Women & Youth ALIVE Project Learners in a Training session at L’AFRIKANA, December 2022
Women & Youth ALIVE Project Learners in a Training session at L’AFRIKANA, December 2022

Not A Burden”: How This Refugee-Led Organization Is “Cleaning The Perception” Of Refugees Everywhere

Why it Matters : Refugee-led organizations like L’AFRIKANA are able to understand the needs of refugees more intimately than their non-refugee-led counterparts — their story is an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t.

By Neha Chollangi, Future of Good

This journalism is made possible by a partnership with WUSC and the International Forum. See our editorial ethics and standards here.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, refugee organizations all over Kenya were instructed by the country’s government to shut their doors. For refugees living in urban settings outside refugee camps, they had nowhere to go for essentials — whether that be medical support, or food and everyday supplies. 

Biaba Bizo, program coordinator at L’AFRIKANA, a refugee-led organization based in Nairobi, Kenya, says that during the start of COVID-19, refugees could only go to refugee camps to get help. Yet, with most of the roads blocked, it was increasingly difficult for anyone to move from one place to another. 

While L’AFRIKANA couldn’t keep their doors open officially and continue providing service to the local refugee population at the time, the organization partnered with local churches and the Open Society Foundation (OSF) to help refugees affected by COVID-19. 

“During that period, we collected some food, medical items, and sanitary items, and then we were able to distribute,” says Bizo, who adds that L’AFRIKANA’s office was not officially open at this time, but there were some staff distributing these items to people that came to the office safely. People could collect items outside the office quickly and go back home. 

L’AFRIKANA’s COVID-19 response program is just one of the examples of how refugee-led organizations can understand the immediate needs of the local refugee community and act quickly to meet these needs in that moment. The organization was formed in 2013 by a group of refugees that wanted to help themselves survive in urban areas, outside of refugee camps. 

L’AFRIKANA’s programming focuses on a few main areas to help refugees: economic development, integration with local communities, and education. 

Some of the programs include ‘Go Girl’ which raises awareness and supports young women who are victims of sexual assault, early pregnancy, early marriage and substance use; the Accelerated Education Program (AEP) provides education for children who had their education interrupted; training in art and tailoring teaches participants how to sew and tailor and how to use these skills to start their own businesses; and the Re:Build program (implemented in Nairobi and Kampala, Uganda) and targets to reach around 20,000 people, helping them with job support and access to social services. 

Future of Good spoke to L’AFRIKANA about the current situation for refugees in Kenya, the careful work of refugee integration and faults with the localization agenda in the international global cooperation sector. 

Urban refugees need significantly more support as camps plan to shut down

Bizo explains that all refugees in Kenya are required to live in refugee camps, “but once you are given a special authorization to live in town, you are considered as a person who can take care of yourself. So all those supports and assistance that refugees are supposed to get for free, they can’t access them anymore.” 

Once they are living within an urban setting, refugees find themselves with the struggle of needing to find employment, a place to live, and finding educational opportunities for their children. Bizo says that the majority of refugees living in the city don’t get the help they need. 

“There are some offices in urban setups or in towns which are supposed to help refugees but they help those who prove they are very, very vulnerable. They have nothing else they can do and they can die if they don’t get that help from the office — those are the people [most refugee organizations] look at.” explains Bizo. “Most urban refugees are stranded on their own to find ways of survival.” 

The need for support for urban refugees is only going to get exacerbated this year as the Kenyan government has been slowly moving to close two major refugee camps in the country that are home to over 400,000 people. 

In a joint statement from the Kenyan government and the United National Human Rights Council (UNHRC), they stated the reason for the closure is that, “refugee camps are not a long-term solution to forced displacement.” Bizo also agrees that refugee camps are not the best solution, but if there will be thousands of refugees flooding into urban areas, they will need significantly more support than what’s available now. 

AEP learners during an ongoing class session, April 2022

The balancing act of serving refugees and the local community

Bizo explains that while there are organizations that serve refugees and other organizations that serve the needs of local communities, but rarely an organization that seeks to do both. This can be a point of tension, especially for the some local communities who may feel “jealous” for services that refugees may receive and they don’t.

“We had instances whereby the local community and the refugees fought for limited resources — once we learned about that and we observed that issue to arise, we quickly opened L’Afrikana for everybody and for the locals,” says Bizo. 

AEP learners during an ongoing class session, April 2022

Through their programs, L’Afrikana has worked to break down that barrier between the local community and refugees. The organization looks to divide their services by 70 per cent for refugees and 30 per cent for the local population. 

“We taught them the skills we knew, and then some of them now have opened their own businesses,” says Bizo, “And this enabled us to really integrate with the local community here [in Nairobi]. 

It also just makes the most sense to do work that strengthens the local economy as a whole by helping both the refugee population and the local community because it will create a better, stronger community for everyone to live in, according to Bizo.  

“So if the community is facing a challenge of insecurity, the refugees living in that community are facing the same challenge,” says Bizo. “Now apart from the normal challenges of every person living in town, refugees by being refugees, they have their own challenges which also need to be addressed.” 

The power of refugee-led work is irreplaceable

“A refugee has been considered as a person who should always be on the receiving end, a person who cannot help himself or herself, a person who has no skill, a person who is psychologically traumatized and cannot work, a burden to the host country,” says Bizo. 

L’AFRIKANA staff counting face masks for distribution to Health Centers made by some community-based organizations with the support of L’AFRIKANA, September 2021

L’AFRIKANA wants to remove that perception and clean the idea of refugees that many people may have. We want to prove that a refugee is not a burden, they are an asset, Bizo says, adding that the best people to do this work are refugees themselves. 

Whether it’s knowing the intricacies of local dynamics and understanding how best to handle them, or finding the right workaround when it comes to restrictive policies, refugee-led organizations like L’AFRIKANA know what it takes to create effective programs and initiatives. 

“The international community needs to understand that refugee needs are better addressed by refugees themselves. And that’s why we have this approach we are advocating, which says nothing for refugees without refugees,” says Bizo. “Yes we are refugees — we may have lost properties, items or other belongings here and there, but we haven’t lost our minds.” 

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