Prioritizing Refugee Success is the Key to Rebuilding in Post-Conflict Settings

The key to succeeding in international development is ensuring refugees and displaced people succeed. As we’ve seen time and again throughout history, outside powers and influences do not have all the answers for how a nation should rebuild itself. That should be up to its people.

An aid worker in Jordan recently shared the story of a Syrian man he met while distributing cash assistance in a refugee camp. This very dignified, older gentleman spoke fondly of his former life in Syria, managing a successful medical practice which he built alongside his brothers. He broke down in tears recalling his family and career in his hometown, a life impossible to reconcile with his current predicament. Now, instead of working to provide for his family, he is forced to accept handouts, having little more than the shirt on his back.

Within the refugee community, stories like this are all too common. Many have left happy, successful lives behind as conflict or crisis consumes what they’ve always known. For policy makers and experts, the plight of refugees is just that – a plight, a problem. A symptom of intractable war, refugees are mouths to feed, sick to treat, and families to shelter. To host countries, they are a threat to security and economy. To be sure, the challenges that are presented by large numbers of displaced people are real and great. But they are more than a problem to be dealt with. They are people. And they are the only hope for recovery. Refugees represent the essential fabric of their home societies. They are the mothers and fathers, teachers and business people, leaders and thinkers of today. And their children are the future, the next generation which will be responsible to lead their countries past a period of war. These women, men, and young people are determined to return and rebuild their homes, and the success of development efforts in post-war settings is directly tied to their success. What many see as a problem should instead be seen as potential!

Helping refugees and displaced people find future success in rebuilding their home countries starts with capably and competently assisting them now, during their time of displacement and in their immediate need.

Providing adequate shelter, and doing so at a high level for the duration of conflict, is essential if we are to realize efforts to provide displaced families with sustainability and success for the future. If a Syrian family in Lebanon is struggling to stay warm and healthy in the winter, without even a floor in their home, how can we expect the young children to have energy to progress in their education? If the monsoon rains are constantly rushing through and soaking everything in a Rohingyan woman’s shelter, how can she manage to attend the adult-education and sewing classes offered nearby?

Only when we get “the basics” right can we provide refugee children with proper education and enable men and women to fully participate in entrepreneurial and educational opportunities. To afford people a significant level of autonomy, self-determination, and dignity, we must do our part to help make every shelter more like a home. If people are no longer spending significant energy and stress due to their living conditions, they can focus their attention on entrepreneurship and forward-looking progress, taking on work and gaining experience that will help them start businesses and create opportunities upon returning home.

Of course, providing reliable, stable, clean, and secure accommodations, with quality food, safe water, and proper medical care are the basic services which international aid agencies have worked for decades to provide. But the world is facing unprecedented numbers of refugees and displaced people, and that number is only growing. As the numbers of displaced people increase, aid funding is stretched and donors move on to the next big crisis, leaving many organizations underfunded for the task at hand. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in conditions that would be considered poor, if not dangerous. And due to the long, protracted nature of the world’s current conflicts, it is not uncommon for some to stay many years, if not decades, in a camp setting. The longer they stay, the more likely they are to be overlooked and lost to poor health, poverty, the threat of violence and death.

It can be widely agreed upon that camps should not be seen as a “durable solution” for any refugees, but they should be the focus of prioritized investment in any conflict setting for as long as that conflict makes return impossible (1). Credible strategies to support refugees in their current situation, as well as collective efforts to secure long-term resettlement and return, must both be a priority. Donor nations and international aid organizations must adequately sustain refugee camps as a key part of their reconstruction and development strategy, just as they would any infrastructure, governance program, or military investment post-conflict. Refugees can and will play a vital role in revitalizing and rebuilding their home nations, but for now they are dependent on the international community to prioritize them and their holistic well-being to ensure they are ready to meet that challenge.

What may be seen as a problem by many should be seen as potential by the international community. But donor nations and international aid organizations must prioritize sustaining refugee camps as a key part of their reconstruction and development strategy, just as they would any infrastructure, governance program, or military investment post-conflict. Refugees can and should play a vital role in revitalizing and rebuilding their home nations, and it is incumbent upon the international community to prioritize them and their holistic well-being.

1. Martín, C. G. (2017). Rethinking the concept of a "durable solution": Sahrawi refugee camps four decades on. Ethics & International Affairs, 31(1), 31-45. doi:

Written by Dayne Curry for Every Shelter - 07.16.2018 - Dayne has nearly a decade of experience managing rebuilding and development projects in Afghanistan. He holds a Master of Organizational Leadership Degree from University of Northwestern - St. Paul and is a candidate for Master of International Service with emphasis in International Development from American University in Washington, D.C.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Every Shelter, its partners, or affiliates.

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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.