Volunteerism at the Intersection of NGOs and Ethnographic Research

By Saidouri Zomaya, Graduate Teaching Assistant

When I first started my volunteering journey at World Relief Chicago, little did I know the kind of impact it would have on both my personal and academic life. I went in with the hope of making a difference in the refugee community and shedding light on the various NGOs and community centers in the Albany Park neighborhood in Chicago. In return, I ended up writing a report for the Refugees in Towns Project on the impact of these migrant communities on the neighborhood through the various institutes and nonprofit centers that they left behind for future generations to come. This report was my introduction to ethnographic research, where not only I got to serve the refugee families from World Relief, but I also got to connect with many community leaders, practitioners, and long-time residents that cared about the neighborhood and preserving its identity.

Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, were first called such in Article 71 in the Charter of the newly formed United Nations in 1945. While NGOs have no fixed or formal definition, they are generally defined as nonprofit entities independent of governmental influence (although they may receive government funding).

The sense of community and belonging I felt was created by the neighborhood residents and the various NGOs and community centers that all worked together to form a welcoming and diverse ethnic environment. My volunteering and research experience helped shape my understanding of the crucial role that NGOs and community centers play in not only building communities but also in preserving the history that various migrant groups leave behind throughout the years. I attribute this to having a connection to the neighborhood that goes beyond one’s professional or academic interests. The people I connected with that served on the boards of various NGOs and community centers showed a commitment to serving the community and a genuine interest in doing their best to preserve its diverse ethnic identity.

My volunteering experience and ethnographic research left me wondering what else I could do to make a difference in people’s lives who are trying to navigate resettling into a new neighborhood, a new culture, and a new country. Shedding light on the various mechanisms that helped migrant communities integrate into their new neighborhoods was certainly one of those objectives.

Combining my passion for serving migrant communities, along with conducting ethnographic research, made me realize the impact that volunteering had on my life. Volunteering opened my eyes to new possibilities, where I felt like I can make a difference in people’s lives, even if it meant helping one person at a time. I found volunteering to be one of the most valuable gifts one can give, not just to others but to oneself. It helped me find my passion for research, but more than that, it helped me find my purpose, and for that, I will forever be grateful.


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