Fleeing War And Finding Work

Aug 15, 2014
Originally published on August 15, 2014 7:20 am

In most parts of the world, refugees are not allowed to work.

But in Uganda, refugee life is different. One of the oldest refugee camps in Africa is remarkable not just for its stone houses instead of plastic tarps. The camp is also full of markets and traders, selling everything from imported fabric to smartphones.

Mohammed Osman Ali, a Somali refugee, runs an arcade at the camp. He rents out time on a PlayStation to other refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, or fellow Somalis.

Ali has faced problems running his arcade. For instance, his game controllers break as quickly as he can buy them. Ali figured out the problem. Refugees like him had witnessed war and seen family members killed. And they were unloading their stress — smashing their thumbs into the buttons of the controllers.

Ali learned to repair old controllers from the wreckage of older, junk ones.

This is a classic, up by the bootstraps, immigrant story. But Ali is not an immigrant. He's a refugee. And outside of Uganda, in most other parts of the world, he wouldn't be able to start this business. It would be illegal for him to have any job.

But Uganda has had a right-to-work policy for the last 15 years. And it's allowed refugees to earn money and support themselves instead of being a burden on international aid.

A professor at Oxford, Alex Betts, and a team of researchers studied the impact of the policy. They surveyed 1600 Ugandan refugees and found refugee businesses (like Ali's arcade) play a role in Uganda's economy. When Ali buys a new controller or diesel to run the generator that powers his arcade, he buys from Ugandan businesses.

And Betts found that when refugee businesses hire other people, nearly half of those employees are Ugandan nationals. So refugees in Uganda may take jobs, but they also make new ones.

Unfortunately, that economic contribution — may not seem so vibrant to ordinary Ugandans.

Osman Faiz, another refugee at the camp, says he gets regularly harassed and overcharged in Ugandan shops.

Faiz's wife, Sada, says she'd prefer being called 'migrant' instead of refugee. She says, "A migrant, at least, that would sound something good.... [When] you are just a refugee, you are just nothing."

Despite being able to work in Uganda, all the people I met at the camp have put in their applications with refugee organizations to leave. They're trying to get permanent asylum in a country even more welcoming to refugees (i.e., the U.S.). But the process is uncertain and can take decades.

As I'm leaving the arcade, Ali runs after me. He asks me to share a message. Make use of us, he says. While we're strong and healthy and can contribute something to the US economy. Ali says, Don't wait to take us until we're old and we're tired.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When an immigrant arrives in a new country and looks for a job, most economists say that is good for the economy. Population growth is linked to economy growth. More people work more and spend more. But the debate over immigration commonly includes claims that immigrants - even those arriving legally - take the jobs of natives.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The same claims are made even more forcefully in developing countries that receive refugees. They are given shelter, but they are often forbidden from working.

INSKEEP: A few countries take a different approach, including the one visited by NPR's Gregory Warner working with our Planet Money team.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The country is Uganda. Specifically, the fertile plains of the far south of the country, many hours from the capital, inside one of the oldest refugee camps in the continent - think stone houses instead of plastic tarps. But despite this being a refugee camp, it's laced with markets and traders selling everything from imported fabric to smartphones.

And it's here that I sit down with Mohammed Osman Ali. He's a slender 32-year-old Somali refugee in a blue UCLA sweatshirt. And we sat down in his house of stone to play a videogame.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: So away we go.

WARNER: Right - so now I've got to play my side, right?

WARNER: We're playing on a Sony PlayStation that's completely chipped. The DVD is broken off. He's kind of rejiggered it with a USB flash drive, and the monitor is an old Sony television. It's all powered, as you can probably hear, by a diesel generator running very low on fuel. None of this stops him from scoring a goal against me almost immediately.

MOHAMMED OSMAN ALI: Sorry.

WARNER: No apologies needed because this is Ali's business - not beating me soundly at FIFA World Soccer, but renting out time on the PlayStation. In fact, Ali runs a kind of videogame arcade for other refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia and fellow Somalis. He charges them in 10 minute chunks.

ALI: 500.

WARNER: 500 for 10...

ALI: 500 shilling.

