Building Bridges Toolkit

The Toolkit was designed to collect and share the know-how on voluntary projects involving people seeking or who have recently found refuge, as well as raising awareness on forced migration in general. The collection of guidelines, methods and case studies is non-exhaustive and should simply foster your own inspiration and support you in implementing projects on the topic. The creation of the Toolkit has been driven by the ever bigger need of the international SCI network to exchange best practices on projects in the field. It was coordinated by SCI Switzerland with the support of Útilapu Hungary. Its existence wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Mercator Foundation Switzerland and the active contribution of the Building Bridges working group and a number of SCI branches.



During the Building Bridges training course on working with asylum seekers and refugees that took place near Geneva, Switzerland in June 2016, the Building Bridges working group elaborated the Building Bridges activity report. Based on that, the activists from various countries and experienced in different volunteering projects compiled specific cases and solutions regarding activities and projects with asylum seekers and refugees.

    Case 1: Worries about the potentially negative reactions from locals towards asylum seekers in public spaces
    • Organise information points in the city center for volunteers only and explain them the situation of asylum seekers
    • Open the center’s doors
    • Start a festival march in the town and finish in the Refugee center with an activity (i.e. lunch) for everybody
    • Contact beforehand persons that you know, share their participation and give information

    In case of a public event:

    • DO NOT tell the asylum seekers about this kind of situation that can happen nor this preparation ; not helpful to spread fear and negative vibes
    • Discuss a procedure within the team in case of troubles: Non violence methods and philosophy
    • Decide on a team member who overviews the situation and feels confident to intervene (who might be trained in mediation and non violent communication).
    • Always try to have a positive mind set; not in any way attracting negative reactions.
    • Be careful of the way you are presenting yourself outside; reflect on it beforehand. (i.e. prepare a silent demonstration rather than a shouting demonstration.
    • Show the people, that you know well the refugees who attend the public event, for example calling them by their name, showing you have a relationship.
      (Share good practices, a personal story: i.e. “I used to work in a cooperative in which Roma people frequently passed by. The best way to avoid that all the “regular” clients run away when the Roma people entered was actually to call them by their name and ask them how did their doctor appointment go or how is their daughter doing. This was a simple trick which we often used to show that there is nothing to fear, that they are normal people with the same kind of issues and the same need of social relationships.”)
    • Discuss calmly and don’t try to prove wrong these “opponents”
    • Rather try to understand where the fears come from. Ask questions: why and what they mean? What happened? Why do you feel like that/think that? What are you afraid of? Have you had a bad experience?
    • As you reach the point you want to get out of this conversation/situation, try to guide the discussion like that: “I understand your fear, yet my experience with migrant people/refugees has proven the exact opposite to me. If you would like to, you are very welcome to stay at our event yet please stop saying these kind of offensive things, because according to me it is disrespectful towards my friends who are also participating in this event…”

    In the case of an open-door event at an asylum center and right wing extremists show up (eg. one with a Swastika on his jacket) asking to see all the rooms:

    • If you feel their only purpose here is to make trouble, ask them to leave. Take the help of your friends and security guard to do so: friends form a half circle in the background showing them through their body language that they are not welcome here and that they will not let them pass to get into the asylum center. (if possible, get a photo of the one with swastika on his jacket – should be reported to the police!)
    • If you do want to let them in, show that you have house tours every hour, so that it is structured and they cannot just walk in. YOU choose the rooms – not all rooms are shown or have to be shown; check that you have the security guard with you in the background at all times. Depending on how they react towards the asylum seekers, make sure that you are aware and the asylum seekers are safe at all times. That means, take another co-worker/volunteer with you if that makes you more safe and comfortable. If you think it is necessary, ask the security guard to do a security check on the right wing people before entering the house. For the house tour, try to mix the group with other people, so that the tension isn’t so high and the focus is not only on them and also that if questions are asked, they will be more diverse if the group is mixed.
    Case 2: Asylum seeking friends to be deported because of their rejected claim

    In addition to the social work aspect of working with asylum seekers, you could already do upfront some advocacy work, to defend the human rights of asylum seekers for example.

