What’s life like for a refugee caught in the global COVID pandemic – now, and in the future?

That’s the question that IKEA Foundation CEO Per Heggenes discussed with IRC Expert Barri Shorey on 11 June. Barri spoke to not only the current challenges refugees face around the world, but the often overlooked long-term economic impacts of how the COVID-19 pandemic affects refugees differently.

We couldn’t answer all the questions that were posed by viewers, but Barri took some time after the session to give written answers which you can find below!

Barri Shorey is the Senior Director of the Economic Recovery and Development Unit of the International Rescue Committee, which works to ensure that people whose lives and livelihoods have been shattered by conflict or disaster have their most basic survival needs met and have the assets and income to prosper.

She manages a team of 30 people supporting quality implementation, research and evidence building, and strategy development of the IRC’s global cash and livelihoods programming.

Your questions answered


  • Mohamed Abo Elnasr – Learning from current circumstances, do you think remote work and collaboration can be something that may support employment and empowerment of a refugee workforce?
    • Yes – this is definitely something to explore for refugees since remote work can offer the opportunity to be close to or in the home and allow flexibility in schedules. This could also be an opportunity to explore for refugee women, which could address some of the barriers to work access like safety and childcare. It will be important to ensure refugees have access to safe spaces for work that are equipped with the appropriate technology to allow for remote work.
  • Flacia Nyamu – My experience with refugee programs is ….. acceptance of refugees and socialization with refugees by the host community creates social-economic opportunities supported by host community and refugees.
    • We very much agree – access to opportunities comes from acceptance and integration with host community members. Most refugees settle in vulnerable communities; it is important to ensure that support offered to refugees is equally offered to host members. It is also essential that there are opportunities for host members and refugees to interact where possible.
  • Hilda Lanas – After covid, we have seen how interconnected we are… the business of the future, should be “social entrepreneurs”, nothing wrong with making a big profit, but also looking at business holistically, environment, and social impact.
    • Definitely – there is a business case to be made for doing “good,” “socially responsible” business. Many refugee entrepreneurs like the IRC client, Eve, who’s in the BILLY program, have already pivoted businesses to support the COVID response. They are making money and also providing a social good.  
  • Cyntia English – Are these entrepreneurs within the refugee camps or integrated within towns etc
    • The BILLY clients mentioned in this session live in and around Nairobi, and urban center. The majority of refugees today live in and around urban centers – stats vary but anywhere from 70 – 80% of refugees today are in cities, not camps. 
  • Mohamed Abo Elnasr – I believe we should always try to consider a sustainable approach of –people empowerment, having the Chinese proverb in mind “Give a man fish and you feed him for the day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”
    • Thank you for sharing this sentiment. Through cash assistance, employment and business-skills trainings, start-up grants, apprenticeships, connections to local employers, and more, the IKEA Foundation and IRC’s partnership helps vulnerable people improve and build upon their many existing skills to support their chances for a better future. It is just as important to recognize we must help remove the barriers refugees face like legal/policy challenges, financial services, social protections, and health access – if you are unable to use your “fishing skills” safely and regularly, than you can’t really eat that much either 🙂


  • Dave Parry – Loving the conversation this morning! I work for a nonprofit which use data science and Al to advance the work & impact of frontline social change orgs. What role does/may Al play in your programs?
    • AI has the potential to make an impact on how we do our work at IRC. AI can provide new ways of approaching problems in an effort to meaningfully improve people’s lives. IRC and our partners have been exploring using machine learning to place refugees in jobs in Jordan. We will be publishing some lessons learned and data from the project in Jordan in the next few months. We have also been exploring the use of AI in terms of predicting natural disasters, or disease tracking – this information can help organizations like IRC better support and advise clients on prevention and response to such things as climate change, etc.  AI can help, but it’s not a silver bullet: tackling these questions requires a concerted, collaborative effort across all sectors and areas of expertise. 


  • Seena Jacob – I was at the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox Bazaar a couple years ago to see if Storybooks can help children through their trauma. Do you think if we can get more storybooks into the hands of these children will be helpful during this time ?
    • Yes, using books and stories as a learning tool has been a strategy often used by IRC and partners, especially stories that are adapted to and reflective of the context of refugees and their families. Education tools like books and stories are now more important than ever as more children find themselves home instead of in school. The IRC has been adapting and supporting tool development for home school and distance learning – supporting school systems and other learning spaces to continue to provide services to refugees and vulnerable communities. Distributing books and inviting families to read in their native languages builds literacy skills, reading comprehension, social emotional wellbeing, and brings families together. Book distributions are typically accompanied by interactive assignments and part of a more robust program, to further boost student creativity and learning. The IRC has also made it a priority to focus not just on learning standards, but also places a strong focus on the social emotional learning needed for children to develop. 
  • Patricia Puschila Lupec – During times like these, children from disadvantaged communities are usually left behind when it comes to education. This happened, for instance, in Romania, where poor children do not have access to technology and online education. Do you have plans to support initiatives that address such issues on education, for such situations?
    • The IRC continues to offer in-person programming in safe, social distanced situations whenever possible. When and where it is not safe to provide in-person services, we utilize the technology that is accessible to our clients to provide remote support to ensure distance learning can take place. That may be through SMS text messages or radio broadcasting.

How did you hear about us?

Listen to George Marshall, the founding director of Climate Outreach, speak with Indra Heerkens, communications lead for our Climate Action Portfolio. George and Indra will talk about why it’s so important to reach everyone with the facts about climate change and how governments can engage and motivate the public.

The conversation will be live on 30 September at 4:00pm CET (11:00am EDT). You can ask George questions in the comments during the session, or watch the recording afterwards. We look forward to seeing you there!