Refugees need partners, not pity

Written by Sarah Wheaton, Refugees Thrive Co-Founder & Board Member

My only hope is that my children might live as children,” Yana says, “not as people suffering.” When the Syrian war forced Yana and her family to move to Egypt, she expected hard times, not malice. But Hani, her ten-year-old son, endured months of harassment at an Egyptian public school and was beaten by his classmates. Yana pulled her two young sons out of that school and scraped together the fees for an educational center run by Syrian refugees. At the Syrian school Yana’s boys flourished. As fellow Syrian refugees, students and teachers are almost friends there, partners in a mission to make it through Cairo as best they can.

Yana’s fear that her children’s lives will be defined by suffering resonates with the narratives of victimhood and pity that pervade discussion of refugee issues. Understandably, many fundraising campaigns focus on helplessness and misery, hoping to pull donors’ heartstrings and purse strings.

But Yana’s story also highlights the strengths that can be found within refugee communities themselves. Refugees, after all, are whole people, not defined solely by the tragedy they have survived. They have courage, skills, and resourcefulness, and often contribute greatly to their host communities. And, as the Syrian schools show, partnering with refugees can contribute enormously to the success of aid programs.

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo, Egypt, has realized this potential. StARS is one of the few refugee aid groups that includes refugees at every level of the organization. The staff of StARS are primarily refugees and make up the majority of the leadership team. Other staff members are Egyptian and Western. All are paid on an equal scale.

StARS provides education services directly to children (above), but cannot serve everyone so StARS partners with refugee communities to provide services at greater scale. When Yana was injured by a microbus and could not afford the Syrian school fees, StARS stepped in to pay the fees to ensure the boys could continue their education while Yana recovered. Photo credit Alexander Treves.

Alvaro, a Syrian refugee in Egypt now employed by StARS, exemplifies the way partnership benefits both refugees and aid organizations. His first year in Cairo Alvaro battled depression and loneliness with books. When his family, still in Damascus at the time, suggested he better get a job for the long term, his heart sunk. Alvaro would be not an engineer as he was trained, but a refugee trying to make ends meet. He soon found a position as a part-time math teacher at StARS. Three days a week he taught class and no more. Already overwhelmed with problems at home, he was reluctant to open himself up to the pain he saw in other refugees at StARS.

Meanwhile, StARS was struggling to effectively serve the newly arrived Syrian refugee population in Cairo. StARS had long provided excellent services to the Ethiopian, Eritrean, Iraqi, Somalian, and Sudanese refugee communities in Egypt. But the sudden increase in Syrian arrivals presented new challenges.

Then the executive director approached Alvaro with a job offer, asking him to work with the Syrian community. Alvaro, raised in a climate where political dissent was extremely dangerous, was at first not comfortable advocating for himself or other refugees. Whenever he speaks about human rights, no matter where he is, his voice drops to a whisper, an old habit from parents who told him never to speak of such things. But Alvaro’ growing desire to help refugees with more than math skills overcame his reluctance. And once committed to the role, he went all in. Making his phone number available to any Syrian who approached StARS, he took dozens of calls each day. StARS now had a trusted interlocutor who understood the needs of the community.

Despite his growing confidence, Alvaro wasn’t interested when StARS wanted to make him director of an entire program. “I felt I wasn’t qualified,” he remembers. “I didn’t think a refugee could be a director.” At the time no refugee held a leadership position at any international aid organization in Cairo. Instead, displaced persons were, and often still are, limited to jobs as receptionists, interpreters, and occasionally teachers. Even if Alvaro believed he could handle the responsibility, he knew it would mean more time, more pain, and more loud conversations on human rights. And even at his high level of spoken English, every email takes twice as long to read and write.

Staff at StARS provide educational, legal, psychosocial, and medical services to refugees living in Cairo, Egypt. Their clients come from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, among other places. Photo credit Alexander Treves.

The encouragement of his colleagues convinced him to accept the position. As director Alvaro quickly found himself sharing meeting rooms with high-ranking embassy officials and big-time donors. He directed the energies of six employees. After focusing exclusively on everyday Syrians, he now negotiated with refugee community leaders from all over the region, finding some kind and others selfish. He saw that issues he once considered particular to Syrians were global tensions. Alvaro’s vision grew exponentially and he had a significant impact on the direction of StARS’s work. As for StARS, its ability to access the Syrian community, understand its needs, and more effectively meet those needs deepened immeasurably.

During Ramadan 2017, StARS hosted its annual Iftar dinner, to which they invite staff, families, local pastors, donors, and embassy staff alike. That evening, in the shadow of St. Andrew’s church, people from all over the world broke fast with a date as the sun set. As they ate, Alvaro, fresh off his first visit to Europe thanks to a training funded by StARS, spoke. His voice, quiet and gentle at first but slowly rising, praised StARS for its commitment to protect every outsider and for teaching him that peace is possible. What for many was a nice but probably soon forgotten interruption was for him, Alvaro says, a kind of arrival. He had found his voice.

Iftar celebration at StARS. Photo credit Alexander Treves.

At Refugees Thrive International, we connect individual donors like you with effective local organizations like StARS. Egypt does not have the resources of many Western countries but shoulders a disproportionate share of the world’s refugees. We hope that our partnership with StARS, and StARS’ partnership with refugees, will allow people like Yana and Alvaro and so many others to live, not as victims, but as women, men, and children.

Learn more about Refugees Thrive International on our website or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Consider partnering with us by making a donation. And explore our holiday gift guide, including mugs, totes, and clothing items that support StARS.