Bahati Kanyamanza named to U.S. Refugee Advisory Board

December 21st, 2023   |   Alumni, DEIA, SIT Graduate Institute

SIT alumnus will advocate for refugee participation at all levels of decision-making

In the foreground, a man in profile gestures while three others in the background smile. On the wall is a large world map.
Bahati Kanyamanza, foreground, talks during an SIT class.

Four years ago, Bahati Kanyamanza was one of five SIT Global Scholars to complete their master’s degrees at SIT Graduate Institute. Each of the five came to the U.S. as a refugee or asylum-seeker and received full scholarships from SIT under a program aimed at supporting refugees at a time when then-U.S. President Donald Trump was sharply curtailing immigration from the Global South.

Kanyamanza is from Democratic Republic of the Congo. At 14, he became a refugee in Uganda, where he lived for 17 years before he resettled in the United States in 2016. While in Uganda, he co-founded CIYOTA, a nonprofit organization that supports conflict-affected children and youth in Africa’s Great Lakes region to access quality education and helps refugee families to start income-generating initiatives.

After graduating from SIT with an MA in sustainable development, Kanyamanza went on to work at Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services in Connecticut, and then at Asylum Access, a global organization advocating for the rights of forcibly displaced people, where he led advocacy and engagement with key institutions influencing global displacement including the World Bank, the U.S. government, and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Currently, Kanyamanza is global partnerships director at International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP),  a global legal aid and advocacy organization working to create a world where refugees and all people seeking safety are empowered to claim their right to freedom of movement and a path to lasting refuge.

He was also recently named to a three-year advisory role with the United State Refugee Advisory Board, a partnership with Refugee Congress, Refugee Council USA, and Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration that advocates for forcibly displaced persons in the U.S. to have meaningful engagement on regional and international bodies that make policies affecting them.

How can stateless people be represented by organizations like the United Nations, whose members are nation-states?

That’s something Kanyamanza has been saying and doing for some time. In an op-ed published last year by WBUR in Boston, he wrote: “The United Nations is supposed to be the world’s leading protector and guardian of displaced people. But the members of the governing body of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are all diplomats—not one member of this group is a refugee or former refugee.”

“Refugees are caught in a catch-22,” he pointed out. “How can stateless people be represented by organizations like the United Nations, whose members are nation-states?”

We reached out to Kanyamanza to talk about his career in refugee advocacy, and to ask him how SIT helped to prepare him for his work:

I came to SIT after being a refugee for about 20 years. Looking at global displacement challenges, I really wanted to continue advocating and engaging different stakeholders in addressing these complex issues. When you want to engage these huge stakeholders, you have to be prepared. SIT was a solid foundation for me. When I was offered a scholarship, my interest was to find a program that was going to prepare me for a career on refugee issues since these are issues I have lived most of my life. The sustainable development degree stood out for me. It had a combination of policy advocacy and leadership (social sector organizations) courses which I found attractive for my future career.

We had classes around policy, advocacy methods, and analysis. After each course, our professors asked students to write reflection papers. This helped me to think through what I wanted to do after my education and most importantly, how I would use the acquired knowledge in the field. Also, our professors were super experienced, not only as teachers. All of them were doing work in the field. And the combination of theory and practice from these professors helped me understand theory and the practice in the field.

SIT isn't a big school. There were opportunities to have direct one-on-one conversations with the professor, then spend as much time as we wanted asking all the questions we had. I found this to be a huge opportunity

SIT isn't a big school. There were opportunities to have direct one-on-one conversations with the professor, then spend as much time as we wanted asking all the questions we had. I found this to be a huge opportunity. Many people don't pay attention to that. I looked at it as mentorship—spending a lot of time with most of my professors discussing these global issues, asking critical questions, and also being challenged as a student. And that's what I'm doing in the field. SIT was a huge, huge opportunity for me to prepare to go into this field.

When I left SIT, I started working to help young refugees in Connecticut access college education and prepare them to start a new life in the U.S., where the system is overwhelming for every newcomer. In addition, for young people there are the challenges of dealing with adulthood or being a teenager, adjusting to a new home, supporting their families, learning in a completely new education system, in many cases with limited English language. My role was to make sure these young people had the support they needed both academically, mentally, and socially.

Wasn’t that also the work you were doing in Uganda?

