Why (and How) Travelers Should Support Refugees

I am of the opinion that as people who like to travel, as people who enjoy culture (of any kind), we have a duty to protect refugees. We are the people who have seen the world. Who have seen the art in Russia and tasted the street food in China and drank in the pubs in Scotland. We know that the world is full of people who are DIFFERENT than us, and more importantly, we value this: we take their art home, we wander their museums, we recreate their recipes, we fill scrapbooks with bits of their culture. Is it not our duty to help these people of different cultures when they need us?

As people who have seen the world, travelers should support refugees. Don't know why or how? Here's my advice for how travelers should support refugees.
Me at the 2017 Refugee Week conference at Amnesty International in London – holding a “New Union Flag,” one of the projects being presented.

Who am I to tell you why travelers should support refugees?

I am by no means a refugee myself, and won’t pretend that I can understand what it’s like. I do, however, understand the system in multiple Western countries. I worked with asylum seekers in the UK. I still volunteer at that organization. In my Master’s degree one of my primary interests is occupational justice – specifically of marginalized groups and disaster relief. And I received a grant that enabled me to volunteer on the frontlines with Refugee Women’s Center in the northern France refugee camps.

I am passionate about refugee rights, because when I started working with refugees, I didn’t understand. I had as many misconceptions as the average person – and I wasn’t clear on how refugees differed from immigrants. But now I understand, and I’m going to share my understanding with you.

As people who have seen the world, travelers should support refugees. Don't know why or how? Here's my advice for how travelers should support refugees.
Being scared of refugees seems a little silly looking at this photo, doesn’t it…

Know the definition of “refugee”

In my opinion, the key to understanding why people and especially travelers should support refugees, is understanding what a refugee is. The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines refugees as:

“Any person who: owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

They are not coming for your jobs, for your healthcare, for your houses. They are coming because they will DIE at home. Refugees are NOT economic migrants or immigrants. Calling a refugee an immigrant is not only incorrect, but it is offensive because it denies the traumatic journey that they went through to reach their host country (not that being an immigrant is bad…as an expat I myself am an immigrant…separate convo my friends).

As people who have seen the world, travelers should support refugees. Don't know why or how? Here's my advice for how travelers should support refugees.
A presentation at the 2017 Refugee Week conference at Amnesty International in London (photo taken from their website)


Like I said, as travelers we already value other cultures. We value the experience of seeing other parts of the world, other ways of life. Not everyone has these opportunities, though. It can be very difficult to understand WHY we should support other cultures, other people in need, if we’ve never seen them. If we don’t personally value them. So share your knowledge with your friends and family who either don’t travel or don’t understand. Hopefully I’ve helped you learn more about refugees – share this information and stop misconceptions!

When you hear someone referring to a refugee as an immigrant, correct them.

When you hear someone say we need to be “protected from refugees” remind them:

  • Refugee population in a city is not associated with increased crime. It is actually associated with communities becoming safer.
  • Refugees are more likely to be victims of crimes rather than perpetrators.
  • You have a .0003% chance of dying in an attack by a foreign born terrorist. (And refugees are just a teeeeeeny tiny percent of “foreign born”)
  • In the US, you are more likely to be killed by a white man wielding a gun he legally bought than a refugee.
  • You’ve probably heard that Einstein was a refugee. But did you know that fish and chips, birth control, DONUTS, sriracha, and the flippin’ internet were created by refugees?

When you hear someone say the US needs “more extreme vetting,” ask them if they know what current vetting entails. They don’t. Tell them:

  • If a refugee wants to resettle in the US, they must go to a US embassy in a different country, and wait there whilst their asylum application is processed (which will take years). If approved, they are flown to the US with other accepted asylum-seekers. Obviously there are issues with people illegally crossing the US southern border – but as for the countries Donald Trump is banning refugees from (mostly middle east and Africa), they would be in the former category. Meaning that by the time they actually reach the US, their applications are checked and rechecked. You can see the full process here. But what you will see is that 8 stages of the process occur OUTSIDE US territory, and by the first stage, already over 99% of the global refugee population would be ineligible. As such I believe that we already have very secure processes in place to monitor refugee admittance, particularly from Middle East and African countries.
As people who have seen the world, travelers should support refugees. Don't know why or how? Here's my advice for how travelers should support refugees.
Photo of a similar kitchen group to the one I volunteer at, organized by Refugee Week


Refugee camps especially are always looking for volunteers. It’s not glamorous, but they need our help. If you already like traveling, this is a good opportunity to see a new part of the world. It also isn’t your classic example of “voluntourism.”

