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When Refugees Lead

When Refugees Lead: A Conversation With the CEO of Islamic Relief

As part of our series “When Refugees Lead,” we talk to Islamic Relief Worldwide CEO Naser Haghamed, who fled Eritrea as a child and now leads one of the world’s largest independent humanitarian organizations.

Written by Rebecca Buxton Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
An Islamic Relief USA worker in Italy in 2016.Stefano Montesi/Corbis via Getty Images

Naser Haghamed was born in Eritrea as the African nation was in the throes of civil war and a struggle for independence from Ethiopia. The violence prompted many Eritreans to flee the country – including 13 year-old Naser and his family. After several years in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, they settled in the U.K.

Haghamed is now the CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), one of the largest independent relief organizations in the world, with a budget of over $155 million. Guided by Islamic values and headquartered in Birmingham, U.K., the organization has humanitarian and development programs in over 40 countries. Haghamed was appointed CEO in 2016, after working with IRW for more than two decades.

As part of our “When Refugees Lead” series, we spoke to Haghamed about his experience of displacement, his leadership of IRW and how humanitarian organizations can better help refugees.

Refugees Deeply: How did your experience fleeing Eritrea influence your choice of a career in humanitarian aid?

Naser Haghamed: My work with Islamic Relief started when I was a software engineer. I came across a campaign to help refugees in Sudan and I thought, “I was a refugee in Sudan. I know the suffering, I know the hardship and I should be engaged in this issue.” In the office that I was working in, I took some penny boxes from Islamic Relief and asked people to donate. We had a campaign called “A penny a day keeps the famine away.

My interest in working with Islamic Relief was immediate. I didn’t know much, but I could help with technology. But I was engaged and wanted to help. My experience when I was younger certainly made me want to be as involved as possible.

Refugees Deeply: After you left Eritrea, how do you remember your family’s search for refuge before finally reaching the U.K.? Have these experiences shaped how you see asylum and migration policies today?

Haghamed: Even though I was 13 years old when we left, I remember exactly what happened, all of the planning between my mother and brothers. We escaped to Sudan and then Saudi Arabia before coming to the U.K. I have to say, I was very lucky compared to what I see today. I did not see a fraction of that suffering when I was a refugee. What is really disheartening is that we have all of the resources to help, but the situation of refugees and IDPs [internally displaced people] is getting worse. We’ve lost our emotions and our humanity, and all of our good work is being undone. We are focusing too much on money, but we have all the money that we need.

As the CEO of a leading charity, I always follow the news and what is happening in the world, but sometimes I find it too depressing to read. It is beyond any human’s ability to comprehend what is happening. There is just too much to handle. The suffering and the images that you see on the news – they are just awful.

There needs to be more political will. The issue now is that conflicts have become much more complicated – wars used to be between two armed forces. Now, particularly in Syria, we have hundreds of armed groups that do not form any sort of legal entity and many countries fighting wars by proxy. Many of these groups also do not have any respect for international humanitarian law. People are not allowed to be citizens of their own countries and access is being denied to humanitarian aid. Most of the time access is a huge issue. Sometimes Islamic Relief gets better access to local communities because they can see that we don’t have a hidden agenda. Other times we are just like every other organization in the sector and cannot get in to help people.

Refugees Deeply: What are some of the challenges specific to leading a faith-inspired organization like Islamic Relief?

Haghamed: I think there are some important opportunities that come from working in a faith-based organization. One of the best opportunities for us is that we are sought out for our expertise on solutions for Muslim communities. We have microfinance programs that are hugely effective, as well as knowledge of how charities should function with Islam in mind. It is also a blessing to work with other faith-based organizations to see what common beliefs we have and how we can work at developing solutions together.

However, there are of course some challenges – mainly the misconception that we only help Muslims. Christian Aid likewise is thought of as only helping Christians. But once we explain the background and ethos of our work that misconception tends to fade away. There are also more general problems around the shrinking humanitarian space and safety for our aid workers.

Refugees Deeply: Does Islamic Relief’s connection to individual donors and the giving of zakat allow it greater freedom that other humanitarian organizations that rely on institutional funding? Are there associated risks as well as benefits?

Haghamed: We are fortunate to have a healthy balance of both individual donors and institutional donors – we are not overly reliant on either side. Importantly, wherever our donations come from we need to provide value for money and make sure that as much as possible is put into the community.

Having a strong base of individual donors does allow us to develop our own priorities as an organization. We have more unrestricted funding than most and can therefore work in new areas of interest. Institutional funding also brings its own benefits. It helps in raising standards across the organization as we have a greater level of accountability, which benefits our whole donor base.

Refugees Deeply: What do you see as the greatest challenges ahead for Islamic Relief in responding to displacement around the world?

Haghamed: The biggest challenge is the increasing number of conflicts and crises that are happening every year. In Myanmar, Yemen and Nigeria there are a huge number of people displaced or affected by displacement. Our biggest problem here is access, access, access. There are so many situations in which we have the money, we have the expertise and the equipment, but we cannot get the access to deliver critically needed food, aid and shelter.

There is a huge lack of respect for international humanitarian law. Civilians have the right to be protected and they should at least be allowed to get out of their cities. We have so many cases now where civilians are being used as human shields in war zones. We have people who died delivering aid. We need collective political action on this issue to say that international humanitarian law must be respected. Civilians need to be protected and our aid workers must be safe.

Refugees Deeply: What lessons from Islamic Relief’s work with refugees do you wish more humanitarian organizations would take on board? Does Islamic humanitarianism have a role to play in shaping the future of refugee response?

Haghamed: When the Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, he said that every inhabitant should look after at least one immigrant and provide food, shelter, clothing and any other assistance that they could.

When you look at current crises, most refugees and displaced people are from Muslim countries. Because Islamic Relief has a special cultural understanding, we can educate host countries to help refugees in their own cities. This Islamic teaching has an important role in our work.

We did some research recently in the U.K., Germany and Lebanon, and over half of those surveyed saw refugees as innocent victims. Young people were also much more likely to be accommodating to refugees, which is good news. I think Islamic teachings have a role to play here in helping people to accept refugees, but much of the public is already there. Other humanitarian agencies might do well to consider this.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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