On the resilience of refugees

Omar Ali 1
Article by: Omar Ali
On the resilience of refugees

In the time it will take you to read this sentence from start to finish, four people will be displaced from their homes due to conflict or persecution.


Does this figure surprise you? Since 2011, 6.3 million people have been displaced from Syria alone – perhaps the worst refugee crisis since World War II.


What do we do when so many women, men, and children flee their homes in desperation and come to our doorstep?


To many in the Western world, the refugee crisis is either a problem to solve or a cause for quarantine. Instead of discussing refugees in terms of their skills and assets, the conversation in the U.S. has largely centered around the rising "radical Islamist threat" they pose. Populist parties swept into power across Europe because refugees are perceived to wear down welfare systems and chip away at European values and ideals.


Rather than building walls and layering simple solutions onto complex problems, it falls on us to reframe the way we respond to refugees and to forge a new way forward, helping people to rebuild their lives and their homes, their hopes and their dreams.


World Refugee Day offers us a time to reflect on the plight of displaced people around the world, and the opportunity to challenge our preconceived notions about these groups.


This year, we spoke with THNKers working with refugees in seven countries to collect stories and nuggets of wisdom garnered from their lives and their work. Read on to discover their insightful dispatches from the frontlines of the refugee crisis.

On the Resilience of Refugees 3
''Without digital skills, this generation of children's opportunities are likely to diminish with advances in AI and automation.'' – Rudayna Abdo, Founder of @Thaki_Unlocks Click To Tweet

01 | Delivering on Digital


THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS – Refugees spilling over the borders of neighboring countries can quickly overwhelm the host’s ability to absorb the children into their domestic school systems.

Organizations like Thaki have emerged to help fill the gaps that education ministries and international NGOs are not able to sustain. We are bringing innovative solutions in education through technology and are able to act quickly and nimbly, applying a lean entrepreneurial approach to implement, pivot and adapt solutions.

Through the deployment of content-rich laptops that are donated to Thaki, we are bringing engaging educational content and – equally important – digital literacy to these vulnerable children who would otherwise not have the opportunity to gain digital skills. Without digital skills, this generation of children is doomed to an economic future of manual labor whose opportunities are likely to only diminish with advances in AI and automation.

A daughter of refugees herself, Rudayna Abdo founded Thaki (Arabic for “smart”) with the aim of helping the many displaced children around the world continue their education. The foundation does so by providing “gently used computers”, loading them with self-paced educational content, and getting them to young refugees with limited educational resources. So far, Thaki has reached several thousand children.

World Refugee Day 2018 6
''The story of every #refugee is a story of overcoming odds - and most importantly, it's always a story of resilience.'' – @FernandoSapelli, Founder of Claraluz Filmes Click To Tweet

02 | Exploring Empathy


SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – In this moment with so much hate and fear regarding the ‘Other‘, empathy might be the best tool to create value for refugee communities. Empathy can be generated through positive storytelling and transformative experiences. There’s such an overload of information that data, numbers and figures about the refugee crisis no longer mobilize people to act. Unless we’re able to constantly demonstrate the benefits of hosting refugee communities, we will remain split on this issue, hindering any attempts to foster new opportunities. As creative leaders, we need to be advocates for these marginalized groups.

Exodus (2016) tells the incredible stories of six people from different parts of the world who have been forced to leave their homes and build their lives under new challenging circumstances.

The story of every refugee is a story of overcoming odds – and most importantly, it’s always a story of resilience. One people that comes to mind that clearly embraces the concept of resilience is the Sahrawi people. They have been living in refugee camps for over 40 years. These camps are located in the middle of the Sahara Desert in Algeria, one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth. What began as a provisional measure continues to serve as a makeshift home four decades later, while the homeland of the Sahrawi people remains occupied. If humanity could get a taste of what these people have been through, perhaps we would see refugees through a different lens.

