Every Shelter

“We Are Here Many, Many Days”

Every Shelter | April 2024

“They are people who really want peace”

It’s 5 a.m. and Christian is prodded awake by a man in uniform. He’s been held captive by a rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for the last three months. The soldier motions for him to remain quiet. "This way,” he whispers. Sleepy and powerless, Christian follows through thick undergrowth, eventually reaching the forest’s edge. The soldier stops, gesturing into the darkness before them. “We leave,” he says.

Christian is now wide awake. He is being given a chance at freedom. Together they escape, trekking through the dense forest for many days until finally they reach the Ugandan border. It’s here the soldier leaves him, believing they are less likely to be recaptured by the rebels if they are on their own. Christian struggles his way to a transit camp. After a few weeks he’s given identification papers, which allows him to cultivate a small plot of farmland in Kyaka, a Ugandan refugee settlement. That moment, sitting on his new land, he describes feeling utterly alone and bewildered. “At that period in the camp there was no power...I was like, ‘I cannot survive this life...I’m a photographer.’” Eventually he decides to journey to Kampala, “just to fight for life.”


Years earlier and 1,000 kilometers away in South Sudan, Louis returned home from boarding school to find his mother’s home abandoned. It was 2016 and civil war had broken out. Fearing for his life, he made his way to his aunt’s home in a small village outside of town. Soon the army invaded, killing indiscriminatingly and forcing him, his aunt and his two cousins to flee. They began an arduous two-week journey to Uganda, hoping to find the rest of his family.

In Bidibidi, a large refugee settlement of about 200,000 in Northern Uganda, Louis found his mother and siblings. The joy of reunification was quickly tempered by the difficulty of daily life in the camp and the new reality of a vulnerable future. “When I reach Bidibidi really life was very hard. We are struggling with a lot of traumatic stress where we are experiencing what happened back in South Sudan and those things keep on coming into our head,” says Louis. He found an organization conducting play therapy in the settlement, which helped him begin to work through some of his trauma. Eager to contribute and help others, Louis joined the organization. "I have to also support people who go through the same problem like me,” he explains. Buoyed and brighter, he set up an office as a community hub. But it wasn’t long though before the thatched roof began to leak, damaging the mud walls.

While Christian and Louis both fled their home countries due to violence and found haven in Uganda, their experiences and needs are very different. But both represent the customer profile for Every Shelter, a nonprofit designing shelter solutions for refugees working to create home.

Through Every Shelter and Alight's storefront, Shelter Depot, Louis purchased metal sheeting to create a waterproof roof to replace his leaking thatch. “This [product] is really good cause it's not affecting our environment. Building a grass house, you have to go and hunt trees… [With this] they procure, you build, and really it can sustain you for the long-term.”

At Every Shelter’s Kampala offices 13 hours south of Bidibidi, I meet Christian—a tall man with angular features, his blue coveralls barely reaching his wrists. He folds himself into thirds, knees up high, to perch on the low couch. Over tea he shares his challenges as a photographer in a new city. “I struggled almost two months here in Kampala—sometimes sleeping outside, sleeping hungry. I could not know anyone, the language was very hard.” Through a service provider, Christian was connected with Every Shelter and trained in how to make bashe bora, a specialized tarp product made of upcycled billboard signage.

DSCF1981 3

Bashe Bora (tarp) manufacturing made by Every Shelter Goods

He is now a professional bashe bora technician earning a fair wage and slowly building his life in Kampala. “Here in Uganda, life is very difficult. The landlord will come shout at you. Sometimes you miss paying the rent. They don't give refugees value, some of them, so they see a refugee not even as a human being,” he says. “Every Shelter is a big family for me, so I can say everything is okay.”

I ask what he wished others understood about the refugee experience.

“There are those of us that have very many things in our head,” Christian pauses as he tries to explain what he means. “Me, I am here since 2018, I don't know where my parents are. I don't know where my siblings—my little brother, my big brother—I don't know where they are. If I remember very well the day those rebels came, it was so many bullets… A refugee, they are people who really want peace, and they really want to be somewhere where they cannot be stressed. For them to try to forget things that they have passed through.”

Christian shifts his body forward, preparing to return to work. “Yeah, very many things that people they don't understand about refugees. We are here many, many days.”

DSCF1234 1

Portrait of Louis

20 Years

Over 100 million people are displaced around the world today according to the United Nations.

