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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A headshot of Joseph Otika

Joseph Otika

Shelter Depot Coordinator

Kampala, Uganda

I have a great passion for sustainable community development initiatives and strive to  position myself where my career can positively contribute towards improvements of the quality of life of disadvantaged people. As a Certified project management professional, I have had opportunities to work in both development and humanitarian contexts in Uganda for over 10 years. I have also worked in the post conflict situation in Northern Uganda. I am passionate about serving vulnerable communities and excited that Shelter Depot offers me a platform to do so. Supporting vulnerable persons and households is something I love to do and seeing smiles on beneficiaries' faces as a result of an intervention I am involved in, makes me happy. My biggest motivation to work with Every Shelter in the Shelter Depot project is the unique and innovative ideas around enhancing access to shelter improvement items through a social business model coupled with a humanitarian approach. I am excited about learning and expressing new positive ideas and look forward to ably supporting the Shelter Depot project to see it replicated and scaled to other places and refugee settlements.

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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.