The power to decide

We often think of refugees and displaced people in terms of their “needs”. Only rarely do we consider their ideas, skills, and potential. Now, an innovative project is set to challenge these assumptions - and in doing so, hand over power so that refugees can finally take charge of their own futures.

At 16 years old, Hanna* was abducted. Taken away from her family and sold into marriage. The community presumed it had been organised by her brother, for profit.

Flashback to three years before this moment.

In a town nearby Hanna’s village in Malawi, an NGO started the “Young Women Can Do It” Club. There, young people gathered to discuss and tackle the social barriers keeping young women and girls out of school. With the right resources and community support, they could decide which future to pursue during and after education.

Hanna, then 13 years old, was quiet yet full of ambition.

“When Hanna first joined the club, she was so shy,” recounts Hamelmal Getachew, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) global specialist on economic inclusion. “She always needed some encouragement to speak publicly, even to say something at all.”

Part of the club’s aim was to ensure Hanna’s voice was amplified.

Hamelmal Getachew, NRC’s Global Specialist on Economic Inclusion, who designed this Youth Innovation Project. Photo: Private

The club formed a steering committee to take decisions based on the wider group’s input. Hanna was one of the committee members. Together their decision-making role had more authority than NGO staff. Now, Hanna was able to lead in pointing to educational barriers as well as designing the solutions that would most benefit her community.

After years of working with the club, courage replaced her apprehension. “She really started to speak up, even more than her colleagues,” says Hamelmal. As a respected member of the club, Hanna had harnessed her confidence and found her voice.

Flash forward.

Three years later – Hanna is a teen wife. Everything she had built rested on a fading horizon – her leadership role, access to education, and her future – fleeting from grasp and view.

But Hanna could not be silenced. After the abduction, she found her way back to the club – back to her friends and support system. Her voice was bold and strong.

“‘I can do better for my life. I can advocate for myself and my fellow girls,’ Hanna kept saying,” recalls Hamelmal. “The club and project intervened. The police became involved.”

People have hidden potential. Sometimes it just needs to be drawn out and given a platform to express it.

After an incredible effort by her peers, she was finally released from the marriage.

All the club members rallied round to help her catch up on the schoolwork she had missed. Hanna kept pace with her education alongside her club activities for another two years. She became an advocate in her community for other young women, all while earning her high school diploma.

The confidence Hanna established by taking a leadership role warded off the shape of a future nearly forced upon her. “A project has the ability to really enable people”, says Hamemel.

“It’s not just about giving out materials or cash. It’s about putting in the time – about getting the best out of human contact. People have hidden potential. Sometimes it just needs to be drawn out and given a platform to express it.”

South Sudanese women refugees during an ICLA training at Tierkidi camp in Gambella, Ethiopia. Photo: NRC Ethiopia
South Sudanese women who have been displaced join a legal counselling (ICLA) session, where they learn about their rights. Photo: NRC

Refugees join decision-maker’s table

Hamelmal Getachew was instrumental in coordinating “Young Women Can Do It” Clubs. In doing this, she worked alongside Hanna for five years.

Hamelmal has 14 years of humanitarian experience under her belt. Even so, she remembers Hanna’s transformation as one of the most impactful. It instilled within her the importance of young people having the power to make their own life decisions.

Now with NRC, Hamelmal has drawn inspiration from Hanna to co-design a new youth innovation initiative focused on youth economic inclusion. This innovative project focuses on supporting young refugees and displaced youth to take leadership roles so they can determine their own economic futures. The goal: to transform both how we understand participation and how we treat displaced people as robust sources of knowledge.

Traditionally, people affected by displacement are categorised based on their different needs. NGO staff typically interview them to find out what those needs are. They then decide what kind of assistance and services will provide the most meaningful support.

But during this process, their testimonies about what they need must be modified to fit funding proposals as well as meet donor expectations. This often results in their ideas not fully being taken on board.

Hamelmal believes this kind of participation is not inclusive enough.

