What Refugees Really Want

Mother and children wandering through countryside, dragging suitcases behind them
Mother and children wandering through countryside, dragging suitcases behind them


Jamel Hossein and his family live on the third floor of a Syrian refugee neighborhood in Amman that used to be a refugee camp for Palestinians. Jamel, the father, is waiting for us with the door ajar. He greets us warmly with a "Salaam Alleikhum" -- but his smile is worn. He is tired, not from a days work, but from the toll of constant fear and worry. We settle down on cushions laid down intentionally on the recently swept floor of the family room.

Jamel fled his home in Dara'a, Syria in 2012 after his wife was severely injured and partially blinded by stray shrapnel from shelling from President Assad's forces. The wound on Zafira's face was visible -- a long muted streak that drove from her brow, across her eye, and down to her cheek. She had beautiful green eyes, but only after Jamel told us of her accident did I realize why she would not make direct eye contact.

Jamel and Zafira live with their three school-age daughters, Jamel's sister and her infant daughter. The children all join us for the conversation. They are shy - not unlike most young girls their age when they meet new people. In fact, they are not unlike other girls in most ways. Their father and mother love them and have made huge sacrifices to get them away from danger. They go to school in the mornings. They cannot go a full day because there are not enough resources to school all of the 350,000 Syrian refugee children in Jordan for a full day.

Jamel, however, has been able to buy a third-hand tablet, on which he downloads English lessons for his children. In the afternoons, when their counterparts in other parts of the world are returning from a lunch break to the second half of their daily studies, Yala, Zubeira, and Sabah sit in front of their father's tablet for their daily English lesson. Occasionally, Jamel tries to learn alongside his daughters. But he has gone through too much of life to be able to learn another language now.

Jamel was an olive oil producer in Dara'a. The family was not rich -- but he was able to provide for his family. His daughters never went hungry, their school uniforms were always clean; they were even saving to send their daughters to university. They were happy and they had a future. And then they were forced to flee their home because their country fell apart. They were lucky they had friends and family in Amman. Those without a small social network in Amman typically found themselves in the refugee camps -- where life was much more dangerous and difficult.

Jordan is home to almost 700,000 refugees, mostly from Syria. The country is safe, stable, and for all intents and purposes, a prosperous middle income country. Locals joke that their fortune is due to the lack of fortune in Jordan -- it is one of the few countries in the Middle East without oil. Whatever the reason, Jordan remains a beacon of hope in a region that has seen virtually nothing but turmoil in the last several decades. The monarchy has generously opened its borders to Syrian refugees fleeing conflict, first caused by Assad himself, then the rebels, and more recently, the Islamic State (though hundreds continue to cross the border as a result of atrocities committed by the former two). Despite this generosity, Syrians in Jordan need more.

Jordan, like most other countries that host refugees, has a strict restriction on refugees' right to work. This is oftentimes understandable. A country is responsible for its citizenry, and needs to assure jobs go to its own. Moreover, refugees are usually thought to be "temporary guests", so to speak. They can be provided humanitarian aid (by governments themselves, or the NGO community) -- but there's no need to give them work. They'll be gone soon. Or so we think.

The brutal reality is that the Syrian crisis, like most other humanitarian crises across the world is protracted. Syria has been in shambles for five years. Tanzania has had refugees from The Democratic Republic of Congo since the 1980s! People do not flee their home if they think things will get better soon. These people know better than the international community that there simply is no future in their home. If there is -- it is not a near future. Living only off of humanitarian aid, when you have seen the bleakness of the future, is a terrible proposition for most.

Jamel and his family receive $200 of cash assistance and another $100 worth of food vouchers every month from UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, and other humanitarian agencies. Jamel occasionally finds ways to work "illegally" in the markets to earn some extra cash. But Amman is one of the most expensive cities in the Middle East. There is never enough to make it through the month. After Jamel pays his $150 for monthly rent, he buys diapers for his niece and other necessities such as his $10 monthly expenditure on mobile/internet access. That's right - Jamel spends $10 of his $50 left over after rent and food on making sure he and his family have access to the internet! It is that important to them. Without connectivity, he is unable to teach his children English, make sure his parents are still alive in Syria, ensure his brother arrived in Germany safely, or learn about the destruction of his home town. More importantly, his 3G data connection allows him to search the internet for informal work that will allow him to re-bolster his pride as a father and a husband.

Jamel's situation is the story of countless Syrians (and refugees from other countries) living in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and elsewhere in the Middle East. This is why Europe's shores are being flooded with flimsy rubber dinghies packed with refugees. These people had normal lives, and had a standard of living that allowed them to have a future. They were not rich. But they had hopes of sending their children to university. Of spending celebrating Eid with a massive feast for the entire family. Of spending an afternoon in the park. In Jordan, they are prisoners in their apartments and tents. Jamel, and other proud Syrians like him -- have been emasculated. They cannot provide for their families. They do not want the handouts -- they want to work. But they cannot. The handouts are not enough. So they take the dangerous journey to countries where they can work. It's really not very different from why Europeans came to the New World.


After a three-hour bumpy journey from the Kigoma Airport through mud, dirt, and forest, we arrive at Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Western Tanzania, home to over 150,000 refugees from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over 2,000 refugees are arriving on a daily basis in Tanzania from the powder keg that is Burundi. Many of these same Burundians had fled conflict just 10 years ago and were forced to repatriate when tensions temporarily subsided in 2010. They are re-joining a Congolese population in Nyarugusu that has been in the camp for over 20 years -- so long that some have never even seen a computer.

