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50 for 50: Highlighting Refugee Families on the International Day of Families

By Opportunity International

When Johanna left Venezuela in 2018 headed for Barranquilla, Colombia, she had one goal in mind: a better future for her family.

It was the first time she traveled abroad, and she arrived in Colombia as a refugee, facing a different culture, new people, and an entirely unfamiliar reality. Johanna thought she would be able to get a job in a shop, but she ran into persistent barriers and discrimination. Her status as an outsider made it hard for her to support herself and her children.

Throughout our 50-year history, Opportunity International has always worked to serve those most in need of resources, training, and support. We have moved down the economic ladder, working with those living in extreme poverty. We have extended our reach into more and more rural communities, ensuring that all families have access to financial services, even when they live miles from the nearest town. And over the course of five decades, we have created programs to serve the unique needs of some of the most vulnerable populations worldwide, including women, youth, and refugees like Joanna.

The UN Refugee Agency estimates that 80 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. Of that 80 million, over 30%—or 26.3 million people—are refugees fleeing violence and oppression within their home countries, and nearly half are children under 18. 

This year, in honor of the International Day of Families on May 15, we are highlighting the risks and challenges that refugee families face as they seek safety and security for themselves and their children, parents, and siblings—and the ways Opportunity is responding and serving these families.

Data from Opportunity International’s 2020 report on Refugees and COVID-19 describes the particularly vulnerable status of refugee families: Over 70% of refugees that Opportunity International interviewed from two Ugandan refugee settlements reported that they have no assets they could rely on in an emergency; and of the refugees with assets, only 5% of them reported they were financially stable enough to be able to keep those assets. Additionally, many families have taken in orphaned children or left a family member behind—and 82% of these households have a person with special needs.

Five countries currently host 39% of the world’s total refugees. With 1.4 million refugees, Uganda is the largest refugee host country in Africa; and with 1.8 million displaced individuals, Colombia is the second-largest refugee host country in the world. (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2020)

In June 2019, Opportunity International drew upon our long history in both Colombia and Uganda to launch the Refugees, Innovations, Self-reliance, and Empowerment (RISE) project. 

RISE takes a multifaceted approach to serving refugee families, addressing the main barriers to sustainable livelihoods and financial security by:

  • Designing financial products that increase income-earning potential and control over finances
  • Equipping refugees and hosts with financial skills to effectively manage household finances
  • Providing loans and digital cash transfer options to stimulate merchant activity

The program helps refugees like Johanna build sustainable livelihoods. It helps them build a new life in an unfamiliar place—and care for their families in the midst of incredibly difficult circumstances.

When Johanna was unable to find a job in her new community, she began making homemade pineapple candies and selling them in small coffee cups. Though business was difficult at first, Johanna learned how to find the most customers by selling near the local soccer team’s stadium.

With training and support from Opportunity International, Johanna learned how to work with her new community and best manage her personal finances. Her newfound income enabled her to provide essentials to her family, including diapers and food for her daughter.

Now, Johanna dreams of expanding her products to include a variety of new sweets. “Why not,” she says, “now that I have new thoughts and ideas.”

In Uganda, RISE continues to pilot programs that deliver financial services and training to refugee families living in settlements. And in Colombia, the program serves families like Johanna’s who have been displaced by violence in neighboring Venezuela. 

Every refugee has a unique story—but, like Johanna, they are all striving to provide safety and security for themselves and their families. By meeting the complex needs of these communities, Opportunity International is affirming our commitment to those who are most vulnerable, marginalized, and at risk of extreme poverty.


Each week for the next 50 weeks, we will share a piece of Opportunity's history—major or minor, sobering or inspiring. We have gotten to where we are today by facing some of the world's greatest challenges, with you by our side. Please join us in celebrating the many significant moments that have built the foundation on which we will embark on our most audacious vision yet: ending extreme poverty.

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