James, SP staff in North Africa, their community center serves the refugee community and has witness significant steps forward as local leaders take initiative to create their own opportunities.
Our community center holds the values of hope, family, and development. This third and final value—development—is perhaps the easiest one for us to spot. One of the assets of the refugee community is their desire to learn. Most refugees take advantage of the NGO services available to them at our center, including a number of educational opportunities. As a result, many of the people who come through our door are looking to register for courses they can take, especially English.
While their desire to learn is a wonderful thing, we want to encourage our students to become more than consumers of these opportunities, but also creators of them. This would be real development: improving ourselves and helping others to improve. We don’t want refugees to just rely on NGOs but also to participate in improving their communities themselves. As we’ve strategized regarding leadership development, we also worked to identify motivated individuals wanting to take initiative. Sometimes someone would volunteer to teach a class to their peers, but they disappeared after realizing there was no personal incentive. A soccer group has tried a few times to start up with no luck. Excited leaders would start an initiative and then disappear all of a sudden.
"...real development: improving ourselves and helping others to improve."
A few months ago, we decide to start a formal community center planning committee after seeing that a formal committee structure had worked well with our womens’ group. The planning committee would be open to anyone with an idea or who wants to be more involved in their community, or in some cases, people with just a lot of time on their hands.
In those few months, we’ve seen a handful of people step up in big ways. Two individuals have been planning “literary nights” at the end of each class term, where people share stories, poems, and jokes or sing a song. The same two also organized a group outing where 40 people from the center attended a river boat trip. A young man started a soccer team, and they have been continuing to practice every Friday. They are planning how they can raise money to buy jerseys. A handful of people have been creating a number of creative expression activities, including book discussions, film viewings, and writing for the center’s newspaper.
This is especially exciting because most of these activities have required money, which they have successfully raised on their own. One of the major barriers we face everyday is the expectation that foreigners give “handouts” and pay for everything. The dynamic can reinforce dependency on foreign NGOs, and it has been a challenge for us to fight this mentality. Rather than doing things for them, we support individuals as they do things for themselves.
There has been a real shift in this mentality at our center these past few events, and those responsible managed to budget the expected expenses, advertise the events, and raise all of the money from the participants themselves. There has been no expectation that we would pay, and they have successfully found ways to collect contributions to cover the expenses. This is a big win for our center, and a big step forward toward locals feeling equipped to serve their communities and toward a self-sufficient center in the future.