The average length of their displacement? More than 20 years—a staggering statistic that shocked me when I first heard it. It was the duration of a displacement event that Scott Key couldn’t get out of his head a decade ago as an architecture student at Rice University.

In 2012, he and fellow student Sam Bresendine created a new type of modular flooring they believed could improve refugee shelters. After taking the product to a conference, they realized that they had accidentally created something for which there was a large need but a challenging market.

Sam and Scott secured a USAID grant to explore how their floor might be adapted for the refugee crisis then spilling out of Syria. Sam remembers, “It was a huge learning curve in a lot of ways for us. We had designed a floor that was kind of interesting and clever, but when we started working with refugees and started understanding: If we’re architects, then these are our clients. And if you're going to work with a client, you've got to get the client's feedback, you can't design things without their input. And the thing that we heard over and over was, ‘Of course we want a floor… but we're cold and people are literally freezing to death in the middle of the night laying on the cold, freezing ground.” That insight changed everything.


The sun sets over Shelter Depot, surrounded by teak trees planted by participants of the Depot's Work-for-Credit program.

They adapted the process and ultimately designed one of Every Shelter’s enduring core products—an insulated floor that makes a thermal break with the ground. It was an immediate success. Residents were asking for the floor by name. But surprisingly, here is where the challenges really began.

“Even though a refugee family wanted my floor, I couldn't give it to them. I couldn't sell it to them without their implementing partner—the Ministry of Social Affairs and the UN—saying, ‘yeah, they can have that.’” Scott shakes his head, “Adults were trying to make decisions for themselves and what was best for their family, but they had three different bureaucracies who didn't know them, didn't know their family, didn't know their needs, and they were making decisions on their behalf.”

“That planted the seeds for us,” says Scott. “Wouldn't it be radically different if refugees could have choice?”


The Shelter Depot market, where refugees are market participants, made from a shipping container.

He puts it another way: “It's like we went into designing a floor for refugees saying the reason refugees don't have floors is because no one's designed a good one. That's partly true, but it was just a symptom of a bigger problem.”

These insights became the foundation of Every Shelter, a nonprofit designing Shelter Goods made in Shelter Workshops that can be purchased through Shelter Depots. Shelter Goods are innovative physical shelter and home good products such as modular, thermal flooring and high-quality tarps, created based on customer input so that displaced families can invest in making stable, safe homes for the long-term. The Shelter Workshop is where many of these products are researched and manufactured, creating employment opportunities and skills training for refugees. Shelter Depot is the team’s latest endeavor and fundamental to the Every Shelter ecosystem. The Shelter Depot is the brick and mortar—or in this case, a shipping container—and provides a way for refugees within a settlement or camp to choose what goods they want as opposed to what others tell them they need, increasing agency and decreasing dependency. The first Shelter Depot was launched in 2023 in Bidibidi, Uganda with a second planned to open in Nakivale this summer, a settlement in Southern Uganda.


Nevans Katwesigye, Shelter Depot Store Management & Sales Agent, attends to a customer.

“We knew we needed to pick one location where we could build an ecosystem approach,” says Scott. “We need to be investing in jobs. We need to be investing in good products that are made there for the economic benefit. And we need to give refugees choice… When we have that platform—Shelter Depot—we can start plugging in other products, stuff that we didn't invent. It’s not like we are the only ones that have a hard time doing this. It's anybody who wants to create a good thing for refugees. It's hard. Ikea spent eight years and $50 million before they ever got their shelter in front of a refugee family. That can't be the innovation pipeline.”

Scott leans back in his chair and crosses his arms. “I won't say Shelter Depot is a Trojan horse, but once you have that storefront and you have that presence, you can innovate rapidly in that settlement. You can try stuff. And that's what we're trying to build.”

DSCF0453 1

Joseph Otika, Shelter Depot Coordinator, greets a resident of BidiBidi.

68 Kilometers for 2-inch Nails

As Every Shelter considered where to base its ecosystem, Uganda became the clear choice. With 1.6 million displaced persons settled within its borders, Uganda is the global gold standard for refugee resettlement.

Alight, an organization dedicated to humanitarian aid, has been operating in Uganda for 30 years. Natalie Kawesa-Newell is Head of Programs in Uganda. She has dark curly hair, an accent from just south of London, and a warm, unassuming presence that belies her 18 years of in-country experience.

