06/20/2014 05:04 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2014

5 Things We Can Do for Refugees

Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

When I was a refugee, I was lucky. Some of the families in our situation had money, but my parents managed to get something far more valuable: Green Cards. We could get out.

Over 40 million people today are not so fortunate. In refugee camps they are given a tent, enough food and basic medication -- but they are not given documents that would give them the right to travel, or even to work. Forced to rely on aid, they are regarded as a burden. Changing the way we think about them is the first thing we can do.

  1. See them as an untapped resource
  2. Refugees are a burden only to the extent that we insist on making them into a burden, by failing to tap their talents. My father, a walking encyclopedia, was an old-school pharmacist when my family became refugees, trained to concoct medicines from their constituent chemicals. Had we been stuck in a camp, his many talents would have gone to waste.

    Think of those 40 million people living in enforced idleness, right now, perhaps for years or even decades. How many have brilliant minds? How much creativity and enterprise could they unleash, how much economic value could they create, if we let them? Imagine if George Soros or Marc Chagall had been stuck in a camp, what would this mean to the financial world and the art world?

    Human nature being what it is, although refugees are normally not allowed to work, they find ways; refugee camps typically have thriving informal economies. We should recognize this reality, and work towards...

  3. Inclusion
  4. I understand, of course, why many countries do not want refugees to work, or even grow crops: a large and sudden influx of people is bound to pose practical challenges for a host country. The hope is always that the situation that forced people to flee will soon calm down and they will be able to return home; with land and work, they might not want to.

    Sometimes, though, it almost seems that we're blind to experience. We know that camps often become effectively permanent anyway. And there are countries -- notably Uganda -- that, to their immense credit, do immediately give refugees the documents they need to be included in society.

    Not every country can do what Uganda does -- the world is messy, and every refugee situation has its own unique complexities. But we could do more, in many individual cases, to find a middle ground that lets refugees create economic value, and lets their host country tax it. Why would we not explore every avenue to turn refugees from a drain on GDP into a boost for it?

    We need to be willing to think creatively about how sustainable business models can start to take the place of charitable hand-outs. Social businesses like Little Sun, which works with local distributors to sell affordable solar-powered LED lamps to refugees, are one example.

  5. Get them online
  6. The objections to refugees working -- that it risks rooting them in a physical location, or driving down wages in local communities -- evaporate if the work they do is virtual.

    That's beside the many other boons that solar-rechargeable devices and high-speed broadband bring to refugee camps: I have seen people in camps without Internet anxiously scouring three-week-old newspapers for information about the civil war back home. Internet access in refugee camps would also make it easier to offer...

  7. Education
  8. Days in the camp are long. School tends to be rudimentary. Many of the kids are bright, and they are often stuck there for years. We could help them use that time to develop skills to start a business in the camp, or gain qualifications to apply for skilled jobs, and the precious visas that come with them.

    Access to education is only a start. Mentoring from a volunteer in the wider world can be incredibly helpful. And like any other budding entrepreneurs or students, refugees also need access to affordable micro-loans and other financial services.

    In short, what they need is:

  9. An exit strategy
  10. Nobody wants to spend his or her life sitting and waiting for the world to change. What we should be giving refugees -- what I was lucky to have, as a 9-year-old in Nicaragua -- is a way out.

    My work now involves visiting refugee camps to find the most promising students, and persuading private donors, colleges and universities to offer them scholarships. In return, they commit to find some way of serving their region of origin in their subsequent working life.

    Imagine being a teenager studying at Princeton, knowing that your family is sleeping in a tent half a world away. That takes character -- and, thankfully, some employers recognize this. MasterCard recently offered jobs to our entire graduating class in Dubai this year: anyone who can succeed against such odds, they figured, must be worth giving a chance.

Not a burden, but a resource to be tapped: it's true of those students, and of every other refugee too.