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RYVU: Meet Dr Robert Turyamureeba, Mbarara University of Science and Technology

20th June 2022

Refugee Youth Volunteering Uganda is an international research project looking at how volunteering affects skills, employability and inequalities experienced by young refugees in Uganda.

The project is led by Northumbria University in collaboration with Loughborough University, Uganda Martyrs University and Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda.

To mark Refugee Week 2022, we’ve taken the opportunity to catch up with members of the research team and find out about their contribution to the study, which has explored the relationship between volunteering and livelihoods for young refugees.

 Caption: Dr Robert Turyamureeba, Mbarara University of Science and Technology

Tell us about yourself, your research interests and how you became involved with the RYVU research.

My name is Robert Turyamureeba, an academic and practitioner with over 14 years of experience as a community worker focused on uplifting the lives of refugees, children and youths in both demarcated refugee settlements and host communities in Uganda. During my early school days, I shared desks with refugee pupils, did so many extracurricular activities together and most importantly, developed love, faith, friendship and unbreakable bond with refugees, whom I viewed as brothers and sisters.

Some of the specific work I have done as an individual and on behalf of organisations such as UNICEF, include the implementation of child protection policies and generally empowering the youth in community problem identification, analysis and solving in a participatory manner.

Currently, I am a Post-Doctoral Researcher based at Mbarara University of Science and Technology. Since 2019, I have been working with Refugee Youth Volunteering Uganda (RYVU) project.

For the last three years in Uganda, this research project has focused on exploring the kinds of voluntary labour practiced by young refugees and investigating how these impact on their skills, employability and the inequalities they experience. We have gone through several methodological phases and now we are at the last phase - research dissemination.  

Outline your contribution to the research and the most important thing you have learned.

I have been instrumental in in many ways. First, at conceptual level, I participated in developing operational definitions particularly the definition of ‘volunteering’ and also designing and pretesting of the research tools, for example the survey tool and other qualitative research tools. Secondly, I have been one of the focal people linking the community participants with other project team members who for some reasons, including COVID-19, were not able to physically reach participants regularly.

I could refer to myself as “one of the chief field mobilisers” of the project. I have successfully organised many workshops throughout all phases of the project. Most importantly, I have successfully coordinated and overseen data collection of one of the biggest, if not the biggest research surveys, ever conducted on refugees, volunteering, skills and employability.

I have also played a key role in ensuring that our research findings are disseminated in rural settlements and urban Kampala city. The most important thing I have learned is that the more we do research, the more we discover that there is a lot to research about, so we shouldn’t feel hurt that we are not able to expand the study scope along the way. I tend to look at our study as foundational and further research can always build on ours. For example, another study could focus on “volunteering as exploitation among young people in both refugee and host-community settings”.

Tell us how the young refugees involved in this research describe finding the determination to rebuild their lives, the relationships they have with their host communities, and the role volunteer work plays in this.

I was impressed by their eagerness to volunteer with RYVU but also their desire to advance their careers in various fields such as academia, agriculture, hairdressing, community work, civil and mechanical engineering, medicine and general humanitarian work.

Although young refugees portray a high degree of readiness to rebuild their own lives, their employment and volunteering aspirations are always shuttered by mainly two things. First is skills and qualifications: our survey findings show that the lack of qualifications (24 per cent) and the lack of skills (19 per cent) are the two most common barriers to volunteering by youth refugees. Secondly, the host environment: not many Ugandans think of refugees as an asset but rather as foreigners who come in to share the available resources like land, fire wood and water. In fact, there have been many reported cases where refugees violently clash with host-communities over cultivation and grazing land. In the job market, young refugees are generally viewed as real competitors.

Walking around many refugee settlements in Uganda, you will see many young people doing all sorts of activities as either volunteers or paid labourers. This particularly helps expand their social network and resultant social capital, keeps them busy, and most notably earns them a living as they sometimes get a token of appreciation in form of transport refund and lunch from host volunteer organisations.

What is the most important thing you feel we can all learn from this research?

Helping someone out of trouble like taking part in constructing emergency shelter for elderly makes such volunteers feel recognised and worthwhile. Many young people across all study sites are motivated to help others while also helping themselves gain skills which leads to paid opportunities; so, this research project makes clear the linkages between volunteering, skills acquisition and employment.  

Another key takeaway is the fact that job exploitation and discrimination based on one’s nationality or status is also prevalent in refugee settings. During one of our workshops with the young people, one young male refugee from Nakivale refugee settlement wondered why refugees are mainly employed in organisations as messengers, administrators, cleaners and security guards but not as top level managers, directors or any policy level positions. In this regard, young refugees called for urgent policy actions to end such vices that limit their potential opportunities.

How would you like to see the RYVU project facilitate change for the better?

The RYVU team will reach out to all stakeholders, especially policy makers, with our findings and ask them to use our research-based evidence to push through policy agendas that enable the conducive environment for volunteers to reach their potential. This project could also mobilise additional funding to facilitate the dissemination pf research findings to a wider audience, locally and internationally. Awareness of the refugee predicament is a crucial step toward right actions.

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