She explains the process for someone seeking refuge: “When they first come in… there's a transit center, then they will be then shifted from the transit center to a refugee settlement. And when you enter the settlement, basically the refugees are living side by side with the host community members. And you won't see tents. People are supported off a piece of land, they’re given IDs, they're very mobile, they're able to start businesses and able to access services.”


Bidibidi is the largest of these settlements. Overseen by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) Bidibidi sprawls over 100 square miles, organized into five zones, subdivided into villages and clusters. The settlement is a dizzying network of potholed red dirt roads connecting homesteads to government services, schools run by relief organizations, and the UN food program. Alight has a strong presence in Bidibidi as one of the key service providers.

“What's core to our strategy is really recognizing the human being in its whole and the strengths and abundance that people bring,” Natalie says passionately of Alight’s approach. “Secondly, what's key to our strategy is the aspect of co-creation… I would say that particularly in the humanitarian sort of context, refugees are just seen as these are people that need A, B, C, D, we just give them these things, but they're not really interacted with or asked, ‘what do you actually need?’”

As Every Shelter’s Director of Programs and Operations, Loise Wambui is Natalie’s counterpart. She’s steady and unflappable, the kind of high-capacity force of nature that makes things happen. Loise explains co-creation: “It's even as you're trying to solve a problem, who is the person you want to solve it for? What are they saying or what is their input? You have to think of all those factors to ensure that you understand what their voice is, what is needed on the ground so that you're able to provide that.”

DSCF1406 1

Chairs purchased from the Shelter Depot by a family from the host community.

Alight and Every Shelter partnered to launch Shelter Depot in Bidibidi based on feedback from residents. Natalie explains, “A majority of the people we spoke to are not happy with the homes [there]. They are willing and want to improve them, but don't have access to the items that they need or they don't have the skills. At the end of 2022, people were literally traveling kilometers to get two-inch nails.”

Bidibidi is about 68 kilometers away from the town of Yumbe. Residents must hire transport—typically a boda boda, an overloaded motorbike—or pile into a crowded truck bed, bouncing and bracing over the rugged dirt roads. Asio Williams, OPM Assistant Commander of Zone Five, explains the challenges: “You look at 60,000 shillings [roughly $15] being spent on transport… assuming you went and bought heavy things including cement and iron sheets… you also need to hire either another boda boda or you need to hire a vehicle to deliver these things here. Delivering them here is also very expensive.” Having Shelter Depot embedded in the settlement, eliminates these transportation costs, and lessens the frequency of roadside accidents, a very real threat.

Shelter Depot is located within Zone Five of Bidibidi, outfitted to sell products requested by the community. With no financial markup or need for transportation, products such as solar panels and cookstoves are made affordable, or purchased through a work-for-credit program that allows more vulnerable individuals to get the items they need. Participants plant trees or do maintenance to earn credit for an item at the store, such as a bashe bora or nails to shore up their house for the wetter months.

DSCF0704 1

Assistant Commander Williams adds, “It has helped to actually strengthen the peaceful coexistence between the refugees and the host community to the extent that at times when maybe the host or the refugees accidentally have set fire, and this fire ends up burning someone’s house, you find the refugees come to Shelter Depot and they're able to do work for credit so that they're able to repair that house.”

Joseph Otika is a tall man with blunt features and glasses who exudes both calm and a superhuman tenacity for his work. He is on the ground in Bidibidi as the Shelter Depot Coordinator, a liaison and shared team member between Alight and Every Shelter. He shares, “For the first phase that we implemented in Bidbidi it was basically proof of concept. We were testing the concept and I'm very happy that we’ve successfully tested, we realize it works. So now we are looking at how best we can sustain through partnership.”

(Left) Agnes poses in front of her Tukul. She worked for credit to purchase the Every Shelter Bashe Bora from the Shelter Depot. / (Right) Joseph Otika, Shelter Depot Coordinator in BidiBidi poses in front of the Shelter Depot, made from an upcycled shipping container.

Among the Tukuls

Bidibidi is difficult to get to. From Kampala it’s over a half day’s journey: a two-hour flight in a bush plane, and then many miles over unpaved, bone-rattling roads.

From the plane the land stretches out beneath us, the lush green of the south giving way to the dry brushland of the north. The gnarled string of a dry riverbed wriggles below us. A wildfire rages, white plumes of smoke falling upward like a waterfall cascading in reverse. Bidibidi’s placement is due to the proximity of the South Sudan border and that this region was sporadically settled and economically limited. From above one can better understand the challenges Bidibidi faces—limited water, deforestation, little infrastructure, wildfires.

Once we land we continue north by van, swerving potholes and boda bodas. Dotted among the packed earth are tukuls, small round huts made of mud brick and grass thatch, native to both Ugandans and the South Sudanese who have resettled there. The tukuls are beautiful, a layering of rich earth tones and natural materials. It’s here, in Bidibidi, among the tukuls that I better understand the longevity of displacement and what it means to make a home.

DSCF0664 1

Compound of Franco Amule’s home, the elected representative of village 13. Plant hedges serve as demarcation between homes.

The men and women I meet are quick to tell me what needs to be improved, what resources they lack, but they also take deep pride in the homesteads they’ve built. Tukuls are hand-painted in unique designs, grass thatch is intricately woven, small trees are weighted to create natural canopies to gather under. Nearby a woman sweeps, the swish swish of the grass broom patterning the dirt, like a rake in a tabletop zen garden. Behind her a handful of tukuls are decorated with images of flowers and scorpions. The buttery yellow lines pop against the deep grey of the earthen walls.

Around me daily life swirls. Laundry hangs on the line. A daughter sits in a doorway doing needlework, a pile of bright red yarn tumbling out of her lap. Nearby a small solar panel charges a phone while a teenager sulks despondently, waiting.

This is not a camp. This is not temporary. This is a long-term community that has resiliently adapted to changing circumstances.

DSCF0655 2

Every Shelter sees that adaptation as a model for their own work. Austin, a midwesterner with pale hair and deep blue eyes, is Every Shelter’s Chief of Staff. “What we are investing in is seeing architecture native to the region as its own very good thing that we don't want to do away with. We just simply want to come and adapt it for the sake of that long-term displaced population. For example, there's so much building science in the tukul that makes it perfect for that climate in Northern Uganda. There are certain things that we can make—small interventions—that make it even better.... these communities struggle with resource scarcity around the sheathing on the roof. Instead of using grasses, can we use palms? They last longer. They're less susceptible to termite damage.”

As climate change accelerates, one can envision a future where this model of adaptation may be even more vital.

Through Shelter Depot the team can offer potential solutions to contextual challenges. Recently, Every Shelter partnered with a local organization to construct a model home next to the Shelter Depot, a Tukul 2.0 that exhibits some of these adaptive possibilities. The model uses a brick that doesn’t require a wood-fed fire in a deforested region to bake them, and shows an example of palm roofing, a product available for purchase at the Depot.

(Left) Amule Franco, Chairperson for Residents of Section 13, poses in front of his home. (Right) Joyce Gino, Chairperson for Residents of Section 15, poses in front of the scorpion mural painted on her home.

And yet, the power remains in the hands of the refugee. As customers, they purchase the goods and determine their use. Loise explains, “We’ll say, ‘This is a product, this is what we think it is. It could serve you five years. We think it's going to solve your leaky roof issues, but touch, feel, see it, and tell me what you actually think it is.’ And you had people who are like, ‘Oh, it makes a strong carpet.’ Like, oh, okay, I think a roof. You think carpet.” Loise adds that recently she saw a bashe bora used as a water cistern.

Austin explains, “We don't make shelters—we make shelter solutions. We don’t want to build you a shelter. We want to give you the tools and the materials to build what you want to build.”

Loise returns to the heart of their work, her voice growing stronger with conviction, “It's inviting listening—listening to what is being voiced and actually listening.”

“We’re reformers, not revolutionaries”

Every Shelter is a swiss army knife—a manufacturer, a depot, an employer, a think tank, an advocacy group, and an architectural design firm folded into one nimble tool. The capacity of the tool to be applied in multiple ways is its strength, but its purpose, to empower their displaced clients whatever their circumstance, remains the same.

In this way, Every Shelter’s operating system is responsive adaptation. They center the refugee’s input and desires and respond, adapting to context, to local markets, to climate, to changing needs and aspirations. Like the clients they serve, Every Shelter is constantly evolving, innovating, and adapting.

Much of the humanitarian-aid-complex is a one-size-fits-all approach geared towards crisis and temporary solutions, an approach that needs to change. In contrast, Every Shelter embeds itself for the long-term—a needed, but decidedly less sexy approach. “It's not a hard switch. It's only hard because the flow of dollars is going to crisis, to emergency, to the next problem,” explains Austin.

