World Humanitarian Day: Humanity through Diversity – Refugees for Refugees

Alaa Kasmo | August 18, 2021

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services is CWS’s partner on the ground in Cairo, Egypt.  

Eight years ago, if you asked me what the word “humanitarian” means, I would have given an unclear and general answer, most likely the one that you could find in a dictionary or a journal.

Eight years on, I can confidently say that “humanitarian” is not just a depiction of relief work someone would do. This word holds the experiences, pains, happiness, failures and achievements of fellow humans having the means and resources to support our collective community.

As a Syrian refugee, when I first worked at St. Andrews’ Refugee Services (StARS), I thought the world revolved only around the Syrian situation. It was understandable, as my personal experience revolved around my escape from Syria. However, StARS has taught me better; it taught me the reality of others, the realities of displaced communities in Egypt. Through its diversity, StARS taught me that regardless of our differences, the struggles of displaced community are marked by marginalization and that we all need to work as one to help each other and reclaim our lives.

The most valuable lesson StARS has taught me was that being a humanitarian is not only to provide assistance, but to believe in our capacities and skills as displaced communities. To me, StARS embodied community empowerment, where displaced people plan, work, lead, decide and manage services for their own communities.

As the Communication Coordinator at StARS, my job allows me to work with all StARS programs, community-based partners and people from displaced communities. I listen to their stories and feedback on our services, and these stories have always fueled my passion for the work I do. Listening to community members reclaim their voice in providing this feedback has never failed to inspire me and others to do more by and within displaced communities.

Throughout the pandemic StARS redirected resources to provide finical assistance, medical and education grants to displaced people to prevent homelessness, hunger and destitution, and ensure access to education and medical care.

Without the right to work for refugees, during the pandemic, refugee communities were the most vulnerable to loss of income. The need for emergency response immensely increased due to shortage in shelter, food, and financial resources. Despite the growing needs, the first reaction of service providers and UN agencies to the pandemic was to close during the first months of COVID-19. Driven by community-based decisions, StARS remained open to serve and provide a range of emergency response services. Operating within the pandemic, particularly in the first six months, proved to be challenging, but it allowed StARS to support thousands of families remain with shelter, have food, and safety from severe protection risks. It was encouraging to see donors and partners react positively to StARS’ adaptability though additional funding targeted at addressing emergencies.

I recall a client from South Sudan with three children and a wife. He could not support his family because he was laid off. I recall his words, as they resonated deeply in me while his eyes were glaring with joy while receiving emergency financial assistance, “it came at the needed time as no one else supported me, and I needed this help.” This client was one of many whose stories and struggles are endless. I take pride in being part of a community of refugees providing services to refugees.

I learn every day that providing assistance is not the only goal, but to do so by treating everyone with dignity and centering the experiences of displaced people. StARS is not able to provide assistance to everyone, but we are keen to treat everyone with the respect and dignity they are entitled to. This is what one of the clients from Sudan mentioned to me when I was talking to him about StARS services, “I thank all StARS staff, regardless of getting assistance or not. There is no other organization besides StARS where we are treated respectfully and humanely. The way I got the assistance is very satisfactory and dignifying. I have been able to pay my house rent and secure the basic needs of my children, and this made me feel more safe and able to cope more with the situation in Egypt.”

As the need for emergency response continues to be prevalent, there remains gaps in addressing issues that displaced communities face. A few months after the start of the pandemic, StARS came to the realization that COVID-19 is not the only risk communities face, and set on gradually reestablishing all services that can be provided without increasing the risk of COVID-19 infection for staff and communities we work with. I have seen a marked increase in gender-based violence (GBV) during the pandemic. In response StARS provided GBV awareness sessions and trainings to communities and community-based organizations. I attended one of these sessions after which a leader of an Eritrean community-based organization leader told me “our staff told me how beneficial StARS training is, the information on GBV and how to provide services to GBV victims in our community is very helpful. We are now creating material for awareness raising within our community.” Such feedback keeps me more passionate and committed to our work, as I see how the work I contribute to and the community I am a part of at StARS offers resources and knowledge for displaced people to establish services within their own communities.

While I know that the word “humanitarian” could have a clear and simple definition, through my experience, I believe it has powerful and fulfilling meanings of impact, inspiration and persistence that are centered in recognizing the rights and potential of displaced communities, and any at risk communities. I am glad I am able to be a humanitarian, not just by providing assistance, but by centering the communities I work with.

Alaa Kasmo is the Communications Coordinator at St. Andrew’s Refugee Services. All photos courtesy StARS.