Empowering the Miriams of the World

I first met Miriam 12 years ago. I was young, fresh out of college, and eager to do good. In an attempt to honor a passion for the Middle East, I had packed my bags and moved, sight unseen, to enroll in Arabic school. I figured learning how to speak a region’s heart language was the first step to discovering how my passion should unfold.

After arriving, a series of subsequent events and relationships landed me in a refugee camp in the country’s northern part. The camp is composed of families of protracted refugees, individuals who had fled violence and their homes over half a century ago. They crossed by foot and settled into what became this camp, outfitted in “emergency provisions” for what they imagined would be a short period of time. Unfortunately, they are still waiting. And still inhabiting those same shelters intended for short-term, emergency use.

Living in a country, not their own, unable to access a pathway to citizenship or residency, this camp’s inhabitants exist in a particular kind of limbo where they are neither here nor there. They exist in a grey area – unable to be formally employed, schooled, or integrated into their host country as entry barriers are formidably steep. As the world and the country they live in continue to progress forward, the camp’s residents stagnate, unable to access the same opportunities despite concerted effort and will.

In the last decade, I have personally witnessed the hardships this camp and its residents have faced. An unassuming victim to the Syrian Crisis, the camp’s residents have lost a primary income source — informal day labor — to Syrian refugees. The latter, subsidized by humanitarian aid and UN outreach, can work at cheaper day rates than the camp residents because they also receive humanitarian aid. As a result, the camp’s economy has constricted even more, and the community’s coping mechanisms have included drugs, alcohol, and violence.

And then we have Miriam.

As I mentioned, I first met Miriam 12 years ago. I had come to the camp to help set up an after-school athletic program for young boys. The camp is beyond crowded — 30,000 people in less than a square kilometer — the majority of whom are children. With the schools running double sessions and no room to play, children had no safe place or designated time to play. I agreed to help and had subsequently become known as “dejeje” or chicken to about a hundred little boys for my enthusiastic lessons on the chicken dance.

Miriam’s son was one of our participants. And Miriam had come to see who her son was spending time with. When I stuck out my hand, she grabbed me and began enthusiastically kissing my cheek, thanking me for finally tiring out her energetic son. But then she paused. She leaned in, close to my ear, and whispered, “I have ideas, will you help me?” Curious, I agreed.

The next week we sat in the back of a makeshift gym, teetering on weight benches underneath tattered posters of scantily-clad bodybuilders that seemed wildly out of place for the context. Miriam opened her purse and presented me with 45 pages of business plans and ideas for improving her community — all ideas to help generate income by leveraging existing skillsets and resources, emphasizing capacity development like time management and organization.

Honestly, it didn’t seem like she needed me. But then I found out why.

Miriam needed me to help her and carry her voice outside of the camp. The camp was isolated, not many outsiders came in, and not many residents went out. She had no way to access the resources she needed to create the solutions she saw her neighbors required.

And so began our adventure.

Miriam and I became business partners. Miriam had eyes for her community, and I mobilized resources and audience. Over the years, we started multiple social enterprises together. Miriam was my eyes and my ears (and, let’s be honest, my Arabic) as we navigated needs in the camp and matched them with resources.

We worked together for months before, on a quick break from delivering heaters to families; Miriam invited me into her home. I had never been inside. Her family of 9 was all in the living room, greeting me enthusiastically. They were huddled around a single, wood-burning heater. The stove’s pipe went straight out the side of their shelter – where, in place of what should have been a wall, a sheet hung from the ceiling to try to block out the winter’s cold. It was the only heat source this family of 9 had.

I was a bit taken aback — here we were, delivering heaters and gas tanks to families all across the camp, and not once did Miriam ever indicate that they had a need.

At that moment, I realized that Miriam’s definition of success was seeing her neighbors successful. If her neighbors thrived, then she did too. Miriam taught me what true leadership looks like, and it has shaped how I interact with the world ever since.

I wanted to share about Miriam today because it is the Miriams of the world that harness the power to change a community. While top-down aid has its place, particularly in emergency response, it is when conflicts elongate, and displacements become protracted that listening to the people from the community itself, people like Miriam, is critical to ensure we are addressing the true needs of the community.

That’s why at Every Shelter, we’ve taken a different approach and championed co-creation. We’ve handed over the design process to the Miriams, allowing them to dream, decide and dictate what solutions their community needs. At Every Shelter, our design process begins and ends with refugees and displaced persons. We listen. We collaborate. Then we return again and again, using iterative feedback to ensure that we are always capturing the ideas, needs, and dreams of those who feel poor shelter pain the most.

This year, we are going a step further and honoring another one of Miriam’s dreams – we are localizing product production among our impact communities to ensure the entire economy of change is captured and that local livelihoods can be supported as we address local needs.

As a world, and even as an organization, we have a long way to go in meeting the needs of the world’s most vulnerable, but we’re earnestly walking in that direction.

Thank you for joining us in that mission.

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