For many of us, these months of quarantine have been very difficult. The stress and uncertainty of these unprecedented times has been building, affecting our well-being, relationships, employment, finances, and nearly all other aspects of life. Even as the world begins to reopen, fears of a second wave loom over, casting further doubt on our lives.

As these questions arise, many have pushed further, raising questions about oft-forgotten members of our communities: refugees. Due to the densely populated refugee camps, underfunded and overworked facilities, and difficulties sharing information, among others, refugees face very different issues than the rest of us, and many experts fear that there is a high risk of COVID-19 disproportionately affecting these communities.

With these thoughts on my mind as we approach World Refugee Day, I can’t help but wonder how we can better help refugees. We must find ways to come together as an international community to make sure that we support in any way that we can. Recently, however, the answer has become clear: we must listen. In refugee camps around the world, young people have been working to protect their fellow refugees, making sure that they’re informed, equipped and working together to stay safe. Using their various skills and ideas, young refugees are showing the world that they are capable of so much more than predominant narratives may suggest.

This is why, in honor of World Refugee Day on June 20th, I want to highlight the efforts of young refugees working to protect their communities from COVID-19.

I have been seeing a wealth of innovation, compassion and resilience emerging from these youths, and I encourage us all to see their work as a guide for our support and action, as well as inspiration in our own lives.

1. Dr. Jonas – Providing medical expertise to communities in need

Jonas Havugimana, or Dr. Jonas, as he is known across Kiziba, Rwanda’s oldest existing refugee camp, has dedicated his life to helping others. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 29-year-old Jonas was selected to be a DAFI student in 2012, and, in 2018, became the first refugee to earn a degree in medicine in Rwanda. In their essential roles as health professionals at Byumba district hospital, he and his colleagues spend their days working on triage and testing of suspected and positive cases of COVID-19 and refer them to the National Treatment Center for follow up and further treatment. Jonas, however, has been taking his work a step further. Motivated by his desire to help others, he has taken to WhatsApp to help treat and prescribe medicine for Congolese refugees in the USA and Finland who have tested positive for the diseases, following their progression and ensuring that they made full recoveries. For Jonas, this is part of giving back: “I was really happy to help not only the surrounding communities but also my fellow Congolese refugees who are living far from me”, he explains. Ultimately, Jonas aims to help provide others with opportunities like the one that he received through DAFI: “I come from a large non-educated family. Seeing what education can do for families and communities is my biggest drive.”

2. Adhieu – Encouraging self-sufficiency and safety

Adhieu is a South Sudanese refugee student based in Kenya. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and the Kenyan government decided to imprison people who did not wear face masks in public, she knew she had to act – “If you are in a position to help somebody, don’t wait for the right time – there isn’t a right time”, she explains.  Growing up in refugee camps such as Kakuma and Dadaab, Adhieu was all too familiar with the challenges that disadvantaged communities face and wanted to make sure that they were also able to stay protected. She started by distributing masks and homemade soaps to street children in Nairobi, then moved on to helping older women and people with special need in the Dadaab refugee camp, before expanding to include Kakuma refugee camp and supporting on single mothers, shopkeepers and others who have a higher risk of exposure. To date, she has made and distributed 3,200 masks and 138 bar soaps cut into 1,300 pieces with the support of community leaders and DAFI. Despite the support from organizations such as UNHCR, she laments the perception of refugees in the world. “Refugees are often seen as vulnerable”, she states, “How can we empower youth to help all these people?”. She is hoping to receive more support and funding so that she can train people to become self-sufficient, and help youth back to their communities, just as she has been able to.

3. Felix Sesay – Paying it forward

Felix Sesay is a 24-year-old Nursing student at St. Karol’s School of Nursing living in Accra, Ghana. Born in Sierra Leone, he moved to Ghana in 2004 as a refugee, where he continued his schooling, eventually earning a DAFI scholarship to attend university. When the coronavirus hit Ghana, schools were forced to close, meaning that Felix had to return to Krisan Refugee Camp. Once there, he decided to put his nursing skills to good use: he has been spending his days teaching precautionary techniques to fellow refugees, encouraging them to stay safe, and, in the evenings, he helps students with schoolwork to make sure that they stay up to date with their lessons. Although there have been restrictions on gatherings, Felix works hard to reach as many people as possible. Through door to door visits, student group lessons for members of each section of the camp, and social media posts, he hopes to reach all 750 inhabitants of the camp. “Personally, I have been helped my whole life”, he explains, “it is my duty to help others”. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, Felix was an active member of the community, offering health screenings and advice, advocating for his fellow students, and attending the Global Refugee Forum as an official refugee co-sponsor of the Education theme. He hopes to continue this work through various initiatives, notably advocacy work with former refugees and work to help support the education of young refugees in the camp.

