Foni Vuni and Arash Bordbar
During the COVID-19 pandemic, young people around the world have been affected in many ways. Some have lost jobs, others have left school or university to help their parents cope with financial difficulties, and yet others have had to deal with mental health challenges and domestic violence. The disproportionate impacts on the young, now and into the future, have been widely acknowledged.
However, there has been less recognition of how youth have taken an active role in responding to challenges in their communities. This is particularly true for young refugees and other displaced youth. For instance, in countries as diverse as Uganda, Pakistan and Australia, they are providing online workshops and training on the importance of verifying and disseminating accurate information about COVID-19. They are making and distributing hygiene kits with Tippy Taps, which are handmade water dispensers using locally sourced materials, soap, and masks. They are organising discussions and training on protection. While some are involved in government-led responses, many – simply by following government advice and guidelines – have taken it upon themselves to protect their communities.
These have been exemplified by cooperation between young refugees and young people in their host communities.
In Kenya, a host community organisation called Oasis Matahare developed COVID-19 quizzes that are accessible via any phone that can send or receive text messages. The aim of the quizzes is to sensitize people to coronavirus and test their level of understanding, and to help them (and also school children) to access information. Oasis Mtahare has also consulted and worked with local refugee youth leaders to identify and overcome specific challenges for refugees accessing the platform.
In Australia, refugee youth have been running online workshops on access to employment, legal support and mental health, seeking to overcome the barriers that have developed as COVID-19 and its restrictions have struck. Refugee youth have also organised and facilitated weekly virtual meetings with refugee doctors who give up-to-date, accurate information to communities in their mother tongue.
In Germany, young refugees who are qualified to give mental health support are providing one-on-one psychosocial support in their home languages. These efforts to address mental health and well-being needs are really important. Many young people need psychosocial support and coping mechanisms to overcome challenges they are encountering on account of COVID-19 – and especially refugees and asylum seekers who may have pre-existing trauma. Young people who have faced and overcome similar challenges are best placed to reach out to and offer peer-to-peer support. This has happened around the world where youth who had some expertise in mental health and psychosocial support, took initiatives and reached out to other young people to have one on one mentoring and counselling which has been very effective, although globally there is enough research during COVID-19 into the impact on mental health, there is not enough budget and investment to tackle this issue.
We think there is a great need for more systematic support including financial support that is accessible, flexible and in a timely manner from the key actors such as government, NGOs, private sector, educational institutions and others. This would make a massive difference because they would be able to scale up and have a more long-lasting impact from the activities they have already been engaging in around the world. Young people – whether they are refugees or not – need opportunities to lead and to put forward solutions for their communities. It is important for them to be able to participate in local development activities, protection efforts, and decision-making. This can only happen if there is acknowledgement of the important role they have been playing, and can continue to play, in humanitarian responses – not only while the pandemic lasts, but also beyond.
Capturing data about young people’s energy and efforts is essential, as it will enable us to duplicate similar efforts moving forward. During different phases of COVID, it is important that humanitarian and development actors invest in and support collaborative community programs, led by refugee and host communities. Once the different stakeholders are able to resume their work on the ground, humanitarian actors need to ensure that young people, in all their diversity – and including refugees and people with different abilities – are not overshadowed by large organisations. They must be included in planning, designing, implementing solutions and evaluation.
To conclude, youth, especially those displaced and active on the ground, should have access to flexible funding mechanisms to enable them to respond better to the situations facing their communities. Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, young refugees have continued to reinforce their role as connectors by bridging geographical challenges, language barriers, connectivity challenges, cultural and other differences to build a network of global citizens who acknowledge and celebrate each other’s contributions, learn from each other effectively, and create strong bonds – all of which help them in tackling considerable challenges.
Everyone, regardless of their status, has a vital role to play. We have to work together to fight COVID-19. It is time to come together to support and cede power to young people, who want to help ensure that our future is sustainable and peaceful.
Foni Joyce Vuni has more than six years’ experience of working as an advocate, amplifying the voices of forcibly displaced women and youth. She is the Co-Founder of the Youth Empowerment and Mentorship Initiative, working with youth to have a holistic understanding of their rights, empower them and provide them with an opportunity to mentor other young people in the community. She is also a Global Youth Advisory Council founding member and coordinator providing support as the council continues with its mandate. Foni holds a degree in mass communication with a major in public relations from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. She uses her experience as a forcibly displaced woman and her communications expertise to change the perception and image of vulnerable people in society.
Arash Bordbar, 27, is a former Refugee originally from Shiraz in Iran. Arash is the Chair of Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) and also founding member and Co-ordinator of the UNHCR Global Youth Advisory Council. He is currently working with the CMRC as a Youth Employment and Enterprise Officer. He holds a Bachelor of Civil Engineering (Hons degree). He was awarded the Young People’s Human Rights Medal in 2016 for his advocacy on human rights in Australia and the Asia Pacific, chosen to be an Australian Ambassador since 2018 for Australia Day. He has been selected as a Peace Ambassador for One Young World in 2018 and 2019. Arash is also part of the Amnesty Refugee Advisory Group that strategises and campaigns for the resettlement process for refugees across the world.
Read Kaldor Centre Director Jane McAdam introducing COVID-19 Watch with ‘The impacts of COVID-19 on the world’s displaced people: A watching brief’, and find all the analysis in COVID-19 Watch. Don’t miss any new posts, follow the Kaldor Centre on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and subscribe free to our Weekly News Roundup, delivered to your inbox every Monday.