'I am living proof that investing in refugees pays off,' says refugee leader
GENEVA – Robert Hakiza was forced to flee his home in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo 10 years ago. “When conflict broke out, we first fled to my home village, but quickly realised it was not safe there either. As it is on the border to Uganda, we decided to cross over”, Robert recalled on the stage of the UNHCR-NGO consultations taking place in Geneva 27-29 June 2018.
On arriving in Uganda, Robert and his family decided not to settle in camps, but rather to stay in the capital city, Kampala.
But while Uganda has upheld its commitment to enable refugees to pursue self-reliance and live in dignity in exile – allowing them to move freely, own land, open businesses, and access public services such as healthcare and education – urban refugees tend to receive less direct assistance than those in camps.
Latest UNHCR data shows that nearly 60% of refugees live in villages, towns, and cities where they are expected to secure their own food, shelter, and employment, often in areas where services are lacking even for the host population.
For Robert, like for many others, not being able to speak the local language and not having a community support system meant that finding work opportunities to make ends meet was impossible. “When I spoke to other refugees, I realised that we were all struggling to fend for our families, even though most of us were qualified individuals. I had graduated with a degree in Agriculture and two others also had university qualifications”.
There and then, Robert knew he had to act. Only one month after his arrival in Uganda, Robert co-founded the NGO Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) to empower refugees become self-reliant and self-starting individuals in their new communities.
“Refugees may be forced to leave their homes, but they don’t leave behind their skills and knowledge”.
Their motto: “Refugees may be forced to leave their homes, but they don’t leave behind their skills and knowledge”. Energised with this belief, YARID began creating safe spaces where refugees and host communities could meet, share the challenges they face, and explore communally sourced solutions.
In the first week, Robert and his team managed to gather hundreds of people after a friendly football match. “While chatting, we came to the conclusion that the main obstacle to integrating in the local society and markets was the language barrier, as most of us came from French-speaking countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi,” he explained. “By chance, among us was a refugee who had learned English and he volunteered to start teaching us under the mango tree.”
Besides language classes, YARID also provides trainings on vocational skills, workshops on entrepreneurship, and sports activities for the youth.
“Given the opportunity, refugees will prove that they are not a burden for their host countries."
For Robert, this is an example of how refugees have the ability to use their capacity to support each other to build dignified lives and fulfil a desire to make a positive contribution, both to their own communities and to their host nations.
“Given the opportunity, refugees will prove that they are not a burden for their host countries. I am living proof that the investment pays off”, he further affirmed passionately during the NGO consultations, a series of meetings that bring together more than 300 non-governmental organizations from some 90 countries.
The final message from Robert was clear: “Closing borders to refugees is not the solution. Among refugees are doctors, lawyers, and other university graduates that can make valuable contributions to host communities. Instead of building walls, we would do better to support programs to help refugees help themselves”.
On Friday, Deputy UN High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements brought the three-day annual UNHCR-NGO session to a formal close.
She stressed that while UNHCR had enjoyed a long-standing partnership with NGOs since the early 1950s, the New York Declaration had brought a historic opportunity to advance this partnership. She pledged that UNHCR would further enhance the partnership in a strategic and coherent manner, with a focus on operations.