3 Myths About Displacement

Imagine the last time you went camping. The feel of grit on your skin, the smell of campfire smoke on your clothes, and aches in your hips and back from sleeping on a thin pad probably got old after the second day. Maybe you didn’t have the right gear and felt like you were going to freeze the first night.

Now imagine you can’t leave the campgrounds. Imagine you’re there because you’ve fled from a very real, tangible danger. Maybe it was an ideological militant group gaining new territory. Perhaps a bomb amid a civil war hit close to your home. Imagine making the hardest decision of your life to leave nearly all of your worldly possessions behind, your neighbors, and life as you knew it behind for the uncertainty of crossing a country border to come to this campground indefinitely. You are a refugee. You are displaced. You may have some preconceived notions about displacement. Let me take a moment to dispel a few myths you may hold without knowing it.

Myth #1: Duration

Many of us think that being a refugee is a temporary condition. The reality is that 27 years is the global average for someone forcibly displaced. My now 4-year-old daughter could finish high school, a college degree and even a Ph.D. by the time the average person who is displaced today will return home or be resettled.

Myth #2: Resettlement

When we think about refugees, we think about resettlement, the legal mechanism to grant citizenship to refugees from another country. The reality is that less than .01% of refugees will ever be resettled. 86% of those will live in developing countries with struggling economies. Most will cross a border and remain in their neighboring country for that 27 years.

Myth #3: Size

In the past year, Americans have been keenly aware of two events that caused massive forcible displacement; Afghanistan and Ukraine. For the first time since four years into the Syrian conflict, refugees were on many of our minds. The reality is today, over 100 million forcibly displaced people, many from conflicts and contexts that never break our news cycle. The World Bank predicts this number will triple by 2050.

I was a graduate student at the Rice University School of Architecture when these myths burst for me. I became aware that the vast majority of these refugees who found themselves in camps and settlements in barren fields around the world received only a few things to make a home for themselves; some form of structure (bamboo in Bangladesh, eucalyptus poles in Uganda, thin welded steel in the Middle East) with a lousy tarp stretched over it, and a dirt floor.

Naively as earnest graduate students, we believed this was a design problem.

Families needed a floor. So we set about to solve one obvious problem – families living in the dirt for decades. We followed the “typical” innovation pathway, we learned, we listened, we made prototype after prototype, we secured some funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (now Arnold Ventures) to begin running small batches, and finally, we caught the attention of the IKEA Foundation who invited us to Sweden to test our floor with a new shelter they were designing. We ultimately landed a grant from the United States Agency for International Development. We worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon for three years to test our floors with 34 families along the border with the Syrian border in Hezbollah-controlled Bekaa Valley.

Though we thought this was the pinnacle of our endeavor to do right by these families, this is where the real learning started.

Refugees don’t live in inadequate shelters because of product design failures. They do so because of systems design failures. Every system is perfectly designed for the outcomes it produces. We encountered a system failure of a grand proportion that must be solved.

“The system” brings short-term solutions to decades-long problems. When the UNHCR formed in the early 1950s, it was an extension of the West’s post-WWII Cold War strategy. It was chiefly a resettlement agency happily resettling discontent defectors from Soviet sympathizing countries to Europe and the States. Over the decades, the context changed dramatically, but the system aiding refugees changed very little. It is ill-equipped to deal with decades-long displacement.

Take the humble tarpaulin. This ubiquitous tarp, an innovation of the early 1970s, is made in Pakistan, India, or China. It is then shipped around the world to distribution centers and regional warehouses, where it will ultimately be trucked through developing countries struggling for employment opportunities. The tarp you may buy at a big-box home improvement store is nearly identical to the tarps millions of refugees will receive to become their roofs and walls. Within 3-6 months, that tarp will begin to shred to pieces.

Uganda, where my organization’s operations base is, has hosted refugees since the 1950s. It is currently third in the world in the number of refugees it hosts – 1.4 million. Despite nearly seven decades of hosting refugees, no one has invested in producing tarps here. No one has seen the golden opportunity of solving two problems at one time; the need for high-quality goods for shelters and the need for meaningful local employment.

Until now, that is. In my nearly ten years of working with refugees in and out of camps, I have learned the most from a design perspective from observing how refugees have solved their shelter problems. From creating compression washers from used agricultural hoses to inventing cooking fuels from organic industrial bi-products, refugees are creative, innovative, and fully capable of leading their own recovery if given the opportunity.

In Uganda, we work with refugees to train them to produce shelter roof tarps that will last for 5-10 years. They are made from repurposed billboard vinyl – old advertising nearly as commonly found in East Africa as it is here. To date, we’ve repurposed over 130 tons of the stuff. Instead of importing bad tarps from abroad, refugees, for the first time, can provide a living for themselves, making shelter goods for other refugees. Refugees are building local businesses serving the needs of their fellow refugees. This is just the start.

We envision an entire ecosystem of goods and services for refugees by refugees. The rest of the world has a part to play, but it’s time we stop thinking about refugees as mere victims but as whole people ready to rebuild their lives. To find and create a home for themselves, even in a foreign land. We will work to build this new ecosystem empowering refugee-led products and services, as our organization’s vision statement says until every refugee creates home.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from a refugee sewist our organization works with. Noella Kabala was an attorney in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but now in Uganda cannot practice law. Instead, she leads a successful sewing operation employing dozens of other refugees. Noella said:

Refugees are strong. They are resilient. When refugees flee from their country, they don’t leave their brain there. They come with their brain full of potential and talents.