    • Ask journalists to cover the story of your friend/asylum seeker deported.
    • Avoid as much as possible to adopt the saviour behaviour: while working with sensitive target groups, it is important not to consider your work as saving people but rather as accompanying people in difficulties, “holding hands together” for a certain path for the time being. You cannot be responsible of their future but you can be here for their present.
    • If you become friends, start talking about the eventuality of deportation, exchange fears and expectations concerning the future and maybe already consider ways to stay in touch (e-mails, address, phone, if applicable)
    • Allow yourself to react as a regular/normal friend: stay close and available, stay in contact after the deportation. Before being a volunteer or worker with asylum seekers, you are simply a human being.
    • Reflect on how far you are ready to get involved with your friend and her/his deportation, especially in the case it starts to enter the illegal sphere. For example, would you be ready to do a non-violent civil disobedient action? Would you be ready to hide someone illegally? Talk about it with your friend also.
    • As a coordinator, prepare the volunteers for this eventuality: explaining them the political and legal context of migration in the country concerned, inviting a volunteer who already had this experience to talk about it, etc.
    • As a coordinator, organise regular group meetings with the volunteers who work with asylum seekers to talk about the emotional difficulties it might bring up. It would be useful also to designate a person who acts as a referent person in case the volunteers need to talk.
    • Reflect on how to find an emotional balance
    Case 3: Optimal preparation: What elements or topics must be included? You have 2 days /weekend
    • Info session about countries of origin of asylum seekers  in the center
    • Info session on legal procedures and asylum seeking in the respective country
    • Overview of the asylum seeker’s› profile (age, gender, interests, cultural specifics, country of origin)
    • Set the expectations of the volunteers (depending on the country)
    • Team-building, getting to know each other – focus on intercultural learning
    • Divide in smaller groups of interests and brainstorm about the activities volunteers would like to organise for the asylum seekers
    • Information on practical resources of the center – what can they use for the activities, what do they need to provide themselves etc.
    • Information about vulnerabilities and psychological aspects of the target group – prepare them what to talk about, what not to do, to reflect about the motivation of the volunteers
    Case 4: (Too) strict rules which tend to demotivate children/participants
    • Make reunions every evening to speak about how the activities are going and what can be improved
    • Try to standardise, as much as possible, the rules and try to find a compromise.
    • A possibility is also to organise a training for volunteers who will work with children in order to learn how to manage classes, to learn about conflict resolution, pedagogical basics etc.
    Case 5: Exclusion
    • Plan activities in the center in order to present yourselves, your programme and let a trustworthy impression to the habitants
    • Plan the excursions beforehand, involve parents in the planning and explain them the project ideas (but also have in mind arguments of the parents)
    • Organise alternative excursions where everyone can participate
    • Parents who already went on those kind of excursions can talk about their experiences with others
    • Enable an exchange between the parents to speak with other families about fears and expectations
    Case 6: More and less eager volunteers
    • At the beginning of a workcamp or other project, the respective roles and task divisions should be clearly communicated. Make sure that everyone knows their own responsibilities.
    • Have regular evaluation meetings with ALL the volunteers. It will give them time to reflect and to express their feelings about the work. The meetings should be held in a comfortable environment where the volunteers could express themselves freely. In this way volunteers who feel useless or insecure could raise the issue and discuss it among the group while giving constructive feedback and trying to find common solutions.
    • In case a specific volunteer is not aware of his/her attitude and how it affects the rest, also help the person become aware of the problem. The leader/coordinator could try to introduce directly the task division issue among volunteers.
    Case 7: Big number of volunteers which tend to confuse staff of Refugee Centers
    • A good idea could be to create a book / album of photos and a short description of all the volunteers involved in the project
    • Try to organise a joint evening out, with both the volunteers and the staff. This could be done in the beginning through many activities on getting to know each other and their names.
    • Use name tags / handmade badges all the time
    • Try to divide the volunteers into smaller groups, with a contact person for each one or define one or two contact persons between the staff and the volunteers. Mostly, this will be created by the local language speakers. That should improve the communication.
    Case 8: Volunteers motivation and dropping out

    There are three aspects to address in this case:
    1) Try to discover why the volunteers dropped the project. If it is not something ineluctable, try to speak to him/her to understand his/her reasons.

    2) How to replace the volunteer and to divide the work among the others.

    • A good idea could be to have a backup list of people ready to jump in; it doesn’t matter if it is only for a short period of time.
    • Stay in touch with other coordinators from similar projects, in order to have advice, experiences and sources of motivation.
    • Try to talk to potential volunteers
    • It is quite hard to divide the work between few volunteers. Explain them that it is a temporary situation (if you can find a replacement) and try to avoid pressure
    • As you find a replacement, guarantee his/her integration into the group, and make sure that she/he has a good amount of experience. Someone who makes the work even harder will harm the general motivation of the group.

