Fidelis Muia

Director of Programs | RefuSHE

Fidelis Muia: Be driven by passion and also to make a difference. Change somebody’s life! That is very important because working in the development sector can be challenge. But if you’re driven by passion then that helps you overcome some of the things that you encounter, and help to motivate you.

Ashley Pratt: Hi and welcome to a special episode of the Women in Foreign Policy podcast! My name is Ashley, and I’m one of your hosts. Today, we’ll be bringing you an interview by my co-host, Annika, with Fidelis Muia, Director of Programs at RefuSHE, an organization working to holistically address the needs of refugee women and children.

Fidelis Muia Director of Programs RefuSHE

In case you missed our last episode, I recently finished my master’s in International Relations at King’s College London and I now work in Washington, D.C. Annika is working at a nuclear non-proliferation foundation here in D.C. before heading to Geneva, Switzerland to do her master’s in international affairs. We’re your Women in Foreign Policy podcast production team, and we’re really excited to bring you this episode today - unlike our standard once-a-month episode, this is a more-or-less unedited recording of Annika’s conversation with Fidelis about her work with RefuSHE, her career path, and her advice for young women who hope to work in the same field. It’s a great interview, and I really think you’re going to enjoy it.

Fidelis: My name is Fidelis Muia, and my title is the director of programs and I work for RefuSHE.

Annika Erickson-Pearson: Can you tell me a bit more about RefuSHE? For listeners who might not be familiar -- what are the mission and the vision of the organization, and what do you do there?

Fidelis: RefuSHE is an international charitable organization, registered in the US and also registered here in Kenya, I’m speaking from Kenya now. At RefuSHE we basically identify, protect and empower young refugee women and their children from different parts of Africa. We empower them in terms of providing them with education and basic literacy to levels where they are able to sit for national exams. We are also giving them a secondary education which is also administered here in Kenya.

Besides that, we have an economic empowerment initiative where the young refugee girls work together in a group to make textile products. That artisan group is called the Artisan Collective. We run different initiatives. We have a safe shelter for the girls, especially for those who are in high protection cases. We have a safe shelter where they live in a home environment and they are able to be provided with different services. We also provide case management services such as counseling, provision of medical care and support, and supporting them through getting legal documentation to enable them to leave the country safely as refugees. In addition to that, we are also supporting their children to get legal documentation, [including] birth certificates.  

So we have different programs that we are running at RefuSHE, which we refer to as a holistic model, to make these young women whole again.

We realize that refugees get that status as refugees as a result of displacement from their home country. They come to countries like ours, Kenya, to seek asylum and refuge. Still at the end of the day, they have their human rights that have to be protected and we have to ensure that organizations in Kenya are able to provide support and different aid that will enable the young women who come from different parts of Africa that have faced war for a long time to come here and feel safe. They are able to feel their resilience and look forward to a better future.

So, in a nutshell, that is what RefuSHE stands for.

Annika: Wow. It’s such a comprehensive approach. It’s across so many pillars. I feel like I hear more frequently about programs in health or programs in education that are really more siloed. It’s inspiring to hear about a holistic approach, as you mentioned. Where specifically are most of these young women coming from?

Fidelis: These young women are coming from South Sudan. Those who follow the history of Africa will know that Sudan has been an unstable country for a while. Others come from Somalia, knowing the history of Somalia. We have others coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Others come from Burundi. We also have others who come from Rwanda, but Rwanda is now stable so we don’t have a majority of them from Rwanda. And also from countries like Ethiopia. These girls come from those countries. Of course, they find their way to Kenya through our borders.

Annika: Wow, that’s incredible. What specifically do you do at RefuSHE? What is your role?

Fidelis: I joined RefuSHE in September 2013 as the finance manager and I’ve grown with the organization to the level where it is. I joined as a finance manager, then I was promoted to the position of director of financial operations. Because they want to expand my portfolio, I’ve also been given the opportunity to serve the organization as director of programs. Mainly RefuSHE’s operations are in Kenya.

All along I’ve worked as the director of financial operations looking at strengthening internal controls because accountability in our sector is very important. Donors are giving us funds and we must invest those funds in the best way possible. As a finance director it has been my role to set strong controls, to ensure there are high levels of accountability, to ensure that donor reports are filed on time, to ensure that if the organization is being audited I am on the front lines to make sure it is successful, and to ensure that any project audits are also successful. I’m very proud of what I’ve done over the years. I’ve seen the organization grow its budget over four times.

The better part of my work has been as director of financial operations, but I am transitioning to a new role that I am really happy and excited about. (Director of Programs)

Annika: Congratulations, that’s really exciting

Fidelis: Thank you, thank you.

Annika: Do you have a background in finance? How did you come to that role? And what drew you to working with refugees more broadly?

Fidelis: I am actually a trained accountant. I’m a CPA, certified by the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya, that is the regulatory body of accountants in Kenya. I am an accountant by profession. I hold a Master of Business Administration in finance and I also hold a Bachelor of Commerce in accounting.

Annika: What drew you to the field? What drew you to working with refugees?

Fidelis: I will give you a quick background about my training. From early stages, I got interested in not-for-profit accounting. I have over 27 years of experience as an accountant and all along, my career path has been with non-profits. And it’s because they are driven by a mission, driven by a vision, and driven by solving people’s problems. I worked with one very special organization called SOS Children’s Villages. SOS is an international organization, and that is where I was able to interact with youth, and I was able to interact with the children. It’s very exciting when you are working with youth because they really challenge you, they give you different challenges because they always have different ideas, even far-fetched ideas, so they keep challenging your mind. With the experience that I have with SOS, I saw a similar opportunity in RefuSHE.

And I have this passion for empowering women. Even when I go to the markets, not that I’m biased, but I’m usually driven to trade with women because I believe in what we are told: when you empower a woman, you empower a community. I have an interest in the idea that a woman’s life is changed, a woman’s life is empowered. Joining RefuSHE was the right choice for me, I’m satisfied and I’m fulfilled working with RefuSHE, especially with the young women and the children the organization is serving.

Annika: I can totally relate to that: when I was growing up it was always not ‘will I work for a non-profit?’ but ‘which non-profit will I work for?’ So I understand that.

And I’ve also heard that: when we empower one woman or when we invest in one woman, we’re not just investing in one person. We know that women then turn around and invest in and empower their own communities. It’s really an incredible phenomenon to witness. That being said, I’m curious about what some of the challenges that you face in your work are, whether that’s you as an individual or whether that’s challenges RefuSHE faces.

Fidelis: Thank you. One of the things that we appreciate from the mission and vision of RefuSHE is that the population we are working with and serving is a very vulnerable population: young refugee women and children. There is a vulnerability in the sense that these are women and children who have gone through not very good experiences, young children who are unaccompanied minors - these are children who have lost their parents, who have lost their relatives along the way as they were running from their countries of origin.

So this is a group of young people who have gone through a lot of traumatic experiences. For them to go through the healing process they have to share their story, they have to tell someone their story. And their story is not music to your ears. Their story is a harrowing experience they have gone through. So I, as a human being, when I am listening to someone talk through an experience like this, notice you start to get sucked into that trauma. You start relating with that person and it’s emotionally draining. It can make you start questioning some things: “Why does this happen to this person? Why does this happen to people?” Personally, I grew up in a family and my parents are still alive. But then here you are with a young girl who saw her parents being killed, and you need to help that girl through the healing process.

It is definitely a challenge but I am grateful to RefuSHE because my organization takes the aspect of staff self-care and healing very seriously. As we encounter these stressors, I have another avenue to go and reflect back and share what I feel. I have a counselor or somebody else supporting me, too.

In addition to that, as an organization, we know very well that globally resettlement opportunities are going down and down. With our refugees and with our beneficiaries that we serve, their hope is not to go back to the countries that they’re coming from, where they had harrowing experiences. Their hope is always to go to another country that would support them, that would help them rebuild their lives. In most cases they look forward to going to developed countries, the United States of America, Britain, Australia... those countries where they are able to go and seek a refuge. So for most of them, when they are in Kenya, to them it is a transition. But it’s a challenge to the organization getting that resettlement space because we know the refugee crisis is not just facing Africa alone, we know what is happening in Syria, in some of the middle east countries and so that competition, that needs to resettle refugees is not only a crisis for people who have been displaced in African countries but there are also those other countries where there is a refugee crisis. So the space is going down; so when space is going down, then we are left with this population, and we have to try and look for home-grown solutions where they can be able to integrate with the communities that are hosting them for example as here in Nairobi and for them to integrate with the communities. It would mean that they have to generate income that will be able to sustain them.

As an organization, we have to try as much as we can to keep up with that challenge. You have a space that is closing, how do you get to have home-grown solutions? That is definitely a challenge. As far as an organization like RefuSHE is concerned, that is working with a migratory population definitely it is a challenge for us as an organization.

Annika: I am now convinced that you are all doing some of the most important work in the world, so wow… First just to hear this idea of not shying away from working through the trauma with these young girls… I definitely am really moved by that and I hope that listeners are too. It just sits on you in a very real way, and I feel really called to say thank you for doing that work. And yeah, the resettlement crisis across the world, as globalization happens we think that there are more opportunities, more places for people to move, that it’s easier to cross borders, but it seems that particularly with the evolving global structure, the evolving order of the world, that folks are calling to close borders, folks are calling to reject immigrants, reject refugees, so again I feel the work you are doing is so deeply, deeply important. And I’m curious about what you are most proud of in your work, knowing that it is so important and all of the wonderful things that you have accomplished. What are you most proud of?