The overcrowding in the camp (intended to have a capacity of 66,000 people) has gotten so bad that mass shelters have been set up to house thousands of people under atrocious living conditions. There is limited access to clean water, absolutely no privacy, and when it rains -- there may as well not be a tent. It is outside one of these mass shelters, that we met Julian.

Julian is a bright young man from outside Bujumbura -- the capital of Burundi. While most Burundians have an elementary grasp of French, Julian's is perfect. He even spoke English... which is almost unheard of for a refugee in Nyarugusu.

As a young boy, Julian's parents had fled Burundi during the crisis in the 90s. He spent four years in Nyarugusu during that time. Unlike most of his peers, he managed to attend school in the camp on a fairly regular basis. He attributes this to his parents' dogged persistence that he be educated. The school was run by UNICEF and severely lacking in infrastructure and resources. Despite the challenges, Julian miraculously did not fall too far behind his peers in the rest of the world that did not have to be educated in these circumstances.

When tensions in Burundi started showing signs of subsiding, the Tanzanian government "requested" that UNHCR repatriate the Burundians back to Burundi. Julian was one of these folks who went back. Things appeared to be looking better in Burundi. There was a democratically elected president, significant development funding coming in, and a neighbor in Rwanda that was defying a comparable bloody past and becoming a major player in Africa. Surely, Burundi would be able to do the same. Julian's story in the ten years he was back in Burundi after his family was repatriated appeared to indicate things were going in the right direction. He continued his studies and was even awarded a scholarship to take a course in a prestigious university in Paris.

However, in 2015, Burundi's President Ngkuruzisa decided to flout the country's newly formed and tenuous constitution to seek a 3rd term. Violence broke out again. And the hundreds of thousands who had experienced the pain and grief of making the mistake of staying too long during the last genocide decided to flee back to Tanzania before the kettle burst this time. Julian's family was one of these families. When Julian returned from his course in France - he arrived to a home with no one. There was a note that told him where they had gone, and so, fresh from his personal renaissance in Paris -- he set off to find his family... in a refugee camp... for the second time in his life.

Julian took buses and walked for two weeks with about $10 to last him that whole time, before he finally arrived in Nyarugusu. When he arrived, the UNHCR registration staff worked with him to find his family. They were living in a mass shelter tent with 20 other families and a cholera outbreak had just taken the lives of several of the people living in their tent. This was Julian's new home.

Like his counterparts in Jordan, Julian and his family, and all other refugees in Tanzania, are not legally allowed to do any form of work or income generating activities. They receive food aid (rations) from the World Food Programme. When it is rations day -- everyone in the family goes to the distribution center and waits all day to pick up their rations. The children skip school on these days. Despite the illegality of work, many refugees find ways to generate a little income in the camp... by doing anything from selling airtime for SIM cards to providing solar charging stations for electronics (usually phones) to selling off their food rations. Despite some opportunities in the informal market, refugees in Nyarugusu rarely earn more than $2 a month.

Julian is technically savvy and teaches his fellow refugees in the mass shelters how to use the phone. He even sets up Facebook accounts for people using Facebook's basic phone app (Nyarugusu only has a 2G network). He even makes some money topping up SIM cards for people. But for Julian, the biggest challenge is that there is no way for him to continue his education. Schools in Nyarugusu only go through high school. Without access to post-secondary education and limited legal right to move freely within Tanzania (due to his refugee status), Julian's talents simply fester and rot in the camp. In refugee camps in neighboring countries, such as Malawi, internet access has brought about the ability to access a college education from within the camp! But, for now, no such mechanism exists for Julian to escape extreme hardship and poverty.


The stories of Jamel and Julian are representative of the plight of refugees globally. There are 20 million refugees in the world today and another 40 million internally displaced persons - the most in history since the United Nations started tracking refugee populations. In the media's focus on the massive migration into Europe, they miss highlighting three critical points.

  1. 1) Refugees want to take care of themselves. While it is the political and religious conflict in home countries that is the root cause of migration crisis, it is often host country governments' reluctance or inability to provide refugees the basic needs (e.g., right to work, right to travel, and right to be educated) to maintain a sustainable livelihood that drives refugees to continue moving to places like Europe, where they believe that they will be given a sufficient opportunity to take care of themselves. Refugees do not WANT to rely on handouts. But if they are legally restricted from making ends meet, that is the only thing they can do.
  2. 2) The Syrian crisis is not the only refugee crisis in the world. While the world focuses on what's happening in Syria, conflict has endured in Central Africa, with no end in sight. The international communities' and donors' attention on the Europe crisis creates a risk that funding will only be earmarked for addressing the refugee situation in the Middle East. It is already evident - as Jordan is significantly better supported in its efforts to address the refugee situation than is Tanzania or other parts of Africa. The EU recently drastically increased funding for Turkey's refugee operations in hopes of curbing the migration from Turkey. The West needs to learn from the past. When it focuses only on conflicts that directly affects its borders, millions die unnoticed (think Rwanda, Ethiopia, Holocaust, etc.)
  3. 3) There is an opportunity for modern technology to make a significant positive impact in the global refugee crises. The stories of Jamel and Julian highlight one major tool that each hopes to use in order to lift themselves, their families, and their communities out of despair - technology. The private sector can work with the humanitarian community to play a major role in enabling access to the internet, devices on which to access the internet (e.g., phones, tablets, computers), infrastructure for community technology access (e.g., schools, libraries), and content (e.g., education apps, job seeking portals) which can transform the way refugees provide for themselves and seek opportunities to break free from the shackles of humanitarian aid.

*Note: The names of the individuals have been altered for their protection.

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