    3) Shaky motivation of the other volunteers

    • Make them sign a collective agreement at the start
    • Create long term incentives (ex. certificates) to improve the commitment
    • Organise regular meetings to check the motivation
    • Give them regular feedback, appreciate their work, remind them of the importance of their commitment
    • Try to implement some motivation boosting (ex. Intensive and dedicate session of training about the camp theme, so that you can refresh their motivation)
    • Put a lot of effort from the very beginning of the camp, because it will help the group cohesion
    • Talk open to the volunteers, in order to understand threats to their motivation
    • Fight corruption!
    Case 9: NGO and Refugee Centre cooperation

    In case you start activities but you find out that on the same day and time your activities overlap with other similar activities with the same target group

    • If it is possible, change the day of the activities
    • Try to combine the two activities, coordinate with the other NGO or the staff of the Center to see if that is possible
    Case 10: Improving of evaluation process; what to include to make it more relevant and useful?
    • Organise regular evaluation meetings in order to track down progress
    • Make sure that everyone shares their overall experience in front of everyone (if it´s not possible or people feel uncomfortable there are also possibilities for anonymous feedback and evaluations).
    Case 11: Different working styles of volunteers
    • If possible, appy different activities that take best advantage of one workstyle or the other, because sometimes a workstyle is best for some types of activities and the other for different activities
    • Communicate fears, reasons for their preferred work style:
      There are people who like to plan in advance because they are insecure, and having other people that improvise make them anxious. Therefore, it is good to communicate this fear to the other volunteers and compromise on how much planning and improvising there is going to be. Also, it is important to note that improvisation and carelessness are two different things!
    • Work together and take advantage of the strengths of the others:
      Planning and improvisation are two workstyles that have strengths and weaknesses and it is important to work together in order to combine the strengths of the two. For example, planning helps being prepared and thorough, while improvisation can be helpful when there are unforeseen changes to the plan. Volunteers can also learn from each other how to work differently and improve.
    • Talk about feelings
    • Trust each other and respect each other:
      It is important to trust the other persons and to know that even though they work differently, they are committed and they know what they are doing (again, improvisation, not carelessness; and planning, not necessarily being intransigent about it).
    • Team Building:
      For the above mentioned reason, it is important to work on teambuilding and creating trust among volunteers.
    Case 12: Despite the made agreements, some volunteers bring e.g. clothes/food to asylum seekers
    • Discuss the issue with all volunteers
    • Check again the needs of asylum seekers for food or clothes
    • Encourage them to find another way to help asylum seekers
    • Keep an eye on them if they continue to do that
    • Explain the need for sending a clear message through consistent behaviour from all volunteers
    Case 13: Volunteers complain that asylum seekers joining their classes change constantly and it is hard to plan the<br /> classes - constant change of pax

    Planning difficulties:

    • Create a Communication group:
      Creating a closed group (FB, Whatsapp) with the participants, where everybody can post things, can help passing on information, for example regarding the classes. This way the participants are well informed and the volunteers can use the group to assess the needs of the participants and check their availability, this way helping the volunteers in planning the classes. It is important to manage the group confidentially so no-one would feel they cannot communicate through it freely for any reasons.
    • Use the knowledge of experienced participants to pass on information:
      This can be done when there is a good relationship between experienced participants and the volunteers and they are willing to help with the communication between the asylum seekers and the volunteers. This way the volunteers can ask about the participants’ availability, opinion about the classes and their preferences about it, sending information about the classes, thus helping the volunteers to communicate and plan.
    • Note:
      Via these practices the turnover of the classes provided by volunteers can be reduced, because the participants feel more involved and connected, although they don’t help in some cases. For example in cases when they don’t get to decide if they want to attend, because they have other obligatory programs. In this case it is important to communicate with the social workers as well.
    Case 14: Victimizing refugees: As a coordinator you notice that some of the volunteers perceive asylum seekers too much as poor victims who need help
    • Talk about it already in the selection process and training of volunteers
    • Check that volunteers are respecting the organization’s values


    You can share your experience, observations, tips and tricks, pictures etc. by uploading for instance a method or a case study to the Building Bridges Toolkit. As this Toolkit is a work in progress to which all involved parties are invited to contribute, we would also be very grateful for your support and contribution in order to inspire others to continue the work towards peace and intercultural understanding.