Fidelis: Ok, as I stated earlier on, I mentioned to you that I’ve seen this organization that I’m working for and I'm passionate about grow its portfolio, that is its donor portfolio and financial portfolio more than four times. So I’ve been part of that team that has driven that growth; that, definitely, I’m proud of as an individual. And also, In addition to that, I think I’m also proud of what comes out of the challenges we are talking about. The girls who have passed through our hands are out there, leading their own lives because this is an organization that has been in existence for 10 years. So we have girls who have gone through our programs and have been resettled in other countries and they are able to support themselves. We also have girls in our program who have been able to go back to the community, that didn’t get the opportunity to get resettled, through the skills that we have imparted to them. Especially so our tailoring techniques, we have girls who are already generating some money and are able to sustain themselves by making dresses for women. And particularly, I have a girl who makes my African dresses, so that is definitely the thing that I’m proud of. I’m also proud of the fact that every morning when I come to work, I draw down a checklist of what I need to accomplish, and at the end of the day, I achieve what I’ve done. I’m not blowing my trumpet but I’m one kind of individual where when I leave the office in the evening, I say, “I’m grateful for what I’ve been able to achieve.”

Annika: So I’m imagining that a number of people listening to this are like me, really inspired, really want to get involved, support the work that you’re doing. What can people do, how can people get involved and support you?

Fidelis: For people to support us, of course, people have been given opportunities to volunteer. Trying to look at a holistic model, there is so much that young people out there can contribute. Those who are in the university and would like to have internship placement, we have a need for qualified caseworkers who can come in and volunteer with us either as interns or as volunteers. In addition to that, of course, our organization is run through donations and funds from other donors. It’s possible for interested persons to support us through individual donations. It costs us less than $60 to support a girl for a week. I want to believe that somebody somewhere seeks to take a meal of $60 and forgo a meal one day and sends that to RefuSHE; it would make a whole lot of difference. We also have our products that are generated by the girls, the artisan collective, we have our products that have been sold online, and I would encourage the listeners to visit our website, that is www.refushe.org.

Once they visit our website they will be able to read more about the organization, and also they will be able to support us as individual donors, or they can come to us as volunteers, or they can refer us to other organizations that are supporting organizations that are running missions like ours.

Annika: So Women in Foreign Policy is a community oriented towards helping young women navigate their careers in the field of international relations, development, and foreign policy. I’m wondering what advice you would give young women listening to this podcast who are interested in careers in development. Knowing that our listeners are people listening from all over the world, some are in the United States, some in Europe, some in Asia, some in Africa, folks are listening from all over the place. What advice would you give?

Fidelis: Development is broad and there are different organizations that are not-for-profit that are doing different kinds of interventions in the development sector. What I would advise young women is, one, be driven by passion and also, to make a difference; change somebody’s life. That is a very important trait because working in the development sector can also be challenging. If you’re driven by a passion that helps you overcome some of the things that you encounter and demotivate you, or bring you down as an individual.

The other thing I would encourage is that it’s important for them to start early in their career. Once they start early in their career it will be very easy to succeed in the development sector. If you feel you need to grow your career in the development sector, then look for organizations that have a mission that aligns with your interests. One thing I believe is that any course or any career can drive you to an organization in the development sector.

For example, somebody can study as a doctor and end up working with organizations like MSF, not necessarily to go and work in private hospitals.

Organizations in the development sector that probably are intervening towards water, sanitation, and health, they are looking for engineers, you can be a water engineer, you can be engineering. Something is definitely out there, you can find an organization in the development sector that is actually undertaking an intervention that is within the career that you have chosen. I trained as an accountant and I am working in an organization that serves young refugee women. Why? Because I already have created my path.

I’m saying this because sometimes I encounter staff or people who maybe move from the profit sector and they say, “I want to venture into the nonprofit sector,” but when they come and try to fit into it, it really really becomes a challenge. Because one, there’s a way a profit-driven organization runs its businesses and there’s a way a not-for-profit organization runs its businesses. Not to say that a not-for-profit organization doesn’t need to generate additional revenues that would help them promote their cause. Doing an income-generating initiative in a not-for-profit organization is different from an organization driven by profit.

So I would advise the young girls out there to be driven by passion and, second, determine your path early in the career, which sector or industry do you want to go for? If you say you want to go to the development sector, whatever career you would be pursuing, it would drive you to the development sector and the returns are fulfilling.

Annika: That is so helpful. I will take that advice for myself. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today and to share so much about yourself and the incredible work you and RefuSHE do. We really, really appreciate it.

Fidelis: Thank you too.

Ashley: Thanks to Fidelis for making time to speak with us, and thanks to you for listening to this special episode. Please check back in next week for this month’s awesome episode on women who have chosen to work with refugees, and the incredible wisdom they have to share.

You can find out more about the work Refushe does at refushe.org.

Women in Foreign Policy is on Twitter @womeninFP. If you are looking to connect with myself or Annika, we’re also both on Twitter at @Ashley_e_Pratt and @annikaep, respectively.

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