Women-led Organizations Driving Positive Change in Communities

The second in a two-part series celebrating the winners of the 2022 UNHCR NGO Innovation Award.

By Amy Lynn Smith — Independent Writer + Strategist

The annual UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) NGO Innovation Award recognizes non-governmental organizations using innovative approaches to assist and empower refugees and other displaced people. The 2022 Award focused on women-led organizations working at the grassroots level on issues of forced displacement, prioritising organizations led by displaced and stateless people. Part one of this series is available here.

Endam Home of Hope: Giving refugees a home and skills to build their future

Original photo courtesy of Hope Foundation.

When Ndaga Yvonne Endam saw violence escalating in her home country of Cameroon, she fled to Nigeria in 2018. She was fortunate to find work as a school nurse and a teacher, and had a small food business to support herself and her son. Other refugees from Cameroon began asking if they could stay in her home, and realising she was in a position to help others, Endam began inviting refugees to live with her.

In 2019, she registered with the government as an organization: Endam Home of Hope. “Everyone I bring in is hopeless, and once they come into the house they feel at home and free and happy,” Ndaga says. “All I was doing was just to put a smile on a sad face. That was my mission and my motive.”

Since then, the organization has expanded significantly. Ndaga began taking in vulnerable women and orphans who needed empowerment and support. Endam still has people living in her home and has rented two apartments for others.

In talking to the people she housed or encountered by visiting refugee settlements, she learned that about 80% of the women she spoke with had no jobs. Some had to resort to sex work to make money.

“I was heartbroken to learn that, so it inspired me to start thinking of programmes to develop new skills,” Ndaga explains. “I organised campaigns on gender-based violence and reproductive health, as well as trainings — and then I empower them after the trainings, sometimes with food items and cash, or with contacts to help gender-based violence survivors.”

The organization offers classes in catering, sewing, and hair styling, so women can develop skills to be self-reliant. Endam has purchased two sewing machines and intends to buy more, and hopes to someday establish a facility where women can make the clothes they sell to shops. So far, Endam has trained more than 40 people who have passed the exams she requires. Those who don’t pass take the courses again, so she can be sure they are self-sufficient. She’s also working on bringing in experts who can teach refugees about the customs of their host community, to assist with integration.

Endam has acquired a piece of land and has plans to build a transit home for refugees, internally displaced people, and vulnerable women and children in host communities. This home is a place where refugees and internally displaced people newly arrived in Abuja will be accommodated, sensitised on gender-based violence, trained in different skills such as catering, sewing, and shoe making, and empowered over a period of three months for easier integration.

Endam has established a relationship with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provides some of the health and gender-based violence trainings. She visits settlements and updates UNHCR on sensitive issues so they can be addressed. When she visits settlements, she often brings the food product she learned to make. It’s a highly nutritious food made from almond seeds, nuts, fruits, and soybeans, named Borngreat Soyamon Powder.

How does Endam support all of the organization’s community engagement? Out of her own pocket, through the sales of Borngreat Soyamon Powder and books she has written.

“Endam Home of Hope is not a home for me — it is a home for the people,” she says. “My primary motive is to help people get the training they need to integrate into society. I am in Nigeria because of the ongoing crisis in Southern Cameroon. I don’t have much, but I share what I have to help others.”

PLACE Network: Shifting perceptions of refugees by creating leaders and influencers

Original photo courtesy of Michele Caleffi.

In 2016, when Syrian refugees and other people forced to flee their homes sought protection across Europe, the sentiment toward newcomers wasn’t always welcoming. Charlotte Hochman, the original Founder of PLACE, wanted to change that narrative.

“Media representation at the time was very impersonal and portrayed people as hordes of migrants,” she says. “It was very far from the image of human potential, which was at the source of the project.”

Soon after she established PLACE in France, Hochman was joined by co-founders — the beginning of what she describes as a true team effort — and is now the Head of Innovation. It’s noteworthy that all of PLACE’s programme directors and facilitators are migrants and refugees themselves, serving as catalysts and proof of concept for everyone they work with.

The name PLACE, Hochman says, was inspired by a quote from Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will lift the world.”

PLACE’s work revolves around developing the leadership skills of newcomers in their new communities and making that leadership capacity visible. As Hochman puts it, PLACE shifts the focus of working with people forced to flee their homes from a humanitarian or beneficiary approach to one of opportunity and even leadership and influence.

