In 2003, FORGE Founder & Executive Director Kjerstin Erickson spent the summer working in Dukwi Refugee Camp in Botswana. Inspired by the potential of the people who had already chosen peace over war and who had fled across the African continent, Erickson came to see refugees as a neglected solution to many of the issues that plague sub-Saharan Africa. By the end of the summer, she had decided to devote herself to refugee issues. Soon after, Erickson laid the groundwork for FORGE–an organization that would capture and develop the energy she witnessed to affect change and empower refugees.
When FORGE began, its operational structure was designed to harness the potential of youth as catalysts of social change. FORGE achieved that goal by recruiting and training teams of college-age volunteers to implement community development projects in collaboration with refugees living in camps in Zambia and Botswana. These committed volunteers partnered with refugees to implement locally-tailored, sustainable projects that were handed over to the leadership of refugees who now comprise members of FORGE’s field staff.
In 2008, FORGE began launching projects under a new model that enables it to educate, empower, and enrich the lives of refugees more directly. Instead of recruiting volunteers from the United States to implement projects, FORGE has transferred project facilitation responsibilities to the refugees themselves. FORGE’s in-camp Project Managers now recruit and train refugees to develop projects they identify as relevant and viable within their communities. FORGE carries out a rigorous application process, looking to find natural leaders who are capable of spearheading new initiatives. First, refugee leaders target the needs of their communities; then, they design projects to meet those needs. FORGE’s people-powered development model provides refugees with the opportunity to shape their futures and to develop skills instead of remaining dependent on the international aid community to support their needs.
In 2009, many of the refugees FORGE worked with in Mwange Camp and Kala Camp faced the opportunity to repatriate to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, making this new emphasis on community development through refugee leadership all the more urgent to FORGE’s effort to end the cycle of war and engender peace in Africa. This repatriation also served as a catalyst for FORGE to open a base in Moba, DRC, in order to complete the cycle of our work with these Congolese refugees. FORGE believes that the first few years after repatriation are a critical time for establishing peaceful, sustainable communities in order to avoid the recurrence of violence. To that end, FORGE is committed to being a resource in this final stage of the refugee cycle. In August of 2009, FORGE established its newest location in Moba, a post-conflict town on the Eastern border of the DRC. FORGE staff used 2009 to conduct baseline assessments and make the arrangements necessary for FORGE to work in the DRC. Beginning in 2010, FORGE will spearhead five projects in Moba, to be developed through the people-powered development model. These projects are meant to be financially self-sustaining in a matter of years, at which point FORGE will handover all responsibilities to the local project leaders and transition out of Moba, leaving a stronger, more empowered community.
Now in its sixth year, FORGE has served communities of over 70,000 refugees, implemented more than 60 community development projects, and built a full-time staff of more than 150 refugees and international volunteers.