ABCD in Action – Strength Based Approach to Refugee Settlement

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By: Om Dhungel
Posted in: Reflections and Ideas

ABCD in Action – Strength Based Approach to Refugee Settlement

By Om Dhungel

As a practitioner of ‘Strength Based Approach’, I often get told that people working with refugees cannot apply Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) principles since they are dealing with very ‘vulnerable’ people. To help deal with this misconception, I am sharing my experience as a former refugee and also having developed and successfully implemented a holistic, ‘strength-based’ model for refugee settlement and integration. In addition, having observed and influenced the settlement process from an organisational point of view by serving on the Boards of a number of settlement service providers, the views expressed here also take into account opportunities for service providers to adopt ABCD principles in working with refugees to help drive better outcomes.

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Shifting the context for refugee settlement

When migrants and refugees settle in a new country and a new environment, they face a number of initial settlement challenges. The way we approach these challenges will mean a community completely relying on outside help or on the other hand, a community which will harness its own resources.

If we think in terms of needs, problems and deficiencies such as lack of education and training or local experience and services are designed and delivered by outside experts, people will be positioned as passive, powerless and dependent on outside help and assistance. It means the newly settled refugees will continue to expect the support rather than building and enhancing their own skills. Once the external program and the associated funding ceases, people feel left out and develop a sense of frustration and helplessness.

On the other hand, we can start on the premises that people generally come with different skills and strengths. They are resourceful and gifted and will be more likely to draw upon the skills from within the community to address issues and solve problems if they are supported to do so. Outside assistance and resources may still be required but the people are more engaged and capable of setting the agenda and shaping their futures.


Applying ABCD principles in refugee settlement – Strength Based Approach (SBA)

When I became a refugee fleeing my home country Bhutan, I lost everything. Over 100,000 people were evicted from the country and they too lost everything. That’s what we thought but we soon realised that we hadn’t lost the capacity to love and care for each other.  The government had the power to evict us, take away our citizenship and our properties, but we found that it couldn’t take away our knowledge, our skills and expertise. Living as refugees in Nepal was tough to say the least but we experienced generosity at its best – sharing whatever little we had and caring for the most vulnerable – children, elderly and the sick. It was very important for us to focus on what we had and build on our strength rather than worrying or complaining about what we had lost and what we didn’t have. Reflecting on how we looked after each other, how we initiated and implemented different programs starting with whatever skills we had within the community, building relationships and working together, it was unknowingly an application of ABCD principles. Although I wasn’t then aware of Asset Based Community Development, this is where my ABCD journey started.


Strength Based Approach to Refugee Settlement - Guiding Principles

Thanks to the government and people of Australia, personally, I had the fortune of resettling in this beautiful country. More recently, I also had the privilege of undertaking an international research on refugee settlement as a Westpac Social Change Fellow. While I initially set out to find best practice in refugee settlement, I found that it was about valuing and nurturing the local rather than ‘a best practice’ that can be applied across the board. Instead, I came up with some guiding principles:

Redefining Refugees - Firstly, I see a need to redefine refugees with their strengths. Universally, the word ‘Refugee’ evokes a level of sympathy. While this helps to draw attention for assistance in the initial survival phase, this often forms a barrier to better understanding the strengths and assets refugees have. So it’s important to redefine refugees with their strengths and as any other fellow human being for who they are.

Strength-based, holistic approach to refugee settlement - Secondly, a Strength-based, holistic approach to refugee settlement will help drive a more sustainable outcome by tapping into the strengths and assets that refugees bring with them. Rather than doing a ‘need assessment’ and trying to meet the needs, exploring people’s passion and building on their strengths will be more empowering.

Involvement of people with lived refugee experience - Thirdly, engaging and utilization of people with lived refugee experience in all aspects of refugee issue including national and global refugee policy, service design and delivery as well as research would make a significant contribution in this space. Currently, this is one of the most underutilised asset.

Working collaboratively and driving community engagement, with a focus on language and employment – Fourthly, a more collaborative approach with service providers working closely with communities and grass-roots community organisations in the design and delivery of services will help drive community engagement and better settlement and integration outcomes. In view of the current funding model, there is very little incentive for service providers to engage with communities and this needs to be dealt with at policy level as well in addition to service providers proactively focussing on community engagement and capacity building.

Dealing with both Internal and External Factors – Finally and perhaps most importantly, it is starting with self. Internal Factors or the mental aspects such as acceptance of the situation and a sense of gratitude form the foundation for driving successful settlement and integration outcomes together with External or the physical aspects such as housing and other support services. Our health and well-being starts with our mind, not the hospital. 

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A collaborative approach will mean keeping the interest of person involved in the centre and ‘putting the best foot forward’, to identify and provide the most appropriate support – whether it be from a host community, service provider or relevant professional service. While service providers are generally better equipped to cater to the external aspects, the support for internal aspects is best achieved from within communities and through people with lived experience while engaging professional support as required.

Settlement success starts with the healing process and people’s ability to let go of the past differences and a willingness to speak into the future. It is the desire for a future different to the past. At a macro level, the outcome of successful refugee settlement and community development is a widely shared vision for the future of the community, a community that has an enhanced level of citizen engagement and participation. It is also about strengthened individuals and an expanded leadership base, better use of resources from within the community and the commitment to continuous learning and willingness to adapt.


Dee Brooks
07/31/20 08:44:58PM @dee-brooks:
Such a great read, Om! Thanks for your important work in this space!
Om Dhungel
About Om Dhungel
A trained telecommunications engineer turned ‘social engineer’, I am now a consultant and a practitioner of Strength-Based Approach to refugee settlement and community engagement, offering my services as a trainer, mentor and a speaker. A Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, I am currently a Director on the Board of Asylum Seeker Centre, a Member of NSW Police Multicultural Advisory Council. I am also the founding President and currently a senior member of the Association of Bhutanese in Australia (ABA) Sydney. Further info:

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what are your gifts and talents?:

Trainer, Mentor supported by lived refugee experience.

why do you want to join abcd in action?:

I am a practitioner of Strength Based Approach to Refuge Settlement and more broadly ABCD practitioner.