Passports. Birth certificates. Cherished photographs. Beloved family members. Friends. Pets.
Many people are forced to leave behind all these things and more when they are threatened and forced out from their homes and communities.
But no matter what they leave behind, they all bring similar things with them wherever they go:
Sadly, many people find that their three greatest assets are almost impossible to use at the time they need them most: when they are trying to settle in to a new community and rebuild their lives. Whether it’s through restrictive laws that prohibit them from working, or through language and cultural barriers that make it extremely difficult to earn an income, refugees have to try to survive another disaster—a life lived in limbo.
They are not the only ones who suffer from this situation; their host community does, too. Because when refugees are able to work, they need fewer benefits and have money to spend in the local economy. They create businesses and employ others. They experience less frustration and feel more connected to their new community.
Yet people in host countries and communities can feel threatened by refugees working if jobs and opportunities to use their own skills, talents and aspirations are already scarce.
This situation is played out all over the world, in Europe , Africa, wherever refugees find themselves. Yet, when they are able to develop their skills, embrace their talents and fulfil their aspirations, their families and communities can thrive.
How to benefit everyone
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is working to empower young people in Nairobi, Kenya, with support from a €5 million (nearly $5.8 million) grant from the IKEA Foundation.
Kenya is currently the 10th largest refugee-hosting country in the world with almost half a million refugees. The IRC, which responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people rebuild their lives, is seeking to improve the lives of both refugees and young Kenyans living in Nairobi’s informal settlements to earn a better income through a flexible training and employment program, tailored to each individual’s needs.
By offering business-skills training, start-up grants, apprenticeships, and connections to local employers, the IRC is helping thousands of vulnerable people improve their chances for a better future. Meet two of them:
Meet Patience, a refugee doing vocational training
When Patience was a baby, her parents were killed and her hand was cut off during the Democratic Republic of Congo’s brutal civil war. A stranger picked her up off the roadside, saving her life, taking her to Rwanda and adopting her. But when Patience was a teenager, her adoptive mother died and Patience was kicked out of the house. She ended up in Nairobi.
Patience is now 21 and doing vocational training in photography and videography through the IRC’s program. When she first started her training, she was worried—she didn’t know how she was even going to hold the camera with only one hand. Nevertheless, she told herself to be confident in who she was—a lesson she credits her adoptive mother with teaching her—and is now thriving.
I dream of being a journalist, someone who exposes ills and community problems.
“I dream of being a journalist,” she says, “someone who exposes ills and community problems.”
Alongside her training, she is also doing outreach to other people with disabilities through a project she calls “I Am Able”.
Meet Lispher, a local Kenyan entrepreneur
Lispher, 25, is from a village in Kenya, but like many young people in rural areas, she struggled to find work. “Back in the village, there were no jobs or sources of income,” she says. “So I came to Nairobi to look for any job.”
She ended up living in Huruma, an impoverished, informal settlement of Nairobi with few economic opportunities and a large population. When she first discovered the IRC, she went to them for vocational training in catering and food service. After that, she enrolled in their business start-up program.
Back in the village, there were no jobs or sources of income.
Now Lispher is the proud owner of the Sunlight Hotel, a small restaurant. She has gone from “just sitting in the house without anything to do” to managing two employees. She is saving money and plans to buy land where she can build a house and a second restaurant, which will enable her to hire even more people.
The same story everywhere
Despite the legal barriers and other obstacles—including being forced to pay additional taxes and bribes while earning less than local Kenyans—refugees in Kenya are working and contributing to the national economy. In Nairobi, around half of Somali and Congolese refugees have a job.
“Refugees are often innovative and entrepreneurial; many run small businesses, whether in hairdressing, tailoring or running internet cafes, and sometimes they employ Kenyan nationals,” says Alexander Betts, one of the authors of the study “Refugee Economies in Kenya.” “But the challenge is that less than 10 percent have a bank account, and most cannot access loans.”
Far from being dependent, refugees can help themselves and contribute to their communities—provided we create the right enabling environment.
Whether urban refugees thrive or struggle to survive depends largely on whether they have the right to work, an education, and access to capital. “There is so much more that can be done to support refugees’ economic inclusion, in Kenya and elsewhere,” Betts says. “Far from being dependent, refugees can help themselves and contribute to their communities—provided we create the right enabling environment.”
A version of this story was first published by the IKEA Foundation.