The Missing Voices In The Refugee Crisis Response: Refugees Themselves

Around the world, organizations led by refugees are aiding their own people in ways only they know how. Is it time they get more support?

The Missing Voices In The Refugee Crisis Response: Refugees Themselves
[Illustration: Made by Radio]

Being a refugee means your life hasn’t gone as you planned.


Robert Hakiza, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, had just completed his studies at university and was employed as an agriculture advisor in Goma, when violence forced him and his family to flee in 2008.

Mohammad Mahdi, from Afghanistan, dreamed of studying political science and management. But this wasn’t possible as a refugee in Iran, where his family fled to when he was eight years old. He scraped by as an electrician and tailor and later migrated to India and then again to Malaysia in search of a life where his refugee status wasn’t all that defined him.

Fadi Halisso, from Syria, was in Lebanon working to become a Jesuit priest when war erupted in his homeland. Though he already was living abroad and didn’t flee, now he can’t go back. His mother is still in Aleppo.

Hakiza, Halisso, and Mahdi are all of different backgrounds. But they also have more in common than merely the fact that their lives have been permanently altered by war.

These three men have become unexpected leaders of organizations delivering desperately needed aid and assistance to their own uprooted communities. They do their work with barely a budget, as international groups are relatively flush with cash around them, but they manage to distinguish themselves by reaching refugees that the system often misses.

Refugees Aren’t Living Where You Think

“If you decided to stay in Kampala as a refugee, there is very very limited support given . . . Most of the support comes from the refugees themselves,” says Hakiza, who now lives in Uganda’s capital city and serves as executive director of the organization YARID, which stands for Young African Refugees For Integral Development.


The group, which recently became the first refuge-led organization to win the respected $100,000 Ockenden International Prize, represents a completely underdeveloped resource within the massive but still inadequate aid infrastructure that is grappling with today’s global displaced persons crisis: affected communities mobilizing to help themselves. In cities all over the world, from Bangkok to Washington, D.C., these groups exist. But they receive little attention and even less support.

Building up local grassroots organizations is more critical than ever today. Although most media attention goes to refugees flooding into Europe or occupying camps in the Middle East, the truth is that 60% of the world’s refugees live in urban areas and most do not live in Europe. More than 85% of refugees in Jordan and Turkey, for example, don’t live in UN-run camps. It’s understandable why: According to the UN itself, the “defining characteristic” of camps is “some degree of limitation on the rights and freedoms of refugees and their ability to make meaningful choices about their lives.” In 2014, the UN made a significant policy shift with its “Alternative to Camps” strategy that favors supporting refugees in host communities whenever possible, recognizing that camps should always be a last resort.

But refugees who leave, avoid, or don’t have the option of camps face unique challenges, dispersed and sometimes attempting to keep a low-profile. “In urban areas, if you’re a refugee, you can’t necessarily open up a bank account, you have challenges in housing or employment, a lot of the time you might not even be recognized. You’re, to a certain degree, invisible,” says Marilena Hatoupis, cofounder and executive director of Urban Refugees, an organization that works to connect, support, and advocate on behalf of this population.

Reaching Refugees Where They Are

Although the UN has shifted its policy, effective new approaches from the international assistance community have been slow to develop, according to a recent RAND report. “The Syrian crisis poses a real challenge for the humanitarian agencies, which are much more used to dealing with refugees inside camps, where everybody is in one place,” Jeff Crisp, a senior director at Refugees International, told the New York Times.

Local aid and development groups rooted in their communities can cut through this. They often can serve the needs of the community better than a strategy an NGO might import from another part of the world–and they do more with less money. Hakiza remembers helping an international NGO in Uganda develop a guide to English training classes, because of YARID’s experience running these programs. The first NGO spent money coming up with the guidelines, and soon after, he learned a second NGO wanted to spend millions more Ugandan shillings to do the exact same thing. “With big organizations, there is too much duplication of activities,” he says. “By doing the same things, they don’t really touch on the problem.”

From a community church in Uganda, YARID runs English, literacy, and businesses classes, a youth soccer program, a woman’s empowerment program, and a free internet center for refugees in the city who come mainly from French-speaking African nations. It estimates it has served nearly 3,000 people on a shoestring budget since it was founded six years ago by volunteers. Only recently has it received its first formal donors, including the $100,000 prize money and a grant from an Ideo open challenge. It will use some of the money to launch a “bridge to schooling” program to prepare refugee children for the formal education system.


Becoming Visible To The Aid Community

Similar activities are happening in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the Afghan Community Center (ACC) where Mahdi serves on the leadership council. The ACC formed in 2014 in part to help Afghans in Malaysia, which doesn’t formally recognize refugee status, become “visible” to the aid community. They were especially concerned about their children missing out on their education. The ACC assisted Afghans in registering their status with the UN, and soon expanded to run volunteer-led English and business training classes, since most refugees can’t be legally employed and support themselves through small-scale entrepreneurship.

