Building Homes: Home Is Everything

Megan Gilbert: Hello, everyone. My name is Megan Gilbert and welcome to Building Homes: Home Is Everything. One thing the last year has highlighted for so many of us, is how important our home is to our well-being. But nearly 80 million people around the world have been forced to leave their home, leave that safety and that security, because of conflict or some other emergency.

In late March, a massive fire ripped through the Rohingya refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Thousands of homes were destroyed, health facilities were damaged or destroyed. At least 15 people died. While the fire happened in the part of the settlement where CRS and Caritas do not work, there are tens of thousands of people who have been displaced again. Our Vision 2030 strategy here at CRS addresses this urgent need for safe and dignified homes in a truly innovative way.

I have three guests who are going to talk about our Building Safe Homes and Communities priority. We have Marc D’Silva, who has been with CRS for more than 20 years. In his current role as regional director for CRS in Asia, he oversees the regional strategy, which prioritizes how CRS can more effectively influence governments and support local leadership, to better serve the poor. And that is particularly in the areas of homes and communities, as well as disaster risk reduction. He will join us from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Sanzida Akter is shelter manager with Caritas Bangladesh, CRS’s leading humanitarian partner in the country. In her role, she oversees the design and building of safe shelters for Rohingya refugees. She will join us from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Also with us is Gerry Carolan, vice chair of the CRS Board of Directors, and member of the CRS Foundation Board. Gerry has traveled all over the world with CRS and has been able to see our work with homes and communities in person, including in Iraq. She will join us from the Atlanta area to talk about those experiences.

I am going to get started with Marc. Marc, we have supported families in shelter work at CRS for decades. But I mention this being an innovative and transformative approach to shelter. So how has this approach changed over the years?

Marc D’Silva: Thank you, Megan, and it’s great to be with everyone here. I’ve been working with CRS for over 20 years, and during that period, I have had the opportunity on at least three occasions to be part of CRS’s homes and communities response after either a natural disaster, or manmade conflict. In the 1990s, I worked in Sierra Leone when rebels came into Free Town and burned down several thousand houses. In 2004, 2005, I worked in India, after the Indian Ocean tsunami, where tens of thousands of people living along the coastline lost their houses, again. And then I was also in Bosnia Herzegovina, in the aftermath of the civil war there, where half the country’s population was displaced.

Now, over the years, CRS, one of the ways we would respond to these types of natural disasters, and manmade emergencies was to provide temporary and permanent housing supports to help families rebuild their lives. And in recent years, we’ve averaged to helping about 75,000 families a year, which I am proud of, and I think many of my colleagues at CRS, and our local Caritas partners are proud of.

Today there’s over 80 million people, around the world who are either displaced or refugees, because of either a war or a disaster. There’s never been a greater number of people in the history of the world displaced at any given time. And so, as much as we have helped 75,000 people a year, we know we need to do more, and we have a target now to be helping 10 million of those 80 million by 2030 to rebuild their houses.

Now, when we talk about rebuilding their houses, it’s not just the physical structure: the physical shelter is important, the walls, the foundation, the roof. But it’s also other aspects that we’ve learned and have been motivated by this principle of integral human development, which guides us as a Catholic social service organization. That calls us to look not just at the physical needs, but also at the social needs, the human needs, the environmental needs, the natural, the economic and livelihood needs. And when we look at that, and we bring those together, those different components will help make a physical structure a home.

Megan Gilbert: I know when I think about home, I don’t just think about that structure. I think about all of the things that go along with it, and so that is so much a part of what our approach is. One country where we are doing this work is of course Bangladesh. Marc, for some people who might not be familiar, this is a very large refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. Can you describe what it is like and what some of the needs are?

Marc D’Silva: In August and September of 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people—this is a Muslim community that has lived in Myanmar, which is a South Asian country for hundreds of years—were driven from their homes by the Myanmar military. Part of what was called genocide by the United Nations. Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, and many of the leaders in the military never accepted the fact that this Muslim minority belonged in country as a citizen. And so, three and a half years ago, they drove hundreds of thousands of them out.

They don’t have cars, they didn’t have roads, it was a wet, rainy season, and many of them fled violence. They saw their family members killed in front of their eyes. Children saw their parents killed in front of their eyes, and their mothers grabbed them, they ran in the middle of the night, trying to keep their children from crying, crossing rivers with their remaining possessions. And they were able to walk, in some cases, dozens of miles, in other cases, over 100 miles, across the border, into the nearby country of Bangladesh, which is also a country in South Asia.

