Kristin Davis On Women Refugees Becoming The Boss
Kristin Davis, the actress best known for her role in the iconic series Sex and the City, has spent more than a decade advocating for the rights of women and girls and has just become a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
“Over the years doing this work most of my interaction has been with women and girls because over half of all refugees are children and about 83% of all refugees are women and children. It is a huge focus and that is something that people often forget when they see the large numbers of affected people,” says Davis.
Davis has visited Rwanda, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Australia as part of her work with refugees. She has not only met families within the refugee camps, but she also followed refugees through their resettlement process into the U.S.
She says that to survive women and young girls, in these conflict-affected countries, are breaking the mold of the "classical entrepreneur" because they have had to create innovative businesses in order to survive.
"These are women have already had to think outside the box in terms of survival whether it is feeling conflict or getting food. That’s what entrepreneurs do, they come up with an idea and make it work in the real world. You are in a very basic survival mode when you have to create opportunities out of nothing - for you and your children,” she says.
Here, Davis shares her experiences with Women@Forbes and reveals how women and girl refugees are making it work despite all the odds.
Michelle King: How did you get involved?
Kristin Davis: I have been involved for years and I have focused on women’s livelihood work, where you go around the world and work with women from extremely poor situations. We would start projects to help women make a living to feed their children and themselves and not be reliant on another organization or a man. Women would get their own independence and be able to provide for their children. I wanted to go to the source and help.
King: Why are the challenges for women and girls different as entrepreneurs?
Davis: The challenges for women and girls are different because almost always they have children or they are children themselves. This means they tend to think of working in terms of being helpful to women or girls in general. Also women and girls in general might not have come from a situation where they were free to contribute in the workforce. They might have only been allowed to contribute in their homes.
They also have tremendous strength and resilience as they have already fled from their homes, gotten their families through it, found a way to survive and ensure their children survive. Now they can work, and when you say that to them their faces often light up because they have not always necessarily had that chance.
There is so much strength and power in having to hold a family together, especially in a crisis where there is violence and you have to try and survive. You can then apply that (fight) to having a chance to work and make a better future for your children. That is a driving force for so many refugees because this future is now tangible, it is something they can achieve. For women who did not have this before it is a huge motivator and something we all take for granted.
King: Example of how women are embodying the entrepreneurial spirit?
Davis: We got to go to a camp in Uganda, where refugees are allowed to work and leave the camp to work. All refugees also receive a plot of land on arrival in Uganda. I met this girl, Fiona whose parents had been killed, and she had learned in the camp how to do seamstress work and tailoring. She now has two sewing machines and she is making dresses and handbags out of silk. She also has one employee, who is also an ex-refugee. You would never picture this an 18-year-old with her own business.
Another example is Sister Angelique, who lives in a very remote part of the Congo that is incredibly hard to get to. She is a refugee, and when she started all she had was a bicycle. She would ride around and find young women who had suffered rape or torture. She would find mothers who had all their children taken. She would become like a social worker to the area. She started teaching them seamstress skills. She got a piece of land and she started taking them in and they began to work the land together.
She was awarded with the Nansen Refugee Award and she used the money to buy an even bigger piece of land and then she started a bakery. It is in this very remote place, but this entire building is full of the smell of fresh croissants. There are now 30 something women living there and 35 children who are orphans who she is now raising. She has three businesses now, childcare happening for the orphans, the bakery and the farm. Because it is so remote she is now basically feeding the entire region.
King: What are some of the biggest challenges women and girl refugees face?
Davis: Globally, there is a misunderstanding of who these people actually are. These are not a bunch of people that we don’t know anything about. It is much more in-depth than that. Some of the refugees have been in camps with their families for over 20 years, so we know who these people are and we know their life story.
People in refugee camps want to work really badly. Some refugee camps like Rwanda and Uganda allow refugees to work outside the camp and those who don’t have the ability to work outside the camp will find a way to work inside the camp. There will be a (ramshackle) store, where women have found a way to sell food, or blankets they have made from old clothes. These women are refugees trying to figure out how to make it work.
King: Why is it so important to women and young girls to not live off handouts?
Davis: Coming to America, refugees often don’t really believe that it will happen. They always remain hopeful that they can go home and it is such a distant reality that some of them are afraid. After 20 years, you can understand this.
They are willing to take any job because they are so thrilled to have any job. They also have to pay back their plane tickets. Many of the women are trying to get their childcare licenses because that is something that comes so easily to them after being in a camp and taking care of their children. One women opened a childcare facility and she had 17 clients because she would remain open in the evenings and throughout weekends because she wanted to work. Even if it is cleaning a building all night, (which most of them do) the importance they put on earning things is not something people understand. For them, working for something is the best thing. They want to earn it. If you have been in a situation where you have not been able to work then you really want to work.