Refugees Are People

Access and Inclusion August 21, 2023

When people become refugees, something bizarre happens to how they are perceived. Suddenly, their legal status becomes a character trait, and they become defined by circumstances that they have neither chosen nor identify with. Author Ruth Kluger profoundly captures this mistake: 

“In the eyes of many, Auschwitz is a point of origin for survivors. People who want to say something important about me announce that I have been in Auschwitz. But whatever you may think, I don’t hail from Auschwitz, I come from Vienna. Vienna is a part of me—that’s where I acquired consciousness and language—but Auschwitz was as foreign to me as the moon. Auschwitz was merely a gruesome accident.”

Becoming a refugee is something that happens to you against your will. It is not something that should define you. Yet in humanitarian response,  the refugee label assumes a lot more about people than just their legal status, it tends to view refugees as either:  

  • Inherently vulnerable – forming the view that all refugees are helpless

  • Struggling heroes – suggesting that they are all inherently stoic, outstanding and good

  • Outcomes of the culture/place they were born in – placing culture as superior to the individual

Even when used with the intention to protect or support members of a specific group, these perceptions see refugees as primarily victims, which risks justifying cultural stereotypes and enabling patronising (all refugees are victims) or romanticising (all refugees are heroes) attitudes. Furthermore, these depictions fall far from how a refugee sees themselves because being a refugee is as alien to them as it would be to you.

“Refugees Are People” Approach: Addressing Inherent Biases 

Perceiving people through the “refugee” lens enforces marginalisation by creating an us/them binary, and reduces their ability to demonstrate their agency, independence and uniqueness. Rather than focusing on the perceptions implied by the “refugee” label, Second Tree engages with the refugee camp (or any shared space) as a community that functions best when there is a sense of collective responsibility and mutual trust shared between those who live and work there. 

Our approach sees refugees as the people they are, first and foremost and our “Refugees Are People” (RAP) training package develops self-awareness of inherent biases in humanitarian workers and refugees, equipping them with the skills to identify and address actions that stem from culturally stereotyping, patronising and romanticising refugees. The approach relies on actively practising three core values: trust, fairness and engagement. 

  • Trust

    • Building trust is a long-term process. It requires understanding every situation in terms of how it will impact similar situations in the future. Many refugees had to fight for their most basic needs and had to be suspicious of any promise made to them. We strive to create an environment in which it is clear that rules exist for the well-being of the entire community, and that within that space, everyone is responsible for upholding them or constructively challenging them – staff and refugees alike.

  • Fairness

    • Being fair is what allows us to build meaningful relationships with refugees without being accused of favouritism. Many refugees come from a history of discrimination, and are sceptical towards service providers. We have succeeded in avoiding these accusations by being sound, transparent and extremely strict in applying our procedures, building a reputation of utmost fairness that precedes Second Tree and is spread and testified by the people we work with. 

  • Engagement 

    • Engaging with someone means taking that person seriously by carefully assessing and fully addressing what they have to say. This means not avoiding disagreement or a difficult discussion just because the person is a refugee. Refugees are not irritable children or unreasoning bearers of inarticulate instincts. Refugees are proficient individuals who can engage in a discussion, offer counterarguments, and change their minds. For this reason, engaging at Second Tree means appealing to their intellect, not to their gut. 

Applying RAP in our Classrooms  

These values come to life through discussions that foster agency and a collective sense of responsibility, helping develop and maintain a shared culture in our classrooms. Rules for participation in Second Tree language classes for refugee adults, for example, are reviewed and shaped by the students first, before being implemented. This builds ownership and accountability, and helps everyone understand the importance of strictly upholding them. Strict adherence is vital to maintaining fairness and building trust, and safeguards against perceptions of preferential treatment. Many refugees come from countries where corruption and unequal wealth distribution are prevalent, and have experienced discrimination based on their social status, ethnicity, sexuality, or religion. Because of this, any flexible interpretation of a rule can be perceived as a favour to a specific group or individual. In our classes, equality can be measured by the consistent application of rules, which apply equally to everyone. This does not mean that the rules are irreversible. If an aspect of the rules appears to stop working, we do not “fix” it by making an exception; we organise a discussion and collectively determine the necessary changes.

Our approach stems from real-life experiences in camp that we now use as training scenarios for new staff to understand the implementation of our values. For example, being on time to class is a rule for participation, which every student agrees to when signing up. So, when our student Abdallah arrived to class late one day, found the door closed, and asked to enter, we ask new staff to consider what they would do in the teacher’s position. 

Eventually, we share what happened: the teacher refused to allow Abdallah in. He was upset and complained to a Second Tree staff member, whom he knew held a position of authority. The manager – who could see that Abdallah was upset but did not know why – suggested they go to speak to the teacher, only to find the classroom door shut. He also could not enter. The manager suggested that they come back when the class finishes but Abdallah, seeing that the rule applied to everyone equally, no longer felt aggrieved and said he did not need to talk to the teacher anymore.

It can be hard to say no in these moments. If we had looked at Abdallah through the refugee lens, we would have appeased and let him in, and we would have undermined trust in the entire process. Demonstrating consistency and integrity is key to building a shared culture that individuals trust and care for. This requires setting up processes for the free sharing of opinions and ideas, such as regular feedback sessions, community meetings, and information sessions. It also requires enabling certain behaviours that help make the process effective. Our teachers, for example, are trained to cultivate a space where people know that when they speak, they will be listened to. This is proven through direct action (feedback shared is either implemented or it is explained why it cannot be), and reinforces the message that the community they’re sharing the space with is different from outside the classroom, that it is kind, and that anyone can speak up because in here everyone is equal. In parallel, students understand that what they commit to they will be held accountable to. 

Our activities are often the only social spaces that refugees have to be themselves in, and once they recognise the value of that, they become strong advocates for maintaining it. As Sadia, our former student, shared: ‘There I’m not a refugee, I’m a person’, she said of the classes at our Community Centre. 


It is through conversations with refugees and practitioners that we realised how insidious the “refugee” lens can be – how through well-intentioned and seemingly benign attitudes like treating all refugees as vulnerable, as heroes or as representatives of their home culture can reduce a person’s sense of individuality and agency, and make them feel othered. 

When we asked Ahmad to share one thing that every person should keep in mind when interacting with refugees, he answered: ‘Refugees are normal, don’t show them that they’re in need. Show them that they’re the same [as you]. Help them not because they’re broken, but because they need something that you have. Don’t show them that they’re refugees.’