Since 2012, Sonia has pieced together a very thorough and precise understanding of the urban refugees’ issue and all its nuances. She has been listening to major actors, such as the former UNHCR (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) Head of Policy Development and Evaluation, directors of global and local NGOs, independent researchers; to back her vision and design the most efficient strategy. She leveraged their expertise to prepare for the main challenges she would have to overcome, such as working with informal organizations fearing to be localized or dealing with high leadership turnover. Because most refugees try to stay as close to home as possible, either within their country or in adjacent regions, Sonia decided to go to developing countries to address the bulk of the problem. Knowing the average duration of exile is estimated 17 to 25 years, she set up to help urban refugees sustainably rebuild their life and to support local communities in welcoming them. Listening to other experts and organizations talking about including refugee-led organizations in the design chain of solutions, she realized they didn’t know how to proceed and identified the need for concrete operational tools and solutions.
To fuel her global advocacy and underpin her idea, Sonia resolved to develop and field-test solutions to work with urban refugee-led communities in a variety of contexts, countries and organizations. She first identified the refugee-led groups through a call for applications for intensive six-month on-site capacity-building program in 2016 and 2017, that was relayed by partners and received over 60 answers from refugee-led organizations, already proving that most refugee leaders do want to improve and develop their skills. Sonia set up a list of criteria to select the three first organizations she worked with in Malaysia: they needed to be recognized as active and trustworthy by network partners (e.g. local NGOs, UNHCR), structured enough to work with, available to invest time in the program, ethical; and to have huge concrete needs to achieve their social mission. She selected three communities in Malaysia (a Somalian, a Rohingya, and an Afghan) of different size (700 to 150,000 households), each facing its own challenges. Sonia’s programs start with a two-month needs assessment that helps the refugee leaders to choose by themselves what training modules are best to be followed to increase the indirect impact on the rest of the community. Training modules include for example accounting, fundraising and partnerships management, community management, basic digital skills and better communication through new technologies. To ensure the appropriation and efficiency of the capacity-building program, Sonia is consistently implementing her vision of empowering grassroots communities every small step of the way: refugee-led organizations decide if they want her help, they decide which training modules they follow, they are trained to pass on knowledge to future leaders and they are supported in developing their own solutions rather than receiving ready-made solutions to be implemented.
Following Sonia’s programs, the number of urban refugees accessing services offered by refugee-led organizations increased for all three trained organizations, and they all increased the quality of service and protection offered to the community (one tripled its programs offering, another created more than 10 new services). As an example, two refugee-led organizations out of three were able to increase their annual budget by at least 25% in the three to six months post-training. More particularly, for the very first time, the Afghan refugee-led organization has been able to apply for and receive a grant from the UNHCR local office. Two refugee-led organizations drafted a constitution shared publicly at their office space and included processes for elections and replacement of leaders. This led to a significant decrease in community complaints. All three organizations increased the gender representation within their organization; and all now conduct Monitoring & Evaluation activities and have increased their engagement with partners post incubation. With these results, Sonia is showcasing the possibility of a fruitful work with refugee leaders, with the underlying objective of transforming the global prevailing perception of mistrust towards refugee-led organizations.
Sonia is now preparing new field missions in Lebanon and Uganda, to test other contexts and adapt her flexible methodology. For instance, in Uganda, she will adapt her support strategy to the specific challenges of an emerging type of actor: networks of refugee-led organizations. She ambitions to encourage the creation of such networks at city scale to facilitate peer-learning, exchange info and best practices, and carry more weight in discussions with other local actors.
Building on the field expertise she develops as well as on other existing best practices, Sonia then starts to equip other local and international NGOs with the knowledge and skills to capacitate and work with refugee-led organizations. She developed an online platform that she calls a “storehouse of solutions” where actions, best practices and experience concerning urban-refugees led by diverse NGOs all over the world (such as Kiron, the Jesuite Refugee Service, Same Skies...) are precisely described. 80 local and international NGOs already registered on the platform to freely benefit from this field expertise. To ensure these best practices do multiply, Sonia identified the need to support “replication initiatives”: to date, she supported a pilot project of international replication from an Indonesian NGO to a Jordanian NGO and based on this first experience, she now works at structuring this offer. At the global level, Sonia strategically supports the headquarters of international NGOs with large capacities in developing the necessary new know-how to shift from camps to urban areas. For instance, she is in discussion with Handicap International (present in 61 countries) to train their staff to better address challenges faced by urban refugees. While increasing her indirect impact, training and consulting for other NGOs and public institutions also represents a revenue stream to sustain Sonia’s activities. She also sees potential in developing training for companies, where employees could learn from the core competencies of urban refugees who face uncertain environment daily and develop high resiliency.
Sonia’s grounded work serves as a solid base for her global advocacy for inclusion of refugee representatives in the design chain of solutions. Sonia is connected with many key organizations, such as the UNHCR, the Global Alliance for Cities in Crisis and the World Humanitarian Summit, and this is well-positioned to influence key global decision-makers through conferences, workshops or consulting. Leveraging the Global Compact political agenda, she wrote a “white paper” about refugee-led organizations, that is available on the UNHCR website.