This work is accomplished on two fronts. First, PLACE gives newcomers opportunities to develop leadership capacity. For example, the organization runs fellowships and training programmes that help them develop leadership skills, sometimes in real-world professional situations. Then the learners become catalysts or mentors for others embarking on their own journey. Second, PLACE works with the public and private sector to help organizations reconceive the ways they identify and work with talent. PLACE has initiatives not only in France, but also in other European countries — with a wide range of partners — and hopes to collaborate with communities worldwide in the future.

“This could be corporations or government institutions at all levels,” Hochman says. “We help them become ready to integrate high-potential newcomers and others who might not know all the cultural norms, but in fact we’re bringing elements of innovation that they need for their structures to thrive in the future.”

Leadership development and the creation of partnerships is central to all of PLACE’s initiatives, which are mostly for both women and men. One example is the Emerging Leaders Consortium, a public leadership incubator for newcomers that brings together the public and private sector, civil society, and media, with the goal of having emerging leaders at decision-making tables in the next five years.

There’s also the Fast Forward fellowship programme certified by L’Oréal in partnership with École des Ponts Business School. It places women of diverse backgrounds in the Advanced Course in Innovation and Leadership, for the skill-building and professional development needed to work in the corporate sector in the future. In 2021, the goal was for 30 learners to reach 150 women.

“This exemplifies the approach to leadership, as when you become a leader yourself you bring up others,” Hochman says. “All of this is really for self-determination, because until newcomers are able to determine how they want to be portrayed, or what the conversation should be around migration, they’re always seen as beneficiaries. So it’s the question of influence that’s behind leadership, because that’s the way we shift the conversation and narrative around migration.”

The Lotus Flower: Working with the community for the benefit of the community

Original photo courtesy of UNHCR.

In 2014, when ISIS went into northern Iraq, Taban Shoresh spent 15 months there assisting with the humanitarian crisis. When she returned to her home in the UK, she knew the crisis was far from over — but other than UNHCR, many organizations were leaving the region.

“I saw the massive gap in services, especially around having a space where women could heal, learn, and grow,” says Shoresh, Founder of The Lotus Flower, which has been serving refugees, internally displaced people, and members of the host community in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since 2016. What started as an operation run out of Shoresh’s living room with no money or connections has grown from one centre into multiple centres with a staff of 60, mostly locals on the ground.

“The skill set is there locally,” she says. “I believe all that’s needed is the right tools, opportunities, capacity-building and training efforts. And we make a concerted effort to hire locally because there’s such a high unemployment rate.”

The Lotus Flower focuses on three key pillars: health and safety, education and livelihoods, and human rights and peacebuilding.

In the category of health and safety, the organization provides awareness sessions on reproductive health, menstrual health, gender-based violence, and mental health, including therapy sessions. There are also projects specifically to address trauma, both for women and men.

“We recognize that men and boys need to be included in this, because the root causes of many of the things we were speaking to women about stemmed from the men,” Shoresh explains. “We also provide a positive masculinity project. Trying to introduce that in a region where it doesn’t exist is quite difficult, but it’s been very, very well-received.”

Under education and livelihoods, in addition to vocational training to help people improve their chances of employment, The Lotus Flower offers a wide range of educational programmes, including English-language and computer skills. One programme that’s consistently oversubscribed is adult literacy.

“We have a lot of women who have never gone to school, so they’re in their 60s and don’t know how to read and write,” Shoresh says. “Out of such a terrible situation, here’s an opportunity that’s a benefit to them.”

The Lotus Flower also offers a women’s business incubator that selects 15 to 20 businesses in each round, training them in business skills, marketing, and more, and provides a small grant to start their business.

“It targets the most vulnerable women who don’t have any access to income whatsoever, who would have lost loved ones in the conflict,” Shoresh says. “We have many other livelihood projects, too, like Baking Sisters — a café run by women that’s unbelievably popular. People forget that celebrations continue while people are living in settlements.”

In the area of human rights and peacebuilding, The Lotus Flower is training peace mediators, particularly women, at the community level, who fully understand what’s needed most to implement peace and security in the region. In addition, The Lotus Flower has had a legal case ongoing since 2016 to get compensation for Yazidi women and girls who were impacted by ISIS, and also hosts well-attended sessions to educate people about their rights.

With a wide variety of other programmes — from boxing training to yoga to creative therapy to community outreach — The Lotus Flower applies a holistic approach.

“What makes us unique is that we put the community at the centre,” Shoresh says, “working closely with them to find out what they need and how we can make it happen.”

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UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR Innovation Service

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UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.