Grassroots Volunteerism in Athens: Notes from the Field

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

By Marie Aline Klinger, Lisa Nüßlein, Elena Liberati and Elena Nikiforova

Three years after the closing of the Balkan route and implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement, Athens is still a hub and junction for people on the move in Greece. As a response to this influx, an extensive humanitarian field embracing a wide spectrum of actors has developed, from small grassroots organisations to large INGOs. Volunteers play a crucial role in the functioning of this field. This paper is based on a pilot study of people who cooperate on a voluntary basis with small-scale initiatives in Athens. As our research shows, many small-scale initiatives’ participants perceive ‘volunteering’ - and their labelling as volunteers - problematic. This paper explores why the conventional V-term has become controversial, considers its alternative labels, and links this conceptual debate to the broader problems of humanitarianism.

Grassroots volunteerism in Athens: notes from the field

Three years after the closing of the Balkan route and implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement, Athens is still a hub and junction for people on the move in Greece. Migrants and refugees find themselves stranded in Athens waiting for their cases to be considered. As a response to this influx, an extensive humanitarian field has developed, one that embraces a wide spectrum of actors, from humanitarian groups to business initiatives, small grassroots organisations to large international organisations. Volunteers play a crucial role in the functioning of this ever-expanding field, as many organisations actively engage volunteers in their activities or rely entirely on volunteer work.

We, four female social scientists from Germany, Italy, and Russia, carried out a small research project on the phenomenon of volunteering in Athens. Our pilot research was conducted in Athens in January 2019, as part of an anthropological winter school on ‘Migration in the Margins of Europe’ held by the Netherlands Institute of Athens. Facing a multiplicity of actors and perspectives, we were particularly interested in grassroots activities and civic engagement, and narrowed our gaze to small scale initiatives, which are significantly different, conceptually and practically, from large and established humanitarian bodies.

Research Questions and Methodology

Starting this research project, two of us had prior experience of volunteering in Athens and another was engaged in similar activities in Italy. Our motivation to explore the topic on an empirical and theoretical level was therefore grounded in our prior first-hand experience. We went to the field armed with two sets of questions. The first set explored the individual meanings and motives of engagement in volunteering: people’s incentives, previous experiences, what they have gained from being volunteers, and how this experience can be placed within their broader life trajectories. The second set of questions concerned the definitional and conceptual aspects of the phenomenon of volunteering and the debate on differences and convergences between volunteering and social activism (see Wilson 2000: 216).

From our previous experience, we knew that for an involved and reflexive practitioner, volunteerism, conventionally defined as ‘any activity in which time is given freely to benefit another person, group, or cause’ (Wilson 2000: 215), crumbles into a complex array of categories, subject positions, and related identities. It is a complicated and morally loaded field. Moreover, many people working in the field find the very notion of ‘volunteering’ problematic and prefer using other labels instead. For example, one of our interlocutors (Chiara, an Italian independent volunteer and writer) explains this uneasiness as follows: ‘I don’t like to be considered a volunteer, because … it is not just a matter of helping people, it is a matter of acting and being aware, of being an aware citizen’ (see also Rozakou 2016: 94; Serntedakis 2017: 92). What is so problematic about using the accustomed and conventional ‘V-word’ label for those engaged in producing this field? What are alternative ways for ‘volunteers’ to label and define themselves? How do these labels and debates about their meanings relate to broader conceptual and moral questions faced by humanitarianism today? Those were the questions we had starting our fieldwork.

People serving as volunteers in Athens make for a rather diverse community, and we tried to reflect this diversity in our interview sample. Of our seven total interlocutors, two were Greek citizens who live in Athens on a permanent basis, two were short term internationals, three had been to Greece for a year or longer. Among the latter, two people had recent forced migration experience. Besides these seven in-depth interviews, we conducted many informal conversations with the volunteers of all above mentioned backgrounds and also, in some cases, conducted follow-up conversations during a return visit to the field site in June 2019.

Results: Reflections on Volunteerism

A common theme brought up by all interlocutors concerns the nature of volunteering and the meaning that this category has gained since the ‘summer of migration’ of 2015. Volunteering has become a term that represents relationships of inequality and hierarchies entrenched in the humanitarian industry. Most of our interviewees deliberately and thoughtfully chose to join grassroots and hands-on initiatives, remaining very critical of large international NGOs which get ‘huge amounts of funding, spend them nobody knows how, and are still looking for volunteers to do their job for free’ (Artemis, from Greece). Some were pushed away from involvement in international NGOs (often EU or government funded) by the perception that their work reproduced hierarchies in many ways, from wearing logotyped uniforms to operating in line with state interests driven by strict bordering policies.

