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© Photo courtesy of Edward Makara

essays

The Shoulder-to-Shoulder Model

by Edward Makara (with assistance from Jacob Sprang, Ryan Bose, and Astine Bose)
June 19, 2019

Edward Makara is the President of REST Rwanda, a small Rwandan NGO working with Burundian Refugees. He is also a public health practitioner and pastor in the Lutheran Church of Rwanda. He was born a refugee in Tanzania.

In this piece Edward describes a model for advancing dignity and solidarity when working with refugee communities. 

The Refugee Empowerment and Support Taskforce (REST) is more than just an organization: it is a collection of stories, weaved together to form a new approach to humanitarian response. These stories include those of its founders, interlaced with the stories of beneficiaries, and program participants. Stories of needs and struggles are combined with stories of strength and resiliency to create new chapters in the lives of affected communities through collective action and a shared vision.

My Story

I was born in a Tanzanian refugee camp, where my parents had lived for 3 decades.

Their initial hope each day of returning home tomorrow soon became weeks and years of despair. Now that I am back in my home country of Rwanda, I have transformed this story of struggle into the courage to help those who are going through similar hardships. Because of my story, I am in a greater position to understand their challenges than those who have never experienced such crisis. In this world of limited resources, you can hardly find anyone to support you endlessly, especially when the number of refugees are growing with each day. This raises the question of how one can be self-reliant in a foreign land with nothing but the status of asylum seeker and a refugee identity.

In 2015, when an influx of Burundian refugees came to Rwanda, Jacob Sprang and Ryan Bose were living in Rwanda as part of a year-long service program. Jacob was in Matimba, helping organize a community that was building a primary school. At the same time, I was working with Ryan in the community of Kirehe. Ryan worked at a welding training program, providing vocational training to local youth to help them gain a livelihood after the program. Together, the three of us visited the Burundians staying at Mahama Refugee Camp with the help of John Rutsindintwarane, the director of PICO-Rwanda, a local NGO that helps underdeveloped communities unlock their potential and improve their lives through community organizing. 

Challenged by our faith and humanity, we realized that we could not afford to turn a blind eye to the needs of fellow humans. We had no money, but we had listening ears. After talking with those in the camp, we realized that we were all connected: Ryan from Kansas, Jacob from Ohio, myself from Rwanda and the refugees from Burundi. Though our stories were different, we had the same needs: food, water, shelter, and above all, the need to live a life with dignity.

The Refugee Empowerment and Support Taskforce

While the REST is the only one of many helping hands currently extended to refugee communities, what sets us apart is what we do with our stories – those of our founders and those of the affected communities we serve. An encounter with a refugee is an opportunity to build a relationship that is based on mutual respect and trust. With this respect and trust we are able to listen to the unfortunate and often uncomfortable stories as friends and equal partners. With hope and confidence, we work together with affected communities to break out themes from their collective stories, and identify both the challenges they face and the sources of strength that they have.

DSC 0545

We work to build relationships between refugees and host communities to establish friendships and personal connection between hosts and refugees. Through dialogue and discussion, we minimize the gaps, counter the stereotypes, and eliminate the hierarchies between donors and recipients.

This equality among all members provides the baseline of mutual accountability and trust between affected communities and the REST team.

Over time, it increases the levels of confidence that communities have in us and in themselves. Through honest guidance and minimal financial support, we help transform refugees and host communities by building on their existing strengths and giving communities agency and control throughout the entire program cycle. By giving up our control and having refugees themselves design and own all of our activities, we help refugee communities develop more sustainable projects that more effectively address their needs. In our eyes, this is the true meaning of empowerment.

We start from a position of listening and understanding, because we firmly believe that the world’s leading experts on refugees are refugees themselves.

Shoulder-to-Shoulder

We work through what we call our Shoulder-to-Shoulder model. This approach is a unique creation, borrowing from community organizing and models of accompaniment. Simply put, our model is built on a culture of solidarity. We approach refugees at their level, listening to their needs and also their abilities. Then, we bring community members together to build a coalition of activated and interested parties. Together, we work with this coalition to design a small community-development project based on their collective needs. With minimal seed-funding, we help them implement their project and connect them to resources, including trainings from local experts, access to financial institutions, and partnerships with local government or other organizations.  Through each step, we walk alongside these communities, shoulder to shoulder, and help bear the burdens of displacement that they face. This equality forms a three-dimensional understanding of accountability. Financially, both the communities we serve and we, the donors, are mutually accountable to each other. Communally, project participants are accountable to one another, as a project is only as strong as its weakest member. And individually, everyone involved is accountable to themselves. When evaluating success, we look at not just the quantitative outcomes of our projects, but also in the trust and respect that we have built along the way. Through our programs, people come together, as equals. Concepts of rich and poor, strong and weak are stripped away, leaving behind in mutual respect and dignity.

To learn more about the work of the REST, please visit www.the-rest.org, or email jsprang@the-rest.org.