4. Ella Ininahazwe – Counseling and supporting students

Ella Ininahazwe, 26, is a graduate of Health Care Management and works as a Refugee College Guidance Counsellor with the organization Kepler in Rwanda, and Southern New Hampshire University in Kenya (Kakuma refugee camp). Originally from Burundi, Ella came to Rwanda in 2015 as a student and refugee. Ella is determined to increase the number of refugee youth who can access higher education and refused to let the pandemic slow her down. When it hit, refugee students who were attending university had to return to their camps and pursue online education. Due to issues accessing computers and internet connectivity problems, however, many of these students were at risk of seeing their online studies being interrupted as well. With the help of Kepler and UNHCR, Ella made sure that over 150 students in refugee camps in Rwanda (mostly Kiziba refugee camp) were equipped with reliable electricity, strong internet connections and laptops. As a contingency for the times when power cuts, she has organized student discussion groups to ensure that students can continue learning until it returns. In addition to all of this, she has been conducting in-person check ins with students, advisors, and teachers to ensure the well-being of students and their good standing in school. She has also contributed in the Tertiary Refugee Student Network & Global Advisory Youth Council’s Twitter and Instagram based COVID campaign, which highlights what refugees are doing to support their communities by sharing videos of their work. Currently, Ella and her colleague Sadiki are also working on establishing an Africa-wide network of refugee college guidance counselors, including development of the training curriculum and teaching material. They are also organizing a conference to be held on World Refugee Day with various partners working in tertiary programs. College Refugee Guidance Counselors will be hosting discussions with students about the pathways that have been implemented during this crisis. Ella is motivated by seeing the impact her work has. “You feel like you are doing something great when you see a smile on someone else’s face”.

5. Mikaelou Demba Dia – Providing essentials to families in need

Mikaelou “Mika” Demba Dia is a Maurtanian DAFI Scholar currently living in Dakar, Senegal. He has dedicated much of his time supporting and advocating for others: in his work at UNIFAM, he is a program assistant for the participation of women, and he has represented Senegalese youth, notably at the Global Refugee Forum at the end of 2019. Following his participation in this forum, the Senegalese government decided to increase social support to vulnerable families, but Mika noticed that one group wasn’t included in this policy: refugees. This inspired him to shift his energy to refugee communities. Shortly after, when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Senegal, he saw it as time to follow through. Along with some of his fellow refugees, Mika initiated a program to support refugee women and families by providing them with masks, food and other essential supplies to help them through these difficult times. He is also hoping to support out of school youth with their school work. To date, 115 people in 25 households (21 headed by women) have benefited from this project, and Mika has no plans to slow down. “People have an image [of refugees] as people who are always putting their hands out, (…) but they are able to think and do things for themselves”, he explains. “There are young people who can help themselves and even the countries they’re in, if given the opportunity”.

6. Nasra Adam Muhammad – Empowering and supporting refugees

Nasra Adam Mohammad was born and raised in Zambia to Ethiopian parents. Driven by her desire to help others, she is currently a DAFI scholar studying development studies. “Helping is a privilege”, she explains, “I like to contribute and help, as long as I have the capacity”. When Zambia was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, she jumped to action: she has been buying and collecting items that will help refugees fight the pandemic, such as hand sanitizers and masks. She hopes to reframe the dominant narratives and understanding of refugees. “People think once you’re a refugee, you’re different from the people residing in the host country”, she says. “I want people to know that being a refugee is just a status”. She hopes to start an organization and orphanage that will support refugee children and help them achieve their goals. She wants to make sure that the upcoming generation is granted as many opportunities as possible. “[Being a refugee] is just a situation from your country. It can be eradicated at any time and at any place”

7. Noella Ilunga – Dispelling common myths

Noella Ilunga was born in Congo, but was raised and pursued her primary, secondary and tertiary school in Zambia as a DAFI scholar. Like her friend Nasra, she, too, hopes to address the negative narrative surrounding refugees, and chose to study mass communication to this end. “People generally see refugees as being dull and thieves”, she laments, “I simply want to be a voice for the voiceless”. Through her work, she hopes to shed a positive light on the lives of refugees and empower youth while doing so, believing that “behind a refugee is a father, a mother and a young person who is able to contribute to the welfare of their communities – and they should not be looked down on or discriminated against”. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Noella has been part of the group of DAFI students working to support refugee communities in Zambia. In addition to her support and donations to communities in need, she makes sure to help people in her everyday life. “I take delight in helping people, especially the underprivileged – whether Zambian or otherwise”, explains Noella. “When I have the means to help, I do”

