Feedback from the Field: an Interview with Livia Rurarz-Huygens

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"No one else is doing anything like Heshima Kenya in Nairobi."

Livia Rurarz-Huygens recently worked as a resettlement consultant under the ICMC-UNHCR resettlement deployment scheme in Nairobi, where she specialized in children's rights and the Best Interest Determination for the child process. Previously, she worked with the UNHCR in the Resettlement and Gender Equality Units in Geneva, as well as in resettlement units in Lebanon and Kenya, where she worked with refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Congo. She studied Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

Earlier this summer, Heshima Kenya had the chance to interview Livia about her experience working with the UNHCR and refugees in Kenya and her thoughts on Heshima Kenya's work in Nairobi.

HK: Please describe your background in refugee resettlement.

LRH: I started working in refugee resettlement with LCFS [Lutheran Children and Family Services], based out of Philadelphia, during my undergraduate years. I became enamored with refugee work and wanted to work for UNHCR, but I realized I would have to do a few things first including, getting my masters and an internship with the UNHCR. So, I went to graduate school in Geneva and was able to get an internship with UNHCR there and meet the right people and became a Junior ICMC deployee in Lebanon. Then in 2010, I moved to Kenya and was offered another ICMC [International Catholic Migration Commission] position working for the UNHCR Nairobi branch office.

HK: Your work seems very in line with Heshima’s mission. From your experience, what are some of the major issues and challenges facing unaccompanied refugee women and girls?

LRH: For most women, exploitation is a really serious issue. These women have no power, legally or otherwise, and this puts them at a disadvantage and at risk of being exploited in terms of work. They’re never really reimbursed properly and many work under abusive conditions. Also, commercial sex is the only option that a lot of them have to support themselves, and this puts them at an even greater risk of abuse. There’s no way for them to get out from under the societal pressures placed on a woman traveling by herself, or a woman who is pregnant or has a child out of wedlock, like a lot of these women are.

HK: How did you originally hear about Heshima Kenya?

LRH: I heard about Heshima Kenya through the UNHCR in Nairobi. Our department was working closely with Heshima on child care and protection issues. Heshima works with young girls, and sometimes boys that were traveling with their sisters, and a lot of the girls were presented to the [UNHCR Best Interest Determination of the Child] panel as possible cases for resettlement, since they had suffered so many traumas and were so young.

HK: What stood out to you about our programs? In your opinion, why is Heshima Kenya special or exceptional in terms of who we serve and what we do?

LRH: The Girl’s Empowerment Project [is] something that [is] quite unique. Refugee children have the opportunity to go to Kenyan schools, but once again, girls that are traveling alone are often exploited and don’t have the chance to attend school. The Girl’s Empowerment Project [is] special in that it [gives] the girls basic life skills. Studies show that educating women grows a community and you can really see the community between the girls, not only because they learn basic English and math skills, but also because they’re surrounded by girls that have been through the same things as them.

HK: How does our organization as a whole compare to organizations with similar causes?

LRH: No one else is doing anything like Heshima Kenya in Nairobi. Their mission [is] to work with this particular population of refugees and what we have now is a real standalone organization.

HK: You spent some time with us in Kenya. How was your personal experience there?

LRH: I had a lot of interaction with the caseworkers at Heshima Kenya. Also, I interacted with the girls, as some of them were specifically identified for resettlement, and some weren’t. I was there to work with caseworkers to monitor expectations and make sure that the girls were getting what they needed. The times I had been to Heshima Kenya headquarters were to train the staff and explain to everyone that resettlement wasn’t for everyone. Resettlement is not a refugee right, but when one girl would be resettled, it would start a ripple effect and the girls would want to know ‘why not me too?’ We had to explain that for those who were resettled, it was the right choice for them because they had survived so much and endured so much abuse. We had to be careful about expectations, because a lot of these girls are not going home. For some Somali girls, who knows? Things in Somalia are getting better, but for now, I told them to focus on the programming, because these were the things that were giving them the skills to survive.

HK: What do you envision for Heshima Kenya’s future as an organization?

LRH: I think the programming is quite full. I think part of the reason Heshima Kenya is so successful is because it’s so small. The individual caseworkers know all of the girls and their names and stories. One of the key things with refugee casework is identifiability. This isn’t a problem for Heshima. One thing that I would like to see in Kenya, it doesn’t necessarily need to be Heshima Kenya that takes this on, is a similar organization for boys. What we’ve been seeing is boys and young men that don’t have anywhere to go. Heshima Kenya’s programming would serve as a great template for another organization.