Volunteering is also loaded with other meanings derived from cultural contexts in which voluntary activities are linked to community work or religious groups: ‘I don’t like the term ‘volunteer’ because in Italy it is always referred to something Catholic’(Chiara). Since most of our interlocutors see the work they are doing as unquestionably political, it is not surprising that, not wanting to appear solely as good Samaritans, they find this mix of connotations problematic. They perceive volunteering as ‘a weak category’ associated with subordinated position within existing social structures, whereas in their view these very structures should be subjected to criticism and transformation.

The criticism of volunteerism we observed during our research resonates with the findings of Giorgos Serntedakis (2017)and Katerina Rozakou (2016; 2017), anthropologists who have carried outin-depth studies of volunteerism in Greece. Rozakou points at the existence of two types of volunteerism in Greece, distinguishing between ‘official volunteerism’ and ‘vernacular humanitarianism.’ Official volunteerism was crafted by the state in the 1990s-2000s as a part of the modernist project of Europeanisation of Greece, while ‘vernacular humanitarianism’ consists of grassroots solidarity movements that re-emerged as a social response to the devastating effects of Greek austerity policies (Rozakou 2016, 2017). While the Greek state and the EU were not able to react adequately to the challenges of the ‘refugee crisis’, Greek society instead developed grassroots social mobilisation and support. 

Conceptually, ‘solidarity’ is inspired by the leftist and anarchist ideology that have deep roots in Greece (Rozakou 2017, Papataxiarchis 2016). It puts at the fore the principle of egalitarian anti-hierarchical relationships and distances itself from traditional humanitarianism, which is perceived as an ideology and practice grounded in the unequal relationships between ‘gift-givers’ and ‘beneficiaries’ on the matter of ‘humanitarian aid’ (see King 2016; Rozakou 2016, 2017). The establishment of traditional humanitarian practice brought about by the en massearrival of large humanitarian organisations sharpened this conceptual boundary and gave solidarity movements another powerful impetus for development. In this cosmology, the state, as a promoter and ally of traditional humanitarianism and an apologist of strict bordering policies, was also constructed as an opponent to the extent that many initiatives consciously refused to register as NGOs, choosing to promote ‘alternative forms of public sociality that (...) emphasise open loci of relationality and mutual support’ (Rozakou 2016: 80). These sentiments were reiterated by some of our interlocutors:

"Why do we have to be system? (...) Why do you have to be NGO? I see one homeless guy and I want to say to him ‘Hello’. I have to be NGO to say to him ‘Hello??’ "

(Ashkan, from Iran).

Most of our interlocutors do voluntary work for solidarity initiatives of this kind and endorse these ideas, working them into practice. They also developed reflections on the deep and problematic contradictions between their own positionality and mode of living and the conditions of those whom they have come to assist:

"‘Solidarian’ – I would prefer it – showing solidarity to the people and trying to support them in the situation in which we are on a horizontal level. I understand that I am Italian with a passport, so this horizontal level, perhaps, does not exist, but…Yeah. Solidarian."


The term ‘solidarian’ is a neologism that signifies the radicalisation of solidarity that took place in austerity-ridden Greece and resonates with local responses to neoliberalisation (Rozakou 2017). At the core of solidarity practices lies socialising with people, not only the distribution of material goods. The movement is driven by the goal to change structures and eliminate inequality and brings these ideas to the practical level through socialising and making everyone feel valued and equal. Solidarians’ ethics presupposes co-production of the common good – not just distributing food, but cooking the food together, talking, dancing, and co-creating a sociality which drives a better life.

As Rozakou discusses, concerning moral attitudes towards ‘the Other’, hospitality stands alongside the two modes of humanitarianism (official and vernacular) as the most established‘code of dealing with alterity in Greece’ (Rozakou 2016: 100). We add ‘voluntourism’ as a fourth parameter to this picture, linking two central perceptions of Greece as both a tourist destination and a location for volunteer activities. ‘Volunteer tourism’ relates to the growing trend of a short-term travel with the goal of both ‘doing good’ and experiencing novelty and adventure. ‘Voluntourism’ is often criticised as an explicitly short-term endeavour that allows for quick and targeted actions but prevents deep emotional and practical engagement with the place and its problems (see Knott 2018).  

