World Refugee Day

One of the reasons I was so interested in working for IKEA was some of the interesting social programs I was able to read about as I was researching the company. They seemed really focused on the environment and their impact on it, and they also had a big foundation that seemed to contribute to a lot of different things around the world.

I was hired in Sept 2014 and in May 2015 I was selected as one of two co-workers to represent Canada as an ambassador to the iWitness program with the IKEA Foundation. I found out I’d be going to Jordan, which was actually kept really quiet at the time because the company was a little concerned about our security in a sensitive area of the world.

The experience was life changing.

Before going to Jordan my impression of refugees was of people from war torn areas in third world countries – certainly worthy of our time, money and concern, but I didn’t relate closely with it. At the time I went the world media wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the conflict in Syria, and while I did my research, it was all text on a page.

Over the span of a few days we visited the two refugee camps in Jordan, Zaatari and Azraq, and then we went into the city and visited refugees living in Amman. We spoke to business owners, doctors, technicians, children, mothers and fathers, and a former IKEA co-worker. All people who, if they lived in Canada, I’d pass on the street without a second thought. They went from having homes and cars, jobs and lives much like you and I to having a bomb dropped on their home. The streets filled with rubble. Nowhere for them to go, no one for them to turn to.

Not because of who they were, what they thought or said, but simply because they were born in this part of the world at this time. You could say a classic case of wrong place, wrong time.

The message that I came home with was very simple.

It could be me.

There is absolutely nothing about these people, now fleeing for their lives, that you couldn’t find here in Canada. In the months and years since I left Jordan the refugee crisis has gained more traction in the world media. And as sometimes happens, the attention that has been focused on this has been shifted towards fear.

We’ve been told that refugees could be terrorists in disguise. We’ve been told they are violent. We’ve been told they’re just trying to get get into a better country to live in, that they don’t really need to leave their home.

I feel like this is a good time to share the description of what a barrel bomb is, because when it was described to me by a refugee through a translator I couldn’t quite believe it existed so I had to look it up myself.

A barrel bomb is an improvised unguided bomb, sometimes described as a flying IED (improvised explosive device). They are typically made from a large barrel-shaped metal container that has been filled with high explosives, possibly shrapnel, oil or chemicals as well, and then dropped from a helicopter or airplane.

This was the device that was described to me by strong, proud citizens which finally forced them to leave their homes. Proud home owners talking about refusing to leave their home, in the midst of a war, until there was no more home left to leave.

While I was in Jordan I got to also see some of the work the UNHCR does in working to identify and verify refugees. Did you know that the UNHCR has created the first biometric banking system? To prevent fraud refugees register at central registration systems, they capture their biometric identity with retina scans and that information now follows them for their journey with the UNHCR. To distribute aid money they have ATM’s that use biometric identification instead of a PIN code.

Before a refugee is eligible to be resettled they are subjected to a security check that makes any kind of reference check I’ve ever heard of look like a joke. And that’s before the host government gets involved and runs it’s own check. In the case of the US, just as a fun example, the vetting process that is currently in place and has been for years is conducted abroad, can take up to two years and involves 8 federal government agencies, 6 different security databases, 5 separate background checks, 4 biometric security checks, 3 separate in-person interviews and 2 inter-agency security checks.

Now for some good news. Not everyone is afraid of refugees. Not everyone sees them as an easy political target. In Canada, between Jan 2015 – April 2017 we’ve accepted 77,090 refugees through blended sponsorships, government assistance and private sponsorship. Since 2010 the IKEA Foundation has contributed more than USD 198 million dollars in both cash and in-kind donations to UNHCR’s programmes and is the largest private donor to the UNHCR worldwide.

At the IKEA Foundation, we’re not just contributing the money needed to support refugees. We’re asking how can we do better. In April 2013 with seed funding and inspiration from the IKEA Foundation, UNHCR Innovation was formed. Seeing the need in the Azraq camp for electricity – in the middle of the desert with no connection to the grid, the IKEA Foundation paid for the first solar plant at a refugee camp. I can say with confidence that through IKEA, we have provided light and hope to thousands.

With World Refugee Day upon us I hope we can use this as an opportunity to better understand refugees, to think about the situation they are in today, and to realize that we can do more. We can contribute to a better world, and what may start as a small project or an idea can turn into a 8.75 million EUR solar plant to power a camp in the middle of a desert.

This year to raise awareness I worked with a small group of people at the Canadian Service Office and reached out to co-workers across the country to create a video showing our support for refugees. I’m so proud of how everyone came together and so willingly gave up their time to show that we stand with refugees. Please watch the video, share it, share your story, and sign the petition to show that you too stand with refugees.