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Rania Abou, wearing a mask, puts two containers of food inside paper bags to be given away as part of her work with the IRC and World Central Kitchen.
World Refugee Day

Meet the refugees helping their neighbors through the pandemic

When all you’ve had to keep going is enduring hope, you help people discover their own.

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

As coronavirus lockdowns have taken hold around the world, “looking out for your neighbors” has deepened in significance. Refugees who fled conflict and persecution are committed to caring for people in their new communities during the pandemic. From delivering food packages to sharing vital information about COVID-19, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure others don’t feel alone. Because when all you’ve had to keep going is enduring hope, you help people discover their own.

Meet some of the refugees helping their neighbors through the pandemic. 

It's like a circle. I help somebody and somebody helps me.

Rania 

Refugee. Food Distributor. Front-line Worker. 

Nineteen-year-old Rania Abou is from Damascus, Syria. She came to Roselle, N.J. as a refugee, with her father and brothers, less than a year ago. (Rania's mother passed away several years earlier while the family was living in Egypt.) Today, she works as a food distributor with the International Rescue Committee and World Central Kitchen in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

An artist, Rania dreams of putting her drawing skills to work as an engineer. When the coronavirus put those plans on hold, she jumped at the chance to help her community. 

“When people who need the food come, we give the food to all without asking them their name or ID or anything like that. We just ask them how many people in their family and give them the food.

“When I see the kids smiling, I feel happy. And that's given me hope. 

“I want to say that we should all stay at home and stay hopeful. And if we can help others, we should help others … if I can help, I should help. In the future, somebody will help me. It's like a circle. I help somebody and somebody helps me.

“I think if my mom [was] alive, she [would] be proud of me.”

There’s nothing small during the coronavirus. Everything is important. Everything that is positive is important.
Jean Marie Ishimwe, a youth advocate and Rwandan refugee living in Kenya, leans against a railing with buildings behind him.

“My greatest strength is the youth that I interact with,” says Jean Marie Ishimwe.

Photo: Nyasha Kadandara/IRC

Jean Marie

Refugee. Youth Advocate. Community Leader.

Twenty-three-year-old Jean Marie Ishimwe is well acquainted with the struggles of refugees in Nairobi, Kenya. A refugee himself from Rwanda, he co-founded a group to teach digital skills to refugee youth and co-chairs a youth empowerment organization.  Today, he is using his coordination and motivational skills to mobilize young people to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“My greatest strength is the youth that I interact with,” he says. “They give me strength to continue.” 

Knowing that both refugees and locals would struggle during the pandemic, Jean Marie organized youth to raise money and put together food packages to sustain a family for two to three days. The group adds masks to the packages and spends time educating recipients about COVID-19. 

“I am not infected, but I am affected,” Jean Marie says, pointing out that the pandemic has touched all aspects of life and requires action from all of us. 

“We have to try to commit ourselves to helping our communities in any way possible. There’s nothing small during the coronavirus. Everything is important. Everything that is positive is important.”

When I see our clients thrive, it motivates me to do the best that I can do.
Meheria Habibi looks at the camera and gives a thumbs up. She is wearing a mask, as well as an IRC hat and t-shirt.

“Whether it is a client opening a business or getting their citizenship, I remind them: It was really hard in the beginning, but look where you are right now," says Meheria Habibi.

Photo: Courtesy of Meheria Habibi

Meheria 

Refugee. IRC staff. Mentor.

Meheria Habibi is a senior program manager in the IRC’s Tucson, Ariz., office and a refugee from Afghanistan. For nearly 20 years, she has worked for the IRC helping refugee families like her own thrive in the United States. 

“My work has completely changed during the pandemic,” she says. Meheria oversees most of the IRC’s direct services in Tucson and many of her clients are struggling because of the coronavirus. Meheria spends her days supporting staff to help clients access basic needs, sometimes even delivering food to a family’s door herself.

Meheria Habibi has her arm around one of her sons while another one of her sons stands behind her. All three are smiling and looking at the camera.
Meheria with her two sons. Photo: Courtesy of Meheria Habibi

  

Meheria is well aware of the emotional toll the pandemic takes on her clients. “This is traumatic, especially for people who have gone through our experiences,” she says. “For me, when the coronavirus pandemic happened, it brought back a lot of memories of war. I was in Afghanistan as a child. That fear of going through that again, that fear of not being safe or being able to provide safety for your family members, is something I think about all the time.” 

Despite the challenges, Meheria takes inspiration from her clients’ accomplishments. “Whether it is a client opening a business or getting their citizenship, I remind them: It was really hard in the beginning, but look where you are right now. When I see our clients thrive, it motivates me to do the best that I can do.

“There is so much going on right now that it could be discouraging. It could bring a sense of hopelessness, but I want refugees to know that there are so many people in this world that really care about them.” 

Rohingya people help others as much as possible. They take care of each other, they stay together.

“People are living in fear. We teach them how to stay safe from the coronavirus: that people must wash their hands, avoid crowded places and go to the hospital if they get sick," says Yasmin Ara.

Photo: Maruf Hasan/IRC

Yasmin 

Refugee. Community Volunteer. Refugee Advocate.

Twenty-one-year-old Yasmin Ara is a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar living in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee camp. In May, the first case of the coronavirus was reported in the camp.

As a community volunteer for the IRC, Yasmin has been going door-to-door to raise awareness about protection from the virus. “The camp is a very crowded place and there isn’t enough soap,” she explains. “There’s no electricity, so we can’t take baths properly. We’re in a very risky situation, living like chickens in a cage. It’s very tense—but we have to control our fear … we have to be brave.

