Refugees and their new communities thriving together

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:

  • Skills.
  • Talents.
  • Aspirations.

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.

  • Devalued.
  • Demoralised.
  • Dehumanised.

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 fulfill their aspirations, their families and communities can thrive.

How to benefit everyone

The IKEA Foundation is supporting an International Rescue Committee (IRC) programme in Nairobi, Kenya, with a €5 million grant.

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 individuals 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 programme, 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 Patience, a refugee doing vocational training

When Patience was a baby, her parents were killed and her hand was cut off during 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 programme. 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,” 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 Kenyan local 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 programme.

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

Alexander Betts, one of the authors of the study “Refugee Economies in Kenya”, says: “Despite the legal barriers, refugees in Kenya are working and contributing to the national economy. In Nairobi, around half of Somali and Congolese refugees have a job. But their incomes are lower than for Kenyans, and they face additional obstacles, including being forced to pay additional taxes and bribes.

“Refugees are often innovative and entrepreneurial; many run small businesses, whether in hairdressing, tailoring or running internet cafes, and sometimes they employ Kenyan nationals. But the challenge is that less than 10% have a bank account, and most cannot access loans. Their best chance of raising capital comes from remittances sent by family or friends.

“There is so much more that can be done to support refugees’ economic inclusion, in Kenya and elsewhere. Our research shows that the right to work, education, and access to capital are key determinants of whether urban refugees thrive or struggle to survive. Far from being dependent, refugees can help themselves and contribute to their communities, provided we create the right enabling environment.”


International Rescue Committee


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