Refugee Outreach Volunteers: how women are stepping up to the challenge
The Global Compact on Refugees dedicated a whole section to Women and Girls, and calls to the promotion of meaningful participation of women and girls. UNHCR's Telling the Real Story (TRS) Project aims at communicating with women, girls and various communities about the dangers of onward irregular movement. The project also informs people of other options available to them and empowers target audiences to made informed decisions about their future.
Tsehainesh Tesfay and Fatma Ali are Eritrean refugees that have been living in the Shagarab Camp located in the East of Sudan. Tsehainesh has been in the camp for 8 years, while Fatma has been there for 6 years. Both women are refugee outreach volunteers engaged in the TRS project.
“I joined the project because I wanted to serve my community and raise awareness amongst women because many are not aware of their rights and also many things happen to them and they just keep silent.” says Fatma who has been an outreach volunteer for a year and a half.
Tsehainesh started working with Telling the Real Story as an interpreter in 2018 before being an outreach volunteer. The change in role came with its challenges.
“People tried to discourage me and asked me not to involve myself in this work of creating awareness about smuggling and trafficking. They felt I was wasting my time, since I was challenging a huge and well-connected network, and thought it would never work because services were also inadequate in the camps.” Tsehainesh says.
Tsehainesh chose not to listen to negative or discouraging voices because the work empowered her to play a central role in one of the major issues facing refugees in the camp: the allure of smugglers' narratives.
“What I enjoy most about my work is spending time with people from all walks of life in the camps discussing their feelings and attitudes towards various issues; hearing about the issues that are affecting them and seeing action taken or solutions found. There is nothing more gratifying than this.” she adds.
For Fatma, engaging with women in the camps has been a source of fulfilment. Encouraging them to speak up about issues that directly affect them and direct them to services that they would otherwise not know about.
“When I carry out information sessions for women, they come back to express their gratitude for having directed them to the right people who offered the assistance they needed or offered solutions to their problems. When creating awareness on the dangers associated with irregular onward movement, there are those who provide feedback and tell me that they have embraced my message and they won’t take the risks. These are other who declare that they will be patient and wait for solutions. This makes me happy and satisfied.” Fatma says.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, Tsehainesh and Fatma were on the frontline, stepping in and using their carefully honed awareness raising skills to distribute information leaflets and place posters strategically around the camps on healthy hygiene practices and counter rumors and disinformation relating to COVID-19.
Their biggest challenges have been cultural related issues on the participation of women.
“There are many cultural barriers which limit the participation of women either in decision making processes or in self-reliance. It is through this project (TRS) that women get a safe space to talk openly about their issues. We normally go to the communities and they gladly allow us into their homesteads where we discuss and debate issues of concern. I am usually amazed when they open up about issues that are taboo and give very frank opinions on what should be done.” says Tsehainesh “We should never give up no matter how the situation looks like. With patience, change will come and so will the truth.” she adds.
“As a volunteer, I realized that the only way we can transform the lives of women in the camps, is through more engagement. The more we gather women and listen to their voices, the more we can manage to advocate on various issues.” says Fatma.
It is in this spirit that Telling the Real Story (TRS) has also launched an initiative to amplify the voices of refugee women and girls who share, in their own words, the impact COVID-19 has had on them. The videos also demonstrate the resilience of these women, and their aspirations.
Shukri is an Ethiopian refugee who aspires to be a doctor. She talks about how her studies were affected by the pandemic and how she managed to thrive despite the difficulties.
See more videos here.