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Engage Refugees

As refugees, many of us have skills, resilience and expertise. All we need is opportunity, not someone telling us how...

Photo of Fynn V

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Having spent three years being internally displaced and nine years as a refugee, all I ever craved for was access to education. Few believed in me, beyond the basic health and housing needs. I knew in spite of the trauma and physical pain, I still had a functional brain that could not wait to be stimulated. But the "powers there be" always think they know what is right for people in vulnerable situations. I did not necessarily need anyone to empower me because I was already empowered. All I needed was opportunity to maximise my brain capacity. So, here I am today with achievements beyond expectation. Rather than assuming that you know about refugee issues and how to solve them (and I do not think there is a durable solution as UNHCR claims); simply engage with (former) refugees who have the skills, expertise and lived experience. This is not to say that people without refugee experience can not be of help. Certainly not! Albeit, you and I know that millions have gone into whatever "the powers there be" decide to spend it on. But the challenge keeps revolving. It is as simple as ABC, just engage (former) refugees as equal partners and you'll see!


Refugees every where!


1. Identify refugees in my local area; 2. Organise consultation and collaboration meetings; and 3. Devise mechanisms to begin the process of addressing refugee education.


I have received feedback suggesting an incorporation of an experience map. I think the experience map is an awesome idea. However, I find it challenging to imagine for a second that I can devise a program for another person/group without engaging them. It is important to include refugees in all aspects of their education [PERIOD]!

SKILL SHARE (optional)

People with open-mind, critical thinking ability and willingness to move beyond their comfort zones.


My name is Veronica Fynn, a born and bred Liberian war survivor. I am completing my PhD at the Australian National University's National Centre for Indigenous Studies and currently based at the University of Washington's School of Law as a visiting scholar.


  • Yes, and I am looking for a partner working with refugee communities to implement this idea.


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Photo of Fynn V

Thanks a million Shane. I am actually flabbergasted that any one would be interested in what I have to say.

I wish I had a more sophisticated response to your question, or let's say maybe I am naive. You know when I was a refugee, I hated all those darn white fully air-conditioned (UN)HCR cars driving by whilst we linger is trauma and pain. Majority of the "white snobs" in those UN cars, pretending to be experts on refugee issues, had not the slightest clue what it meant to survive violent conflict and still dare to survive. The essence of their authority was characterised by our humiliation - standing in lines with ration numbers to collect food, tents, medication or whatever was on the donor lists. Memories of those scene disgust me today. Especially, when I see billions pumped into refugee protection each year, yet UNHCR "so-called" durable solutions is yet to be imagined, suffice to say, realised.

In short, I am saying the world knows how to educate people excellently well. They have produced the Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge etc., graduates, some of whom work for UNHCR. It is not hard to do the same for refugees from poor countries iff (if and only if) exploitation is ruled out, completely. By "exploitation" I mean asking people around the world with relatively no refugee experience to cup out a million dollar project that would end up in the bank accounts of expats and extravagant UN staff members.

As an avid advocate of community-based participatory research, I tend not to subscribe to already made models and ideas. Consultation with refugees and giving them equal place at the decision-making table is key. After all, it is their education that is being sought after here, n'est pas? I strongly believe, meaningful ideas will come out of this kind of collaboration. Refugees in any community are fully aware of all the barriers there is to acquiring high quality education - teachers, textbooks, school facilities, housing, psychological support, medication, etc.,

My goal here is not to tell anyone how to develop a model solution, but to draw on a grounded/inductive approach where effective change is internally stimulated, nurtured and sustained. I hope this helps.

Photo of Viola Kup

Dear Fynn, I think you are very right in what you are saying! I never experienced being a refugee, I come from Germany and got the chance to visit and work with several NGO's in Kenya and South Africa. I never worked in particular in a refugee project but with people from slums or "humbled" backgrounds. I think it is exactly the way you say: the ones who do the decissions are often expats who might have read a lot of reports but forget to equally involve those who should be the ones who are benefiting. I also interned at the UN and saw this happening many times, very often they even try to involve the affected communities but they are not treated as equal partners. I met so many young people in Nairobi coming from slums who could really make a difference if some policy makers would listen to them and would work together on ideas. I always wonder how much money is used by the UN and in the NGO business but there are still people in the world lacking the basics. Thanks for your post :) I hope many will read it

Photo of Fynn V

Dear Viola:
You're very kind-hearted. Thank you so much for your interest in my idea and support for building a better world. I have always had a big heart. I am passionate about social justice and equality. I like to believe that as humans we are so capable of doing good. But I also know that we are not perfect. We live in a diverse world, filled with the richness of life. Too sad that some think only few should have access to such enormous wealth.

I do respect individuals like yourself who have such high moral standards to engage respectfully with others in vulnerable situation. There are serious ethical concerns with global exchange for development where it is believed that only a white person can "save the world/Africa" (e.g., see "How not to write about Africa" by Binyavanga Wainaina ( and "Saving Africa" by Shafik Dharamsi

With my life, I have made a major point to stun people with limited worldview that refugees and others in vulnerable situation have all the capabilities to empower themselves and make meaning of their lives; but for lack of opportunities. The world needs more humble people that can recognise the engrained historical racism, inherent discrimination, and pervasive oppression that fuel inequality and injustice.