However, temporariness is not the main reason why some of our interlocutors looked at voluntourism with criticism, if not with disapproval. While in many cases perceived ‘voluntourists’ turn out to be just as devoted, voluntourism in general is seen suspiciously. As Artemis explains: ‘it's good for them to go and help a bit the people, the refugees, immigrants, and you know. But in general, they don’t have this mindset’. It is assumed that voluntourists are not seriously motivated, not prepared enough, and can often do more harm than good. Being too close to leisure on a conceptual and practical level, with excursions, partying, and fun as a part of daily volunteer routine, voluntourism also comes too close to subverting the unwritten moral foundations of solidarity as a social and political project.


Perceived voluntourists, outspoken solidarians, volunteers, Greeks, internationals - these are just some of the labels and identities, conscious and prescribed, that compose the complex field of volunteer activities centred on people on the move in today’s Athens. The complexity of individual identities is supplemented by myriad forms of institutions, including small grassroots organisations. While the pilot character of our research does not allow to make deep and extensive conclusions, it is nonetheless possible to suggest that small grassroots initiatives play a special role in the humanitarian constellation of Athens. Emerging in many instances in opposition to established and commercialised forms of humanitarianism, they actively reclaim and promote the universal right of beinghuman, rather than human-itarian, grounding their work on horizontal ideals of social equality rather than help. They also contribute to diminishing boundaries between different categories of volunteers, serving as institutional host to anyone sharing similar attitudes and values, be it to solidarians, volunteers, Greeks, or refugees who have joined to help. Along with the broader task of further exploring the role of small grassroots initiatives in the humanitarian field of Athens, another important theme for future research is the involvement of people with the forced migration backgrounds in voluntary activities - a phenomenon obviously overlooked and understudied.


Marie Aline Klinger is studying towards a MA in Cultural Theory and History at Humboldt University Berlin and works as a research assistant for the chair of Urban Anthropology. She received her bachelor's degree in Media Studies from Bauhaus University Weimar where she worked at Kompetenzzentrum Medienanthropologie (KOMA) and as editor of eject – Zeitschrift für Medienkultur. Her research spans the fields of border and migration studies, infrastructure studies, postcolonial and subjectivity theory. For over five years she has been involved in the field of migration: as a journalist, activist, and academic researcher. During the last two years, she explored the effects of refugees’ long-term waiting and practices of resistance in Athens after the closing of the ‘Balkan Route‘.

Lisa Nüßlein is a social and cultural anthropologist with a bachelor’s degree in Ethnology (University of Bayreuth 2013) and a Master's in Social and Cultural Anthropology (Free University of Berlin 2016) with a focus on migration, integration policies and medical anthropology. She has worked on research projects (FU Berlin/ University Hospital Charité) on biopolitics, ethics, and autonomy of patients. She has worked in organisations dealing with job related education and employment opportunities for refugees in Berlin (MigrantHire, DCI/Devugees). In 2018/2019 she was an independent volunteer in grassroots projects and NGOs for refugees in Athens and carried out independent research.

Elena Liberati is a PhD candidate in Social and Cultural Anthropology at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. After completing her first MA in International Relations and African Studies at the Autónoma University of Madrid (2014), in 2017 she obtained a second MA in International Relations from the University of Bologna, specializing on socio-economic integration policies within local asylum systems in Italy. Her current research interests  focus on the theme of forced migration within the EU and the interaction between governmental asylum policies and grassroots societal responses. Since 2014, she has been engaged in the field of migration both as an activist and a researcher (collaborating in different projects with the University of Bologna, the Italian social cooperative Lai-momo and International Trade Center).

Elena Nikiforova is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR), St. Petersburg, Russia ( Elena graduated from the Department of Sociology, St. Petersburg State University, holds an MA in International Studies from the University of Limerick, Ireland, and is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Helsinki University, Finland. Elena's research interests include the studies of borders and border communities, politics of memory in post-socialist space, qualitative methodologies; geographically, her research has been focused primarily on the North-West Russia, the Baltic States, and the Arctic. Her most recent research is connected to Greece, Athens, and the migration situation there.


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ASHKAN, from Iran, 22 January 2019.

SARAH, from Germany, 23 January 2019. 

MOHAMMED, from Syria, 23 January 2019.

ARTEMIS, from Greece, 24 January 2019.

ELENI, from Greece, 24 January 2019.

CHIARA, from Italy, 24 January 2019.

LAURA, from US, 25 January 2019. 

Greek grassroots initiative's weekly distribution of food, basic goods, music, and games.