Monday June 20th was World Refugee Day. Every Shelter will have our demonstration billboard shelter up all week at the Museum of Fine Arts in the Cullen Sculpture Garden. We’d love it if you’d stop by, learn more, and help us build a better way forward for refugees around the world.

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Noella Kabale Kalu

Advisory Board Member

Kampala, Uganda

Noella Kabale Kalu is a Congolese by nationality, living in Uganda as a refugee registered in the urban setting since 2011. She is the founder of REAL Uganda and Refugee Women Voices, a member of the Refugee-led Network (RELON), Refugee Representative at the CRRF steering working group. She aspires to build a society where women, men, and young females are treated with dignity, fairness, and respect, regardless of their status & and vulnerable conditions they find themselves in due to war, conflict, or other atrocities.

Andy Agaba

Advisory Board Member

Kampala, Uganda

Andy Agaba is a Praxis Fellow and the founder of Hiinga, a Christian Impact Investing Fund working across a spectrum of sectors including healthcare, financial services, education, agriculture, and manufacturing in East Africa. He graduated from Harvard Kennedy School where he was a Gleitsman Innovation Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership. At Uganda's Makerere University, he was a Poli sci major. Andy advises at the MIT Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship and is an award-winning documentary photographer.

Marie Nyiraneza

Advisory Board Member

Nakivale, Uganda

Marie is a Social Worker, currently working with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) as a Community Paralegal in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, and Interpreter for Refugee Resettlement Programs. Marie is a refugee from Rwanda and has lived in Nakivale Refugee Settlement since 2008. She holds a Bachelor in Social Work and a CEFE Licence for Entrepreneurship Trainer. She is passionate about contributing to the improvement of refugee livelihoods and is also a Master Trainer for the MarketPlace Literacy Program in Nakivale.

Sam Brisendine

Co-Founder and Board Member

Houston, Texas

As a designer from the private sector, I'm passionate about ideas that improve the lives of those in need. My experience designing buildings, products, and art has taught me an important lesson: The most meaningful work is produced when partners work hand-in-hand on a common mission. Over the past 5 years, I've watched Every Shelter transform from an academic pursuit to working (and learning) alongside world-class organizations to design solutions that bring dignity to displaced communities. I have never been more proud of the work we're doing and look forward to seeing how we can continue to collaborate to solve the challenges ahead.

Stefanie Cortez

Communications Specialist

Dallas, Texas

At Every Shelter I have the unique opportunity to use two passions in my life, mathematics and parenting, in one position. As a mathematician, I appreciate effective, elegant, and well-developed solutions to a problem. As a mom of two little ones, I also know the importance of sharing the stories, challenges, and successes of my life with my kids and others. As Communications Specialist for Every Shelter, I have the opportunity to inform the public about innovative designs as well as share the stories of people who are resolutely rebuilding their lives in new communities and countries despite overwhelming challenges. I believe that every person who reads about our work has the ability to impact people’s lives across the globe as they follow along with the journey to help people rebuild their lives from the floor up.

Lauren Hanson

Development Officer

Houston, Texas

As a mother to two young children, I cannot imagine the fear and despair I would feel if I was forced to leave the comfort of my home and community. The fact that this is a growing reality for so many people around our world is truly heartbreaking. I believe our compassion can make a significant impact in the lives of these displaced populations. As Melinda Gates writes, “Philanthropy is not about the money. It’s about using whatever resources you have at your fingertips and applying them to improving the world.” Therefore, it is my privilege to mobilize people to make a global impact with their time, gifts, and resources through partnering with Every Shelter as we labor to bring better provisions and life dignifying solutions to forcefully displaced populations.

Loise Wambui

Program Coordinator

Kampala, Uganda

I am deeply committed to advocating for joint solutions to economic and social development issues. I consider myself a global citizen with cross-cultural experience working as an economist in Eswatini, a Girl Scout volunteer in rural Switzerland, and teaching in Mathare, one of Kenya's largest slums. My desire to work towards dignified shelter solutions for vulnerable people started while working in Mathare Slums. Four years later, I am now working with and for refugees in Uganda. I have loved using my many abilities in this new sector, and my favorite thing has been working with local small enterprises and refugee organizations to sew the tarps! As someone conscious of how my own actions affect the wider community, I am always learning new ways to help make things a little better.

Nicole Iman

Co-Founder and CPO

Ras al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates

I’ve been traveling the globe in development-related pursuits for more than 20 years, working with people throughout the varied stages of displacement. During my tenure in Afghanistan, I saw first-hand the challenges my Afghan colleagues faced that caused them to flee for their lives. While studying in northern Uganda, I met families struggling through years of displacement despite multiple attempts to return home. Through volunteer resettlement work in the US, I welcomed resettled refugees hoping to rebuild their lives in a new place while mourning the loss of friends and family they left behind. I am keenly aware of the human tendency to look at images of displaced people and refugees and immediately categorize them as “other.” Through joining Every Shelter, I have the chance to share stories that can change that category to “one another” and help us work together toward dignified, human-centered solutions.

Scott Key

Co-Founder and CEO

Houston, Texas

The process of designing new approaches and solutions to grave issues drives me. I believe the private sector and its vast reserves of professional skills and resources can fruitfully add to the productivity of ongoing humanitarian efforts to create a more just and merciful society. We all have a responsibility to do our part, but I firmly believe that in giving of ourselves we receive far more back than we give. Wendell Berry writes, “life is a gift we have only by giving it back again.” As a father of two young daughters, I want to model the intelligent, diligent, and hard-working compassion toward our neighbor to which I believe we are all obliged. It’s urgent and important work that we do.