Constructing Home

What makes a home a home? For that matter, what makes a neighborhood? A town? A city?

For people forced from home – refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons – this isn’t a rhetorical question. Home is more than just a roof over your head. Clean water and toilets; electricity; access to dignified work; schools for your children; community – all these and more are what can turn a tent into a home.

As we mark World Refugee Day on June 20th, it’s important to note that the nature of human displacement is changing as is the way aid agencies support displaced persons. Historically, agencies like the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have focused on the emergency response to immediately help people who’ve left  their homes. This is the picture that’s shown on TV: people lined up for emergency food rations and bottled water, tents and foil blankets, and emergency medical services. 

As a long-time volunteer and former staff member with Engineers Without Borders USA, I’ve worked and witnessed operations inside numerous refugee settlements and host communities, primarily in East Africa. Through this work I’ve seen the impact that good engineering infrastructure can have on not only providing needed services but also on creating a sense of stability and normalcy for displaced persons. Clean water, street lighting, and waterproof housing provides a cascading benefit as they help people return to a more “normal life.” 

As displacement and migration become more permanent, and as the number of displaced persons grows every year (nearly 70 million people in 2018), the needs change too. Protracted situations like South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria make it difficult to know when, or if, displaced persons can ever return to their homes. Environmental catastrophes like droughts, fires, and floods cause annual displacement and expensive rebuilding, making permanent migration necessary. 

This poses a challenge for humanitarian agencies, and they’re changing their approach towards more permanent solutions like local integration, repatriation, or durable infrastructure in refugee camps and settlements. Most refugees – approximately three-quarters – actually don’t live in refugee camps, but integrated into rural or urban environments. And since about 85% of refugee-hosting nations are themselves developing countries, refugee presence can put a huge strain on local infrastructure and communities – so infrastructure must be integrated into management by the local community where possible, especially in circumstances in which refugees are locally integrated. 

From Transitional to Permanent Housing

This is where EWB-USA comes in, by helping to address the engineering challenges associated with transitioning emergency infrastructure to more permanent systems, and supporting host communities who have welcomed refugees. 

Traditional rapid-response solutions aren’t usually durable, nor environmentally sustainable. In aid operations in rural Ethiopia and Kenya, far from the electrical grid, I saw agencies forced to use polluting and expensive diesel generators for electrical power. In western Uganda, where EWB-USA works with aid agencies to serve the region’s 1 million plus refugees, aid agencies must truck in millions of gallons of fresh water each day to serve the region. In camps serving Congolese and Sudanese refugees in eastern Rwanda, I witnessed the results of dangerous landslides and erosion due to the deforestation of local trees for land expansion and firewood. But modern technology solutions – when combined with information-sharing and funding – are starting to solve these kinds of problems.

In eastern Rwanda, about 50,000 refugees from Burundi occupy Mahama refugee camp and the surrounding area. Most arrived in 2016, fleeing extended political violence in their home country. Supported by the Rwandan government and international donors, UNHCR responded rapidly by building a modern camp with brick homes instead of tents, a comprehensive water distribution network, and agricultural development on nearby land. In 2018, EWB-USA worked with UNHCR to install solar street lights providing nighttime lighting in the camps, and solar mini-grids providing electricity for community resource centers. Before this, at night residents were forced to either use flashlights or travel in the dark, risking injury or assault – but now, children can play under streetlight-lit playgrounds, and shop owners can keep their businesses open later and bring in more revenue. 

In south-western Rwanda, where tens of thousands of Sudanese and Congolese refugees occupy refugee camps in a mountainous area, the dense human footprint and deforestation has caused deep ravines within some settlement neighborhoods. On an assessment trip in late 2018 to Kigeme and Mugombwa camps, I tripped and slipped numerous times as I walked up and down the steep hills with UNHCR staff and I heard from refugees of the fear of navigating the dangerous terrain at night, especially for children and the elderly. Now, however, UNHCR is expanding the installation of solar street lights at all six refugee camps in Rwanda, especially for community services like water and sanitation points and marketplaces. UNHCR is also expanding the distribution of small solar home systems to households so that children can study at night, mothers can look after the home more easily, and families can host small in-home businesses. Light may seem like a simple thing, but in these neighborhoods it was obvious to see the huge impact it could have on the health, safety, independence, and well-being of families and communities.

In western Uganda, the Ugandan government has generously welcomed over 1.2 million refugees – most who have fled extended political violence from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – and allowed them to permanently resettle. However, many existing rural water systems and other infrastructure aren’t yet robust enough to support the new influx. Aid agencies are currently trucking in over 20 million liters per day of drinking water per day to 11 settlements across the region – a solution that everyone agrees is unsustainable. 

Through our new Uganda country office, EWB-USA is working with Oxfam and other aid partners to grow and optimize existing camp water systems to serve the needs of increasing numbers of new arrivals. We’re also converting existing handpumps to solar pumping systems, which should prove more sustainable and resilient, and creating technical manuals to help other agencies scale the same solution as rapidly as possible. And, in order to assure that the infrastructure operates successfully after aid agencies withdraw, we’re providing training to local water boards and technicians on technical maintenance and operations for solar water pumping systems – so that their generous welcome and support of refugees doesn’t go ignored. As the adage goes, “teach a man to fish”, and our hope is that this training and job creation will help displaced persons support their families in a dignified way, become more independent, and ultimately integrate fully into their new homes and communities.

Through this work, I’ve learned that building “home” can take many meanings, and involves way more than putting a roof over peoples’ heads. My hope is that, even in this time of high polarization and global disagreement regarding refugee crises, we can all make a commitment to support and welcome displaced persons – and to help to create a home for those who have been driven from theirs.

About the Author
Elizabeth Joyce
Engineers Without Borders USA's Elizabeth Joyce has worked extensively with our Engineering Service Corps specializing in climate change mitigation projects and refugee camp settings.