“People are living in fear. We teach them how to stay safe from the coronavirus: that people must wash their hands, avoid crowded places and go to the hospital if they get sick.”

The challenges are great, but Yasmin remains hopeful. “Rohingya people help others as much as possible. They take care of each other, they stay together.”

This is a critical period … there's fake news everywhere, all the time.
Henry Tbilisi, wearing a white shirt, poses for a selfie in his apartment.

“For refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in Italy the situation is incredibly difficult. There are those who are on their own—how do you stay indoors if you don’t have a house?" says Henry Tbilisi.

Photo: Courtesy of Henry Tbilisi

Henry 

Refugee. Communicator. Trust Builder.

Born in Nigeria, Henry Tbilisi works in Italy for the IRC moderating Refugee.Info, an online platform that tackles misinformation and answers questions from asylum seekers and refugees recently arrived in the country.

Having been a refugee himself, Henry has channeled his experience into helping others feel less alone. He has also been raising awareness about COVID-19.

"People are dying and people are really worried,” he says. “For refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in Italy the situation is incredibly difficult. There are those who are on their own—how do you stay indoors if you don’t have a house?

“We've been helping to keep people informed about the virus and where they can get help or places to stay. We build trust with our users. This is a critical period…there's fake news everywhere, all the time.

“When they experience racism they don’t know who to turn to,” Henry says of another challenge many of those he assists face. “We help guide them to services—and most importantly, we really listen to them.

“People pretend there’s no racism or say ‘I’m not racist.’ But racism is happening everywhere. I can’t tell you how many times I have experienced racism as a Black man. It’s a global issue and we have to fight it. The case of George Floyd struck a chord and now people are speaking out ... The world needs to realize that we are all humans and all humans are equal.”

What really worries me is my younger friends getting sick. They have their whole lives ahead of them.
Irmgard sits at a table at a restaurant. She is wearing black and white shirt with red roses. There is a bouquet of flowers behind her.

“I was surprised how many people called me to talk,” says Irmgard.

Photo: Courtesy of Irmgard

Irmgard 

Refugee. Community Champion. Friend. 

When the lockdown started in Germany, 91-year-old Irmgard* became a source of knowledge and comfort for her younger friends, who often consider her an honorary grandmother.

 “I was surprised how many people called me to talk,” she says, explaining that she offers advice to people on things like batch-cooking to reduce their trips to the supermarket. 

Irmgard, born in Silesia, fled her home as a child in 1945 in fear of the Russian Soviet 'Red Army.' She left all her belongings behind and relocated to East Germany, where she was welcomed by a kind farmer’s family. But the call of a better life outside communist rule led her to leave her home again in 1957. “When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and many fled West Berlin, I moved in,” Irmgard says.

Today, she is a proud Berliner and spends her days giving back. Whether it’s helping residents in her housing complex get around in their wheelchairs, or cooking up her famous lasagna, or talking to someone feeling isolated during the pandemic, Irmgard is always putting others before herself.

“What really worries me is my younger friends getting sick,” she says. “They have their whole lives ahead of them. Every day I hope they stay healthy!"

This pandemic has shown us how to have compassion and how to be there for people.
Md Mominul Hamid stands next to his bike and gives a thumbs up. He is wearing a blue helmet and orange gloves and a black backpack.

“I ask everyone, please knock on your neighbors’ doors,” Md says. “If you can't knock, then call them. If you cannot call them, write a letter and ask if they need any help."

Photo: Courtesy of Md Mominul Hamid

Md Mominul Hamid

Asylum Seeker. Food Distributor. Community Champion.

“This pandemic has shown us how to have compassion and how to be there for people.”

An asylum seeker in the United Kingdom, Md Mominul Hamid knows firsthand the challenges of trying to make ends meet, having to survive on a weekly government allowance of less than $50. When COVID-19 locked down Newcastle, his new hometown, he knew that others would be struggling too, so he started bringing food packages to vulnerable people in his community. Ten weeks later, Md, who is originally from Bangladesh, had delivered 409 food packages made up of donations from neighbors.

Past traumas mean Md has found being stuck at home difficult during the lockdown. He had been brought to Great Britain by human traffickers in 2017 but escaped after six months of enslavement. 

Most recently, Md successfully petitioned the government to lift restrictions that prevented asylum seekers from pursuing formal schooling. He is now a proud law student at Northumbria University and hopes to use his legal training to help other survivors of modern-day slavery.

“I ask everyone, please knock on your neighbors’ doors,” Md says. “If you can't knock, then call them. If you cannot call them, write a letter and ask if they need any help. If everyone can be there for their neighbors, that will make all the difference.”

Helping people is my duty as a human being. If everyone started helping each other, life would be beautiful.
Mohamad sits on the ground and looks at the camera. He has on a white shirt and blue mask.

"Whoever needs help, I will help," Mohamad says.

Photo: Elias El Beam/IRC

Mohamad

Refugee. Volunteer. Community Advocate.

Mohamad* had led his family out of Syria, carrying his disabled 17-year-old daughter on his shoulder for 15 days until they reached a tented settlement for refugees in Lebanon. When the coronavirus outbreak took hold in Lebanon, he immediately volunteered to shop for elderly people and those with special needs so they could shelter at home. But he continues to worry most about his own.

“My children are my responsibility,” he says. “I brought them into this world…I’d rather die instead of them. We used to have a two-story house in Syria. All my efforts and sweat, all those years, were invested in building that house. All of a sudden, the house was bombed. Now, I have zero finances.”

Mohamad’s daughter gives him strength to keep going. “I always encourage my daughter to be courageous. She asks me, ‘Why am I sick?’ I try my best to lift her spirits. Whoever needs help, I will help. We are all humans after all.”

*Last name omitted at the subject's request.