It is important that everyone (and I literally mean everyone) interested in social change should first submit and learn from those they wish to provide assistance for.

Thanks once again. I hope this is the beginning of a future partnership:-)!

Photo of Viola Kup

Dear Veronica (I'm so sorry! I didn't recognize before that you typed your full name up there),
thanks for your response and the links. I totally agree with what you wrote. I think it's not just lack of opportunities which makes it difficult to step out of poverty, sometimes opportunities are even there but they can't be taken because of what you mentioned: racism, crime, ... I think it's one of the key problems in development aid and projects: as an outsider you will never understand what exactly all problems are, even if I stay in the same environment for a while and observe. I can get an idea, but still it's not the same. And that's why I think your post is so great: the only expert is the one who is affected. It doesn't make any sense to do a refugee project without including experts: the refugees.

With my personal experience of seeing what NGO's are doing I was often frustrated. I thought it could be done very differently. I tried to start something myself, but not really a NGO. With the help of my Kenyan friends I started a Media project, some kind of Art and Design school in the Eastlands of Nairobi called USANII LAB. It went really well and we keep on going, but I also got to understand in which trap you can walk easily. I always complained that very often the ones profiting most of all the deveoplment aid projects are the Europeans doing them. They can tell whatever they want back home, people will believe it.

Edlyne and Chemose, two friends of mine from USANII LAB and me, we got invited to a conference in the USA. We were all so excited! Especially Edlyne and Chemose, they are both living in the Eastlands of Nairobi, Chemose is resident of the Mathare slum. But then I was the only one going, Edlyne had passport issues and Chemose did't get the visa, although being invited by Harvard university. The embassy just said: No. And there I was in the USA. I was all I never wanted to be: the one telling the story of our USANII LAB project, a white person telling about a project in Africa. And I was the one profiting most.

At the same time we won a small Design challenge with USANII LAB, we got 700 dollars. And Chemose, the one who missed the great opportunity to go to the conference at Harvard had the idea to use this money for a project in the Kakuma refugee camp. His family is originally from that area. The whole USANII team thought it's a cool idea and decided to do it. And I was just impressed: someone from a slum is going to a refugee camp to conduct workshops there, they could have done evrything with the money, even a party, but they decided to use it for that. The money was enough that two of them, Chemose and Cyrus, could go for two weeks to the Kakuma refugee camp to do a pilot project there. Ever since they are in contact with their friends in the camp and want to return to do more workshops.
That's what we are planning now and I hope we make it happen.

What I mentioned before: I never wanted and want to be the white smartass who knows how to solve issues in Africa. I clearly don't know! No matter how many years I spent there and will spend there I will be still an outsider. But I also don't think it makes sense to do nothing just because I'm European. The world is global, for me it's a lot of fun to work with my friends in Kenya or South Africa and if we manage to make an impact that's cool. I think we all have to mix and mingle, see and live in other places (especially Europe and the US shouldn't close their doors for people from other continents!), exchange ideas, academics should listen to those without academic background and learn from each other.

And yes, I'm very interested to keep in contact and a partnership! :)

Photo of Fynn V

Dear Viola:
Please don't apologise. Call me Veronica or Fynn, they are both my names. I'm not fussy like that:-).

I'm sorry it's taken me a while to respond to you (in the middle of writing my dissertation). Anyways, I did visit your twitter page (thanks for sharing my idea) and USANII LAB! It's AWESOME!!! Please keep up the good work. Don't give up. I'm not trying to sound cheesy here, but we honestly need more of you.

I fully understand the immigration process. It is always racist, selective, and discriminatory. I have experienced both the dreadful stigma of being a refugee from one of the world's poorest countries in the world alongside living in Canada, acquiring world-class education and "slipping" over to being treated "respectfully" at international borders because... If anyone told them (Western closed borders) that I would become whatever today, they would have shrugged and laughed at the poor dirty refugee girl.

I think it is their lost, honestly. People in the West think they have it all and they know it all but they are mistaken big time. Without opening up to be schooled by diverse sources of knowledge, they shun any opportunity to be inclusive and respectful of diversity. Their ignorance always take the better part of them, sadly, you know. Except that, consequently, people in vulnerable situation suffer in the end. That's what stinks.

I can't imagine, for the life of me that, they would rather have you speak on behalf of your "helpless" Kenyan team-members because you're white, you're one of them and you do better representing people who can't think/speak for themselves (sorry, I'm being sarcastic here). But I say once again, please don't give up, change is inevitable. I encourage you to kindly click the following links (below), they may offer some more hope and inspiration re: what immigrants/refugees are capable of:

Boonaa Mohammed's "Green Card"

Yassmin Abdel-Magied's "What does my hair scarf mean to you?"

Luca Lesson's "Please Resist Me"


Photo of Hassan Bashir Ahmed

Fantastic and awesome words fyn,these ideas has been great for refugees in kukuma Kenya to have extra schools on ground which help the over crowded schools to balance the students,because they said that some of their children lose their lessons which made students to come different times instead of coming all in morning session at schools.

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