Supporting the refugee community

Themba clears up some misconceptions and offers interesting insights on what it’s like to work with the refugee community.

Supporting the refugee community

As Singaporeans are not directly affected by refugee issues, most do not know much about refugees and may also have certain misconceptions about them. This week, Themba clears up some misconceptions we may have and offers us interesting insights of what it’s like to work with the refugee community.

Themba is one of the Co-heads leading Borderless360, the newest company in the Potato Productions family dedicated to supporting refugees.

1. Tell us a little about yourself!

I was born in Mbabane, Swaziland - a country that no longer exists. It's now the Kingdom of eSwatini and is the last absolute monarchy in Africa. I was named by my Swazi nanny, Florence, who referred to me as ‘Themba’ (which means hope and great expectations) while my mom was still pregnant. The ‘h’ is silent, like Thomas.

2. What were you working on before B360?

Before B360 I was the Secretary General at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network. It was really a massive task to oversee the coordination of 450 members across the largest geographical region in the world.

3. What motivated you to help refugees?

I went to Rwanda in 1996 because I was unhappy in university and I thought I would learn much more in a country battling genocide and the challenges of reconciliation. I had no idea at the time how much of what happens in the world is driven by the idea that ‘those people’ are from ‘somewhere else’. Nation states underscore this concept, privileging particular people and disenfranchising others. I realised that the struggle for a more peaceful and equitable world would need to start with the concept of common belonging and the idea of free movement. Refugees demonstrate the pathway.

4. What are some common misconceptions that people have about refugees?

  • They live in camps (the majority of the world’s refugees do not live in camps),
  • They take ‘our’ jobs (most refugees are not allowed to work, and where they are they are consistently a net gain to the job market),
  • They bring violence (they are actually leaving violence otherwise they wouldn’t be refugees),
  • They should go through the proper immigration channels (refugees are protected under international law for any mode of entry whatsoever and do not need documentation because they cannot be expected to approach their governments for travel documents)
  • They are uneducated and unskilled (Refuges are a cross section of humanity in any country, and as such some are uneducated and some are highly educated and skilled - let’s just look at a few refugees: Steve Jobs, Madeleine Albright, Bob Marley, George Soros, Freddie Mercury, Thich Nhat Han, Hannah Arendt, Elie Weisel, Salvador Dali, the Dalai Lama…)

5. What were some challenges you faced when you were trying to get funding for charitable causes?

The fundamental structure of a resourcing model based on donor support is always top down. That means that a donor exerts significant influence - overtly or covertly - over the recipient of the funds. An unhappy donor will not continue to fund an organisation. This system prioritizes donor interest over the interests of the people the organisation is meant to be serving. It is therefore destined to fail, since it does not respond to needs articulated by the people who have them, but on perceptions of those needs a foundation director often based very far away, and with little direct contact with the people the organisation is trying to serve, may have. As a result, projects are often misguided and lead to perpetual rotations of a ‘battleship’-type approach to problem solving, where a donor will suggest a priority, it won’t effect change, they will revise, it won't work, and so on.

As a result, the efficacy of an organisation is severely curtailed, the perspective of people meant to be engaged is not present, and resources are wasted. I found this approach to be a huge challenge to creating organisations that are democratic and immediately responsive to the self-declared needs of the people who are meant to be supported.

6. What do you hope to achieve with B360?

If we are able to establish a positive model of a Singaporean social enterprise that works towards progressing protection for people no matter where they come from or what they look like, it will be a huge success and precedent example for the whole region.

7. How has your experience of working in Potato been thus far?

I have really enjoyed stepping out from a system of non-governmental organisations, many of which are entrenched, over generations, into particular frames of working that are no longer current and have not progressed sustainable shifts in our responsibility to protect each other as humans. I do not believe that the private sector is the answer to this, but it’s definitely one piece of the puzzle and I have really enjoyed the opportunity to learn as much as I have about social enterprise and the possibilities there.

8. Share with us one of the most memorable work experiences you’ve had!

I used to work as a photojournalist. During the Egyptian revolution, I was documenting a protest happening at the state television and radio building when I found a man who had been shot. He was bleeding through his bandage and was seated in a broken chair. He asked me to come sit with him and we talked for quite some time about the role of minority religions in the ‘New Egypt’ and how he was willing to bleed himself to death in front of the state television building to be sure that his last act would be to be recognised. He refused to go to the hospital. ‘I will die here instead’, he told me. That was memorable.

9. (Just for fun) What is one fact that most people don’t know about you?

Thom Yorke from Radiohead once walked up to me, spat on me, and walked away. Years later I ran into him again and did not spit back, although I was tempted.

If you are interested to find out more about Borderless360, click here.