This blog post is the second in a two-part series that explores how individuals and organizations can more effectively and compassionately work with refugees.

Today on World Refugee Day, we recognize the millions of displaced people who have escaped their countries and homes for a multitude of unimaginable difficulties. As I reflect on my family’s Iraqi narrative, I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my personal reflections on making sense of the refugee and displacement issue and what many of us could consider when working with these communities.

My reflections include a mix of how to think of the refugee issue and what to consider when designing or implementing a program to support displaced peoples. The issue is complex and has been widely assessed and studied for several decades; therefore, it is important to note that these are my reflections, and components of what I include below will be more applicable in some refugee contexts over others, e.g., differences between refugees living in camps versus urban-based refugees.

  1. Understand root causes and global responsibility. As I stated in my post from yesterday, there is a collective human responsibility for the humanitarian crises we have been witnessing. Issues around refugee movement and displacement are not sudden; they are the culmination of not only war and violence but political, social, and economic disenfranchisement. Many refugee communities have been victims of global politics and interests as well as their own country’s injustices against their people. As an international community, we must look at the entire spectrum of what has caused these crises, and not have a selective read on history that suits our national interests, religious and ethnic biases, and inner prejudices. The only way we can serve any community is if we understand the full cycle of what they have endured.
  2. While the size of today’s refugee population is unprecedented, know that refugees have always been part of the natural ebb and flow of human movement. Refugees, whether they were named as such or not, have always been part of human history. In fact, who we are today is the culmination of mass movements over centuries of time due to wars, violence, economic migration, and other causes. Linkages between refugee movement and extremism and terrorism not only are racist, but can have negative and isolating repercussions for refugees. If you take a step back and think about it, these refugees escaped their countries because of violent acts by numerous perpetrators. By isolating refugee communities, chances for their assimilation and integration decrease, and chances of tension increase. Furthermore, applying for refugee status and resettlement through the UN High Commission on Refugees can take years. For example, in the United States, refugees are screened more carefully than any other type of traveler. The resettlement process includes initial security checks, an interview with the Department of Homeland Security, biometric security checks, and a cultural orientation and medical check.
  3. Beware of tokenism. As worldwide attention has turned to the refugee crisis, the international community has undertaken extensive efforts to do what they can to help refugee communities. As with any type of work we do, we need to be mindful of really hearing and responding to these communities’ needs when presenting their causes, speaking on their behalf, or implementing programs to serve them. Specifically, we need to look critically at our goals and objectives to ensure they are authentic and genuine and that we are truly bringing in the relevant stakeholders and having them actively take responsibility.  
  4. Don’t generalize; design responsive and realistic programs that meet refugees’ educational attainment. Refugees come from different socio-economic and educational backgrounds, various family situations, and have different short and long term aspirations. Before they were refugees, they were students, doctors, engineers, shop owners, housewives, educators, and a number of other professions. Many had good lives, and if the wars did not happen, they might have never left. When designing a program, an initiative, or even engaging in a discussion, keep in mind the socio-economic and educational backgrounds of the refugee communities. Attempt to look beyond general programming initiatives, and help donors, local partners, and development workers understand how to identify opportunities that respond to refugees’ long-term needs while taking into account their host’s legal regulations. This approach is especially important in discussions with donors. If insufficient funds are unavailable for result-driven programming, we must be extremely careful to not implement programs that will do more harm than good.
  5. Listen to refugees and advance refugee agency. Beyond being refugees, each of these individuals has multiple other identities, which all can be in conflict with one another: youth, children, mothers, fathers, religious and ethnics minorities, disabled people or others with existing mental health issues, members of the LGBTQ community, and many other groups of people. To minimize tokenistic programming, it is critical to carefully listen to the pleas and needs of refugee communities and, where and when possible, integrate them in the program rationale, assessment, development and design. This will have multiple positive consequences, including building the confidence of refugees, creating more effective programs, and yielding stronger results and impact.