There has to be a transfer of power which is achieved by placing refugees in leadership roles.

“Many times, NGOs see these interviews as participation. But we are all too often taking an expert eye, assuming that youth don’t know what they want, that they are unsure of what they mean, or that they don’t know how to follow protocols,” she says.

“And after we first ask what their needs are, we don’t go back to speak with them, and revise based on whether they agree with what will be provided. That’s not fully participatory or fair to what they know.”

The problem with “needs”

For Hamelmal, part of the problem starts with the word “needs”, which immediately defines displaced people as passive recipients. She believes there is a better starting point. “When we think in terms of skill and potential, people are transformed into agents,” she says. This makes space for their ideas to soar and their talents to shine.

Part of Hamelmal’s plan tackles these issues by placing young people squarely at the decision-making table. This will both demonstrate their skills and build trust in their testimony. “There has to be a transfer of power,” she urges, “which is achieved by placing refugees in leadership roles.”

With Hanna in mind, it is clear just how effective handing over power can be.

“When the crisis started I was going to school and at the same time helping my mom with her business. But, the fighting made things tough, business was tight, it was hard. I continued to go to school but the boys would come and meet us in school and beat us, then drive us away from school and force us to go back to the house. I have been beaten not once, not twice, but many times by those boys. They don’t want us to go to school, to make a future for ourselves and the society. If we go, they will beat you up and attack your family. So, I had to stop school because my family was really in danger,” Kelly, 21 years old, tells us when we meet her in November 2019.

The boys are what the armed separatists are called locally in the North West province. In 2016, as English-speaking lawyers, students and teachers began protesting what they saw as their cultural marginalisation and under-representation in the central government, the Government forces hit back with a hard hand. Several armed separatist groups emerged and eventually declared independence 1. October 2017. They called their new country Ambazonia. 

Kelly lived in a big compound with her mom, dad, her siblings and extended family. Her parents ran a business and they had a farm.

“I had many people around me back then, but due to the crisis I have just a few left.”

On 11. February 2016, on the National Youth Day, clashes were intense in her village. The separatist did not recognise the youth day and put up the Ambazonia flag and the military retaliated. 

“The military came to our compound. The gate was closed, but they climbed the fence and entered. They shot at anybody they saw, they never cared to know who was who, they were just shooting. My younger sister and myself were hiding under a bed. My uncle was also there and they just entered the room and shot him, thinking he was one of those boys. They shot him right in front of me and my sister. After that, there was no way we could sleep in the house, so we fled to the bush and slept there. In the morning we came back and took my uncle to the morgue to prepare the funeral. That’s when my mom and my dad decided that we should look for another way for me to go to school, because staying in the village, doing nothing, will not help me so it’s better I leave”.

Three months later, at the age of 18, Kelly left her home to go to Yaoundé. She found a place to live and started to work to save up money to continue her education and slowly built a new life for herself over the next three years. She felt safe again. Then, everything changed. 

“I lost my dad 5. November. This month. I was not in the village when it happened, but they told me that he got up at night to ease himself. We do not have a toilet inside the compound so he had to go outside. Unfortunately, he was shot that night. He was taken to the hospital, but they could not save him.”

Every bullet victim is automatically investigated in the area, so the police came to talk to the family and her mother tried to answer all their questions. They found out it was the separatists, the boys, who had shot him. The situation was very intense in the village in that period. Kelly travelled from Yaoundé to the village for the funeral and then quickly returned to the capital due to the fighting. 

Two days after her dad was killed, another crisis hit the family. Kelly’s older sister got kidnapped by the boys. The kidnappers asked for 2,5 million francs in ransom for the group. The family tried to raise 500 000 francs. Kelly gave 50 000 francs that she had managed to save during her time in Yaoundé. These were the money she would use for her school fees, but instead she had to spend them to pay for her dad’s funeral and now her sister’s kidnapping. Together, the family managed to find money and her sister was released. 