If you’re not a permanent traveling nomad, I also recommend volunteering locally. A refugee’s journey is far from over once they’ve reached the safety of a host country. I volunteer at a “cultural kitchen,” and sometimes at a women’s group, an employment center, and have taught yoga classes to asylum seeking women. It is genuinely so fun, meaningful, and inspiring to meet people from all over the world – I have a friend who was a biochemist in his home country, I play “pizza shop” with toddlers, I eat food that is way too spicy for my poor taste buds and get made fun of relentlessly, I’ve had free Arabic lessons, and at the same time I act as an ambassador for the US, a country that many refugees currently (understandably) feel ostracized from.

If one of your favorite things about traveling is experiencing new cultures, customs, and ways of life, then this could be your way of “traveling” at home. All while meeting amazing people and helping them integrate into your local community.

As people who have seen the world, travelers should support refugees. Don't know why or how? Here's my advice for how travelers should support refugees.

Be open minded.

As travelers you may have stayed in a sketchy 45 mixed-bed hostel room, become bezzos with your rando airplane seat mate during turbulence, generally been forced into situations where you had to be open minded to someone else’s way of living and seeing the world. That skill is why travelers have a role in supporting refugees. It is important to be open minded both to the refugees that you meet, but also the people that you defend refugee rights to.

People are scared. We are constantly fed this notion that refugee = terrorist = immigrant = Mr./Ms. Steal Yo Job. And so, to an extent, it is understandable that these conflations have infiltrated the general public’s opinions. And furthermore, to be completely blunt, the history of humanity has showed us that people find it a lot easier to blame people who don’t look like them.

But here’s the truth: no opinion has ever been changed by righteous yelling or telling someone that their *fundamental* beliefs are just plain wrong. I may be preaching to the choir here on le blog, due to the whole confirmation bias epidemic of modern media, but out in the Real World, you are bound to happen upon someone who doesn’t share your opinion. So be open minded to their views, listen to their fears, maybe you will learn something or at least gain insight to somebody else’s perception of the world, and then… educate. You cannot expect someone to be open minded to your beliefs if you do not offer the same respect in return.

As people who have seen the world, travelers should support refugees. Don't know why or how? Here's my advice for how travelers should support refugees.

Hopefully you’ve learned a little bit about refugees from this post, particularly why travelers should support refugees. We are a unique group of people with special insights to the world. We cannot understand the journey a refugee may have gone through, but our experience of other cultures puts us in a position to empathize, maybe more so than someone who has no interest outside their own backyard.

If you enjoyed this post, would you like to see more? Any specific topics of interest (maybe where or how to volunteer)? I would like to get a series started but I want to write about things y’all are interested in. Please let me know in the comments!

Sarah xx

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As people who have seen the world, travelers should support refugees. Don't know why or how? Here's my advice for how travelers should support refugees.

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  1. Ohhh my goodness, I love this post. Thank you so much Sarah for sharing your experience and thoughts with this – your words have really hit close to my heart. Living here in the heart of Central Europe, I will just say that 95% of people I’ve met don’t have a kind thing to say about refugees (often calling them “immigrants”, like you mentioned)… then again, almost no refugees have settled here in this country (no camps that I am aware of) so there is almost no experience with them… only the scare-mongering things we’re reading coming out of Germany and France. I will be sharing you post far and wide – I think everyone needs to read this. Do continue sharing your soul here on le blog :))

    1. Wow that actually really surprises me – because I think when people from central europe come over to the UK they get treated quite derogatorily. But you’re right – SO much has to do with if people are exposed to refugees. If you’ve never met/seen someone who is a refugee, it’s easy to just go along with what most media is telling you! And don’t worry, le blog will always be home to my strong opinions hahaha

  2. I’m also an American and it breaks my heart to hear how the US is currently treating refugees and demanding extra vetting. I’m so glad that at the moment, I’m living in Germany, a place which has opened their arms to welcoming refugees. People in America have forgotten that at one point, all of our ancestors were once refugees seeking refuge from tyrants. Great post! #WanderfulWednesday

    1. Germany is truly such a beacon of hope in these last few years – you are lucky to live somewhere where the majority of people are so openhearted or at least critical of mass media aha. Yes – I do think a lot of people really forget where we’ve come from 🙁

  3. Such an important post and it comes at the perfect time for me. I’ve just had to rant to my boyfriend yesterday how incredibly superficial and annoying I find the blogging world sometimes but your post made me realize that there’s still some amazing meaningful content out there, thanks!!
    As for refugee policies: I have to admit that I can’t understand the Norwegian government in this at all. Coming from Germany where refugees have been welcomed from day one, I find the Norwegian goal of “accepting as few refugees as possible” so stupid and unfair! I think every country that is fortunate enough to have a stable economy and peace should work towards providing a better life for as many refugees as possible. These people have gone through enough and I find the images of refugee camps so heart-breaking!

    1. Ahhh so glad I could help Van aha, and I definitely feel that. Sometimes I get tired of reading similar posts… or writing similar posts, like “guides” to cities I spent 3 days in lol. But I just figured seeing as *I* am paying for and managing my own blog, I might as well put out content that I actually care about!!
      I actually had no idea that Norway had those policies – I’ve always seen it as a very innovative and welcoming country so that is easy to hear! I know some Norwegian girls (the ones who I went to visit!) who I actually met whilst working with refugees in the UK – and they are so so so supportive of refugees and the horrible systems they have to go through. But like I said, we were working in the UK so I don’t really know how it is in Norway. That is sad to hear, but pretty common across most “Westernized” countries I think 🙁

  4. Here here to all of this! I loved what you said about valuing and appreciating other cultures – I cannot understand people who don’t want to meet those who are different from them. I feel so lucky that I can live easily as an expat in another country, relishing all that is surprising and new! It is terrible that it is not the same for others. Good luck with your volunteering!

    1. Exactly!!! One of my greatest joys is talking with people from different countries, asking ‘How do they do X, Y, Z in your country” and hearing all the different answers! Every body is different though, and I think if you haven’t been exposed to that kind of environment (which we, living in different countries, definitely have been), then maybe they don’t seek it out in the future 🙁

  5. Yes, yes and yes! I couldn’t agree with you more. Your points are spot on and I wish DT was as thorough with his fact checking. I mean c’mon, can you imagine life without donuts?! I’ve been volunteering locally for the past year making lunches at the local refugee centre. It’s a small gesture but one that has really enriched my life. It feels so good to give back and the clients are really good people. Our government may have a way to go here in Australia, but me and my food, we say welcome.

    1. Hahaha SAME. Someone get the dude a personal NPR fact-checker please. That is so wonderful and must be really interesting for you! Actually, a lot of the research (in my field at least) on occupational justice and refugees all comes from Australia – in the research field at least, Australia is definitely a beacon of hope!

  6. Wow, this is amazing, Sarah! Where possible (and safe to do so, for privacy reasons), it would be wonderful to hear stories of refugees you work with – perhaps like a weekly diary?

    1. I’ve definitely considered that! Confidentiality is such a huge issue though – one reason that I haven’t really posted about refugees in the past. And because I’ve already put it out there that I live in Plymouth, I’m not sure it would work. But I think that when I go to the camp in France I will definitely try to do something like that!! And I might do some posts that are a bit more generic… i.e. making up a fictional person but combining different aspects of people’s lives. You’ve got my wheels turning!!

  7. Wow, what a great post. I agree 100%! I think that anyone who is suspicious of refugees just needs to meet one–I worked with refugee children when I was back in the States and they were so amazing, and I can’t imagine not being supportive after meeting them and their families.
    Although the U.S. is showing less support for refugees, living in Hungary means that I hear almost ZERO support for refugees. They usually call them “migrants” and blame them for anything going wrong in their country, and even some of the second graders (!!) I work with make comments about them running through the countryside with guns, stealing everything. I often remind my students that I’m an immigrant, here, too–but for some reason, since I’m not here fleeing for my life (and they want me to teach them English), I’M okay. Ironic!

    1. Wow – that is my dream job!! I will be working for a children’s charity at the camp I am going to 🙂 I’m really surprised that there is even less support coming from Central Europe – for some reason I just thought they would be more supportive than the US but I’m not quite sure why! Your second graders are lucky that they have you there to correct them – hopefully you can make an impression on them so they will spread the good word for immigrants and refugees alike as they grow up!

  8. Sarah .. I just got goosebumps from this post. Absolutely beautiful and inspiring. This post comes at a very needed time. My grandfather entered the US as a refugee during the Holocaust (the only of his entire family to survive) and if the US had not welcomed him with open arms, I would not be here today. I feel very strongly about this and was actually thinking about posting about it as well, but keep holding myself back because it’s a controversial topic. Thank you for sharing and reminding me to be strong even though this may be a very hard topic to talk about right now. You’re amazing! <3

    1. Ahhhh thank you so so much Lauren!! That is such an inspiring story and I would definitely be interested in reading if you wrote the whole thing out some day in a blog post 🙂 I hope you are having an amazing time in Madrid!!

  9. So many emotions while reading your post! My parents came to the States during the Vietnam War. While my dad was in the States with a student visa, my mom and her 8 brothers and sisters and my grandparents were refugees. So to me, I have a soft spot for refugees and anyone trying to better their lives in a different country. What’s odd to me and mind-boggling is that my parents, today, are totally for the ban and support our current president on this issue and more. I just don’t understand it. I try to talk to them about it but it rarely goes anywhere. And I found out, I’m not the only one with Vietnamese parents that feel that same way. How soon they forget?

    1. That is very mind boggling for me as well. And I hate to say it, but hypocritical! Someone once told me, though, that often people’s deeply held beliefs didn’t form from logic, so you can’t necessarily change their mind with logic. I wonder if they met people who are currently refugees, they would change their mind?

  10. Amazing Sarah! Thank you for writing this and sharing your experiences, I would love to hear more about them and ways people could get involved 🙂 it’s so important for us to help and I don’t understand why people say we shouldn’t be accepting refugees, I know if the situation was reversed all those people would hope that another country would accept them. Wonderful work you are doing!

    1. Thank you Ellie! That’s good to hear – are you interested in things like local volunteering, or volunteering abroad in camps? I could do a post on both, maybe! Exactly, I agree, if you think about the situation reversing, if it ever does, I’m sure people will conveniently forget that they once wanted to ban refugees!!

  11. Sarah this is a wonderful post! It seems that in today’s world many people are afraid of other cultures and forget that refuges are escaping war and other atrocities. Keep up the great work!

  12. I enjoyed this article a lot. It is very refreshing to read something sensible after all the media craziness and facebook nonsense I see daily. I think what every foreigner wishes the most is to integrate and make friends – yet people are scared of differences. Good on you for doing all this work!

    1. Thank you, that means a lot to me! Yes, there is so much nonsense in the media, even the well meaning articles I feel like often miss the point, and group refugees together with immigrants when it isn’t the same at all.

  13. It’s a beautiful and interesting post. Education is very important. I am seeing the situation in France from abroad (I’m French) and it breaks my heart. Thank you for your work as a volunteer, and as a writer for raising awareness. It’s inspiring.

  14. Such a beautifully written post. Education is so incredibly important and I appreciate a few of the stats you provided to add to my “education” repertoire! You are truly inspiring!

  15. Hi Sarah! Really great post, this is definitely an important topic and you’ve touched on a lot of good points here. I also think that you’ve written this post in a really relatable way – it’s both informative and conversational, and I think that you were brave in admitting to your audience that you once shared the fears that they might have now. I have a small piece of constructive criticism for you, I hope that’s okay! I would recommend that instead of using ‘American’ you describe yourself as from the United States – it’s something that I try to be mindful of myself (also being from the U.S.!) because obviously America encompasses all of the Americas…I think in this article it’s also an important distinction because, beyond the fact that the United States does not own the term American, there are refugees from various nations in the Americas, so it will actually clarify your writing a little bit.

    1. Thank you Alissa, it’s been on my mind and heart for a long time so I’m very glad that it translated well into writing. Yes, I have definitely heard of that before but obviously that didn’t stick with me! It’s a really good point – something I often get confused about, whether to sign forms as an “American” where it asks for nationality, or as a “person from the United States.” There are so many forms with drop-down menus that just list “American” rather than “USA” so it can get confusing. I definitely see your point though. Do you think that people from South America identify as “American,” then? Or more as citizens of their specific countries? In any case, it’s a really good point, thank you for mentioning it 🙂

  16. Beautiful, sharing. This is an important topic as of now there are more then 65 million people displaced from their home for some reason. We are all responsible for helping!

  17. I love this. One of the first articles I wrote for my blog (the topic was actually sustainable travel) I allude to the rise in travel today – but not all of it is the familiar voluntary, elective travel we talk about in these travel circles. A huge chunk of humankind today travel because they are refugees, because they are desperate, because they are compelled. These also see the world – a different world.

    I wonder sometimes if the adventure cross-country cyclists biking alone across wilderness in that space between Central Asia and Europe, ever cross paths with refugees desperately crossing the same ground. II read one story where security forces had to mobilise to escort one across a dangerous border for her safety – I couldn’t help but wonder, did she ever think that she was forcing those men to put themselves at risk for… her hobby? What if they were attacked? Someone could have lost a father, a husband. I just don’t understand a traveller that hasn’t managed to overcome that kind of privileged mindset.

    I agree that in many places people just don’t know how to respond to refugees – they’re scary and foreign. You’re right that it is travellers that should step up in these situations because travellers have the skills to be the bridge when their more typical countrymen may not be as prepared.

  18. I agree but would take what you said a step further. Everyone should support refugees. I really believe in living by the golden rule and if you were in the situation these refugees are in you would greatly appreciate any support.

  19. Thanks for this post! You opened up my mind for helping refugees. Never really thought about it before.

  20. Thanks for sharing! I would love to help as much as I can. So far, I’ve contributed a little by donating money and buying earrings from Drop Earrings Not Bombs – an organisation in Turkey, where Syrian refugees make jewelry and take english classes and learn other things that can help them get a job abroad 🙂

  21. I completely agree with you and would love if you created a post about volunteering with refugees. My husband and I are saving for a RTW trip where we volunteer in different countries. Thank you for sharing these views and being so honest about your opinion!

  22. YES! I couldn’t agree more!! I worked at the UN and had the opportunity to do a lot of research on refugees and hear from a family of refugees in person (the family from Children of Syria, a powerful PBS frontline documentary). I’m heavily considering volunteering at a refugee camp and am looking into getting my masters in Human Rights one day. P.S. is that mural in London’s Southbank? I recognize it!

  23. OMG I love so . So educated and insightful and compassionate. Why can’t more people be like this. As an American (with a Syrian immigrant father) I am APPALLED at what is happening on so many levels. I agree with everything you said. I lived in Miami, a city of immigrants who supported the bag on Muslims and Syrian refugees. Talk about hypocrites. I am going to share this as much as I can! So many great talking points here.

  24. This is such a great post! I recently wrote a post (and it’s ongoing and growing) about ways travelers can support immigrants and refugees in the US while they travel–I’ve found some amazing organizations and businesses in the process! Love the tips and ideas you shared here as well & will be sharing this post. 🙂

    Especially love the encouragement to volunteer locally. I live between 2 or 3 cities where there are refugee resettlement agencies working, but all of those cities are 45 minutes – 1 hour or more away, so it’s not really conducive for regular volunteering…but it’s been something that’s been on my heart for awhile so I’m looking for other ways to get involved.

    And this –> “But here’s the truth: no opinion has ever been changed by righteous yelling or telling someone that their *fundamental* beliefs are just plain wrong. I may be preaching to the choir here on le blog, due to the whole confirmation bias epidemic of modern media, but out in the Real World, you are bound to happen upon someone who doesn’t share your opinion. So be open minded to their views, listen to their fears, maybe you will learn something or at least gain insight to somebody else’s perception of the world, and then… educate. You cannot expect someone to be open minded to your beliefs if you do not offer the same respect in return.” So good! Thanks for sharing.

  25. Awesome post – very well said. It’s really quite sad how so many nations have the ability to do more, yet they are closing their doors. At the root of it, we are all human beings and we should all be treated properly. And we need to remember that the refugees aren’t leaving because they want to, but because they HAVE to. Again, great post!!

  26. Great post – definitely worth a short series if you’re inspired to do so. I agree that as travellers we are already likely to be more open-minded and appreciative of other cultures so we are in a great position to help those who may not have as much information on the differences between refugees and immigrants, or be worried about potential impacts.

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