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Want to volunteer? Please, learn Dutch

Many international students want to contribute to Groningen’s society by volunteering for charities or non-profit organisations. Yet, it is not easy for internationals to find voluntary work. The problem? Language, of course.

Before Cynthia Planas Zuzunaga (28) came to Groningen, she always volunteered at hospitals for kids and the elderly in her Peruvian hometown Lima. Cynthia moved here to follow the master in Sustainable Energy Systems at Hanze UAS. She also wanted to continue doing voluntary work in Groningen. ‘I hoped to either do hospital work or something at an animal shelter’, she says. Cynthia contacted a couple of different organisations in her search for a suitable position. ‘I got in touch with Humanitas and Vrijwilligers Groningen, but all their positions required Dutch fluency and a minimum commitment of one year.’ Humanitas is a national non-profit association which aims to support people who, for a range of different reasons, temporarily cannot manage on their own. The organisation has a total of eighty departments throughout the Netherlands, including a department in the Groningen city centre.

Internationals who are interested in learning Dutch find their way to Humanitas

Normal everyday conversation
Cynthia is presumably not the only international having a hard time finding a suitable vacancy for voluntary work. A representative of the Groningen department of Humanitas admits that almost all of their positions require volunteers to be able to speak Dutch. ‘Most of our volunteers are coupled up with one specific person that they help, mostly a child, an elderly person or a refugee who needs to learn Dutch and get acquainted with Dutch society. Since a majority of the work involves one-on-one contact between the volunteer and the person they are paired up with, it is important that the volunteer is able to have normal, everyday conversations’, she explains.


Meet-ups for foreigners
Nonetheless, internationals who are interested in learning Dutch find their way to Humanitas. Every Thursday afternoon, there is a language café at the headquarters of the Groningen department. These meet-ups are meant for foreigners wishing to learn the language and Dutch people wishing to get to know refugees and other migrants in Groningen. Anyone is welcome to join anytime between three and five. ‘Quite a few international students attend these languages cafés, through which they make meaningful connections. With people from whom they learn Dutch, but also with refugees’, the Humanitas representative states. She advises those who are interested in volunteering in Groningen to contact Link050, an organisation that brings together all the knowledge, ideas and partnerships that are relevant when it comes to voluntary work and local initiatives in Groningen.

If these students only want to communicate in English, then the number of opportunities is very limited

Seals don’t speak Dutch either
Yet internationals that contact Link050 are likely to run into similar problems as when approaching Humanitas. Link050-coordinator Antoine van Duyn regularly receives emails from international students who are looking for opportunities to volunteer, but she is unable to provide precise numbers of international students actually finding a suitable position. ‘Language is always a problem. If these students only want to communicate in English, then the number of opportunities is very limited’, she explains. Antoine mentions one option where the main language is English: the seal centre in Pieterburen (a rescue centre and hospital for seals). The centre offers internships and volunteering positions in the seal care department, the veterinary and science departments or with their education team. ‘But not everyone wants to go there’, the coordinator at Link050 adds.

If you are less practical, but good in English or German, the shipping museum might be the place for you

Painting, gardening and carpentry
The International Welcome Center North (IWCN) is aware that the opportunities for internationals to volunteer at charities and non-profit organisations in Groningen are limited. Though it is in no way complete, the centre for internationals living in the north of the Netherlands (Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe) does have a list with volunteer opportunities where little or no knowledge of Dutch is required. For Groningen specifically, it mentions Vrouwencentrum Jasmijn (a centre for women), Hortus Haren (a botanical garden) The Scheepvaartmuseum (the shipping museum) and MJD Groningen (a social welfare organisation). At the women’s centre, there occasionally are opportunities to teach English and in Haren you can do many different things: painting, gardening, carpentry and electrical work. If you are less practical, but good in English or German, the shipping museum might be the place for you. They are looking for tour guides who speak one or both of these languages. MJD offers a wide variety of opportunities, including working with animals. For the latter, knowledge of Dutch is not relevant, whereas other voluntary work via MJD might require a certain level of language competency.

Volunteering helps you to improve your skills and helps you acquire more practical experience

Personal satisfaction
Karen Prowse, Operations Manager at IWCN, hopes to improve and increase these opportunities soon. ‘To achieve this, we have to work together with many other organisations, quite a few of which are lagging behind in internationalisation. These organisations are still hesitant to get internationals on board because it’s relatively new to them, they don’t know what to expect’, she states. IWCN sees it as one of its roles to make the companies and organisations that are looking for volunteers more visible and help them find the talent they need. Karen thinks it is important for international students to be able to do voluntary work in Groningen. ‘Volunteering helps you to improve your skills and helps you acquire more practical experience, furthermore it helps in broadening your network. All these aspects could lead up to getting a paid job here’, Karen explains. Apart from these practical merits, Karen also sees the social benefits. ‘Volunteering can give personal satisfaction, it can really make you happy when you feel you can contribute to society.’