“My sister was badly beaten. All her body; wounds, wounds, wounds. Fortunately, she was not raped, because those boys don’t sleep with girls who have their period. So, that was the only way she was saved from those guys. It was a miracle.”

After Kelly’s sister was released, she fled for safety to Bamenda, a bigger town in the area, where she is trying to attend some classes now and then. Kidnappings for ransom have become a regular thing in the province. Armed separatist groups have killed, tortured, assaulted, and kidnapped dozens of people, including students, teachers, clergy, and administrative and traditional authorities.

“I think the boys are kidnapping because they need money to purchase weapons,” Kelly states.

While her sister was still missing, Kelly received yet another call, this time from an unknown number, telling her she had to come back to the village for an emergency. They did not say what had happened, just that she had to come as fast as she could. Kelly was afraid she would lose her job if she left so soon after she had just been away for her dad’s funeral, but had to go and risk it. 

“As I entered the compound, everyone was crying. The first thing I asked was ‘Where is my mom?’ Everybody was crying in silence. They asked me to sit down, but I said ‘No, I don’t want to sit down, I want to see my mom.’ Then they told me that my mom had passed away. I had a shock. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital. I spent two days there.”

“My mom was shot by those boys due to the investigation after my dad was killed. They know our house. They came inside our compound and asked for her. They shot her with four bullets to her body and left. No one else was shot. My mom was their main target. The boys were angry, because she spoke to the police. They don’t want us to have anything to do with the police.”

In less than a week, both Kelly’s parents had been killed. Her sister had been kidnapped. 

She did not feel safe. 

“At the funeral ground the boys kept looking at me. Just looking, looking, looking. I felt like I was going to be the next target. I had to leave the village, cause my life was in danger. It was a lot of gunshots. Everywhere. Everywhere! So, I managed to take the bush backroad and was lucky to find a taxi and I took it straight to Bamenda and then back here to Yaoundé. I told no one I was back. I just stayed inside for a week, mourning my mom and my dad. No school. No work. Just mourning them.”

In this period, she was also told to move out from the room she shared with a friend and this one’s sister who felt it had become too crowded. Now, Kelly needs to find a new place to rent, but with soaring housing process in the capital and her savings gone, it’s not an easy task. 

“I lost my dad. I lost my mom. My sister was kidnapped. So, all my savings are gone. I’m back to square one. Even to have a meal per day is difficult. I tried to get an advance from my boss. I tried to borrow money from friends so I can afford to move into a new place.”

Kelly now works in a school canteen five days a week. She leaves the house at 5am, works, comes back at 2pm. Rests for a little while, then goes to evening school until 9pm. At night she can seldom afford to eat, so she goes to bed and gets up again at 2am to study when the house is quiet. 

“I really need to go to school. Education is the key to life. Education is the highest thing. It was my parents’ dream for me, to go to school, to become something great in life that make you stand out in a population and talk like a woman. Even though they are no more, I have to work hard for myself and achieve my dreams.”

Kelly dreamt of becoming a lawyer, or a medical doctor, but now she is thinking accounting or management is more realistic. Or, play the American lottery and see if she can leave the country. 

“Even though it’s hard to lose two parents at the same time, it’s nothing I can do. All the things they used to do for me, I now need to do alone. It’s hell. But, this is what my fate has decided for me. I just need to move on with life.”

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC
Photo used for illustrative purposes. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

The plan: renovate and revolutionise

This youth innovation initiative will be tested, modified, and rolled out across different regions – and Hamelmal hopes – around the world. As the project enters its first phase, she and the NRC colleagues who helped co-design it are excited about its impact on human potential.

Here’s how it works.

To start with, young people will design their own business projects, deciding which economic ventures will best suit them and their communities. Whether it’s agriculture, technology or creating a local business, they get to choose what fits.

After they have mapped out their projects, they bring them to the project management team. This team is made up of the youth participants, some members of the community that is hosting them, and just two NRC staff. This roundtable of decision-makers collectively decides which projects will go forward.

