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diaspora conflict and stability

Five Ways Americans Can Help Refugees Right Now


Displaced by war, violence and poverty, hundreds of thousands of people are at this moment searching for a better place to raise their family and build a life. Today we have a guest post from Mallory Sutika-Sipus, specialist in international migration and human rights law who brings several years experience working with displaced populations from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo and elsewhere.

Five Ways Americans Can Help Refugees Right Now

By Mallory Sutika Sipus

It is nearly impossible to look away from news of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, as shocking images and stories of refugee deaths and exploitation comprise a 24-hour cable and radio news loop as well as a host of viral social media stories. I’ve spoken to several friends and acquaintances outside of the human rights and forced migration communities who are in the grips of trying to process and understand the issues surrounding the crisis. Seeing images of such suffering might have you wondering what you might be able to do to help reduce refugee suffering in some small way. There is a list going around the internet that includes places to donate, etc but it is admittedly a bit Eurocentric. Unfortunately the refugee crisis is not a strictly European phenomenon and there are some things Americans can do right now to help refugees – without leaving their own communities.

1. Educate yourself on what it means to be a refugee.

Generally speaking, refugees are people who were forced to flee their home country out of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This official definition of refugee was determined by the 1951 Convention on Refugees. Today, refugee law also includes the 1967 protocol as well as a body of case law. You do not have to be a lawyer to understand refugee basics though! With so many resources out there, you can spend 5-20 minutes reading the Cliff Notes/FAQ version or just poking around the UNHCR website. In doing so, you will gain a better idea of the context of the refugee crisis, putting you in a position to effectively engage others.

2. Respectfully challenge ignorance of others

Now that you understand what a refugee is, speak up when you hear other spew ignorance and hate. It can be intimidating, especially when others may speak with arrogance. No one is asking you to ruin your friendships, but you can still stand up for what you believe and correct misinformation. Refugees are not “illegal immigrants” because the 1951 Convention specifically grants that protected class of people the right to seek asylum. Moreover, I encourage you to challenge the conceptions of refugees as poor, lazy, or monolithic. The truth is that many (if not most) refugees are among the middle or even upper classes in their home countries – after all, it takes resources just to even attempt to leave. The poorest and most vulnerable are often left behind trying to survive the conflict. Refugees are homeowners, engineers, doctors, teachers. Refugees are grandparents, brothers, and children. Refugees are people. Help others internalize this.

3. Write your Congressman/woman, and ask them to stop refugee child detention in the United States

It is easy to look and Europe and think, “My goodness, what are they doing?” It may be more difficult to look inward at our own policies towards refugees. Unfortunately many Americans have a blind spot with regards to refugees and immigration here at home. It is standard practice to place asylum seekers in the US in “detention processing centers,” – prisons – sometimes for months on end, until they are found to meet the legal definition of a refugee. Thousands of unaccompanied minors have come into the United States and are currently in institutions such as these. If you want to take action to help refugee children today, one of the best things you can do is call, write, or email your Congressman and tell him/her that you are watching their actions on the treatment of these children. Urge them to actively pass legislation that takes asylum seekers – especially unaccompanied children – out of detention immediately. So many of these children have already survived nightmarish circumstances, let us help them begin to heal instead of treating them like criminals.

4. Donate to an organization that works with refugees directly

If you are able and willing to make a monetary (or goods) donation, do so. Obviously, you are always able to donate to big organizations like UNHCR or Save The Children, but also consider the less obvious. Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) does good work directly in the field while maintaining an impressive devotion to their message and neutrality. St. Andrew’s Refugee Services in Cairo and small grass roots organizations like them are a worthy cause. Church World Service also has a variety of refugee related activities throughout the world. As long as you do your research, chances are you will find an organization that will put your money into programming you believe in.

5. Reevaluate your perception and interaction with refugees in your own community

One would be hard pressed to find a major metropolitan area without refugee community members. Surely they are in your own community, but have you given it much thought? You do not have to run out and volunteer with a local organization that provides integration services. (Though by all means, if you feel compelled – do! Such organizations are always chronically short staffed and underfunded, so they would likely appreciate a free set of hands, even for basic administrative tasks). Challenge the way you think and interact with unfamiliar people in your community. Adjusting to life in a new country is always complicated and somewhat intimidating – America is no different. Maybe you have been annoyed with the woman who seemed to be holding up the grocery checkout because she struggled to understand the clerk speaking English. Or maybe you have avoided a store or restaurant where you know the employee is from “somewhere else.” Remind yourself that we are all from somewhere else, and offer a smile. Reach out and have a conversation when it is appropriate. You never know where that person has been or what their story is, but offering patience and kindness instead of fear and animosity will only make your community a better place – refugee or not.

Planning for the Future Reconstruction of Syria from Chaos and Complexity



The world is abuzz over the current civil war and the possibility of external military intervention in Syria.  While the conversation is primarily focussed on the use of chemical weapons in violation of the Geneva Charter, there has been little discussion about the long-term implications of the civil war, regardless of the role imposed by outside militaries.  What will be the result of so much bloodshed and how will the nation rebuild?  In what form?

Spatial Distribution of Conflict.  August 2013.
The severity of physical and social damage established in the last two years, broad distribution of conflict and the lack of unity among non-state actors within the conflict suggests that the civil war will be a long one, perhaps 10 years or more.   The resolution to this will not be political process as the lack of clearly established leadership among rebel groups positions no one to pursue negotiations with the State.  The massive refugee outflow, consisting 50% of children, weakens the social fabric of the nation and will continue to do so.


Engineering A New Outcome

If you discover that you are genetically predisposed toward a certain ailment, you adapt your lifestyle to mitigate the future.  You hedge your bet.  Likewise with Syria, the most probable outcome right now is protracted conflict followed by a painful reconstruction process (like Afghanistan).  But if examine the current variables, and measure the inter-relations between those variables, we can attempt to coordinate a strategy toward a desired outcome - ie., less war and more rapid recovery.   Because each variable maintains the same potential as a butterfly to inspire a hurricane, we don't have the control as we do with our bodies, but we do have the ability to better position some social and structural elements in terms of probable outcomes.  If this process were to begin now in Syria, it could potentially lead to a better future.

In this case, the goal is for the war in Syria to play out in such a manner that all relevant resources (community groups, finances, areas of destruction vs. preservation, social allegiances and so on)  are best organized for a rapid and successful reconstruction process.  The variables are numerous and so too are the methods of working with them.  So where do we begin?

The role of strategic planning and development within the battlefield is not new.  As an expansion of the Hearts and Minds campaign of Vietnam, development was heavily undertaken by NATO in the Iraq and Afghanistan and implemented via Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The PRTs were designed and operated in coordination with a broader mandate of Counter Insurgency doctrine (COIN). This was not a flawless system, it required massive layers of security that isolated the infrastructure creation process from the populations served, and when the projects were turned over to communities, unsurprisingly the outcomes were not always as hoped. Yet these methods were only viable as a strategy because of the massive allotment of resources.  Furthermore, PRTs had an inconsistent impact across regions and populations.  It is a tactic that will be likely replicated in the future but it simply won't apply in Syria.

In the recent 21 years of conflict in Somalia, intervention was limited to MSF operations, WFP, and other UN backed initiatives typically implemented by local NGOs.  In this regard, Somalia is a better region of comparison to Syria.  The problem here is that such agencies are designed only for humanitarian relief. This is essential, but it doesn't facilitate a resolution as much as institutionalize a process of triage across a fragmented society.  The inequitable distribution of services doesn't maintain a status quo as much as introduce a new variable, randomly redistributing the lines of power among a downtrodden population.  Potential outcomes vary from relief to militarization.


Urban Planning and Development In the Syrian Conflict

Typically when I tell people that I apply urban planning methods to mediate violent conflict, people imagine I'm referring to zoning and bike lanes.  Sigh... thats so boring.  But I suppose on the imaginative level there could be something here as one could argue that territorial patterns of warfare form emergent conflict zones, interconnected by supply corridors - don't forget that al-Shabaab had covered Mogadishu with a complex network of trenches to quickly mobilize troops and supplies yet also grinding the speed of territorial changes to a halt.  Yet these concepts in the current state of the conflict can only apply to analysis and not to planning outcomes.

A more pragmatic approach is to better understand the diversity of stakeholders in the conflict, as the fragmentation of non-state actors is a major obstruction to the peace process.  This obstruction was likewise a major obstacle in Afghanistan and it is no surprise that the suitcases of money provided by the CIA in 2002 to mobilize diverse ethnic groups for a common interest did not build a sustainable peace or found strong governance.  

Expanding and integrating diverse stakeholders is a cornerstone of the urban planning process, and while stable nations have the benefit of easily organizing community groups or legal proceedings,  it remains possible to mobilize stakeholders in hostile territories.  A key feature of this "non-rational" process is that it does not necessarily require strong, easily defined internal leadership.  Rather the process only requires an entity committed to the interest of all stakeholders, committed to a win/win outcome, and who can manage an otherwise neutral disposition.  Notably, this entity will not be successful if all authority is founded on outside power (US intervention for example), but rather this entity must have acquired a local, grass-roots level of respect combined with recognition among high-level community leaders.  At the moment, there is no one of this description involved in the conflict. Yet this can change.  After all, the war could take 10+ years so its completely feasible for an individual or organization to emerge to do the work.

Another critical element toward the future pacification and reconstruction of Syria is the role of the internally displaced and refugee populations.  The role of displaced populations could effect rebuilding of Syria in a combination of ways, yet two possibilities are immediately obvious.  When the war in Afghanistan drove thousands from their homeland, many children were left secluded in Pakistani refugee camps where Saudi madrasas promoted Wahabist beliefs, laying the foundation for the emergences of the Taliban.  During the same time, the war in Somalia drove thousands abroad who were then exposed to a variety cultures, educations, and lifestyles.  The return of Somalis in diaspora has made the sudden rebuilding of Somalia a possibility as they return with new social capital to invest.

Number and Location of Syrian Refugees. US State Department 2013.
At present the 1.9 million displaced refugees are primarily distributed throughout Lebanon and Turkey.  While I don't believe those nations would have a detrimental impact upon the refugee population and the long-term psycho-social advancement of the youth, it is unlikely that those nations have the resources necessary to invest.  At present, Turkey is already hosting 200,000 refugees in camps and has 200,000 refugees outside of camps.  
As you can see from the map, many of these camps are open, but it is clearly getting stretched to a limit. If it is becomes commonly accepted that the the civil war will be long and drawn out, initiatives to excel the resettlement of Syrian families into new communities could provide the investment needed for the future of Syria to be founded on socially productive and worldly populations. 

Rebuilding Mogadishu Somalia


A couple days ago I got off the plane in Mogadishu.  Its nice to be back.

In the time passed since my last visit, I've worked hard to develop a pool of new resources for the city.  In addition to the  welcoming support of the Benadiir Municipal Government.  

I'm only here for a week this time before moving on to visit another project, but fortunately current my list of objectives here is concise.  I have three primary goals to accomplish in the next 5 days, but if done well, the repercussions of those tasks will carry on for some time.

I look forward to churning out some high quality products over the next few days.

Kabul's Rigorous Allegiance to Master Plans

Kabul Playground
Kabul Playground at Camp Julian (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
While preparing to return to Mogadishu in June to further reconstruction efforts, I also have a few planning related obligations in Kabul Afghanistan.  One of which it a weekly training session with members of the city administration in a USAID funded project for capacity building.  Although my colleagues work daily, I visit the program each week to provide teaching on urban planning and to develop a curriculum for guided problem solving activities.  The class participants are city engineers, district managers, and other mid-level administration.

Sutika Sipus Kabul
Kabul,  Afghanistan 2001 Formal and Informal Housing [green]
vs.  2006 Informal Housing [purple] (Map: Sutika Sipus 2012)
I had read previously in a dissertation on Kabul City Planning by Pietro Calgero that the Kabul municipality has historically maintained a strict adherence to a top-down rational planning model.  Yet only last night did I realize the rigidity of this truth.

In an attempt to overview various models of participatory planning, simply as a means to expose the trainees to planning methods in other countries and cultures for comparison, I found myself confronted resolute objections.  

In the words of one engineer in attendance "we know where to build the roads because they are in the master plan, then we go to the community and say we are building a road here, you will need to move. Then the problem is finished."  When I asked about policies regarding informal housing, the response was equally severe. The attitude was that people who live outside the terms of the master plan have to right to the land and therefore must leave if told to do so.  

In Kabul, informal housing is a pressing issue, and while strides have been made to recognize the claims of informal occupants, the top-town approach dominates.  I was surprised to discover the severe attitudes among many of the trainees, whose allegiance to the city Master Plan could not be shaken.  As a planner who has little faith in the utility of master plans among developing economies, I sought some degree of common ground between the trainees.  Not to mention, the city is again working on a NEW master plan! Like most master plans, it has taken years to assemble, and by the time it is ready for implementation, it will likely be out of date and irrelevant.  Perhaps not, but I'm skeptical.

By the end of the session, I found an opportunity when an architect in attendance noted that she frequently needs to negotiate with community members.  Negotiation isn't nearly equivalent to any community-based or decentralized planning models I'm familiar with, but it is a step in the right direction.  Over the next week the participants are to think of strategies in which these negotiation processes may take place.  I look forward to their ideas. Will they surprise me again? Probably.  

The Kabul Neighborhood of Karte Seh (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)

An Optimistic Future for Urban Planning in Mogadishu

Mogadishu, Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Tomorrow I head back to Kabul.  This morning I had the opportunity to discuss with the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, and other upper administration how to streamline existing operations and opportunities for new projects.  As the Urban Planner for the Benadiir Administration, Mohamed Ahmed has already accomplished a great deal in the short time he has been here.  Consequently, I made a point that my urban planning solutions all accentuate  his own work, but also introduce new assets and opportunties.   I've already started some of these projects, but I look forward to returning to Mogadishu in about 6 weeks to continue focusing the ground implementation.  I am grateful to the opportunity to work together with the municipality and hope this partnership is long lasting. 

The Youth Volunteers of the Mogadishu Benadiir Adminstration (Sutika Sipus)
What really stood out today was meeting with the Mogadishu Youth Volunteers.  At a total of 200 volunteers, these youth are high school and college students who grew up in Mogadishu while faced with civil war and the threat of al shabaaab.  After shabaab withdrew from the city, some of the young people from different districts started working together and were surprised by how much they could accomplish.  The group quickly grew and became more sophisticated in organization, capable of taking on large projects.  It blew my mind how hard these kids worked in the hot sun, with no water or shade, picking up trash, cleaning out overgrown brush, and burning rubbish.  If the people of this city can continue to dedicate themselves to the common good like these kids, then the future looks bright.

Local Cafe in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
I also had the chance to visit a cafe with some friends.  The owner lived in the UK for many years and has opened a couple businesses since returning.  The kitchen standards, the food quality, and the service are all top notch. There are lots of great things happening in the city of  Mogadishu, yet where are the news agencies covering it?  Of course upon returning back to the administrative offices, I did happen to see a foreign television crew.  And what were they filming?  The armed guards.  No surprise.

Post Conflict Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia

The former Parliament Building, devastated by war.  Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

Today was a massively busy day for meetings.

I had a meeting with the Mayor and Govener of the Benadiir Administration, Mohamuud Ahmed Noor. We discussed his primary vision for the city and regional development, his trials and efforts in the past and the obstacles he faces today.   Around this time I also met some traditional leaders and members of the Benadiir council working on a variety of USAID projects.  I've been greatly impressed by his efforts and those of the Deputy Mayor, Iman Noor Icar with whom I've been meeting regularly.  Aware of the issues of corruption in their country, they continually work with international donors so that no cash transactions take place, rather the donor has full responsibility for handling the funding while the administration simply provides the needed manpower to implement the projects.  With this model, various initiatives in partnership with Turkey and USAID have been seeing great success.

Last night the urban planner working with Benadiir, Mohamed "Shaan", and I discussed at length the obstacles concerning data collection and mapping of the city.  Although UN-Habitat has a large collection of data, unfortunately they are not willing to share direct shape files and thus their information is of no real use to the municipality.  It is truly unfortunate that a UN body would pose such a hinderance to the efforts of the municipality.  Yet thanks to open-source mapping technology and the efforts of my friends at Somalia Report, I believe I can thoroughly solve this problem so that we simply side-step the UN and do the work that needs to be done.

Mitchell Sutika Sipus, Mohamed, and Abdul on the Somali Coast

I also had a chance to explore some of the historic district of Mogadishu.  We were escorted by a Captain in the African Union's peace keeping force and I was able to talk to him about his experience of fighting in Somalia.  The wreckage in this area from 20 years of war is truly profound to see, but it left me thinking a great deal about all the other images of Mogadishu that never come out.



Business is booming in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

While the world constantly sees the destruction in Mogadishu, they don't get a chance to learn about the dynamic change abreast, the massive return of Somalis, the economic explosion taking place from new investments and the visionary work of the municipal government.  Just today I had a cappuccino at a cafe founded by a Somali who lived for a long time in the UK.  It was delicious.  Things are happening and they are happening fast. This is story that is worth telling, it must be told.

Travel Businesses on Mecca Marena Road. Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus