empowerment principles


The term empowerment refers to the development of power that allows an individual or community to overcome a sense of powerlessness and lack of influence and to use their skills and resources to confidently take positive action for themselves.   


Why is this Applicable?  

Refugees, just like us, want to see their families and communities flourish and succeed. There are many obstacles and challenges that refugees face when they arrive in the U.S. that make it difficult to reach their goals. As volunteers, we must remember that self-sufficiency will take time for our partnered refugees. We must also be aware that their journey is not on a smooth paved road. While they are more than capable, the road they are on is a bumpy one with many turns and very few signposts and guides along the way. Our role is to be a companion on the journey and to help them find ways to use their many skills and resources to confidently take positive action for themselves. We have the opportunity to help them sustain hope and confidence in their dreams and goals and to help them actualize them.  



Take a moment to consider what it would be like to be in their position. If you are a mother or father, what would it feel like to not be able to work in your field again to provide for your family? If you are single, what would it be like to have to leave your family and everything you know to begin a life in an unfamiliar country? Think of a time when you were completely dependent on others for something? What was that like? What did you learn from that experience?  



The refugee journey to resettlement is innately a disempowering experience. Refugees are not given agency in the decision process. From the time they were forced to make the difficult decision to leave their homes, to the time they arrive in the U.S., other people, agencies, and circumstances have made important life decisions for them. This experience continues when they arrive in the U.S. While they come with a strong motivation to rebuild their life, they realize quickly that they are once again in a position of depending on agencies and the good will of others to reach their goals.   



It is common for volunteers to begin the volunteer experience with enthusiasm and then to soon get overwhelmed by the scope of the needs and frustrations that the refugee community faces. It is important for volunteers to remember that their role is not the fixer of problems. This mentality can lead volunteers into the trap of paternalism (taking action on behalf of someone else when they are capable of taking action on their own). While thinking we are helping a refugee by making decisions or doing things for them, we unintentionally send the message that they are not capable. We thereby inhibit their process toward healthy adjustment and self-sufficiency.  



This segment draws upon the work Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert on healthy empowerment principles and avoiding paternalism in working in contexts of poverty and development.[1]  


Relief: Emergency or crisis situations may arise that require immediate attention. A relief response is appropriate only when your partnered refugee is NOT able to meet their immediate needs or come to a solution on their own. If you are solving a problem they are capable of solving through their own resources or abilities, you are slipping into paternalism. You will need to discern what the crisis or emergency is and what immediate action needs to take place.  


Ask yourself: Is this an emergency that requires an immediate response? Does it REQUIRE my help? If yes, relief is the appropriate response. There may be circumstances your partnered refugee thinks is a crisis and requests your immediate help (i.e. they realize they have a doctor appointment tomorrow and do not have a ride, their child has a stomach ache and they want to take them to the ER). Take a moment to assess the situation. Does this situation need a longer-term solution?  


After the situation is no longer a crisis or emergency, you will want to make plans for rehabilitation.  


Rehabilitation: World Relief staff and volunteers operate most consistently in the area of rehabilitation. The goal of rehabilitation is to help refugees move toward independence and integration.  The obstacles and problems that arise require longer-term solutions (i.e. transportation to school or work, understanding and responding to mail, etc.).  Your assistance helps them navigate their new community and feel confident to use their own resources and skills to solve problems and meet their goals. As much as possible, look for resources and solutions that come from within the refugee community. Discuss and identify their strengths, skills, and resources to solve problems and meet their goals. Be careful about acting too early or using your own resources. You do not want to undermine the abilities and resources of your partnered refugee or cause dependency.  


Ask yourself: Are my actions helping my partnered refugee feel more self-empowered? What is motivating my actions? What possible harm could come from my help? Am I focused on discussing and identifying my partnered refugee’s strengths, skills, and resources to solve the problem and meet goals on their own? Consult with World Relief if you are unsure about how to respond. 


Development: The goal of development is for your partnered refugee and their community to flourish socially, economically, and spiritually. Indicators of development begin appearing at the one-year mark. At this stage, they are engaged in the process of transformation and are thriving in society. They are able to invest their skills and resources more broadly in their community. When a problem comes up, they have the resources and skills and relational connections to solve it. They are able to plan for their future and set long term goals.  


Ask yourself: Are you and your community inhibiting or working towards the long-term development of your partnered refugee and their community? In walking with your partnered refugee, are you able to recognize areas where you need development socially, economically, and spiritually?