And today there’s almost one million people living in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. It turned into the world’s largest refugee camp almost overnight. And so this was the situation that CRS and Caritas found ourselves in, three and a half years ago, to try and respond to those needs.

Megan Gilbert: Thank you, Marc. I want to turn now to Sanzida Akter, who is joining us from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Sanzida, supporting this foundation of homes is so important in a country like Bangladesh. Marc talked about some of the vulnerabilities of the population, but how do we address those vulnerabilities, in the shelter work that we do?

Sanzida Akter: So, as we know that this population is extremely vulnerable, and they are dealing with trauma and distress, what they have experienced during the conflict time. And they have enormous level of uncertainty. So, when they arrived, they arrived deflated physically, financially, mentally. They were literally living with strangers and depending on the generosity of the Bangladeshi local community.

So, as an organization, that moment to now, we have to address three priority needs. And among them, the first one was, we needed to provide emergency shelter to offer the families protection from the elements. And we needed to ensure the safety of our shelter design models, which will evolve with the families and needs over the time. And secondly, we have to focus on the safety of the settlements.

So that steep terrain, that people must traverse to go to the toilet, or to the market, or to visit their other family members, and also for get their food assistance, or any other health services. It is dangerous. So, it was a very muddy hill slides, and that didn’t have that staves or solar lights, or any lighting system was there and, or even washing or bathing area. So, we provided staves, we provided drainage, solar lights and water systems for initial days, as well.

Already Marc said that displacement is not only loss of their physical structure, the emotional toll is profound for the people, having experienced trauma, grief or loss. So, we approach our shelter assistance in a way that helps to protect and ensure dignity of the person. And for doing that one, we find a way that is fit with their culture and practices.

Megan Gilbert: Sanzida, you talked about how preserving people’s dignity is so important and how a home is such a big part of that. We don’t want to call them shelter. They are people’s homes. So, we encourage people to customize them, make it feel like it’s theirs, their individual home. So how does that work?

Sanzida Akter: First need to make safer settlement, and then we are creating planned settlements where the more vulnerable people from the other camp can relocate, at first priority. And when we start newly planned settlement, that was established by Caritas. It should feel like a neighborhood. So, where the female can personalize their houses as they wish. Maybe you will be able to make one small corner for your kitchen, maybe you will be able to make one small recreational corner for you, maybe you want play zone for your children.

So, we provided training for the safe construction practices, as well, and we give materials and guidance to the household as well. So, they can use that materials to upgrade and strengthening their shelters and that were built, perhaps one or two year back. So, the families are involved in the construction, in that way, the engagement and the ownership of the families is very meaningful. And there is dignity and a greater sense that by doing this kind of involvement, it will feel that, “this space is mine.” And when you start feeling that, in this way, actually, we are creating not only a safe home to live, but at least the community will be safe, with the same capacity.

Megan Gilbert: Really, that feeling of ownership, feeling like, “Yes this is my home,” I think we can all relate to that. Thank you so much, Sanzida, for sharing all of that amazing work. Marc, Caritas Bangladesh quickly became a leader in this Rohingya refugee crisis. In fact, the shelter model designed by CRS and Caritas was selected by the UN, and then recommended to other agencies to use this model. So, what is the significance of Caritas Bangladesh being such a lead in this response, but also, how does our partnership work with them?

Marc D’Silva: You know, as the American Catholic overseas relief and development wing, Catholic Relief Services doesn’t work in isolation. Just as we have diocesan and parish Catholic charities in the United States, if a disaster were to happen in that location, we would want to take advantage of the local knowledge and the local infrastructure. The local systems that are already in place. CRS takes that same approach when we work overseas. That’s why our primary partnership, and our only partnership, really, in country, is with Caritas Bangladesh.

You know, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity is that we should try and empower those closest to the problems, at the community level, to be involved in the solution to that. Caritas Bangladesh, we’re fortunate, is one of the strongest members of the Caritas confederation around the world and they’ve worked in these areas, for decades.