And in Lebanon, Basmeh and Zeitooneh, Halisso’s organization, began as an haphazard emergency relief initiative in 2012 and has now grown to the largest Syrian-led crisis response organization in a country that has no refugee camps at all and has absorbed one Syrian asylum seeker for every four of its residents. Basmeh and Zeitooneh now employs more than 300 people, most of them Syrians, who run relief, education, and training programs in several countries.

But these organizations also face huge challenges to increasing their impact and scaling up their work, especially in raising money.

“A lot of donors would like to potentially invest in these organizations,” says Sonia Ben Ali, the other cofounder of Urban Refugees. “Everybody is talking about putting refugees at the center and supporting their initiatives, but nobody knows really how to do that.”

Refugee-led groups don’t usually have the English skills and professional know-how to navigate complex grant applications or reporting requirements. The ACC recently received its first grant, for $3,500 from UNHCR, after receiving remote coaching from Urban Refugees, which is soon going to be launching a pilot incubator program for refugee-led organizations in Malaysia. It currently has a waiting list of 50 groups around the world that would like to receive training.

“They are going to be training us on how to manage our community, how we can budget income, and how we can know what our targets are,” says Mahdi, who notes that they are limited by the fact that most of what they do is all volunteer work so far. (The UN grant will be used to launch a class where Mahdi will teach tailoring and sewing skills.)


YARID, too, has received training and technical assistance from the Humanitarian Innovation Project at Oxford University and is now working with them to scale its model by creating a network of refugee-led groups.

For Basmeh and Zeitooneh, which has a $7 million budget by 2016 from private Syrian expat donors and some international NGO support, one of the biggest challenges has been the banking industry. Because of U.S. and European regulations that often label Syrians as suspect under counterterrorism laws, only one bank in Lebanon will actually allow the organization to keep an account and even that is precarious (Hallisso has visited the U.S. to lobby Congress on this issue,working with Oxfam America).

Another is a “brain drain,” Halisso says. Because Basmeh and Zeitooneh can’t pay the same salaries as international NGOs who come to Lebanon, Halisso has a hard time holding on to his best staff who fit the criteria donors often have.

“When the international community moves on to another crisis, it will be on us and Syrians who are staying here to take over all of this mess. They should have an exit strategy,” says Halisso. He cites estimates that Syria will need at least 200,000 skilled employees in fields from education to construction to start rebuilding the destroyed country. “We cannot afford to wait until the war ends to start training these people,” he says.

What’s The Most Effective Aid? Ask The People Who Need It

Traditional aid groups are also working to change how they operate to empower refugees to determine and meet their own needs. There is a industry-wide push to deliver far more assistance in the form of cash, rather than blankets or food. This would give displaced peoples and other recipients autonomy to decide what they need most and also support local economies in times of crisis. However, distributing money and preventing fraud in unstable regions is a challenge, which is why only an estimated 6% of humanitarian aid comes in the form of cash today, despite a goal of moving to cash assistance as the default at the UN and many NGOs.

But for the many times cash doesn’t make sense, like when trying to deliver education or health services, some groups are trying to improve how they incorporate feedback from their “clients,” i.e., the people who receive assistance. Typically, aid groups need to set up programs quickly in crisis situations that are constantly changing–which gives them a tendency to make assumptions. “If you want to operate at scale, it helps to do things similar to how you’ve done them before. There’s quite a lot of pressure to standardize,” says Alyoscia D’Onofrio, the International Rescue Committee’s governance technical unit senior director.


But this philosophy sometimes misses the nuances of culture or the local security situation or any number of factors that make their programs less effective on the ground. To combat this, IRC is developing and testing methods to make incorporating feedback from aid recipients part of its standard operating procedure. This involves developing standard, light-touch surveys that can be administered frequently and create data that can directly inform decisions.

Beyond taking care of emergency needs, Ben Ali, of Urban Refugees sees a different role for international aid community. She says that NGOs are never going to be able to provide, on their own, the long-term education, job, and health infrastructure needed to accommodate the influx of refugees in many nations. Rather, she says they should invest more in building locally led capacity and in advocacy and funding efforts that convince national governments to better extend their own services to refugee populations.

In Lebanon, Halisso is working to build a consortium of Syrian-led civil society organizations that can award grants as well as an incubator program to train staff. “We are trying very hard to combine these two ideas because direct funding for Syrian organizations is very difficult to obtain,” he says.

YARID, despite some growing international recognition, also still struggles.

“It’s really very difficult. Even for UNHCR, they have money that they can use to work with other organizations, by making them implementing partners, but they cannot work with refugees. And the reason they cannot work with refugees, according to them, is that they don’t have the capacity.

“When people think about refugees, there is this negative perception. That they are nothing, that there is nothing that they can do,” he says. “But all of those five years that we spent without funding, it doesn’t mean that we were just sitting around.”


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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire