There are over 1.2 billion youth in the world today. Among them is one young leader, Avina Ajith, who at 24 years of age traveled halfway across the globe to help make a difference in the lives of refugees whose plight went largely unnoticed by much of the world.
Avina has dedicated herself to supporting refugees who arrive in Ghana from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, and Sudan, among others. In Ghana alone, more than 16,000 refugees live in camps with little to no geographical or financial access, and of course no social contacts..
In many ways, Avina is like most 24-year-olds around the world. She loves to eat and cook, and is discovering new hobbies to get through the pandemic, including experimenting with baking. She is a cat and plant mother, a love that is reflected throughout her home. The pandemic has affected everyone, and it certainly was not kind to a social startup leader like her.
Like many of her Possibilist peers, Avina works seven days a week, often putting in 12-hour days. She knows that every minute she puts into her organization brings hope to some of the most neglected people in the world. That was her motivation when she launched the Refugee Integration Organization (RIO).
The Journey of a Changemaker
Avina’s journey began when she secured a highly coveted job as a journalist with Reuters. For two years she focused on reporting about social exclusion of refugees, especially those in Africa. After saving up money, she then quit her job to visit Ghana and learn more about the realities of the place she reported on during her journalist days.
By her own admission, nothing could have prepared her for the life-altering experiences there that gave her direction and a true sense of purpose.
During her stay at the Krisan refugee camp in Ghana, she was chaperoned by Abraham Davies, who fled to the refugee camp at age 16 after witnessing terrible ordeals committed against his family. Now a father of three girls, he shares his story to demonstrate how life for him — and thousands of others like him — remains a struggle after leaving their homes and seeking shelter in refugee camps. He explained that there are those who had and would live out their entire lives in such camps.
Avina relayed stories she witnessed of single fathers who handed over their children to neighboring families to head out and seek work, often never returning. She met women who walked through the desert for days and months, facing terrible atrocities during their journeys to just find a safe place to call home.
What brings stories like these together are two things. First, that people like Abraham are all seeking safety, and second, they want to earn a living to change their circumstances. Some begin in small ways, like selling homemade food or setting up a poultry farm, but the opportunities for education and workforce inclusion in camps like Krisan are limited.
Bringing About Change
Visiting the Krisan refugee camp and getting to know those who lived there inspired Avina, along with co-founder Rya G. Kuewor, to set up RIO in Accra, Ghana. The organization aspires to change the way people look at refugee camps — often as a burden on the country — and instead inspires them to see a microcosm full of potential. Many living within the confines of the camps are skilled workers. They are willing and ready to integrate into any system that will allow them to earn a living wage and establish a future for them and their families. “They just need a little support,” Avina offered. “A chance to earn a better life.”
RIO is influenced by the idea that the more money circulating in the refugee camp community the better. The more that refugees can offer to the local community, the greater the chances are for integration into regular society. This will ultimately have a positive impact on the larger economy of the country.
In 2019, RIO successfully provided microfinancing to 23 women at very low interest rates, which was used to build small home-based businesses. The money was unrestricted and spent on very basic things, such as transportation, allowing borrowers the opportunity to buy essentials from the open market and sell it within the camps. The organization provided support to the women throughout the entire process, helping them to build out sustainable businesses processes, such as understanding supply and demand, financial management, and more.
What began as a small initiative with the 23 women pumped life into the camp. For the first time in 25 years, people engaged in forms of business, even those as small as selling home-cooked food. It provided a way for refugees to contribute to their community, despite it being a non-conducive environment, with major paucity of funds.
Per the Possibilist study, 66% of young changemakers said that they cannot cover their financial needs solely through the work on their initiative alone, meaning they have to look elsewhere for financial compensation and security. Yet they continue to do what they can to make the world a better place.
Avina pursues the opportunity to improve people’s lives despite the barriers that she — and the women she is trying to help — face. As she continues to work toward making the world a better place, Avina is redefining what many think youth are capable of and inspiring current and future young leaders like herself.
She also has a message for youth today who do have access to opportunities like higher education: “College may not lead you to where you need to be, but it teaches you things that you can apply in different spaces. Be more cognizant of situations in all kinds of struggles and align yourself with that in some way. With education and the resources youth have today, we’re capable of bringing about great change.”