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Stories from the frontlines: Refugee-Led Organisations in the Shadow of COVID-19

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(Photo: Hasenheide / Graefestraße)

18 December marks International Migrants Day. The COVID-19 health crisis has called attention to refugees’ potentially heightened vulnerabilities, but also their contributions to society. Three refugee-led organisations share their reflections on a challenging year for people who have been forcibly displaced. 

Policy Recommendations from Refugee-Led Organisations in the Shadow of COVID-19

In 2018, the global refugee population was 25.9 million.  Most refugees flee from threats of violence and political persecution, but in 2020 they found themselves up against a new threat - a global pandemic. As representatives of refugee-led organisations from Cameroon, Venezuela, and Syria, we came together to reflect on how our organisations responded to the needs of our communities, and how our unique lived experiences of displacement informed our response to the pandemic. These are our stories.


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Mary Tal, Guest Contributor


Mary Tal 

My name is Mary Tal, and I am a lawyer who grew up in the West African nation of Cameroon. I worked for Human Rights Defense Group before I became a refugee myself and had to flee home in 1998. When I was granted asylum in Cape Town, South Africa, I found my calling of serving fellow refugee women which led us to founding the Whole World Women Association (WWWA) in 2007. WWWA works to empower refugee women and children from all over the African continent through leadership and societal integration training, promoting HIV/AIDS awareness, providing legal assistance and protecting refugee rights.      

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached South Africa in March 2020, our work changed completely in ways we were not prepared for.  To name a few challenges, funding for the essential services we usually provided became scarce, our clients suffered from mental and emotional fatigue, and misinformation about COVID-19 circulated. Another challenge that broke my heart was knowing that some single mothers who we work with died from the virus leaving behind orphans. Other single mothers lost their jobs, the only source of income for their children. In response to these challenges, we at WWWA are proving food, masks, and sanitation supplies to the thousands of refugee women we support.  We have also committed to supporting the children of our clients who have passed away for six months, and are helping their families pay for burial costs and to find a way to connect the children with their families, many of whom live in other countries.  We cannot do this work alone. There needs to be better policies for supporting those who are most vulnerable during the pandemic. Our voices need to be heard by decision makers in order to humanise policies and better help refugee-led organisations support their communities. 

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Juan Carlos Viloria Doria, Guest Contributor


Juan Carlos Viloria Doria 

My name is Juan Carlos, I was born in Caracas in Venezuela, on September 19, 1990, where I attended primary and secondary school. The son of Colombian parents, at a young age I started supporting social causes, in defence of democracy and freedom of expression in Venezuela.  In 2009 I emigrated to Barranquilla in Colombia to pursue a medical degree. In 2012 I began my activities as an activist in Colombia, joining the Venezuelan community in Barranquilla, after meeting other leaders through networks such as VenMundo and SinMordaza, organisations that I have also coordinated activities for locally.  In June 2019, I assumed the General Coordination of the Coalición por Venezuela, a network that brings together 73 Venezuelan civil society organizations in 24 countries to support Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Colombia, and around the world.  

The numbers were not good before COVID-19. Around 4 million Venezuelans had left the country by mid-2019. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was the largest source country of asylum seekers in 2018 (over 340,000). The Coalición por Venezuela has been facing numerous challenges since the start of the pandemic. Our work relies heavily on our relationship with the Venezuelan community, but under lockdown laws we faced difficulty maintaining the communication with the community and its leaders, who have no access to smartphones or the internet. Now the Venezuelan refugee community is under the threat of returning to the country from which they fled due to the loss of jobs and homelessness. Not to mention the lack of access to healthcare and the increase of smuggling and human trafficking.  

Many of the Venezuelan refugees’ problems I mentioned above can be solved with a simple identification card. Acknowledging Venezuelan displaced people as refugees will allow a better control of mobility, and will grant them access to healthcare, both important facing a global pandemic. In addition to that, the current situation calls for a communication strategy for refugees to know their rights. All of these are achievable policies that will not only benefit Venezuelan refugees but also the world in the face of a pandemic. 


Mariam Jamali (alias)

My name is Mariam, I am a Syrian activist and single mother currently residing in Europe. I had to flee Syria because of my activism after most of my friends were arrested by the Syrian regime. Because I fled and left behind my family and loved ones in Syria, I use an alias for their safety. Two years ago, I started working with Women Now for Development, a refugee-led non-profit organisation founded in 2012 by the Syrian writer in exile, Samar Yazbek.  

The impact of COVID-19 on women in Syria cannot be disconnected from their exposure to the violence and trauma of war and displacement. Not only has the global pandemic increased the need for healthcare directly related to COVID-19, it has also exacerbated other health hazards specific to women and girls. These include inadequate sexual and reproductive healthcare, strained mental health, and increased gender-based violence. 

In response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Women Now for Development continues to deliver its programs to women and girls remotely using electronic platforms as appropriate to participants as possible. During our empowerment program that includes vocational and knowledge-based training sessions, we noticed a decline in participation by 23% between the first and second quarters of 2020. This is especially true of computer literacy training, as most women and girls did not have computers at home, which makes the practical application of skills more difficult. As for the participation program, namely the women leadership academy project, engagement ratio fell by 25% between the first and second quarters of 2020. As for the protection program that includes collective psycho-social support and individual case management programs, engagement rates dropped by around 56% between the first and second quarters in 2020.  The reality of the pandemic reinforces our belief that women’s voices are critical in responding to any crisis, whether it be political, economic, or health-related. 


Mary Tal is lawyer and human rights activist originally from Cameroon. In 1998, she was forced to flee her homeland. Mary was granted asylum in Cape Town, South Africa. She went on to found, and is currently the director of, Whole World Women Association (WWWA). Founded in 2007, WWWA initially served as a self-help and support group for refugee women.

Juan Carlos Viloria Doria, was born in Caracas, Venezuela to Colombian parents. He is the Editorial and Administrative Assistant of the scientific journal Salud Uninorte, and is currently the Vice President of the Venezolanos en Barranquilla, also coordinating locally two international NGOs: VenMundo and Sin Mordaza. In June 2019, he assumed the General Coordination of the Coalición por Venezuela, which brings together 73 civil society organisations in 24 countries.

Mariam Jamali (alias) is a Syrian activist and communications specialist who fled Syria five years ago. She is a single mother residing in Europe and has been working with Women Now for Development since 2018. Mariam holds a bachelor degree in English Literature, and a masters degree in Journalism and Media.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

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