While going to the restroom is a fleeting thought in the daily lives of citizens in urban spaces, as mundane as breathing or walking — for refugees, deciding to use a restroom can be a costly consideration and mean putting their safety at risk.
By Jasmine Moheb
For many of us living in the richest countries in the world, we do not experience the challenges of only having access to restrooms that are over capacity, lack proper safeguards such as doors and locks, and are exposed to outside dangers. However, this is a reality that is faced daily by communities that have been displaced from their homes and are facing uncertain living conditions. Refugees compose a substantial number of the 4.2 billion people in the world that do not have proper access to toilets, according to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Just one example from the Democratic Republic of the Congo shows that about 55 percent of the 7,217 refugees who arrived in Mulongwe since 2017 have constructed their own latrines due to insufficient facilities. Something that should be a basic necessity is severely limited among those who do not have permanent homes.
Organizations like Helping Hand for Relief and Development, however, are empowering the next generation that is proactive in helping these refugee communities establish basic sanitation needs. An undergraduate Muslim-Palestinian student at UC San Diego, Yasmeen Obeid, went on a trip with this international humanitarian and development-motivated organization to Kenya and Jordan where she witnessed the living conditions of refugees firsthand. She, along with several of her colleagues, participated in efforts on the ground such as orphan support or after-school programs, and then came back to the United States to begin a project of her own.
Obeid chose to dedicate her project to the development of bathrooms in unofficial refugee settlements. By reaching out to friends and family, she was able to raise over $10,000 to build restrooms for Rohingya and Syrian refugees as well as East African communities in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda – allocating funding based on regional need and construction costs.
Along with her own personal experiences of visiting these displacement refugee encampments, Yasmeen explains that the risks to refugees’ health and personal safety when using restrooms have become compounded with COVID-19. When visiting, she noticed a considerable deficiency of water and hygienic spaces. For example, just one general restroom area would be used by approximately twenty families. Given the importance of washing hands and maintaining distance from others, access to safe and clean restroom facilities has become paramount.
According to the International Rescue Committee, refugee populations are especially vulnerable to the ongoing pandemic. This is in part due to their densely-populated living conditions that have been proven to transmit the virus up to four times faster than in Wuhan at the peak of its outbreak. The lack of sanitation facilities and healthcare makes these populations especially in need of global support.
Another concern with the limited supply of bathrooms is safety. Obeid explains that when these restroom spaces are not secure, they become especially dangerous for women as they may face violence or even sexual assault. With the funds raised from her restroom development project, Yasmeen will be implementing basic safeguards to protect women in these spaces such as putting locks on the doors of restrooms. This will allow for the preservation of their privacy and safety in these personal spaces.
While access to clean and safe restrooms may be taken for granted in many urbanized parts of the world, refugee populations are not only lacking access to safe sanitation spaces but also facing exacerbated health consequences with the onset of COVID-19. Obeid concludes that it is more important now than ever before to be educated on the living conditions of refugees and to support initiatives that seek to provide humanitarian aid.