And so, when the Rohingya refugees arrived, even though that was the first time many international organizations had worked in those areas, Caritas Bangladesh and their staff knew those areas very well. And so not only were they able to meet the needs of the incoming refugee communities, they were able to try and bridge those needs, with the needs of the local host communities, as well. And so, when CRS comes in and tries to respond, we try to also build the capacity of local organizations, such as Caritas Bangladesh, so that those needs of the poor and the marginalized can be met.

And so when Caritas Bangladesh is able to speak and to show what types of shelter models and designs really are the most appropriate for these communities, then it’s a powerful message that the United Nations, the government and other international actors should and will pay attention to.

Megan Gilbert: Sanzida, I want to go back to you for another point. Ensuring the protection of children is so critical to the work that we do, and I can only imagine how hard this situation is on children, who probably don’t understand what’s happening, why they’ve been taken from their home, why they don’t have their friends or other things. So, we obviously need to address that in some way. I know you have child friendly spaces with Caritas Bangladesh. What are those and what do they look like?

Sanzida Akter: So many of them it’s three and a half years now, they are out of their country, far from home, and more or less out of school. So, within these three and a half years, there’s so many things changes and same way, we want to make sure that they have first a safe place to live in. And second, we want that an opportunity that will engage these children, socially and with the informal education as we all know that the formal education was restricted in these Rohingya camps.

So, we want to ensure in one way that there will be no lost generation. Because if we ask a child where you belong to, and if he or she don’t able to say, he or she is Myanmar citizen or Bangladeshi citizen, they has no answer actually, for this question, and for their parents, they don’t have that answer. So, we created the child-friendly spaces that actually provide the spaces for the children to play, take part in the recreational activities based on their age, and all the informal education that they were supposed to be receive, and a level of tutoring. And we provide them the materials for making toys they can take back to their home.

So, the spaces we call the multipurpose centers now, it because of that the space is also reserved for the women, for the adolescent girls. So they offer a private space outside their home, where they can engage them in the conversation, positive conversation, structured support group, and they can get the life skill classes, vocational trainings. Or also we have trauma healing support, so they can lead a normal life, so that will be an impact on the children’s life, as well. And we have the trained counselors from the same community, they actually visit families one by one, so they check on them. So if it is under our control, then we try to take care of it, or if it is not like that, at least we can refer them to the specific centers so they can get rid of their problems.

So, in a way, we are trying to reach more and more homes, and we are trying to reach more and more children. At least they will have something in future that can make bright their future after being living in a refugee camp.

Megan Gilbert: Marc, obviously we couldn’t do this work without people’s support. So, what impact does that have on the families that we are working with in the Rohingya settlements?

Marc D’Silva: Actually, one of the reasons why I’ve stayed with CRS for 23 years, is the ability that our private resources that come from donors, and supporters and friends—it allows us to not just make a very quick, immediate, commitments to our local partners, such as Caritas Bangladesh, but more importantly, to the people who need it just as the emergency is happening, but it allows us to keep and sustain those commitments, because we’re not fully dependent on grants that come from some of the larger government and public donors.

When I worked in India, you know, I mentioned the tsunami beforehand. Because of the private supporters, it allowed us to make an immediate commitment to over 12 dioceses, to start their emergency response the next day. Within the first 24 hours. That’s not a response time that international public donors, you know, such as the U.S. government, or the European Union, or the U.K. government can do that quickly. It usually takes them a week or two. And yet, it’s those first 48 to 72 hours which are the most critical time. And so, private support allows CRS to be among the first on the ground, and to be among the last on the ground, as well. Because sometimes, that international support only comes as long as the crisis is in the news.

When we had fires in the Bangladesh refugee camp, I think many people will acknowledge they didn’t see that these refugees and their stories have been told in the news for the last six months, for the last year. And yet, here we’re seeing that there are still 900,000 of these refugees in Bangladesh. And so, even though the grant funding from donors may be decreasing in recent years, it’s that private support that has allowed CRS to maintain about $800,000 or $900,000 a year of support to homes and communities for those refugees, including the tens of thousands who have lost their shelter due to this fire.

Megan Gilbert: Thank you so much, Marc. I want to turn now to Gerry Carolan. Gerry, I know for me, when I listen to my CRS colleagues talk about the work that they do every day, I find it so inspiring. But I also know from personal experience that being able to visit this work can be transformative. As I mentioned earlier, you’ve seen this work in person, you traveled to Iraq, you know, the Pope just went to Iraq, it’s such a special place. It’s also had a displacement crisis. So, can you talk about your experience in Iraq?

