Thousands volunteer as refugee guides

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The Norwegian Red Cross has been overwhelmed by the numbers of fellow Norwegians who’ve been volunteering to help asylum seekers get used to life in Norway. More than 11,500 people have volunteered just in the past few weeks, offering everything from informal language lessons to help with practical matters, local sightseeing or just being a friend.

Refugee relief efforts began spontaneously all over Norway, like here at a clothing collection drive in Oslo, after thousands of asylum seekers started arriving last summer. Now thousands of Norwegians are also donating their time, to help refugees adjust to life in Norway. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Refugee relief efforts, like this clothing collection drive in Oslo, began spontaneously after thousands of asylum seekers started arriving last summer. Now thousands of Norwegians are also donating their time, to help refugees adjust to life in Norway. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“First and foremost, I have gained a good friend,” Alexander Engedal Gewelt, a 26-year-old Oslo resident, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Friday morning. He first signed up as a Red Cross volunteer last year, before the influx of asylum seekers started arriving in Norway last summer, and has worked free of charge as a “refugee guide” for Mussie Butsuamlak, age 25, from Eritrea. “I’ve also learned about Eritrea and how to explain cultural norms here in Norway.”

The two have stayed in contact after Gewelt’s first year was up. “We get together for a cup of coffee and talk about life,” Butsuamlak told NRK. “He’s also helped me write up my CV and with job applications, and we’ve gone for walks.” Butsuamlak is now attending Norwegian classes while looking for work.

Gewelt, meanwhile, has also signed up to be a guide for another asylum seeker and he’s far from alone. The Red Cross already had more than 40,000 volunteers around the country to help, for example, elderly Norwegians living alone and others in need of various forms of assistance. Over the past six weeks, according to Red Cross officials, thousands more have contacted their local Red Cross offices to volunteer their services for the asylum seekers who have arrived in Norway.

Extra effort
The surge of volunteers comes in addition to those who impulsively responded to the hardships faces by newly arrived asylum seekers forced to wait outside over-burdened asylum registration centers in Oslo and other Norwegian cities. They started serving warm food and drink, delivering warm clothing and extending other help to those in need, backed by local restaurants that donated food and even top chefs.

The refugee crisis, Red Cross officials say, has simply touched many peoples’ hearts. “This is fantastic for those needing help and for those who do help,” Sven Mollekleiv, president of Norges Røde Kors, told NRK. “It’s also incredibly important for Norwegian society.” Instead of simply donating money, he noted, people are able to donate their time and competence to help newcomers to Norway.

The Red Cross has 40 various activities in which volunteers can take part. Simply being a friend through the organization’s service called besøkstjeneste is among the most important. Other programs offer help with homework for refugee children and help for grownups who need to adjust to life in Norway. That can often include simply showing them around their new communities and introducing them to local activities.

“Folks say that they want to contribute, help out, do something,” Mollekleiv told NRK. The response from so many thousands of volunteers, he said, “shows the best of our Norwegian culture.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund