Volunteering and social cohesion in Germany

Many Germans are worried about the shock that their society is receiving with the sudden arrival of probably more than one million refugees. There is concern about the economy; there is concern over jobs; there is concern over religious identities, culture, schooling and young people. Yet the process of change has inevitably started with the volunteers being the unsung heroes of integration.

Following the tragic events in Fukushima in 2010, Japan mobilized well over one million volunteers in the first six months. When I was in Japan recently for the Sendai Conference in Disaster Risk Reduction, I visited a volunteer center where young students were still engaged with the affected population.

One example that was presented was the simple practice of giving foot massages and engaging people in mundane conversations about their day. Through these acts of kindness, people who had lost their house, worldly goods and families restored their faith in humanity, while the young students who helped these people learned a lot about life, respect and the power of giving.

The volunteer engagement that we now see in Germany – like the one I just mentioned in Japan or the one following Hurricane Katrina in Florida – will continue for quite some time. The human connection created is an important part of healing after a disaster and will be an important part of the integration that needs to happen in Germany and many other European countries affected by the refugee crisis. German volunteers are leading by example in more ways than one.

In late November 2015, the German Government announced the creation of 10,000 youth volunteer placements in the next three years to assist with the refugee influx. This sends again a strong signal about how volunteers are valued in the assessment of a response. It also shows how deliberate the authorities are about engaging, managing and equipping the national volunteer effort.

It also is smart to increasingly engage young people and create new relationships in society. As we have recently seen in Sri Lanka after the crisis, engaging youth volunteers and volunteerism in general are means to build bridges across divided communities.

Engaging youth in the refugee response will dispel some of their misconceptions and fears, while providing them with the ways and means to engage, will help them develop a sense of shared responsibility. Volunteering is an important part of developing and maintaining responsible citizenship, especially among young people. And, the more deliberate we go about engaging volunteers and the more we recognize and value their role, the more they will be able to contribute.

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