It's Not About You, And Other Tips for Working with Refugees

This article is an introduction to some of the basic elements needed for successful aid work, particularly when working abroad. While the focus of this article was written with refugees in mind, what is discussed is applicable to most humanitarian settings. These tips are pertinent to both individuals and organizations. This is not meant to be exhaustive:

Refugees don’t need saving. They need access to resources.

If you’re planning on working with refugees to ‘save’ them, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. This sort of mentality is dangerous. It implies that they are incapable of doing things for themselves. This isn’t the case. What they need is assistance on information, jobs and other services that will allow them to take care of themselves and their families to the best of their ability.

Know the population you’re working with. This goes beyond knowing their name and country of origin. Understand the culture from which they came. Understand the reasons for why they left. This may sound incredibly simplistic, but it’s important. Small cultural differences can make a huge difference. For instance, as Americans we don’t think twice about offering leftovers to friends, but in some cultures (for example, South Sudan), this is very insulting. These types of acts could keep people from coming back to your organization.

Know the country in which you are working. Before you can begin to assist people, you need to understand the laws, services and customs in the place you’re working. The way refugees are received by a host country and its population is an important element in providing affective assistance. Understanding that laws and practices may be counter to one another is a key element in dealing with the various issues that may arise. For example, in Egypt, refugees are not entitled to work, as stipulated when they became signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. However, they are often able to find work within the informal economy. This usually comes in the form of domestic workers, errand runners in businesses or drivers for companies.

Ask questions from those who have experience. Many of the small cultural nuances will not appear in books or articles. They are things that come from experience. Talk to your colleagues before you begin work; ask questions of former aid workers who have returned from working in the field. They are an invaluable resource.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Good intentions are meaningless if false promises are made on the hope that they will become reality. Use language that clearly expresses what you are trying to accomplish. For example, if you are trying to obtain funding for programming, do not say programming will start before you have secured the funding. Similarly, if you say you are going to do something, or be somewhere, follow through. The easiest way to break trust is to fall through on your word.

Many refugee populations have been over-researched, or have experienced something called research fatigue, where they start to grow weary of people trying to conduct research concerning various aspects of their lives. Many refugees have experienced false promises from researchers, or have been embarrassed in some way by the research, and as such they are very apprehensive to participate in further research. If you are going to incorporate research into your work, make sure you have informed consent from every person who is being included in the research. It’s not enough to obtain consent from one person and assume it carries over to everyone.

Remember, humanitarian work is rewarding, in it’s own right, but it’s not about you. It’s about the people you’re trying to assist.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Kathleen O'Neill

Kathleen O'Neill is interested in migration and refugee issues as well as international politics, with a particular interest in the Middle East. She has a double BA in economics and international studies with a concentration in Middle East studies from Washington College in Maryland. She has an MA in Middle East studies and a graduate diploma in migration and refugee studies from the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Kathleen has co-authored two short articles published by the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC and London Middle East Institute at SOAS. She has lived in the MENA region for more than seven years.

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