Susan’s Story: DREAMS and Hope for the Future

On World Refugee Day, we’re taking a closer look at how DREAMS is reimagining refugee relief and impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of refugees like Susan.

In northwestern Uganda, the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement is home to over 120,000 refugees who have fled conflict, environmental disasters, or other significant shocks in their home countries. One of the refugees living in Rhino Camp is Susan, a 40-year-old widow with four children, who also looks after her nephew and grandchild.

During the war in South Sudan, Susan was forced to flee her home in 2018. After making the difficult journey to Rhino Camp in Uganda, she was provided only a single tarp for shelter. Together with her children, she constructed a small grass-thatched house using grass they found and bricks they made themselves. Unfortunately, termites found their way into her home and began eating away at its structure, causing water to leak in whenever it rained. Susan was also provided monthly food rations from the refugee settlement, but quickly discovered it wasn’t enough to sustain her family throughout the entire month. To make their food rations last longer, they began skipping meals—eating only once per day. On top of all of this, Susan’s children were forced to drop out of school when she wasn’t able to afford their school fees.

Susan is one of more than 10 million refugees worldwide who rely on humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs—such as food, water, shelter, and basic healthcare. But as aid organizations struggle with budget cuts and a global rise in refugee populations, tangible support has been subject to change or even disappear without a moment’s notice—leaving refugees like Susan without the basic necessities to help them survive, let alone plan for the future.

The refugee crisis has never been more severe during our lifetimes—currently, there are more refugees worldwide than at any point since World War II. With this in mind, DREAMS is on a mission to transform refugee relief as we know it today.

Pictured: Susan at her retail business where she sells clothes and other textiles in her community.

DREAMS (Delivering Resilient Enterprises and Market Systems) is an innovative, first-of-its-kind program which combines Village Enterprise’s poverty graduation program with Mercy Corps’ expertise in market systems development. Where most refugee relief programs only provide short-term humanitarian aid for a long-term problem, DREAMS offers a long-term, sustainable solution by empowering refugees to become economically self-reliant. By equipping refugees with the training, resources, and enhanced markets to launch small businesses in their communities, refugees are able to become entrepreneurs, generating reliable incomes and putting themselves and their families onto a sustainable pathway out of extreme poverty. Ultimately, DREAMS provides refugees a safe place to land where they can get back on their feet, provide for their families in the midst of so much unknown, and start to dream again about their families’ future.

Through DREAMS, Susan learned how to launch a small business as well as the financial literacy skills needed to operate and expand her business into different markets. After working with her DREAMS mentor to select a viable business and get connected with market suppliers, Susan—along with her two business partners from Rhino Camp—used their business grant from Village Enterprise to launch a retail store buying and selling clothes.

Almost one year later, Susan is just a few weeks away from graduating from Village Enterprise and her family’s situation has greatly improved. Using the profits from her retail business, Susan has been able to supplement the settlement’s monthly food rations and provide three consistent, healthy meals a day for her family. She’s also been able to afford school fees for two of her children who are back in school full time, and has plans for her other children to return back to school soon. On top of all of this, she’s been able to construct a new home, with iron sheets for the roof and reinforced doors, providing her family with a safe and stable place to call home.

Pictured: Susan outside of her newly constructed home which she paid for using the profits from her retail business.

“Susan’s story is one of the 200,000 people whose lives will be transformed by DREAMS over the next few years,” says Winnie Auma, Chief Program Officer at Village Enterprise. “To better support refugees, it’s so important to keep the long-term vision in mind and have assistance that goes beyond meeting the immediate needs of refugees and instead helps them get back on their feet and plan for their futures in a dignified and sustainable way.”

As a Fast Company 2023 World Changing Ideas Award winner, DREAMS aims to transform not only refugee relief—it strives to provide a new model for ending extreme poverty in the world’s most challenging environments, supporting millions of people globally in achieving financial autonomy.

DREAMS originally began as a pilot program in Uganda’s Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement in 2018, and formally launched operations in northern Uganda in 2022. It will also launch operations in Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado Refugee Settlement in the weeks ahead. Across the two countries, DREAMS will reach more than 33,000 households and will impact more than 200,000 lives—but this is just the beginning. Building off the program’s success, Village Enterprise and Mercy Corps are looking for the funding to expand DREAMS to more regions and countries across Africa.

As Susan looks to the future, she has a renewed sense of hope for her family. She’s excited to expand her retail business with the possibility of opening another branch in a nearby village to diversify her income. She’s even become the chairperson of her business savings group comprised of 30 business owners from her community. Susan not only helps organize their weekly meetings, but she offers guidance and encouragement as they collectively save for household and business assets together.

“I feel very confident and respected by my children and community,” says Susan. “Thank you for helping a hopeless widow have hope again.”



Funded by Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, ICONIQ Impact, IKEA Foundation, Sea Grape Foundation, and The Patchwork Collective, DREAMS won the 2021 Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award for Refugees managed by Lever for Change, and was most recently awarded Fast Company’s 2023 World Changing Ideas Award for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. DREAMS will also be studied in an independent, randomized controlled trial (RCT) conducted by IDinsight, which will provide valuable research to be used across the international development and humanitarian aid sectors to better support refugees in the future.

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