Fernando Sapelli is a Brazilian-Italian filmmaker on a mission to develop and produce socially-relevant audio-visual content for all platforms. After working on documentaries with various NGOs around the world to increase volunteer awareness and support fundraising efforts, Fernando decided to launch his own production company in 2013. Claraluz Filmes was instrumental in the production of Exodus, a 2016 documentary recounting the incredible stories of six refugees forced to flee their homes and build new lives under challenging circumstances.

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''Leaders in every sector need creative and innovative platforms that enable #refugees to create positive change and achieve their full potential.'' – Karin Lindgård, Constitudet Office Director at Husbanken Click To Tweet

03 | Platforms to Prosperity


OSLO, NORWAY – Leaders in every sector need creative and innovative platforms that enable refugees (and everyone else) to create positive change and achieve their full potential. It doesn’t have to cost a lot, nor drain resources for fundamental services. We just need a little rejigging of office space, priorities, and an awareness that both empowerment and collaboration are necessary when seeding initiatives and establishing platforms that are genuinely all-inclusive.

The story of Husbanken’s collaboration and development of social enterprises in Oslo is an example of this. It’s a story that begins with a curiosity to explore new ways of investing in sustainability, which resulted in a new kind of incubator attracting local residents from all walks of life. This has had a real positive impact on participating individuals, those they worked to support, and beyond.

The outcome, Tøyen Unlimiteds Community Incubator, is a physical space and wrap-around support, located in the very heart of a disadvantaged area of Oslo. Core values include welcoming and listening to anyone with an idea that might contribute to a better society, and then searching for a business model that might generate income through selling products or services. The added value of the incubator and the community-based entrepreneurs it supports has proven significant in terms of establishing much needed local role models and changing mindsets in the neighborhood from passive to determined and solution-oriented. It seems to work, and is now inspiring other parts of Oslo and Norway to replicate the local community incubator model under the banner of Unlimited Norway.

The model might be described as originating from co-created creativity. It depends on interweaving ideas and input from the public, private, social and civic sectors as well as individuals. The result is a platform for inclusion and community cohesion through social enterprise. Its origins lie in strategic leadership from Husbanken as funders, followed by a willingness by the city district to include social entrepreneurship in the profile of the area-boost staff, subsequent collaboration with foundations who were willing to give grants in an area the public sector finds it harder to risk prioritizing, and last but by no means least the drive and energy of individuals determined to build a better future for their families, friends and communities.

Karin Lindgård and her team at Husbanken work to ensure a properly functioning housing market in Norway. Their approach is systemic and holistic. By increasing the housing supply for disadvantaged groups and forming long-term partnerships with local municipalities, civil society groups, and actors in the public and private sectors, they hope to tackle a set of social challenges that cannot be addressed at once or in isolation.

On the Resilience of Refugees 4
''We can all learn from refugees' drive and dedication, but we can also learn from them never to give up until we find a place to call our own.'' – Oscar Sánchez Piñeiro, Senior Field Coordinator at the UNHCR Click To Tweet

04 | Learning from Loss


DOHUK, IRAQ – Working in conflict areas and meeting refugees fleeing war zones can be one of the most difficult experiences that one can encounter. I have witnessed children separated from their parents and forcibly recruited to war efforts, entire families psychologically traumatized, and survivors of human trafficking and slavery struggling to reintegrate into society. I have felt the saudade people feel for the homes they’ve lost. As a migrant, I am able to empathize with the journey refugees make when starting new lives. Unlike me, refugees are not only forced to flee, but also unable to return to their homes. To provide some form of support to those leaving war-torn countries has taught me so much about resilience and perseverance in the face of horror.

I don’t find it strange to see that people like George Soros, Hamdi Ulukaya, Sergey Brin and Jan Koum were also refugees (to name a few entrepreneurs). There are some unique traits that refugees and entrepreneurs share. For one, both groups are more likely to bounce back after experiencing failure. They have a seemingly unrelenting dedication and drive to find something better.

But George Soros, Hamdi Ulukaya, Sergey Brin and Jan Koum also had something the refugees I work with are missing. Back in their days as refugees, these future business titans were welcomed into peaceful and enabling environments that nourished their talents and enabled them to thrive. They found new homes from which they were able to launch a better future.

I challenge THNK and the wider world to help me find, train and support refugee entrepreneurs in the developing world and at the same time, to identify the values that make refugee entrepreneurs thrive under unimaginable adversity. We can generate new epistemologies to push against the divisiveness of identity politics. We can learn from the drive and dedication of refugees, perhaps helping them achieve their dreams. But most importantly, we can learn from refugees never to give up until we find a place to call our own.

Oscar Sánchez Piñeiro is a Senior Field Coordinator at the UNHCR. Over the past 20 years, he has dedicated his life to helping refugees and the displaced meet their most urgent and basic needs. Currently, Oscar is stationed in Dohuk, Iraq.

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''Cultural differences can be turned into unique selling points for entrepreneurial refugees if provided with the know-how to mainstream these ideas.'' – Romi Kaplan, Social Entrepreneur & Filmmaker Click To Tweet

05 | Progress Against Privilege


CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – As citizens, we often take our privilege for granted. Yet, if we were to leverage our advantages to the benefit of refugee communities, what might occur? One important roadblock to success is fear, particularly in facing the institutions of a new country, and especially when one is an asylum-seeker rather than a citizen. Approaching institutions and navigating bureaucracies for licensing and funding is not fun for any of us, but for a newcomer without the cultural know-how, it can be incredibly frightening. This is a barrier that we as citizens can help refugees surmount, whether by partnering on projects or taking on more formal institutional roles.

Another question to ask ourselves is how often our platforms end up being truly cross-cultural. Are they translatable? Do we market to people “like us” or do we consider a wider range of communities? On the flip side, cultural differences can be turned into unique selling points for entrepreneurial refugees if provided with the know-how to mainstream these ideas. We shouldn’t forget that refugees are part of a vast diaspora that is ripe for global crowdsourcing initiatives. This area has yet to be exploited by entrepreneurs.

Success in an entrepreneurial endeavour can often hinge as much on the quality of your idea as on your connections, which can seem unattainable in a new environment. Yet, I have seen refugees thrive who invested in learning the local slang, volunteering, and fostering friendships. They soon became assets for NGOs in the field who provided stipends or other opportunities, such as venue spaces for initiatives, raising their profiles, and improving their qualifications. A refugee’s community leadership infrastructure is an excellent starting point for networking and for quick learning how to navigate in a new setting from a culturally-secure base.

Driven by a fascination for the diversity of human culture, Romi Kaplan has produced and directed a number of features for TV and film festivals on the issues of migration and co-existence. On the 60th anniversary of the UN Genocide Convention, she convened an international conference with the Aegis Trust, as a way to highlight the plight of Darfuri refugees in Israel. Romi has worked for a number of years for a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR Network) NGO based in Israel, and is currently the director of a digital storytelling archive at the University of Cape Town.

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''By creating a space for refugees to tell their stories, we practice empathy without taking away agency.'' – Merlijn Twaalfhoven (@Merlijn12H), Dutch Composer Click To Tweet

06 | Losing the Labels


AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – A lot of talent, skill and ambition can be found within refugee communities. If you have an enterprise, team, or orchestra where these assets can be put to use, hiring a refugee is a good way to support their livelihood and future. However, be aware that the label of “refugee” is not a definitive one. Fleeing from a place of peril and seeking stability in a new country is a harrowing experience. People who do this often hope to leave their dark times behind them as they search for solid ground upon which to rebuild their identities and homes. By creating a space for personal stories to emerge, we practice empathy without taking away agency.

Composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven and author Abdelkader Benali co-wrote an opera in 2014, together with several Syrian musicians based on postcards dozens of Aleppians left behind. Some postcard writers have fled the city; some have stayed in Aleppo, willingly and unwillingly. They fight not only for survival, but also for their dignity.

One powerful story I came across is that of Amer Shanati, a young musician who started a music school in his Syrian hometown, Homs. When the Syrian Civil War broke out, he and his 200 students had to flee the country. Several years after making the journey to Europe, Amer launched a new music school in the Netherlands. One by one, he’s finding his old students now living as refugees. Bringing these kids together with Dutch children, he makes music to express the richness of his students’ backgrounds, a way to connect with the present and to build bridges that can help to transcend labels and divisions.

There’s a responsibility on the part of refugees to share their stories with us. Give us – the people that welcome you – an opportunity to learn from your experiences and lives. You can see our world with fresh eyes. You can show us where we miss knowledge and insights. Your observations are very valuable. Don’t be shy, but speak up and let us know what we can improve and how we might go about it. Eventually, you will develop the skills to identify new opportunities in your new home. This might become the core of a future enterprise. Where there is space for improvement in society, you might find a way to create something remarkable or valuable to address it. Start with stories that allow you to share your perspectives, experiences, and observations.

For Merlijn Twaalfhoven, musical expression revolves around communication: ‘A work of art doesn’t mean anything if the audience is not touched by it’. Politics are part of a majority of his work. This can be seen by the areas of social tension he brings his works to (for example Cyprus or the Palestinian Territories). He often speaks and writes about his outspoken vision on art and its function in society.

Reframing Refugees 4
''Surrender brings us in touch with vulnerability. In surrender, we find as Mother Theresa has said, that 'We belong to each other.''' – Deepa Patel (@tweetdeepatweet), Independent Consultant Click To Tweet

07 | Windows of Wisdom


LONDON, ENGLAND – For the last two years, I have worked in a Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan alongside a team of corporates, civil society actors, and academics. On arrival, the main thought on everyone’s mind is usually, “I hope I can make an impact.” Yet by the time we leave, it is we that have been impacted most heavily, by what I call Zaatari wisdom. This wisdom rests in the realisation that collaboration for its own sake can make life in the camp a little more bearable and a lot more prosperous.

The Zaatari people have taught me that as a leader, I need to be clear about what I’m following. I’ve only met a fraction of the 80,000 people that live in the camp, yet each and every one of those I’ve come to know has tapped into a remarkable courage every single day to defy the acts of horror they are subject and witness to. Acts of defiance strengthen resilience. In the stories they’ve shared and in the ways they are living, I have seen the sheer power of the human spirit to defend what really matters.

For those of us that come to work in the camp, there is a moment when we have to surrender our sense of professionalism. By that, I mean the capacity to do our work in the way we are accustomed to doing, that we know will get us results. We have to surrender to the realities of the situation on the ground. Surrender brings us in touch with vulnerability and the heartbreak that comes when we acknowledge what we as a species are doing to one other. In surrender, we find as Mother Theresa has said, that “We belong to each other.” It is only when we’ve accepted this wisdom that we can then become collaborators, tapping into each other’s creativity and solving problems from a place of reciprocity. So much learning and unlearning happens in these moments.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Swiss-American psychiatrist
"The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen."

And both of these qualities are captured in what motivates those living in Zaatari to not just stay alive but also keep some sense of hope for the future. They are motivated by those they love – not what, but who. If I ask people in England who inspires them, I will hear names that are known to all of us, in Zaatari, I hear the names of family members and know it has to do with their acts of defiance.

While speaking to a young mother, a teacher with two children (one of whom was been born in the camp), she expresses a sense of hopelessness regarding life in the camp. After some silence, I ask her how she keeps going in the face of such adversity. She looks me in the eyes, and without pause, says one word: “Love.”

Deepa Patel is a creative facilitator and strategic thinker with a passion for social justice. In her career, she has been pivotal to the success of projects across disciplines and sectors. Currently, she’s working with the London College of Fashion, UNHCR, and the University of Sheffield in Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan.

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