben Western

Photo: Ben Western

You can’t stop the bombing, but you can help clear up afterwards

 In cities such as Aleppo, buildings aren’t in a state for people to live in and are fragile from all of the bombings. Meanwhile shops and pharmacies are now ruins and rubble on the ground, and there is no electricity and no clean water.

 Small organizations such as indiGO Volunteers, which Holly is a huge part of, play their small part. They spread their message and encourage people to join their initaitive through social media and attract people through talks at schools and universities, Facebook posts, tweets and Instagram.

Holly strongly believes that the lack of organization and control is worsening the situation for migrants and refugees. “No volunteer is going to stop that (bombing and the political crisis),” she says.

“To me that’s so beyond anything we can help or get involved with, you really have to be government level to be able to really help and negotiate that aspect. We help with the aftermath. Are there enough volunteers? Absolutely not, not enough people are going out and helping. But that is what we are working on.”

Photo: idiGO Volunteers instagram @indiGOvolunteers

Photo: idiGO Volunteers instagram @indiGOvolunteers

Team of indiGO volunteers helping out around the camps in Greece.

Medical support is crucial

There are no hospitals and little safety.

“I am a nurse,” says Holly. “I do get professionals emailing me with interest to help, but on the whole there aren’t enough.”

Mental health is a particular problem. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) are dealing with a huge shortage of experienced psychologists to help those refugees dealing with mental and psychological issues due to the horrors they have experienced in their countries.

The Refugee Help Technical Assistance Center recently posted new findings stating that refugee children and adolescents have higher-than-normal levels of post traumatic stress disorder and major depression. This leads to risk of developing further issues which lead to delayed asylum application process, detention, and the loss of culture and support systems.

They need leaders

“The people who help are fantastic but a downfall is that they are really young,” says Holly. “I was one of the oldest people in our team and I should be one of the youngest. It’s not good to have everyone being in their early 20’s, we need experience and we need people that can take a lead role and have a background behind them, someone who is more mature and experienced.”

By the way, European refugee camps aren’t much better

There are currently more than 57,000 refugees stranded in Greece and according to the IRC, many of the camps “don’t reach acceptable humanitarian standards”.

Holly works in the country and says aid isn’t reaching enough refugees and it’s generally sent by the public, rather than governments.

The military are based at most of those camps to keep order and some don’t allow food kitchens to be stationed there so donations and ready-made meals are all the refugees have access to.

“I have seen it, it looks awful and it is nutritionally deficient,” says Holly. “Stodgy bread. It’s horrible and there are a lot of complaints along with hunger strikes.”

Photo: Ben Western

Photo: Ben Western

The indigo team distributing food at one of the temporary refugee camps at a petrol station in Idomeni. The conditions were sadly awful.

What can you do to help? Volunteer locally.

Many people think that they to have to fly abroad and do something as big as Holly, this is incorrect. You don’t have to be helping refugees in Greece or Syria; you don’t have to travel half way across the world to make a difference. Volunteering can happen anywhere.

Azra, a third year student at Coventry University believes “it is important to help people without benefitting yourself” she says, “it is not all about money”.

Azra like many other young people hasn’t volunteered abroad and it is not for the reasons that you might think, she believes that helping out the ones in need in your own country should come first, once you have done something to help at home you can consider going abroad. This isn’t how everyone feels, but it is how Azra feels and she’s doing everything she can to help her country first. She didn’t expect to gain as much as she did from this experience. Despite people like Azra that are willing to help, there aren’t many others, the statistics are poor.

Who volunteers?

Mostly women – 28% volunteer at least once a month compared to 23% of men.

So why do so few people actually help? Blame our excuse culture, the fact there’s always something more pressing to do than helping, 58% say work commitments prevent them from volunteering (National Citizenship Survey conducted by the Department for Communities and Local Government 2008-2009) I simply don’t buy it – especially a young person with no family commitments and nothing to pin them down.

Listen to Justyna Chrobot, an assistant teacher who works very closely with volunteers such as Azra at Stoke Park Secondary School in Coventry. 

Volunteering doesn’t have to be a chore and it actually makes a real difference to the people on the receiving end so before you completely write it off, give it some consideration.

Of course, as cliché as ‘every little helps’ sounds, it’s true. So don’t make an excuse – the people whose stories you’ve read didn’t.

Aleksandra Ganuszko



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.