Naser Haghamed, orginally from Eritrea but now living in the United Kingdom, is the CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide.
I’m currently CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide, the world’s largest independent Muslim humanitarian charity, established in the UK in 1984. My own experience as a child refugee informs my work. When I was 13, my family fled our home in Eritrea, because of the war resulting from the independence movement that started in 1963. My father went first and was successful in travelling to Ethiopia and then to Saudi Arabia. Later on, I travelled with my mother, sisters and brothers to Sudan, and I remember how terrifying the experience of leaving Eritrea was, not knowing if the rebels at the border were going to allow us to leave or where we would end up.
In Sudan I had to rapidly learn a new language as the education system was in Arabic, and my poor grasp of the language affected my ability to learn and was a significant barrier to overcome. After a while in Sudan, we were able to join my father in Saudi Arabia, and as my Arabic skills improved, life became easier.
I feel fortunate that, unlike many refugees today, we were able to stay safe and together as a family
By the age of 20, I had also lived in Libya and Egypt, and my family had relocated to the United Kingdom. I feel fortunate that, unlike many refugees today, we were able to stay safe and together as a family throughout the process of moving countries multiple times.
One of the most difficult things we faced was the cultural differences and the lack of information on where refugees could obtain assistance. The information we received was second-hand and not always accurate. In the UK, my first support were my relatives and people from the Eritrean community; then the Central Mosque in London where I was able to make friends and receive advice and guidance. It was also an opportunity to offer my prayers and improve my knowledge of Islam.
I started my career as an IT trainee in the UK, advancing to head of the technical department before I was drawn to work for Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) after coming across their campaign to support refugees in Sudan. I was inspired by my own experience of being a refugee to help those who were going through a similar challenge in their lives. In 1993, when I started at IRW in the IT department, the organisation only had around 15 employees, but it was growing rapidly and IRW now has over 3,000 employees globally.
In those early days there were many opportunities to take on different roles in IRW and develop new skills. Over the intervening 20 years, I have worked in a variety of roles and helped to successfully launch the commercial arm of IRW, which manages IRW’s retail charity shops and clothes recycling business. I also played a key role in establishing the organisation’s Humanitarian Academy of Development, which provides training in aid and development. My experience in the organisation, combined with gaining an MBA, gave me the confidence to apply for the CEO role when it became available in 2016.
One of the main issues IRW addresses is the huge number of refugees and internally displaced people in countries such as Jordan, Kenya, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. In 2017 we invested £56m to support six million refugees and internally displaced people across 26 countries.
My background as a child refugee and subsequent decades working in the humanitarian sector have given me a unique perspective on the problems faced by refugees today, most of whom are from Muslim countries like myself. The scale of the refugee problem is daunting and much greater than when I was a refugee, with over 65 million people currently displaced by conflict and poverty. While some countries – in both the Middle East and Europe – have made great efforts on an individual basis, overall there is simply not enough being done to address this terrible situation.
Islam has a long-standing tradition and history of protecting migrants and refugees
National governments that have the means to do so need to urgently take a more integrated approach to welcoming and protecting refugees, and faith-based organisations such as IRW have a key role to play in this. Islam has a long-standing tradition and history of protecting migrants and refugees, and my own experience as well as IRW’s programmes have shown that mosques and local faith communities are able to provide a faith-sensitive approach to the resettlement of refugees, helping them to resettle and become productive members of their new countries more quickly.
IRW is leading a response from faith-based organisations to the development of the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees, which we believe will provide a sound framework for national governments to re-examine their policies on refugees and migrants. Independent research commissioned by IRW in 2017 found that at least half of all people surveyed across four countries – the UK, Germany, Lebanon and the US – viewed refugees as innocent victims. Despite this, a majority were reluctant for their own countries to take on a more active role in resettling them, with the exception of younger people who had a more positive outlook.
Governments and others in the global humanitarian community must not allow this reigning anti-refugee public sentiment to affect their moral obligation to improve their response to tackling the humanitarian crisis we are faced with. Let’s find a way to ensure that refugees receive the support they need to live safe, happy and productive lives, and to have the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the countries in which they resettle.
This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘Real people, true stories: refugees for more inclusive societies’, in which refugees past and present share their personal stories and offer forward-looking, experience-based recommendations for improving integration around the world.
IMAGE CREDIT: Islamic Relief Worldwide