WARNER: OK. So 500 shillings - that's about 20 cents or 2 cents per minute of play. Profits he's invested in five more PlayStation's, five more old TVs. And when you think about how Ali came to this camp five years ago with nothing, hidden in the back of a truck, fleeing a war in Somalia that had just killed his parents and many members of his family - now he's parlayed this PlayStation arcade into an adjoining variety store that's stocking house paint and nails and little girls dresses. His wife runs the store.

Now you've probably heard this story before. It's that classic up-by-the-bootstraps immigrant story. But Ali is not an immigrant. He's a refugee. And if he was almost anywhere in the world but Uganda, he would not be allowed to start and grow this business. He could not even legally be paid to push a broom because in most parts of the world, it's illegal to give a refugee a job.

Alex Betts is a professor at Oxford University in the department of refugee and forced migration studies.

ALEX BETTS: What Uganda allows us to show is the boundaries of what's possible when we do give refugees basic freedoms.

WARNER: He says that for the last 15 years, Uganda has had this right-to-work policy called the self-reliant strategy. And basically the idea is to have refugees support themselves as much as possible instead of being burden on international aid.

So Betts sent a research team to Uganda to survey about 1,600 refugees, ask them about their work if they had any. And among them was the arcade proprietor that we just met, Mohammed Osman Ali. Now Ali is still learning English, so I invited his older neighborhood, Osman Faiz, to interpret.

WARNER: We can sit over there if you want.

WARNER: And through this interpreter, Ali told me about some of the more bizarre problems that his arcade has faced over the years. For instance, his game controllers kept breaking almost as quick as he could buy them. And Ali finally realized the problem was his client's thumbs. Those thumbs bellowed to refugees who, just like him, have witnessed war or seen families killed. And they were unloading their stress on his game controllers, basically smashing them. Which Ali, himself, totally understood because it's exactly why he uses video games - to de-stress.

ALI: (Through translator) It's good mentally. It makes you forget most of your problems. It entertains. You feel a human being also. You don't dwell into your refugee problems. We have problems, you know? So when we are playing this game, 30 minutes, you refresh. That's what I like about the games.

WARNER: Ali eventually solved this problem by learning to repair old controllers with the wreckage of even older ones. He dumps out this giant bag of spare parts on the stone floor.

ALI: (Through translator) It gets dismantled. Like this one - you see I have used the superglue to stick it.

WARNER: The Oxford professor, Alex Betts, found from his surveys of refugees here that Ali's pile of apparent junk actually plays a role in Uganda's economy. So every time Ali buys a new controller or another tube of super glue - even the diesel he buys to run the generator that powers this arcade - is purchased from Ugandan businesses. And while Ali, himself, has no employees, Betts found that when refugee businesses do hire other people, nearly half of those employees are Ugandan nationals. Refugees in Uganda weren't just taking jobs, they were making new ones.

BETTS: The finding that refugees employ nationals of the host state shows that far from being a burden on the host state, refugees can be a benefit. They make a really vibrant economic contribution.

WARNER: Unfortunately, that economic contribution may not seem so vibrant to a lot of regular Ugandans.

OSMAN FAIZ: You are a refugee. Like, you are a parasite.

WARNER: This is Osman Faiz whose voice you probably recognize. He was the one interpreting for Ali. But he says that he, himself, often gets harassed or overcharged, at least, in Ugandan shops. While his wife, Sada, tells me that she'd much prefer to be called a migrant than a refugee.

SADA FAIZ: A refugee is a very - it's not a good name, truly, because a refugee - you want to be helped. But a migrant, at least, that would be - that would sound something good.

WARNER: Why?

S. FAIZ: Because you are just a refugee. You are just nothing.

WARNER: And to be a refugee, she says, is to live in a state of limbo. All the people I met at this camp have put their applications with refugee organizations to leave Uganda to gain permanent asylum in a country even more welcoming to refugees - the United States.

But that process is long, and it's very uncertain. It can take decades. And so just as I'm leaving the videogame arcade, I'm followed out by the guy who runs it, Mohammed Osman Ali. And he tells me, hey, you know, your radio reaches a lot of Americans. Can you just tell them one thing for me?

ALI: (Through translator) Tell them, in the camps, we are hard-working people. But time is eating us up here in the camp. Make use of us.

WARNER: Make use of us, he says, while we're strong and healthy and can contribute something to the U.S. economy. Ali says don't wait to take us until we're old and retired. Gregory Warner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.