Volunteering as a way to support belonging and wellbeing in the lives of refugee youth

“Establishing a sense of belonging in early resettlement is foundational for wellbeing among refugee youth…” (Correa-Velez et al., 2010)

My research focused on the idea of belonging with the understanding that a sense of belonging is something almost all people want and need to experience and something that we will all experience differently. In our personal lives, we can easily see that belonging and wellbeing are connected, especially when we consider transitional periods such as moving or starting at a new school or university. That is, as we settle into something new and begin to grow a sense of belonging and comfort, our wellbeing, our moments of contentment and happiness, increase. As Correa-Velez et al. (2010) suggest above, for refugee youth, the establishment of a sense of belonging is critical for wellbeing. My doctoral research was conducted with unaccompanied refugee girls who arrived alone as minors in England to seek asylum and settle. The research explored various spaces in which the girls felt both belonging and a lack of belonging.

One of the refugee girls I spoke with during my research, Nia*, shared such a lovely story of how she felt a sense of belonging through her interaction and friendship with an older local woman who volunteered at a local learning centre where Nia went to practice English and get help with her college work. Nia spoke repeatedly about the older woman, Mary*, saying she loved her and describing a friendship that included days out to castles and chicken farms, tea in the garden and reading books together. Mary had basically taken Nia under her wing and not only supported her with English practice, but with seeing and learning more of the local area. Mary made Nia feel welcome and safe and provided a space where Nia could be curious, ask questions and practice English without feeling insecure or fearing ridicule. When Nia spoke of Mary, her face lit up and her tone conveyed a sense of contentment as though she fully knew that she belonged in those moments with Mary. In an environment that was hostile to her in so many other ways, Nia’s time with Mary was a safe space for her to relax and recharge.

Being generous and giving of our time like Mary is something many of us can do. When we volunteer, we can support a sense of belonging and wellbeing in the life of a refugee youth (or any refugee!). Volunteering is a great way to welcome the refugees in our local areas and contribute to the growth of an environment that desires for everyone to find a space to belong and to experience a healthy and positive sense of wellbeing. There are so many ways to help: teaching English, hanging out, helping with homework, sorting supplies, etc. I have found that I also get so much out of volunteering as it provides me with a huge sense of satisfaction at having been able to tangibly help another human and even grows my own sense of wellbeing. I’ve always thought that my dream job would be as a professional volunteer so I could help people in lots of different ways; unfortunately, professional volunteering doesn’t usually pay the bills. But I strongly encourage everyone to get involved and volunteer; you could be the Mary to someone’s Nia.

By Dr Anna Wharton

*Nia and Mary are pseudonyms.


Correa-Velez, I., Gifford, S. M. and Barnett, A. G. (2010) ‘Longing to belong: Social inclusion and wellbeing among youth with refugee backgrounds in the first three years in Melbourne, Australia’, Social Science & Medicine, vol. 71, no. 8, pp. 1399–1408 [Online]. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.07.018.

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