My work in the U.S. is a continuation of what I was doing when I was a refugee in Uganda. I became a refugee in 1999 in Uganda. In 2000, I started working with young people in my village to help them focus on productive activities that would help them live a healthier and decent life. There were issues around marriages as early as 10, early pregnancies, substance use, poverty, among other problems. The camp didn't have structures to support these young people, the majority of whom had either lost their parents or were separated from them during the war.

I worked with refugee youth in my village between 2000 and 2004, and then in 2005 I paired with two other friends to co-found an organization called CIYOTA to help young people access education, but also to help them with mental health, some leadership preparation, and ways to create small businesses because of the high rate of unemployment and poverty.

We also wanted to help them understand the complexity of the problems we faced as young people in a refugee settlement and in Africa at large.

If you had to name one key thing that help a young person in a refugee camp, or someone coming to the United States, to have hope, to have a vision of their path forward, what would it be?

Access to quality education. When we looked at our problems in the refugee settlement, we had challenges in the health sector, challenges of poverty, we had challenges of isolation. We thought that education would be a pathway to solve those problems. Health issues could be solved through education. Conflict could be addressed through access to quality education that pays attention to social issues, to women’s issues, to gender-based violence issues, poverty eradication and socioeconomic development. That's what I would say we should provide to young, displaced persons across the globe.

Kanyamanza, right, with two other SIT Global Scholars at commencement in 2019.

After Connecticut you went to Asylum Access. What did you do there?

Asylum Access had started this huge portfolio of engaging the World Bank, which had just announced over $3 billion to support specific refugee-hosting countries, to support them financially to be able to address the problems I've mentioned above and to respond to the impacts of COVID-19. At the same time, we realized that there could be an opportunity for civil society to engage the World Bank and make sure that the funding achieved its intended impact. Asylum Access was also engaging the U.S. government and UNHCR.

I was also given an opportunity to build partnerships with civil society organizations in Africa with a focus on how the work I was doing in the U.S. could also be done at the local and regional level. In particular, we were preparing and supporting civil society organizations including refugee-led organizations to engage the U.S. government and the World Bank in East Africa.

I was looking at how our advocacy could translate to regional and national advocacy. By the time I left, I had helped establish a model in which local civil society organizations, including refugee aid organizations, could directly engage these institutions.

What could regional or local engagement look like? What's an example of that?

Here's one example: In Uganda we received a lot of corn. At the same time in my refugee settlement, refugees including my father were growing and harvesting corn, but we didn't have the market to sell it. Still, the World Food Programme was pumping us with corn when what we needed was a market for the corn we were producing. It was an opportunity for the WFP to focus on another community that actually needed the corn while at the same time it would have helped refugees in my former refugee settlement to develop a proper livelihood by helping them find the market for their corn.

Refugees don't participate in selecting their leaders. They're not allowed to vote. At the same time, the decisions in government or at these huge institutions are made by staff or leaders with no experience of displacement.

The U.S. government is a huge global humanitarian player. We invest billions of dollars in humanitarian work. But one of the critical challenges we are seeing is that all the decisions are made in Washington, DC, and New York, or in Geneva, without the consultation of affected people, refugees. Part of my work has been to pay attention to how local affected communities like refugees can influence priorities for these institutions.

Refugees don't participate in selecting their leaders. They're not allowed to vote. At the same time, the decisions in government or at these huge institutions are made by staff or leaders with no experience of displacement. The projects they come up with may be very beautiful with good intentions, but because there's a disconnect with the people they want to serve, these projects may not end up making an impact.

Beyond establishing CIYOTA, part of my work has focused on how to make sure that refugees are consulted on their needs and priorities. If we ask refugees about their needs and priorities, would they say education? Health care? Livelihood? One of the mistakes development institutions are making is not engaging local people they serve. Throughout my work, I have pushed for local community involvement.

Consulting refugees to understand their priorities and design projects based on those priorities; refugees being part of monitoring and implementation of those projects—that is the only way their needs can be met and problems solved.

I also advocate for refugee leadership, hiring forcibly displaced people, people with displacement experience, in senior leadership roles including the UNHCR’s executive committee. Refugees understand the problems they face or have faced. When I tell people about living in a refugee camp—going to sleep hungry, with no medical care, or going to school with no pen or notebook—nobody understands, but I've lived this life. I understand and I can be part of the solution.

You and I, we can sit in the U.S. and say, OK, this is what we're going to do for refugees in Uganda. But when we go there, we realize this is not what they want.

We must find funding for local refugee-led organizations and civil organizations that are rooted in these communities and use local solutions to address the problems. You and I, we can sit in the U.S. and say, OK, this is what we're going to do for refugees in Uganda. But when we go there, we realize this is not what they want.

