On the edge of the Sahara Desert, in one of the largest refugee camps in the world, Margaret Lombe and a group of students from Boston University’s School of Social Work helped 10 women displaced by war plant a vegetable garden. For two days in summer 2023, the sun beat down on them as they dug, raked, and sowed seeds, sweat dripping from their bodies. Lombe, a SSW associate professor, says they didn’t know if the plants would eventually flourish, but the women insisted that any vegetables could help feed their families.
The camp, called Kakuma, is in northwestern Kenya and holds about 200,000 people displaced from Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Djibouti, and others. Most people there have fled violence, civil war, and conflict. After everything the 10 women who planted the garden had endured—sexual abuse, trauma, displacement—it was more than just a vegetable garden, it was an act of deep solidarity.
“They said to us, ‘You stood by our side and made a garden with us. Your sweat and our sweat mingled in the soil. You made this land our home, and you made us feel a sense of belonging,’” says Lombe. “We were all crying, because a lot of the world is turning its back on them. Imagine you are crying for help and the only sound you hear is the echo of your voice, or silence.”
Understanding how government and international policies impact people’s well-being—how much control they have over their own lives, whether they have the resources they need to participate in society—is at the core of Lombe’s work. She has analyzed food insecurity in Black communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of HIV/AIDS on children and human rights in Sub-Saharan Africa, the role of micro-credit unions in encouraging saving, and the financing of small women-led businesses. Since she started teaching and researching at SSW in 2021, she’s also led the BRIDGE Program, which extends access to graduate education for refugees and immigrants exploring social work careers. Throughout her career, she’s given particular attention to how international conflict and war impact women, children, and vulnerable groups like refugees.
The Limits of Human Rights Protections
Last year was a record-breaking year for the global refugee crisis, with the United Nations reporting that over 114 million people had been displaced from their homes. And that number is from September 2023, before the Israel-Hamas War. About 1.9 million people have been displaced in Gaza since October 2023, according to Human Rights Watch. Across the world, adults and children have been driven from their homes for many reasons, including human rights violations, persecution, droughts, food shortages, and government instability, but a large throughline is war and conflict. The women that Lombe and her students worked with in Kenya were 10 out of millions.
“When we started working with the women there, our goal was to look at the human rights framing and to understand the limits of global human rights instruments in protecting civilians,” says Lombe, who has since made lessons from the visit to Kakuma part of the curriculum of one of her classes. The garden project, called Sustainable Edible Ecosystem Development, was led by master’s students Stacy Karabetsos (SSW’23), Monica Salazar (SSW’25), and Tee Thach (SSW’24), who presented their work during BU’s International Education Week last fall. The trip was supported by BU’s Center for Innovation in Social Work & Health.
“The project was conceived from a human rights–oriented standpoint,” says Salazar. After cleaning and preparing the land, the group established 10 plots, 7 kitchen gardens at a primary school, and 8 additional plots at a boys camp.
“It was a privilege to collaborate with the women, children, and Jesuit Refugee Services staff, who generously shared their time and experiences with us throughout our stay in Kakuma. Observing the determination and resilience of the individuals we interacted with was an unforgettable experience,” says Salazar, who works with refugee and immigrant communities in Massachusetts. Her goal is to continue researching conflict, war, and violence against refugee and immigrant women to develop interventions to protect women and their families who have been forced to flee their home countries.
The conditions in Kakuma are already difficult—with metal roofed homes that get too hot to even sleep in. Many households in the camp are headed by women, who face dire conditions. The UN reports that women there are highly vulnerable to gender-based violence while collecting firewood, water, and in the home, with hospital personnel estimating that they see 15 to 20 cases of rape and assault every month.
Women’s Bodies an “Extension of the Battlefield”
Lombe’s visit to Kakuma wasn’t the first time she had witnessed the failings of international human rights protections, especially of those for women escaping war. The year before that particular trip, Lombe presented her research on women’s health outcomes in conflict settings in a US Department of Veteran Affairs National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder lecture series. Her talk was titled “The Untold Story: Women, War & Weaponization of Gender-Based Violence.”
“During war times, women are more likely to be impacted by gender-based violence. In normal situations, about one in five women are likely to experience gender-based violence in their lifetime—during war this is even worse,” Lombe says. “Why? In war, we see layers of protection that women normally have taken away from them—the loss of community, laws, and other forms of protection that they have—and there’s a breakdown of law and order. That is feeding into the normalization of violence and making women extremely vulnerable.”
The group of women she worked with in Kenya all experienced some form of violence as a result of war in their home countries. She and other scholars in the field frame this phenomena as women’s bodies becoming an “extension of the battlefield.” That can continue in refugee camps. Lombe points out that only one percent of funds from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees goes to prevention of gender-based violence against women.
“One percent of the total humanitarian funding globally—that for me says there’s no seriousness in terms of protecting and preventing sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence,” Lombe says. “Let’s be serious about protecting women.” More funding to protect women and children is one of the most important improvements that can be made globally, she says. She has been appointed by the UN to serve as an advisor and member in expert meetings on topics of social exclusion and inclusion, but says there are other ways global institutions are limited in how they defend civilians during times of war.
For example, the United States has never ratified a portion of the Geneva Conventions that was established in 1977 to protect civilians from war. Lombe says this lack of ratification signals that even the most influential and most accepted framework for protecting human rights is still limited in scope and power.
“Countries sign these instruments in the name of the people. The United Nations charter itself is written in the name of the people, but if these instruments fail to protect the people, who are they for?” she says. “When you see the [conditions] in Kakuma, and see the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, then you begin to see the limits of these instruments in protecting civilians.”
She believes that all civilians enduring the impacts of war are in need of stronger, more robust global policies and protections to avoid further catastrophes and even more forced displacement. The garden in Kakuma was a small-scale intervention, and though it didn’t change international policy, the impact was undeniable. Lombe and her students have kept in touch with the group of women who they shared sweat and tears with, and she is eager to foster a partnership that can be sustained in the long term and provide support to the camp’s social workers.
Lombe says when she and the students left the camp to return to Boston, they didn’t turn their backs as they stepped toward the car waiting to drive them away. They walked backwards to symbolize that they’ll never forget the experience they shared—or turn their backs on their suffering. “That’s something that has stayed with me,” Lombe says.
She plans to return to Kakuma this summer with more students to continue accompanying the women and other refugees—and see how much the garden has grown.