How Remote Volunteering Makes It Possible to Reach the Most Vulnerable Refugees

Marcelina Palamar and Angus Clark highlight the power of digitalised learning in supporting refugees, fostering knowledge sharing, and promoting smooth educational transitions, urging for the transition to a holistic approach that fosters social bonds, cultural exchange, and community engagement.
How Remote Volunteering Makes It Possible to Reach the Most Vulnerable Refugees
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Faced with a recent influx of Ukrainian refugees arriving in Europe and the UK, we wanted to help, but the traditional method of sending money felt both too easy and too distant from our own lives. Local initiatives were either poorly advertised or non-existent, so we found a solution that let us play a more active role in aiding newcomers, while simultaneously helping to reinforce collective knowledge production and sharing.

The answer, it turned out, lay in front of us in recent shifts to digitalised learning.

The spread of video-based calling that the pandemic ushered in has fundamentally altered how we connect with each other. Where before, what was distant could only be helped by money, now we can regularly interact with others far across the globe. And though we cannot rebuild infrastructure or deliver food and water on a video call, one thing we can do is teach. Supported by our background in teaching English, we decided to start a completely digital charity that connects tutors to refugee students based all over the United Kingdom to ensure their effective integration into the local educational system.

Also on the Forum Network: Attaining the Possible: Educating Ukrainian refugees helps build their new lives—and rebuild their country by

The world is seeing yet another massive wave of refugees—this time from Ukraine. It is incumbent on us to help their children find security and grasp opportunity rather than languish on the margins of our societies. 

Ukrainian refugees in the United Kingdom are scattered across the country, which poses a problem from the perspective of their integration and support, especially for children. Most of the children with whom we have spoken are the only Ukrainians in their school or one of a very small number with very different ages and levels. This means that English language support for them is resource-inefficient for cash-strapped schools, with the result that many kids receive absolutely no help at all, or at best only an hour or two a week using a tool like Rosetta Stone.

But from the perspective of the refugees and their parents, any amount of help – especially if it is regular feedback and one-on-one support – is a huge improvement on what they had had before.

Once we decided that we wanted to teach, we started by advertising on county-level pages for Ukrainian refugees and then continued growing by word of mouth. After a brief chat with the kids and their parents to gauge their levels, we create small tutoring groups and then start assigning our volunteer teachers. Our lessons are short and focus on getting people involved. Small groups, with cameras turned on, ensure that nobody is left behind or isolated.

Video-conferencing means that our tutors – though all studying languages at British universities – can teach from wherever they are and whenever they can. Our volunteers tailor their classes according to their own preferences and those of the children, whilst those with TEFL qualifications and more experience provide guidance and materials as needed. Some of our volunteers teach their students multiple times each week, while others only manage an hour here or there. But from the perspective of the refugees and their parents, any amount of help – especially if it is regular feedback and one-on-one support – is a huge improvement on what they had had before.

Some of our teachers know their students’ native language, which helps greatly when supporting children whose level had not passed beyond “my name is” despite having been in the United Kingdom for months already. While it is a relief to meet a smart kid from Kyiv whose English is already flawless, the most significant and impactful work is always with the child from Odesa or Mykolaiv whose answer to the question “how are you?” is merely a blank stare.

Developing student and/or university–public partnerships not only forges social bonds but also reinforces our social responsibility to help one another.

We have also observed potential for further improving education for refugees by combining language learning with direct community engagement, for a more holistic – and more effective – approach. Developing student and/or university–public partnerships not only forges social bonds but also reinforces our social responsibility to help one another.

With our tutors coming from higher education, we are now also beginning to work on offering opportunities for our kids to have local pen pals or language-learning buddies from among the United Kingdom’s – admittedly small – secondary school learners of Ukrainian. Given that almost all of our students complain of loneliness or having very few friends, even those who are already going to school here, it seems like a perfect move to let them share their culture and languages with young British people who want to return the favour.

What began as a sense of paralysis before the task of helping so many people suffering so much has, through the help of technology and a new idea of language learning for university students, allowed us to improve the quality of life of so many, through supporting both parents and students in their linguistic transition. For a policymaker dealing with the twin challenge of ensuring a smooth transition from education into the workforce, and the integration of diverse refugees, organising government-led initiatives with this as a guide can only be a good thing.

While at the moment we are focusing on refugees from Ukraine, there is no reason why this model of combining university language education with active social engagement cannot be extended to other languages, such as Arabic, which are common among refugees and language departments across the United Kingdom.

We must take heart at the new opportunities that the shift towards digitalised learning has created. If once our only option before distant or diffuse horror and pain was to write a cheque, now there are possibilities to help more actively. For those of us who want to make a difference, this is definitely something to be grateful for.




To learn more, visit the OECD page on Migration

And also read the OECD report: Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2023

This joint OECD-European Commission publication presents a comprehensive comparison of the integration outcomes of immigrants and their children in OECD, EU and selected other countries. It includes 83 indicators covering three main areas: labour market and skills; living conditions; and civic engagement and social integration. The publication also provides detailed data on the characteristics of immigrant populations and households. Three special chapters are dedicated to focusing on the integration outcomes of specific groups: elderly migrants, youth with foreign-born parents, and third-country nationals in the European Union and European OECD countries.

More information: OECD | War in Ukraine | The policy challenges

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