Gerry Carolan: Sure. Thank you. Well, my trip to Iraq, as with all my CRS trips, was a really incredible experience. We flew into Baghdad, and then Erbil, and spent some time also in Duhok. Here we were in the cradle of civilization, and so soon after hostilities ended that we heard so much about on the news.

Outside of Duhok, we visited a unique CRS project. So, for many reasons, there was an abundance of partially built homes under construction. The shell was built, the roof, but nothing else—there were no interior doors, no windows, no running water. And Yazidi people that were displaced from their homes in Sinjar were taking refuge in the home. So they were still exposed to most of the elements. They were living there, also with the knowledge that they could be thrown out of their homes at any minute, by the owners, and maybe not even have time to gather the few belongings that they had brought with them when they had to flee ISIS.

CRS developed a creative win-win program, tailored just for this situation. So, CRS paid local people to make windows and doors for the homes and paid to provide access to water for each of the homes. And CRS researched the land records and located and contacted the owners, no easy feat. And once they contacted the owners, they negotiated contracts with them, and the contracts provided that the Yazidi refugees would be permitted to remain in the home, for a period of three years, and in exchange, the owners would be able to keep the doors, the windows, the access to water—the significant improvements that were made to those home—at no cost to them.

This gave the Yazidi residents the peace of mind, knowing that they had a place to say. They could buy a few things without worry that they could be run off at any time. Each family basically had one room in the house, and there was a shared extremely rudimentary kitchen. And multiple families and multiple generations of families lived in each home.

We were there in April, and it was still pretty chilly, inside the home. And in the summer, the temperature could easily rise to over 100 degrees. But the families were just so grateful for a place to call their own, and some minimal sense of privacy that this accommodation gave them. And I am totally convinced that no one other than CRS would have thought of such an innovative win-win program. And it did so with the recognition that family is the foundation of society, and the home is the foundation of the family.

Megan Gilbert: I think that’s so important to point out, Gerry. And as you said, I mean, you know how important family was to all of the people that you met, and yes, I mean, all you’re thinking about is, “How do I keep my family safe? How do I keep them safe?” And when you have a home that’s kind of half finished, it’s hard to keep them safe. So, it’s nice to be able to see that they had at least that feeling, that “I can stay here.” So, Gerry, why is it important, to you, to support the work of CRS?

Gerry Carolan: Well, I firmly believe that if an institution could be placed on a path to sainthood, that CRS would already be on that journey. They are just that good. CRS is emblematic of all that is good in our beloved church. I am not a theologian, so I’m glad that Jesus made it easy for me to understand what he wants me to do, and what he wants me to be. The good Samaritan. You know, follow the edict. Love your neighbor as yourself.

So, for me, it’s really simple. If I was in need, and not able to help myself, would I want someone to help me? Worse, if my children were in need, and not able to help themselves, would I want someone to help them? And the answer, to me, is obvious. And I’m sure it is to each of you.

CRS helps me live the gospel, to stand with people in their time of greatest need. And CRS is the most effective and efficient vehicle to investing in the least of our brothers and sisters, those very much in need, those on the margins. And I know that I can entrust my hard-earned dollars to CRS with confidence, and with joy and happiness.

CRS can stretch a dollar further than any organization that I know. They have local people from the community working on all of the projects, from start to finish. Before they even start working, the people are thinking, they’re designing the projects. CRS really listens to the people they serve. CRS is accountable, they deliver the results that they promise.

They share their knowledge and expertise willingly with other charitable organizations, and also with local governments. They build up the skills and the expertise of local people and organizations. And CRS’s goal is really to work themselves out of a job in the community, to be no longer needed, because the local people are self-sufficient. Then they can go elsewhere, where there will always be challenges in need of attention and solutions. So, CRS is really most worthy of our trust, and our investment.

Megan Gilbert: Gerry, thank you so much your kind words, for sharing your stories. I’m thinking of what you said about investing in people, and that is going to stick with me for a little while. Because it’s so true and the most important thing we can do, and that really is what all of our work is all about—investing in people. So, thank you again, Gerry. Marc and Sanzida, thanks for joining us from Cambodia and Bangladesh. Your stories and information are so invaluable.

If you would like to learn how you can be part of the work that we do, you can go to You will find more information about building homes and communities and the other priorities of the Go FAR campaign. Until next time.