Building a future for refugees

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Cranston native Justin Bibee is out to give African refugees hope and a future.

Bibee, who is now back stateside in Vermont, has worked for months to help increase availability to financial programming for refugees in three camps in Tanzania: Nyarugusu, Nduta and Mtendeli. The first camp is the third largest in the world with about 133,000 refugees.

He earned his undergraduate degree for justice studies from Rhode Island College in 2012 and since then has been pursuing his master’s at the School of International Training Graduate Institute in the most hands-on way possible. His pilot program with the United Nationals Capital Development Fund is centered on protecting the refugees’ means of living.

“I’ve always had a passion for human rights,” Bibee, 29, said. “I believe they’re the foundation of life on earth. There’s a stigma in the camps that refugees don’t have money and in fact they do, and there’s a need for them to store and receive money like anyone else. What I did especially was lead focus group discussions for refugees who have been through business development programs.”

The Tanzanian camps serves mostly Burundian and Congolese refugees, with an average of 316 arriving every day, and Bibee said he’s met people from all walks of life. He said he spoke with a bakery owner, a barber and even someone who invested in solar panels that charged cell phones, among numerous others. These are people fleeing violence and civil war.

Bibee helped determine that savings groups would be the best option to expand financial services to the refugees, and he navigated the jargon to explain how that would work.

“Savings groups are an option to increase access to financial services, meeting an important need not yet filled in the formal sector,” Bibee said on his UNCDF document provided to the Herald. “Saving groups mobilize community resources, empower participants, and enable low-income people to better plan and manage their financial lives.

“They provide members a secure place to save and the opportunity to borrow in small amounts and on flexible terms. Moreover, the benefits of savings groups goes beyond the financial to the social, positively affecting the social and personal development of its members. For instance, groups help build financial literacy, discipline and confidence among its members.”

Bibee goes on to explain that savings groups are “generally composed” of 15 to 25 people who meet on a consistent basis to save money. At the conclusion of the nine- to 12-month cycle, the money is appropriated and the process resumes.

According to Bibee, savings groups are more prevalent in Africa than anywhere else in the world. About 73 percent of the 5.5 million savings group members worldwide reside in Africa, and Tanzania is no exception.

Eventually, these savings groups would be linked up to banks. Currently, 60 percent of money in Tanzania is considered informal.

“By providing financial education and digital literacy through a savings group led approach, digital finance can play a pivotal role in linking savings groups to formal financial institutions,” Bibee writes.

He has until August to produce and present his 35- to 50-page capstone paper about his time in Tanzania to complete his conflict transformation degree at SIT, based in Brattleboro, Vermont. He is also minoring in sustainable development. SIT requires graduate students to spend a year on campus before serving their practicum, which is just what Bibee’s five-month trip to Tanzania did.

While he was taken aback by the beauty of the country, saying it was one of the “most beautiful travel experiences,” he did note that the misconceptions of refugees extend well beyond their finances.

“You see poverty, but you see the smiles and the laughter, and there’s thriving businesses within the camp,” Bibee said Friday. “They’re looked at as at fault, [when] they’re refugees at no fault of their own. People who are kind of against refugees coming here, then you should be the one donating the most money, you should be helping out the most.”

Now he is back to Brattleboro, working at Youth Services as a shelter coordinator and case manager while he completes his degree. It was a job he got through a Skype interview while still in Tanzania. In fact, they wanted him to start even sooner than he could.

“I asked if they mind if I [had] a week in Rhode Island,” Bibee said. “Most of my family didn’t meet my wife.”

Bibee plans on settling down and attend law school. His end game is to go to Vermont Law School and become a human rights lawyer. He would like to buy a house in the near future with his wife, Yousra, whom he met in Morocco during his three years there as a Peace Corps volunteer.

While he wants to settle down, his advocacy is nonstop. He is more than just a part of the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNAUSA); he helped start the Vermont branch.

At the time of this story’s writing, he was in Washington, D.C. at the 2017 UNAUSA Leadership Summit, alongside the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders, to argue for U.N. funding in President Donald Trump’s budget.

It’s all in a day’s work for Bibee, whether he is fighting for the U.N. or the thousands of refugees in Tanzania.

“I’ve been into human rights since I can remember, an advocate and passionate about human rights issues,” Bibee said. “The most patriotic thing you can do is stand up for the rights of others.”

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