Solar power is improving the lives of millions of refugees

Solar power is improving the lives of millions of refugees

Houses with solar panels in the Rahmet settlement, which provide some 800 internally displaced Syrian refugees with a place to live.


Solar energy has saved the lives of Rabab’s children on more than one occasion. Mahmoud, 15, and Kamal, 11, are asthmatic and need to use their nebulisers daily to avoid choking episodes that could lead to death. Their nebuliser requires electricity.

“[Having access to electricity] is very important for us,” explains Rabab Gharib Khabas, 41, her face covered by a niqab. She lives in one of the 100 small, prefabricated cement brick houses of the Rahmet village settlement, home to 800 internally displaced Syrian refugees.

Rabab, known in the settlement as the widow of the martyr Abdo Mahmoud Al-Dairi, from the al-Bayada neighbourhood of Homs, fled her city with her children to escape the bombardments and “beatings” she suffered at the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s regime militias. “We came to take refuge in the liberated [opposition] areas, praise God. When we came here to the houses, they provided us with solar energy for lighting, and for running the fridge and the washing machine,” she explains.

The energy captured by the panels on her rooftop also saves money for Rabab, a mother with no income, as the gas cylinders she would otherwise use to heat in winter cost around 400 Turkish lira (the official currency in opposition-controlled Syria, equivalent to about €12), “which widows can’t afford every month”.

Most of the close to a million people who have been internally displaced by Syria’s ongoing civil war have gathered in the Idlib Governorate, located in the country’s north-west, on the border with Turkey. A bird’s eye view over Rahmet reveals the hundred or so small yellow houses, perfectly arranged amidst rolling hills of olive trees. The rooftop of every house has a water tank and multiple solar panels. This pilot settlement has a health centre, a school, a playground and a mosque.

Impact on health, nutrition, education

A few houses away, Abu Yusuf sits in lotus position on a cot dressed in an ankle-length beige thawb. Yusuf explains how he came to this village from Kafruma, in the south of the province, four years ago, fleeing Russia’s bombing campaign in support of the Assad regime.

“After a year I was able to secure two solar panels, a battery and an inverter [equipment that receives and transforms the energy generated by the panels]. Now I have semi-permanent electricity, even if it’s 12-volt lighting. We can connect the washing machine and the fridge, and the fan, which is so necessary in summer. We have school-age children, and we used to have to use candles or kerosene lamps so they could study at night,” explains the father of seven children, whose ages range from 12-year-old Youssef to one-year-old Gufran.

Umm Abdo, another refugee, recalls life before solar panels: “If we had any food left over, we threw it away because it didn’t last until the next day. I had to wash clothes by hand, it was very hard. Now that we have a fridge and a washing machine, our life has improved. I hope that we can expand this project and buy more solar panels and a bigger battery to be able to cook with electricity as we are currently suffering greatly from the high prices caused by the gas crisis. Gas also causes a lot of fires,” she says.

However, according to most of these refugees, the number of panels they currently have is insufficient for covering all of their needs, especially for heating in the winter. Still, they sympathise with others who still live in tents where they are forced to heat with straw-fired heaters, which pose a risk of fire and harm the environment.

According to Rakan Al-Hussein, another refugee, some of the refugees in Rahmet still heat by lighting fires because they are too poor to even afford a solar panel.

Solar panels cost between €50 and €500, depending on their quality. According to Selim Tosun of the Turkish Islamic NGO IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which runs the refugee village, refugees are only able to buy used panels. “Each family buys according to their needs and budget. There are an average of two to three men in each house, who work in various trades, including agricultural work,” Tosun tells Equal Times.

IHH has nearly 40 shelter projects inside Syria, more than half which are located in Idlib, with most of the rest being located in the north-western city of A’zaz. The shelters host around 105,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), most of them living in tents, which cannot be fitted with solar panels, and in containers. Rahmet is one of six concrete house projects in Idlib, the second largest after Yeni Hayat Residences. The NGO has already built 452 units.

As Tosun explains, each one of Rahmet’s 75-square-metre houses also has its own garden, which “owners can arrange and cultivate as they like”. These gardens, Tosun explains, offer residents a form of horticultural therapy, allowing them to “reconnect with their land after so many years of war trauma”. Ecology also heals wounds.

Solar energy is used in houses, water wells, schools and mosques in all of the NGOs’ settlements in Syria. In addition to being environmentally friendly, solar energy reduces energy costs for this vulnerable population.

Potential in refugee camps

Solar is the energy of choice in refugee camps around the world that are turning to clean energy, whether at the initiative of UN agencies, humanitarian groups or governments. And manufacturers and distributors are eagerly jumping in to meet this need in a buoyant sector, valued globally at US$167.83 billion in 2022 and projected to rise to US$373.84 billion by 2029.

According to UN data from 2023, there are 110 million forcibly displaced people in the world fleeing conflict, hunger and violence. Of this total, 36.4 million are refugees, one-fifth of whom, or 6.6 million, reside in 500 reception camps around the world. The majority of the refugees living in camps, 85 per cent, are hosted by poor countries, which are reluctant to invest in long-term supplies and services, even though the average lifespan of a camp is 17 years.

In terms of environmental impact, camps generate some 8.1 million tonnes of waste annually, mostly plastics that could be recycled. In addition, the vast majority of refugees in these camps (90 per cent) get their electricity from diesel generators, where fuel is available, or rely on traditional biomass for cooking, i.e. nearby forests, 64,700 hectares of which are cut down each year. The ability to access clean energy is urgent for these communities.

The world’s largest refugee camps are located in Sudan (Um Rabuka), Jordan (Zaatari), north-eastern Kenya (Dadaab), Bangladesh (Kutupalong) and north-western Kenya (Kakuma). Speaking to Equal Times from the Kakuma camp, Congolese refugee Vasco Hamisi recounts how he made a virtue out of necessity:

“My solar panel business has improved the lives of other refugees. We provide them with cheap electricity so they don’t have to use kerosene and single-use batteries. This also reduces health risks and enables them to keep their small businesses open after the sun goes down, which boosts their economy,” he says.

Hamisi, 35, arrived in Kenya in 2010 and spent two months in a reception centre. “It’s very hard to be a refugee. Three hundred refugees were arriving at the reception centre every day, it was very difficult to adapt”. But thanks in part to his previous business experience developing humanitarian projects in Tanzania, his business venture, Okapi Green Energy, has flourished: 200 businesses and households in Kakuma are connected to the company’s solar mini-grid, which consists of 64 panels with a capacity of 20 kilowatts. Residents are able to connect for the small fee of US$0.38 per unit for households and US$0.51 for businesses.

Hamisi’s business is one of the projects that UNHCR highlights as an example of its ambitious Clean Energy Challenge (CEC). Launched in 2020 with the aim of increasing the use of clean and affordable energy by 2030 to replace oil, coal and firewood in these settlements, the initiative combines the efforts of individuals, governments, companies and organisations from all over the world.

The ambitious project “has already seen several of its commitments fulfilled, having attracted 250 stakeholders in its first year,” UNHCR global spokesperson Eujin Byun tells Equal Times. “At the Global Refugee Forum in [December] 2023, we launched a new multilateral commitment called Human Settlement that also covers energy,” she adds.

According to the agency’s latest data (2022), thanks to a sub-programme of the CEC, 46 per cent of all water pumps and 44 per cent of all health facilities supported by UNHCR are powered by solar energy, while 15 per cent of African refugees are cooking with clean energy. The data are encouraging.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson