Photo credit: Help Refugees

Envisioning a holistic and dignified refugee support system driven by logos

Negar Tayyar


In 1888, in his work ‘Twilight of the Idols’ (or How to Philosophize with a Hammer), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “He who has a ‘why’ to live for, can bear almost any ‘how.’” This statement by Nietzsche took on a profound meaning for the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. During his three years at Auschwitz, Frankl discovered that even amidst the worst deprivations, it is possible to say a resounding ‘YES’ to life, if one has a sense of purpose; something that gives meaning to their life that goes beyond mere survival. In the concentration camps watching the behavior of his fellow prisoners, Frankl discovered that our deepest yearning was not for power or pleasure but meaning (logos). He developed this idea in his semi-autobiographical work ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ and set out the basic tenets of Logotherapy:

· Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones;

· Our primary motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life;

· We have the freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand; we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

You may be wondering why I chose to begin this reflection with this quote and a reference to Frankl. I was born in adverse circumstances in post-Islamic Revolution Iran and the middle of the devastating eight-year Iran-Iraq war. My parents were deeply engaged in an Iranian socialist party who threw in their lot with the Ayatollah in a fight against what they thought were the imperialist enemy- the Shah. When the Ayatollah came to power, the great purge began in the name of Islam, with the socialists being rounded up, tortured, imprisoned without trial and killed. My parents lost many comrades, and my father was incarcerated. We finally managed to escape Iran and became refugees who moved from country to country and camp to camp until we ended up seeking asylum in Germany.

Our trip took us through the Soviet Union, which was just about to collapse — a part of the world, which as a young woman I would seek to explore twenty years later by myself. My father who was once a renowned activist and a mathematics professor spent the rest of his days driving a cab on the streets of Cologne and died prematurely of cancer at the age of forty. I don’t think it was cancer that killed him. I believe he died from a broken heart- a casualty from a dream deferred.

Paradoxically it wasn’t the oppression that my father experienced in Iran that killed him, in fact, that only spurred his commitment to positive social change. In fact, what broke him was that despite the safety of Germany, he had lost a sense of purpose or logos for his life. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs- while my father’s basic needs were met, what remained unfulfilled was his need for self-esteem, self-actualization, and self-transcendence.

This experience of my father has been pivotal in shaping my view of the world and consequently my sense of self. While during my teenage years, I focused on ensuring that the basic needs of my mother and myself were met, I knew that my life would be meaningless if I didn’t have a purpose that went beyond material wellbeing. I understood that my self-actualization could only happen through some kind of self-transcendence- to altruistically serve a goal beyond my own immediate needs. Interestingly enough this goal had to do with assisting others who had experienced dislocation similar to my own to regain a sense of logos in their lives.

Over the years, this goal became a calling. My career though seemingly checkered (working in 13 countries in international development) has always cleaved towards assisting individuals and communities who have experienced some form of dislocation or trauma to regain a sense of meaning in their lives.

Logos in the refugee support system

On a daily basis, an unprecedented level of forced displacement due to protracted armed conflict and other forms of extreme violence is perpetuated across the globe. According to the latest UNHCR data, every two seconds a person is forced to flee. The Syrian civil war alone resulted in displacing half of its population (5,6 million refugees and 6,1 million internally displaced). At the same time, there is a growing tendency towards reinforcing borders throughout Europe, the United States and Australia along with a political backlash against taking in forcibly displaced people (here referred to as people on the move). This political backlash is likely to be exacerbated by an increase in climate refugees or environmental migrants, people displaced due to significant changes in the climate and its negative impacts on lives and livelihoods. The International Organization of Migration (IOM) estimates an additional 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050.

A response to the spike in forced migration requires us to rethink how societies need to operate in the 21st century to be able to cope and adjust to change. Hitherto in my career, I worked with government, inter-governmental organizations and large NGOs building institutional capacity to address the issue of forced displacement by strengthening democratic governance. This experience provided me with the opportunity to interact with certain individuals who were terrific problem-solvers. Through trial and error, they were able to identify solutions to endemic social problems. They then championed and implemented these solutions through a combination of commitment, creativity, and hard work. They worked in an interdisciplinary fashion, across ideological lines and within, between and beyond institutions. They possessed a unique ability to listen, persuade and recruit. In short, these individuals were ‘social entrepreneurs.’ What set them apart was that these social entrepreneurs had a strong sense of logos. They possessed a ‘why’ that gave them the resilience to bear any ‘how.’

What these individuals lacked, however, was access to capital that was necessary to realize their vision. Furthermore, some didn’t possess the financial and management skills needed to raise and grow this capital. This lacuna provided me with my vision- I resolved to support such individuals with the access, skills, and networks needed to access, manage and grow the capital needed to achieve their holistic social impact.

How funding logos can transform the refugee support system

Through my work for the Global Whole Being Fund (GWBF), a global grantmaking body based in San Francisco, I am envisioning a holistic and dignified refugee support system that is grounded in dignity and respect. My vision for the GWBF is to identify and support logos-driven, courageous, compassionate, heart-led, humanitarian-social entrepreneurs. These humanitarian-social entrepreneurs are not only working towards creating innovative solutions to improve the well being of people on the move, but also rethinking the ways societies respond to ‘newcomers.’ Since the inception of the GWBF, we have had the privilege to support remarkable emerging leaders in this space. Our grantmaking has been informed by the logos of the humanitarian-social entrepreneurs who we have been working with. Some of these organizations are serving people on the move in camps while others are providing critical support in urban areas.

Here are three of the key lessons we have learned so far:

1. Our human needs cannot be compartmentalized and are interconnected.

Rather than providing the conventional sector-focused support, e.g., education, there is a need to shift to a holistic approach. Through our grant to iACT, a U.S. based organization that is deeply committed to transforming the humanitarian support for refugee communities across the globe; we learned that integrating support is not only possible but also crucial. Addressing the psychosocial wellbeing of people on the move is crucial and can at the same time nurture holistic community building in some of the most marginalized and under-served refugee camps. Gabriel Stauring is deeply connected to his logos. As the founder of iACT, he was driven by a sense of personal responsibility to serve refugee populations in camps in Darfur, Sudan. He believes that the power of community and compassion, combined with personal empowerment, can lead to meaningful change. Little Ripples, one of iACT’s programs, is a refugee-led, cost-effective and replicable holistic early childhood development program. As our first grant, this influenced our grantmaking to explore refugee-led, holistic, and community-driven support models.

2. Emergency and long-term support are deeply intertwined and cannot be separated.

When we started our grantmaking, we did not envision emergency support to be part of our scope of work. Through Help Refugees we learned that to achieve long-term results and ensure the dignity and wellbeing of people on the move and their receiving community, we need to apply a hybrid approach. Connecting emergency and long-term support is crucial. Help Refugees is a remarkable example for an organization that is grounded on a deep sense of ‘logos.’ The organization started in 2015 as a very small collective of friends taking responsibility to fill critical gaps in the refugee response in Calais, France and at the U.K. border. Since then Help Refugees has transformed the refugee support system across the Middle East and Europe linking emergency and humanitarian aid in ten countries. Help Refugees is upholding respect, humanity, trust, love, and compassion. At the same time Help Refugees is allowing individuals and organizations like GWBF to channel support to reliable local grassroots organizations that know best what the regions and the refugees need. Help Refugees always asks refugees first what they need and what would work best for their particular situation. Out of that their blended approach combining emergency and long-term support evolved. Knowing that children cannot learn if they are hungry; women cannot heal their wounds and learn new skills to be self-sufficient if they have no access to sanitary pads and the most basics. To be able to attend educational and employment programs, people on the move need to have the most basic needs including safe shelter, transportation, access to food met. In this current context, it is almost impossible to separate the emergency support from the long-term support given the ever-changing environment and needs.

3. Supporting people on the move and their receiving communities to create their own solutions.

One Happy Family who we have been funding through Help Refugees places an asset-based framework at its core. The founder’s logos is to give refugees an opportunity to design solutions for themselves, to be seen and to be valued. His logos has deeply influenced our grantmaking. In May 2018, my colleague Christine Mendonca, my co-chair at the NEXUS Initiative on Refugees and Forced Displacement, shared an article on asset-based grantmaking in the refugee/forced displacement space. There are two frameworks towards funding in general and particularly in the refugee space, asset-based and deficit-based, though they are often not labeled as such. Our research revealed that deficit-based framing and funding is much more common. People who are forced to flee are often perceived as people who have nothing and are a burden on the communities in which they are seeking refuge. Organizations which support people on the move, as well as grantmakers in this space, do primarily focus on the needs of people on the move they are trying to help. The notion of crisis drives the narrative. The predominant perspective is to fix an issue as opposed to engaging with the issue and recognizing its multi-dimensionality. Based on our experience, it is not only a value-led decision to apply an asset-based framework, but simply common sense to do so. Applying an asset-based framework allows us to recognize and build on the resources each human being brings to the table. It enables us to acknowledge the benefits each will attain from working together to address their multifaceted wellbeing needs. Such a perspective sees the range of capabilities people embody while they indeed need different kinds of support. Upholding people on the move’s assets would allow us to see them as new residents of a community and a potential source of value by, e.g., being part of creating a solution rather than a burden.

Continuing to explore ‘logos’ in the refugee support system — an ongoing learning journey

Through the Global Whole Being Fund — Caring for Humanity on the Move I will continue exploring holistic ways to support humanitarian social entrepreneurs with a strong sense of logos. The GWBF will continue to partner with organizations that are embracing human dignity, generosity, and kindness around the globe. Given the unsettling living conditions of people on the move in Greece paired with a lack of support, we are currently mobilizing support for the innovative refugee support system in Greece.

Please view this as an invitation to join us! If you wish to share further examples of programs and initiatives that are centered on the holistic wellbeing of people on the move please do share these with us. We have embarked on our learning journey and welcome ideas and support.

Negar Tayyar, Philanthropic Advisor and is managing The Global Whole Being Fund, a global grant-making body in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Fund is supporting work across different migration routes. The GWBF is assisting people on the move to find meaning and belonging along their journeys. The aim is to introduce an asset-based framework and expand the concept of ‘basic needs’ and include holistic support covering psychosocial and communal wellbeing as critical needs.



Negar Tayyar

Co-founder and Executive Director of the Global Whole Being Fund (GWBF) // Co-Active Leadership Coach and Organizational Development Geek