DSCF2278 1

Every Shelter Uganda Operations Team! Austin (Chief of Staff), Loise (Director of Programs and Operations), Joseph (Shelter Depot Coordinator), Emmanuela (Program Manager), Frank (Program Manager), and Richard (Facilities Manager).

Scott adds, “It feels kind of arrogant sometimes to think that we might make a difference in that, but I do. I'm convinced that we just have to be faithful to do our part and do it really well.”

Every Shelter is trying to change the system, not with a sledgehammer, but slowly, deftly applying pressure from within.

Austin concludes, “We're not revolutionaries, we're reformers… I think that's our largest philosophical goal. Can we affect behavior change in the sector? We are so grateful to our friends at Alight who come to this project with the willingness, resourcing, infrastructure, and vision to make something new with us towards that goal. It’s a team effort. We can’t do it alone."

Every Shelter continues to innovate and design goods with a higher impact within an ecosystem that empowers refugees. The bashe bora is a perfect example of what they want future Shelter Goods to look like. Through the manufacturing, use, and distribution of a single product, the bashe bora meets the differing needs of individual refugees, whether as an employment opportunity, a housing solution, or even as a resource for families beginning to farm and in need of additional water.

(Left) Traditional brick making (Right) Every Shelter's Tukul 2.0

As they innovate new products, Scott sees the potential for a form of Shelter Depot to be used in other settlements and camps. “If the model of Shelter Depot works, lots of NGOs will start doing this and it opens the door to micro entrepreneurs in every context. Our scale potential there is way bigger than anything that we could do.”

He pauses, a bit of a gleam in his eyes as he envisions another possibility for reform. “Honestly? I would like to try Shelter Depot where we actually go into an existing shopkeeper’s store. We're just working with them. I think that would be pretty successful. It's a little bit more complicated, but I don't think the future is always going to be these cool shipping containers. There are existing shops in lots of refugee camps, and if we can work alongside of them, it’s like, ‘Hey, we're going to put this really specific type of inventory in your store. You don't have to invest in it…’” Scott adds, “So I think that there’s going to be some more experimentation where it goes more covert.”

(Left) Portrait of Emmanuela (Emma), Programmes Manager. (Right) Portrait of Jonathan

Back at the Kampala offices, I sit beside Emma, Every Shelter’s Program Manager who oversees the bashe bora-making process. She’s young, well-dressed, with a large smile and bright eyes. Born in Uganda to South Sudanese refugees, she brings a unique perspective to Every Shelter’s work. “It's the nature of work at Every Shelter that just brings a spark to me. Every Shelter doesn't view the refugee as a helpless victim, but an individual who is capable, as long as they have the opportunity, the agency and the available platforms for them to develop and thrive.”

Emma pauses, fingering her silver hoops. “Every Shelter hopes that as long as someone is displaced, they are able to find comfort. A place that they can call home away from home.”

A bashe bora technician traipses through the office to make a cup of tea. The kettle clicks on. Out the window I see Christian, gathering the folds of a billboard.

DSCF0359 1

Get Involved

Support Every Shelter


Editor's Note

It has been our joy and honor to witness Every Shelter's work and impact in Uganda. The team's daily effort to restore dignity and agency for people displaced by war, violence, or persecution deserves our attention, support, and most certainly our celebration. I'd personally like to thank Austin and Scott for helping to coordinate story production with the BitterSweet team, making it possible for us to visit Bidibidi and meet so many inspiring and resilient souls. Thank you to the entire Every Shelter team and community for sharing your stories and hopes with BitterSweet audiences around the world. We hope you're honored by this feature.

Every time we invest in a story like this it takes hundreds of hours to get to the finish line (read: research, coordinate, interview, synthesize, produce, publish, promote). Our contributors volunteer their time and talent to get these stories told, applying themselves professionally to the problems and pain of the world. Avery, Alfred, and Zorana championed this story with grace and grit. They immersed themselves in Every Shelter's reality and mission, offering the rest of us a riveting, light-filled exploration of its impact and necessity.

With greater hope having read and edited this piece, I hope you'll layer your voice with ours and help us share this story far and wide.

Kate Schmidgall 2022 color
Kate Sig

Kate Schmidgall

Editor-in-Chief, BitterSweet Monthly

Other Stories

View All Stories