What Does Compassion Look Like Within a Refugee Camp?

When I was invited by the nonprofit organization, Alight, to help figure out how to cultivate compassion within refugee camps, I couldn’t say no. Our world is in the midst of a refugee crisis, and it’s not going away. 

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the population of displaced people rose to an all-time high of 70.8 million people in 2018. Violence, persecution, human rights violations, and conflicts have forced people to leave their homes, and many of those people are now refugees.

Alight serves over 3.5 million refugees in 17 countries and recently realized that meeting basic needs of refugees isn’t enough. 


“Understanding that a life is about so much more than simply satisfying basic needs, we’re working on how best to help the people we serve find connection, purpose and joy in the challenging situations they find themselves in today.”


My Compassion It teammate, Burrell Poe, and I joined a bright team of thinkers for a week at the Gihembe refugee camp in northern Rwanda. Our team used a human-centered design process to figure out how to best cultivate compassion within the camp’s healthcare system. We hoped to come up with ideas that Alight could pilot, fine-tune, and scale globally.



As we embarked upon each step of the design process throughout the week, I noticed compassion emerging every step of the way.


This is how compassion showed up during my week in the Gihembe refugee camp.


1 – Compassion looked like inclusion

The LAST thing a refugee camp needs is a bunch of Americans intruding their space and telling people what to do!


That’s why our design team included residents of the Gihembe camp as well as some of the healthcare providers who serve them. How could we possibly create solutions to problems if we’re not including the end users? The variety of ages, expertise, backgrounds, and ethnicities met under the same umbrella of compassion, and we formed one heckuva dream team.


2 – Compassion looked like empathy (plus action)


Our first meeting in Rwanda took place on a Monday morning, and I’ll never forget the story Jacques Rumanyika shared with us. As manager of the Mahama refugee camp in the eastern province of Rwanda in 2015, he learned on a Friday that his camp would soon be taking in thousands of Burundians. In fact, 1,000 refugees would be arriving in less than six days.


Because those six days included a weekend, he didn’t have nearly enough staff members or hours to prepare the camp. He needed to clear land, prepare housing, find beds, and more. How could he possibly complete everything in time?


He was touched by what happened next. The Rwandans who lived nearby brought their machetes to clear land. They spent their weekend erecting structures, hauling equipment, and making sure there was a place for the Burundians to go.


Why would these Rwandans do that?  Because they have been there. This past April marked the 25thanniversary of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis. One million Rwandans died in only 100 days.


Many Rwandans became refugees before, during, and after the genocide against the Tutsis, and they experienced not only the atrocities of genocide but also the power of compassion. They could put themselves in the shoes of the Burundians, and they extended their hands to help.


3 – Compassion looked like listening

A two-person design team from the medical technology company Medtronic, Mark Powell and Dipanjan Chatterjee, led us through a human-centered design process to help us develop ideas for cultivating compassion within the refugee camp.


What’s the first step of the process? We began by empathizing with the clients through observation and listening.


Team members split up to interview and observe the Rwandan healthcare providers as well as the clients. 


Here are a few takeaways from our observations:

1 – Healthcare providers wished they had more time with their clients

2 – Clients (refugees) needed help figuring out how to move through the various processes of the healthcare system

3 –Providers wanted a way to keep patients’ children occupied

4 – Clients and providers needed some sort of spiritual support

5 – The waiting rooms and patient rooms felt bleak and depressing

6 – “Compassion seemed like a big, elaborate act


The empathy piece of the design process truly helped me put myself in the shoes of the healthcare providers and their clients, and it set the stage for the rest of the week.


4 – Compassion looked like fun!

My hands-down favorite part of the experience was dancing with my teammates. Each day, someone would play Rwandan music, and our Rwandan teammates moved to the center of the room and danced. I tried my very best to learn their traditional dances, and I laughed and moved along with them all.


I also loved watching my fellow teammates connect with the camp residents.  David Roesel, MD, led a “Simon Says” dance for many of the children who had gathered nearby. You would not believe the smiles on those sweet faces. I wish I could have bottled their laughter!


*Research indicates that synchronized movements help cultivate compassion, so of course this was my favorite part!


5 – Compassion also looked serious

We spent an afternoon touring Gihembe and learning more about what it’s like to be a refugee. We didn’t see a fancy, comfortable, scenic place. The camp, which has existed since 1996 and houses 13,000 residents, sits upon orange dirt without paved roads. “Temporary” homes are built out of clay with tarp roofs, despite the fact that residents have lived there for decades.  Refugee camps must be constructed under certain guidelines, and homes are built as temporary dwellings.


Children played with a soccer ball made of rags. Their library lacked books, and the youth center doesn’t offer programs to the children anymore.


We observed the challenges that refugees face at the camp, and I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to uproot my family and live with thousands of others who don’t have a place to call home.


6 – Compassion looked like innovation and accountability

Alight’s innovative Kuja Kuja digital platform offers real-time feedback from refugees in order to get immediate action. It collects data at various places throughout camp, like the water stations and healthcare clinics. Clients rate their services and offer suggestions for improvement.


We had the opportunity to watch the weekly Kuja Kuja “Innovation Hour,” when the team examines feedback from the field and figures out how to address the problems. The team led an efficient and upbeat meeting, and they showed true commitment to serving their clients.


You can see the real-time data collected by Kuja Kuja in refugee camps throughout the world on this data map: https://alight.kujakuja.com/datamap.


We looked to embed compassion into a humanitarian system that has, historically, focused solely on meeting basic human needs. One of the front-running ideas is the idea to build a non-denominational chapel within the healthcare facility. It can serve as a much-needed quiet place for patients, their families, and the healthcare providers. (That brilliant  idea came from Silas, who is a Gihembe resident!)


If Alight and other organizations can implement and scale some of our compassionate solutions, the ripple effect can impact millions of displaced people around the world. 





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