“This platform brings everyone together to brainstorm young people’s economic futures – and this time, it is led by the young people themselves,” Hamelmal underscores. It becomes the perfect place for people to exhibit and develop their skills and potential – handing a megaphone to the youth whose voices might otherwise be unheard or discredited.

By forming a collective of different perspectives, Hamelmal and her team intend to carve out more space for women and people with disabilities, so they can take the lead. It also engenders the chance to change any negative perceptions of refugee youth held by members of their host communities. By working together, more positive views of a shared social landscape become possible.

Location: Youth Center in Nyumanzi Settelment, Adjumani, Uganda 
Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
Students at a Youth Centre in Nyumanzi Settelment, Adjumani, Uganda, Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC

Where does NRC fit in?

Traditionally, NGOs dictate what is possible and how. This time, it’s the youth who have often been forced onto the margins that get to decide, and NRC is there to uplift their decisions.

NRC staff will act as a technical team, jumping into action to assist them in reaching their goals. When they are building their entrepreneurial projects, we provide guidance and coaching. After those projects are approved, we offer specialised business training, start-up capital and long-term mentoring to ensure they’re successful.

“When we support refugees and displaced youth in building a project, they become more self-sufficient,” Hamelmal continues. “This also builds a sense of ownership – that ‘I am responsible for this’. This translates into a higher likelihood that whatever initiative they choose can be sustained or replicated because they enjoy it and have the skills to see it through.”

Most of the NRC staff in Shire office and Hitsat refugee camp.
The camp is just outside Shire, a district in northern Ethiopia. The camp houses about 10,000 refugees from Eritrea. Most of them are minors, and about one in ten have fled alone.

Photo: Beate Simarud/NRC 

Facts and figures:

Eritreans are the third largest group of refugees living in Ethiopia, with 37,321 refugees currently registered in refugee camps in the Shire area camps. 

Currently there are 163,281 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia.

It is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of Eritrean refugees leave the camps within the first three months of arrival, and 80 per cent leave within the first year, with significant numbers of the population departing irregularly from Ethiopia to third countries – often with the assistance of smugglers and at great risk to their lives. 

The population in the Shire camps is unique, with a large number of children below the age of 18 and unaccompanied children. 

As of June 2017, 72 per cent of the refugees living in Shire were under the age of 18, including 4,725 unaccompanied and separated children, representing approximately 11.5 per cent of the total refugee population. 

Unaccompanied and separated children live in a variety of care arrangements, including community care, foster care, or family-based care.
NRC staff excited to support youth in reaching their goals. Photo: Beate Simarud/NRC

Ripple effects

To have greater impact, Hamelmal plans to involve a broad network of organisations at all levels.

“Most organisations share the traditional model of thinking. If we want to really change people’s minds, other refugee camps, NGOs and higher-level organisations have to be on board to collectively build confidence and fairness across regions,” she says.

Hamelmal and her team hope that collaboratively prioritising young people’s ideas and self-sufficiency will bring waves of change across the humanitarian sector – starting with NRC’s own team.

Date: 05 August 2020
Location: Kaya - Center North Burkina Faso
Photo:  Innocent Parkouda/NRC
After fleeing an armed attack, Fatouna, 16, participates in vocational training with NRC in Kaya, Burkina Faso. Photo: Innocent Parkouda/NRC

Flexible funding makes change possible

Trying out innovative ideas often requires experimentation – the exciting part! But with very little funding available to engage youth in finding their own solutions, Hamelmal and her team are ecstatic to be granted flexible funding from NRC.

“Traditional models of funding limit people to traditional models of practice,” she explains. “That’s why flexible funding is vital to innovative thinking. Of course, it’s always important to have a frame or scope to work within. But it’s time to shift away from rigid thinking and build new things. And to do this we have to start with people. People are not fixed. They are changing – changed by contexts and new situations. And in order to adapt to these changes, we need funding that allows us to do so.”

When funding mirrors the shifting human context, we can truly put people first.

*Name changed to protect the person’s identity


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