  6. Critically re-examine notions of resiliency. We often hear we must build programs to increase the resiliency of refugee communities. Certainly, this is a must, especially as women, children, youth, fathers, families have endured and witnessed horrific incidents, and unfortunately many suffer from numerous psycho-social health conditions that must be carefully treated. At the same time it is always critical to remember these individuals are not weak: they have stood up to war, to violence, to the destruction of their homes, to witnessing the death of family members before their very eyes, and have come to define resilience itself. We must look critically at the word ‘resiliency’ and plan, design, and implement programs that utilize a strength refugees probably do not know they have as the energy source to restart their lives.
  7. We must bridge short-term responses and long-term solutions. Depending on where refugees are living, their legal status, relevant laws in their host countries, and the duration of time since they were forced to flee their homes, refugees’ needs lie somewhere on a spectrum between humanitarian and development necessities, the lines often blurred. At what point are we in response mode, and where do we start thinking about long-term sustainable solutions? While many refugees’ needs are still humanitarian, we cannot lose sight of their long-term education, livelihood, and health needs.
  8. Include children and youth. The first victims of any war, children and youth always suffer the most as they lose their childhoods, years of education, and any sense of normalcy in their lives. To the extent that we can, more efforts need to be made to nurture refugee children and youth and engage them in a host of activities: education (if formal is not possible, then informal), life skills development, recreation and sports, civic engagement and volunteerism, leadership, entrepreneurship, employability trainings, and apprenticeships.  
  9. Develop local partnerships to support cultural orientation and integration. Once refugees leave their homes, there is never a guarantee that repatriation will occur. Refugees become part and parcel of the new communities they inhabit, and they benefit from learning how to quickly assimilate and adapt to their new host countries. Working with local partners—community centers, local government, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations—will help in facilitating this transition, while also creating a community of support for the refugee families. Local partners would also benefit from hiring refugees as staff or volunteers in order to soften the transition on families who may not know the language or culture and are still adjusting.
  10. Work hand in hand with host communities and governments. Keeping host communities involved in new programs and services for refugees is extremely important for avoiding risks of alienation and tension. Each host community already is home to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups who similarly require continued support and attention. Securing host communities’ support from the onset of the program minimizes competition and helps maintain peace and harmony. Moreover, it is important to work with the host government as well as the private sector to appreciate the new and exciting opportunities that refugees can offer—they come with hardship and pain, but they also are accompanied with a deep need and desire to have a better life and are ready to do what it takes. Think of creative ways to engage refugee communities, as they will always find innovative ways to build themselves and help their host economies.  
  11. Appreciate volunteerism as a powerful community engagement tool. Volunteer work and community service brings people from all walks of life together. Finding opportunities for refugees and host communities to volunteer together will provide them a meaningful and powerful outlet to know and learn about each other, exchange ideas to improve their communities, and more fully integrate refugees in to their new communities. Furthermore, volunteer activities are a wonderful way to encourage language and cultural exchange and social cohesion.
  12. Know that education leads to compassion. My younger brother, Hasan, reminded me that implicit and explicit forces are preventing the human evolutionary process from being more compassionate. At any moment, compassion can be tested if our and our loved one’s lives are at stake. We must continue to learn and educate ourselves about each other, shed our ignorance, meet each other, establish human contact based purely on being human—not because of our race, ethnicity, or religion. This will establish eternal compassion, regardless of the world events around us, and this will make us better people who can work in the service of one another.

On World Refugee Day, we the international community, including governing bodies, must take responsibility for our misconduct against each other. It is our collective responsibility to make a commitment to just stop. Stop the wars, stop the violence, stop the hatred, stop the destruction of our own humankind. We are creating refugee and humanitarian crises with our own hands, and we owe it to the millions of refugees, vulnerable communities, and to ourselves to be more compassionate to one another.

Marwa Alkhairo is Manager, MENA Partnership Development.