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Refugees Like Me Know What Our Communities Need, but Donors and Large Nonprofits Aren’t Listening

Refugee-led organizations need resources to carry out their visions.

[ Izzeddin Kasim | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images]

In the early days of the Syrian revolution, my family took to the streets to demand a country governed by justice, freedom, and the rule of law. The regime of Bashar al-Assad had for years violated our right to live in such a nation — and we were ready to fight for change.

But like so many other Syrians, we paid a high price. I was forcibly displaced, along with my mother and two sisters. My father, Ali Mustafa, was disappeared and has been missing for nine years. I arrived in the United States 10 years ago — a 22-year-old with nothing but a fierce determination to continue demanding rights for my fellow Syrians and, since I had become one myself, for all displaced people. Yet even in America, I was disenfranchised.

In 2015, as refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere fled into Europe, I was invited to attend events organized by nonprofits in the United States to raise awareness about the so-called refugee crisis. Not one panel discussion at any of these events included people who had experienced forced displacement.

I was angry. I had lost a home, a country, and a father because we demanded rights from the Syrian regime, and now in exile my voice was being sidelined. Organizations that said they would protect and empower forcibly displaced persons like me treated us as voiceless victims. On the rare occasions we were invited to speak at events, it was only to share traumatizing stories of survival, not our ideas for solutions.

My experience is all too common. Activists among the forcibly displaced have a range of stories about the discrimination they face trying to support their communities. They are not invited to conferences or offered jobs in refugee-rights organizations because of the biased view that their very identities as members of the communities being served constitute a conflict of interest. Others describe blatant acts of discrimination, such as being forced to use a different entrance from nonrefugee colleagues when attending meetings — for what are deemed “security reasons.”

Unfortunately, none of this is surprising given the colonial roots of the refugee-response field and its tradition of elevating the voices of white “experts” over those of displaced people with firsthand experience. Refugee-led organizations and advocates are too often treated as a mere vehicle of implementation — carrying out projects that international organizations design with little to no input from communities, and sometimes even without pay. We are silenced through systemic and direct discrimination.

Historically, the most successful movements have been led by the oppressed groups themselves. Yet despite growing recognition of this view in the philanthropic world, little has changed in the refugee-response field. Refugee-led organizations are deprived of the resources to lead and carry out their visions. Of the nearly $31 billion flowing through the humanitarian system annually, the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative estimates that organizations run by refugees collectively receive less than 1 percent of funding — a number derived from the “Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2022" and consultations conducted with refugee-led groups around the world.

The refugee-rights movement is at a pivotal point where the unjust roots of the present system must be acknowledged, and power and resources shifted accordingly. Policies about refugees must be crafted by people who know what it means to be one.

That’s why I started using my voice and experience from the Syrian revolution to engage in public speaking at a variety of venues, including the White House, the United Nations, university campuses, and community centers, to reclaim the narrative and join with other refugees to unify our efforts. Together we created advocacy collectives such as the Network for Refugee Voices and Global Refugee-Led Network.

My work in refugee-rights advocacy led me to join the organization I now lead, Asylum Access, which works to win rights for forcibly displaced people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and other nations across the globe. In 2020, Asylum Access collaborated with five refugee-led organizations around the world to form the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative, or RRLI — the first such coalition of its kind, led by and for refugees. In 2021, RRLI was selected as the recipient of the $10 million Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award, which will enable at least 50 refugee-led organizations in 10 countries to sustain and expand their work.

Together we ensure that refugee-led groups have the resources to address needs in their communities and to shape policies that affect their lives, including those developed by the institutions of power within our field — the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, large nonprofits such as the International Rescue Committee, multigovernment groups such as the International Organization for Migration, and government and philanthropic donors. The decisions made by these groups deeply affect our lives.

Changing Mind-sets

Slowly these efforts are helping to change the mind-sets of major donors, many of whom now see the value of making lived experience a priority in grant making. For example, RRLI representatives are now part of a collective of major donors in Lebanon — a significant shift toward elevating refugee leaders as decision makers. These changing attitudes have helped RRLI raise nearly $12 million for the fund itself and by influencing donors to give directly to refugee-led organizations.

International nonprofits that support refugees can become partners in this work by first examining their internal operations. Do forcibly displaced people lead departments? Do they play a key role in setting strategy? If the answer is no, a deliberate effort should be made to change the situation. Asylum Access’s Equitable Partnership Guidelines can help organizations work effectively with local groups and bring refugee expertise to the decision-making table.

Grant makers should examine practices that may have prevented them from funding refugee-led groups. Many likely view such investments as too risky. While there is no evidence to support such concerns, working through coalitions such as RRLI can smooth the path for funding refugee-led groups and help donors navigate challenges, including disbursing funds to organizations that lack access to bank accounts or aren’t able to register with the government. Several grant makers, including Open Society Foundations, Porticus, and the Hilton Foundation, have already given to refugee-led groups through RRLI.

During its first year, such funding has allowed RRLI’s initial five grantees to reach more than 180,000 people with critical services. They include Young African Refugees for Integral Development, which helped enroll 1,419 children in public school, and Refugiados Unidos, which helped 317 families apply for legal status. Critically, external evaluations found that those receiving services felt safe, respected, and part of a larger community that understood their needs.

Forcibly displaced refugees like me know firsthand the problems our communities face and the solutions needed to address them. We are accountable to our family members, friends, and neighbors. But our movement can succeed only with the support and partnership of donors and large international groups who recognize our value and are eager to help us rebuild our lives with dignity.


(c) 2023, The Chronical of Philanthropy


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