Refugees around the world have shown us what it means to be resilient, and what it takes to overcome a crisis. They have stepped up to provide healthcare, boost wellness, support their communities and keep us inspired.
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5 ways refugees helped battle COVID-19 in 2020

Refugees stepped up to provide healthcare, boost wellness, safeguard their communities and keep us inspired during lockdowns.

With 2020 finally at a close, and as vaccinations are beginning to roll out, many are now hopeful that the coronavirus can be contained.

But despite these positive steps, socioeconomic effects of the pandemic could be felt for years – especially in the world’s least developed countries, where most of the world’s forcibly displaced people live. 

Although there is an overwhelming task ahead, we are hopeful. Forcibly displaced people around the world, many of whom have endured unthinkable losses, have shown us what it means to be resilient, and what it takes to overcome a crisis.

Here are five ways they inspired us in a year like no other:

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Samuel Suárez, 27, is a Venezuelan doctor who arrived in Ecuador in 2018. © UNHCR/Jaime Giménez

In early March, even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Venezuelan doctor Samuel Suárez was already giving at-risk Ecuadorians in rural areas lifesaving tips to avoid infection, and has continued to serve.

Armed with a poster and flyers in his hand and a stethoscope around his neck, Samuel set out on foot to provide life-saving advice on how to prevent COVID-19 infection to some of the most vulnerable people in a remote corner of Ecuador.

After fleeing insecurity, widespread violence, and shortages of food and medicines in Venezuela back in 2018, the medic started going door-to-door to explain the dangers of the spreading pandemic to elderly people in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province, hoping that his advice would be heeded and the spread of the virus avoided.

During the house calls, Samuel patiently walks his small audiences of senior citizens – the demographic most susceptible to the illness – through the steps needed to protect themselves and others, from frequently washing their hands with soap and water to maintaining a safe distance of two meters between people.

“I will continue to fight each and every day to share my knowledge.”


When Innocent Havyarimana, a Burundian refugee, first heard handwashing was crucial in preventing coronavirus, he did something few businessmen would do – he lowered his prices.

Others might have raised prices to increase profit, but his aim was to make his soap as accessible as possible, so he also boosted production.

“Everyone needs soap. I decided to reduce the price so that everyone would be able to afford it,” said Havyarimana, who fled conflict in Burundi in 2013 and received a loan to start the business two years later from UNHCR.

Coronavirus has left many people feeling helpless, but Havyarimana is an example of someone who saw an opportunity to make a difference and took it.

Fellow refugees, aid workers and Kenyans in the local community buy the products made at his small workshop in Kakuma camp.

“I vary the containers, starting from 100 millilitres to 1 litre so that even those with only 50 cents can buy some soap so that they can protect themselves from the virus.”

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Innocent Havyarimana, a Burundian businessman, holds a bottle of freshly-made hand sanitiser which he sells to fellow refugees, aid workers and Kenyans in Kakuma camp, Kenya.  © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno
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Rita Brown, a Ugandan refugee and yoga instructor, strikes a yoga pose in her compound in Kakuma camp, Kenya.  © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

Amid deepening economic hardship and lengthy lockdowns, mental health problems worsened. Refugees responded by seeking to boost mental and physical wellbeing.

In Kenya, Ugandan refugee and yoga instructor Rita Brown took her classes online to promote self-acceptance and mental wellbeing among refugees, both in Kenya and beyond.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she ran in-person classes for refugees and aid workers at Kakuma camp and the adjacent Kalobeyei Settlement, which is home to 200,000 people.

Since some physical distancing measures were imposed, she has taken the classes online through Zoom and Facebook, reaching an even wider and more diverse audience.

“Some people think the poses are Photoshopped, but they are not,” says Rita, 28, who fled violence in Uganda as a child.

She and her twin sister, Dorine, fled on their own as orphans, at the age of seven, after they witnessed the murder of their parents.

After taking part in an online yoga challenge she now offers yoga and meditation classes to audiences as far afield as the United States. It has become more than an exercise in physical wellbeing – it is what keeps her going.

“Yoga has changed me spiritually, mentally and emotionally,” she says, setting out how it has benefitted her.

“It has helped me practice self-acceptance and see opportunities to be a better person in the hurdles I have encountered.”

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Shadi Shhadeh shops at a supermarket in Geneva, Switzerland. With fellow Syrian refugee volunteers, he delivers food and supplies to vulnerable people who are shielding from the coronavirus.  © UNHCR/Elisabet Diaz Sanmartin
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<p>Pondu soup is one of the recipes that 22-year-old refugee Anuarite Manyoha, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has contributed to UNHCR’s cookbook, Tastes from Home. © UNHCR/Vipoositha Gnanenthra</p>

As lockdowns forced everyone to search for something to do, refugees provided entertainment and inspiration.

As the year drew to a close, refugees from all over the world who now call Canada home, shared their stories and favourite recipes in ‘Tastes from Home: Recipes from the Refugee Community’ – a free e-cookbook.

Anuarite, 22, is one of 14 refugees who contributed their favourite recipes and personal stories to the cookbook.

Anuarite and her family fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda where they remained for five years before claiming refugee status in Canada. Food always brought her family together, even when times were difficult, she said.

Among the recipes she contributed, Anuarite’s favourite is Pondu soup. The Congolese soup, with its unique blend of vegetables, spices and fish brings back memories of joyful family meals.

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