8. Faridah Luanda – Advocating for and empowering young people

Faridah Luanda is a 22-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, currently living in Uganda. Her work to date centers on advocating for issues related to youth, especially young girls and women. In addition to her work as a Global Youth Advisory Council (GYAC) youth delegate, she started her own organization, Da Vision Group, which works to improve young refugees’ lives through music, dance, education and other activities. When the COVID-19 preventive measures were released, Faridah realized that many refugees where she lived (Kyaka II refugee settlement) didn’t know enough about hygiene and precautionary messages. As a youth leader in her community, she wanted to help, and decided to start a hand washing campaign, making sure people were aware of the proper COVID-19 techniques. This campaign was two-fold: first, she collected, cleaned and recycled used oil containers and turned them into mobile handwashing stations, then distributed them alongside gel cans to help people wash their hands teaching people to use them. She brings them directly to homes or makes them available for pickup in public areas. Second, she and her team have been conducting a communication campaign. They have been writing signs featuring information on COVID-19 and how to stay safe, translating it into different local languages, and composing songs for those who cannot read. She has also taken part in twitter chats through refugee-focused pages to share recommendations and reliable information. In addition to all of this, Faridah has been working on supporting vulnerable families by providing food and homemade masks, distributing both with the hand washing stations. To date, she has reached over 600 people. Through this pandemic, she has not stopped her usual work, either. She has been discussing and advocating for girls at risk of child marriage and sexual violence, making sure that young people, notably these girls, are part of the solution. She also provides counselling and activities for girls to stay busy and active at home. She hopes to expand her work to other camps, but, due to the current restrictions, it is difficult. For now, she will continue her work and keep distributing supplies as they are available: “Whatever support we get, we try to manage and support people who cannot protect themselves”, she states.

9. Foni Joyce Vuoi – Coming together to help vulnerable communities

Originally in South Sudan, Foni Joyce Vuoi is a communications officer who now lives in Nairobi with her family. In her day to day work, she works with young people through skills sharing & youth advocacy. Through her work with the Global Youth Advisory Council, for example, she helps to advise the UNHCR on its programming, ensuring that they fully engage and involve refugees in the development of programming and policy development. She also does advocacy on a regional level, notably participating in the South Sudanese peace process to ensure that the views and needs of women and refugees are considered. During the COVID-19 pandemic, her work has shifted, but the essence remains the same. Foni and a Kenyan friend of hers founded YEMI, a youth empowerment initiative based in Nairobi that focuses on youth mentorship. During the past few months, they created and have been leading a WhatsApp group to support various refugee groups to share essential information on the local realities, precautionary measures, and plans for post-pandemic life. She also initiated a “Lend a Hand” Campaign, wherein she sought to collect resources from friends to share to vulnerable members of their community. During this time, it became apparent to Foni that several other refugee groups had initiated their own projects to support the same communities in Nairobi, so they decided to combine their strengths to maximize their efforts. “As young people, we’ve learned that it’s very important to work together”, she explains, “This particular crisis has led us to establish partnerships”. With their combined strengths, they have been able to split up tasks and maximize their reach: Foni has kept to collecting food, while other organizations have been making soaps and face masks. Due to the size of the city of Nairobi, work had to be done to determine how to best support communities in need. Together, they have organized a plan to bring essential materials and information to the most vulnerable members of society, starting with those who are suffering from chronic illnesses and disabilities, unaccompanied minors, and elderly people. They decided to unfold the plan in two phases: during the first phase, they reached 130 families, and during the second phase, which is currently in progress, they have reached 40 families so, and are on track to reach another 130 in total. With increased support, Foni aims to support up to 1,500 families in the province. In all of her work, she believes that the value of young refugees should not be understated. “Most international organizations are not on the ground”, she says. “It’s the young people who are on the ground. They’ve become very flexible to make sure that they can respond to crises”.

10. Mariam Saran Sow (Guinea / Germany) – “I don’t want people to talk about us as people that need to be helped. Together, we can do things”

At the age of 17, Mariam Saran Sow fled to Germany from her country, Guinea, due her experiences facing forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). In Germany, she studied sociology with a focus on migration and refugees, and this, coupled with her life experiences, prompted her to work to make a difference. She has been supporting and empowering vulnerable communities through a variety of initiatives, and these efforts have only multiplied and diversified since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. During this lock-down, many wives are constantly in close quarters with abusive husbands — Mariam has been reaching out to them to offer psychological support and company over the phone. Additionally, using her linguistic skills (Mariam is fluent in 7 West African dialects), she has participated in cold-calling telephone campaigns, making sure that non-German speaking immigrants and refugees are well informed and able to stay safe. On top of this work, Mariam has sought to support parents with their childcare and education. She has worked to offer tutoring support and put together child social events for parents struggling with childcare and schoolwork in German. Finally, in collaboration with public and private actors, Mariam has been delivering masks and gloves. “Refugees can do things to empower themselves”, she asserts. “Yes, we are refugees, but that doesn’t change anything. I ran because I had to run to save my life, but I have to turn the page. We have to integrate ourselves in this country and participate”. She also places some onus on host communities and their leaders. “I don’t want people to talk about us without us having a voice. I want us to speak to each other. When (leaders) talk about us, they should have a dialogue with us. I don’t want people to talk about us as people that need to be helped. Together, we can do things”