COVID-19: an opportunity to challenge our traditional way of working with communities

By Sevde Nur Söylemez

COVID-19 has challenged our approach as humanitarians – how can we still support the most vulnerable while still keeping people safe from this pandemic?

For Turkey, we’ve learned to challenge our traditional way of supporting communities and have adapted – even reinvented some of the ways we do things.

I have worked for the Turkish Red Crescent for more than 2 years now, supporting the world’s largest humanitarian cash programme, the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) with the IFRC and funding from the European Union. This programme supports 1.8 million refugees living in Turkey with monthly cash assistance to help them buy the things they need most.

One of the most critical parts of our job is engaging with the communities we help, to hear people’s perceptions, so we can respond better to their needs. One of the best ways to do this is through focus group discussions - a crucial research tool that provides richer experiences and ideas from people who are generally coming from similar backgrounds.
No matter the condition, never stop the communication

Without the same opportunity to have these face-to-face interactions, we came up with a different innovative approach - remote focus group discussions, which had never been done in the programme before.

Its key findings are fundamental to better understand the current struggles and situations refugees are facing during the pandemic all while keeping them safe from the spread of COVID-19.
Findings: The devastating impacts of COVID-19

I heard many heart-breaking stories of refugees, trying to make ends meet. In most households, the sole breadwinner lost their jobs due to the pandemic. COVID-19’s effect has also had severe mental health impacts – families are more isolated as visits between neighbours, friends and relatives are limited. In addition, the children have some challenges in accessing the online curriculum. Among the things people shared, these quotes stuck out for me:

“I used to have a grocery store, but I had to close it.”
“It affected us and our jobs. I couldn’t work for three months”
“I don’t have neighbours but I have many relatives here. My daughter was in the hospital for 12 days. No one could come because they were afraid.”

Nevertheless, when they talk about the situation, we could see the hope and expectation of a better future. Many told us how the ESSN cash assistance has been a lifeline and that it would have been even harder without it.
How did we conduct the remote focus group discussions?



The Turkish Red Crescent has a call centre, an important source of information for people we help. We utilized this to call families to confirm their participation in the discussion.

We go to the household and meet the participant, ensure written consent and hand them a mobile phone that they use to connect online to a digital focus group discussion, hosted by the Turkish Red Crescent. Field staff were on standby to help if any problem occurs with the connection or device while they were in the session.

During the discussion, if there are any issues we identify it and take or refer the case immediately to our other relevant teams.

(Photo: Turkish Red Crescent)
Less participants, more expression

Across Turkey, we conducted 26 focus group discussions, between four to six participants attending each. Groups were also broken down between men and women. We found we could reach and include the elderly and people with disabilities without inconvenience. This gave us a greater opportunity to hear and understand their opinions and made the bond between us even stronger.

Whenever we arrive in communities, we are welcomed. Although we have physical distance between us – at least 1,5 meters – our faces hidden behind masks, we can still feel the warm smiles.

The pandemic may have changed the way we approach our work, but the connection between us and participants has never stopped, there is always a way.

This article covers humanitarian aid activities implemented with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of the European Union, and the European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.