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Refugee voices from the Covid frontlines


Average read time: 5 minutes

Stay at home orders have become part of our Covid normality. But what if you had to flee your home? On World Refugee Day, we celebrate the invaluable contributions made by refugee volunteers in helping to establish life-saving hygiene habits in some of the world’s refugee camps.

The outline of a man in shadows against the orange light of sunset

From the very early days of the pandemic, it was clear that refugee communities were especially vulnerable to the virus. Living in crowded settlements, with often limited sanitation, meant that most refugees could not implement the trio of preventative measures – handwashing, social distancing and wearing masks – that were protecting people elsewhere in the world.

In March 2020, Unilever and the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) created the Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC) to help the most vulnerable communities around the world, including refugees, tackle Covid-19.

“Imagine living in a refugee camp where social distancing is impossible and having no way to wash your hands with soap” says Helena Dollimore, Senior Manager, Global Sustainability. “The HBCC set out to bring hygiene products, Covid-19 awareness and behaviour change, and hygiene infrastructure to a billion people in 37 low- and middle-income countries because we know that no one is safe until we are all safe.”

Reaching over 10 million refugees

The HBCC draws on the long history of hygiene programming by our brands Lifebuoy and Domestos, alongside other Unilever behaviour-change expertise, to stem the spread of Covid-19. Working with 21 INGOs and UN organisations including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the public–private partnership aims to help up to 26 million refugees by communicating and implementing hygiene habits designed to limit the spread of the virus.

A year on, HBCC partners have reached over 10 million refugees and people living in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Kenya, Jordan, India, DRC, Cameroon and Bangladesh who have been forcibly displaced. Over 30 million hygiene products have been donated by Unilever for distribution among refugee communities, including the largest donation that UNHCR has ever received from the private sector. Staff and volunteers have been trained on hygiene best practices, treatment facilities have been strengthened, and countless lives have been saved.

This success is in no small part thanks to the many refugee volunteers who were able to communicate the urgency and importance of changing hygiene behaviour and effect real change in the camps. Here are just a few of their stories.


Image of Amuna – a 31-year-old refugee volunteer from the Ajuong Thok refugee camp in Jamjang, South Sudan.


Amuna Philimon is a Community Volunteer who is assisting refugees with essential Covid-19 prevention education in South Sudan.

“When war broke out in my village, I fled the conflict from the South Kordofan region of Sudan, and crossed to South Sudan on 25 November 2011 to seek international protection,” she says. “I started volunteering with UNHCR in March 2018 as a community outreach volunteer (COV). A big part of my job is to help people access services. That could mean guiding people through the procedures when they lose important documents, ensuring they have access to free legal services, and facilitating their access to reinstate their ration cards for food assistance in case of loss.

Since 2020, my work has taken on new importance by ensuring that Covid-19 infection, prevention and control measures are maintained through effective handwashing practices with water and soap, as well as reinforcing and maintaining social and physical distancing. Being a community volunteer has allowed me to learn a lot, and to play a crucial role in the community. Through door-to-door visits, we identify vulnerable people – such as the elderly or persons with disabilities – and work closely with humanitarian organisations to ensure they have access to food, health, and psychosocial support and services.”


Image of Thierry – a refugee volunteer from the Central African Republic


Thierry Angazika is a refugee from the Central African Republic and a trained hygiene community worker at the DRC’s Inke camp. He helps keep the camp’s facilities clean and shares important information about hygiene and how it can help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“I wake up every day at 5am. I raise awareness on water and hygiene issues through door-to-door visits. I inspect water points to monitor how people wash their hands and check if the handwashing stations have enough water. With the bicycle provided by UNHCR, I pedal through the camp and can refill the handwashing stations three to five times a day. I really love being a hygiene promoter because it is for my health and also the health of my brothers and sisters. Through this, I serve my community, my parents and my children because I begin good hygiene practices at home.”


Image of Esatis – a refugee rap artist from the Central African Republic

UNHCR/Fabien Faivre

As part of Unilever’s HBCC programme, the UNHCR team in DRC helped Central African refugee rap artist Esatis Lebon record a song to highlight the importance of handwashing. Now ‘Be-Afrika’ – which means ‘Heart of Africa’ in Sango, the national language of the Central African Republic – is raising awareness about coronavirus and how to help stop both the spread of the virus itself and misinformation about it.

While some refugees and locals in the DRC express fears about the virus, there are others who do not believe that the virus exists or that it is something that should concern them. The song has now been released on local radio stations as a way to inform people about the virus and how to avoid contracting and/or spreading it.

“I wanted to use my skills and release a song which could easily draw the attention to refugees from the Central African Republic and Congo and, at the same time, promote Covid-19 prevention measures”, says Esatis. “I feel that it is my duty to be in solidarity with my compatriots and my host country.”

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