Throughout my career, I've been working to help development partners and stakeholders understand these issues and ways we can work collaboratively with affected people or communities to understand their needs and priorities and invest in projects that will make an impact.

Do you think you're seeing progress?

There's progress, but we want to see much more. These are the same issues I spoke about 10 years ago and we continue to talk about them today: refugee leadership, meaningful refugee inclusion and participation, funding refugee-led ventures. Now, we are seeing a constant push by many refugee advocates and allies such as Refugee Congress, Refugee Council USA, and Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, R-SEAT, Refugee-Led Networks and organizations. Researchers are producing data to show the impact of refugee-led organizations. The U.S., UNHCR, and Canada have refugee advisory boards and other countries are coming up with the same.

We see donors starting to directly invest in refugee-led organizations. We have started seeing international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) such as IRAP and Asylum Access, my current and former employers, respectively believing and trusting in refugee leadership by hiring refugees or people with forced displacement experience in senior leadership roles, sharing their own funds with RLOs and advocating for funding RLOs.  All these are efforts worth celebrating.

There must be trust and even risk-taking if we want to see real change and impact.

However, the journey ahead is far too long. Some international actors claim that local actors don't have the capacity to lead or to manage finances. With this assumption, it is hard to forge meaningful partnerships with local actors and communities. There must be trust and even risk-taking if we want to see real change and impact.

There are advocates including refugees who are coming up with new, innovative approaches, and there are successful refugee-led organizations to look at as models for investment and scaling. Governments, funders, and INGOs have started listening and slowly realizing that without meaningful engagement of refugees in their own issues, the intended impact won’t be reached. Part of what we’re doing at the United States Refugee Advisory Board is to tell the UNHCR, the U.S. government, and other stakeholders what we would like to see in the sector by paying attention to the issues above.

My hope is that we can continue to build on this momentum, on this foundation, and understand that without accountability to the affected people (forcibly displaced people) there’s no way we will address the complex problems they face.

Talk more about the U.S. Refugee Advisory Board (USRAB).

USRAB was created to meaningfully engage forcibly displaced people, and for refugees and asylum seekers to influence policy in different organizations, including the U.S. government. To serve as an advisor one has to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the challenges of displaced people and experience engaging with government entities, NGOs, even local organizations. One must show a commitment to addressing community issues for forcibly displaced people.

What do you hope to achieve at the end of your three-year term?

Throughout my work for over 20 years, I've been interested in, one, better refugee policies and framework, two, refugee livelihood, and three, meaningful engagement. Those are still my core commitments as an individual leader. Each one of us brings to the board their own experience, expertise, and their lived experience of displacement. I think the combination of all these advisors from different regions, different countries, different states in the United States will bring amazing opportunities and expertise to advise and support the U.S. government and international organizational multilaterals like UNHCR to reshape their work and their thinking around how they address refugee issues.

My role as an advisor is to make sure that I use my forced-displacement experience and expertise to shape better policies for refugees in the U.S and globally.

My personal commitment will continue to be toward better frameworks, better policies. How do we make sure that when we resettle refugees in the U.S. they are well-supported? How do we keep our commitment to refugee settlement programs? How do we make sure that the U.S., as a big player in the humanitarian sector, takes a lead when it comes to improving refugee policies, engaging and funding refugee organizations? The U.S. government pays critical attention to displacement and invests heavily in this work. If the U.S. does a good job, other countries are likely to follow suit. My role as an advisor is to make sure that I use my forced-displacement experience and expertise to shape better policies for refugees in the U.S and globally.

A major driver of migration in the 21st century is the climate crisis. Are you seeing intersectionality on that issue on the various boards and organizations that you work with?

Yes, definitely. Climate displacement is a major concern for everybody. We can't isolate it because it's becoming one of the major drivers for displacement.

Climate change doesn't have a border. Displacement doesn’t have a border. When there's a crisis in one continent, you have an obligation to act if you are a concerned citizen. We are a global village, and we must act as global citizens.

In my language, we say that if your neighbor's hut is on fire, you have no idea how safe yours is. The fire might extend to your own house. No matter where we are born, we love our homes, no matter the conditions there. Nobody leaves their home completely willingly; people leave for many reasons, some leave because they can't survive there or do not see a better future and others are forced to leave to seek safety, especially during an active conflict or war. Therefore, the U.S. and other countries must continue working together collaboratively to address drivers of displacement including climate change, conflict, and others.