Break Time

The goal: empower refugees with break-the-cycle programs so they can get back to living, not standing in lines.

Break Time
A sign that reads "Hope" stands in the vacant Idomeni camp. View full image. Photo by Francesca LeBaron
The goal: empower refugees with break-the-cycle programs so they can get back to living, not standing in lines.

Francesca LeBaron 10 arrived at Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey on June 28 after a trip to Moscow. The next day, a suspected ISIS terrorist bombed that same international terminal, killing 45 people and injuring more than 230. On July 14, LeBaron crossed the Bosphorus Bridge on her way to celebrate a coworker’s birthday. The next day, a military coup broke out on that same bridge, triggering a government crackdown and a death toll of more than 270.

LeBaron had been in Turkey for business since May. She works for Accenture, a management consulting firm, in their international development practice called Accenture Development Partnerships. It’s a small division with clients that include the United Nations, World Bank, and the International Rescue Committee.

LeBaron takes the consulting skills, resources, and expertise she has used for Fortune 500 companies and applies them to the major non-profit players in global development.

“My passion is to find that sweet spot that aligns what’s good for business with what’s good for society,” she says.

LeBaron is grateful that she was never at the wrong place at the wrong time, but the terrorist attacks she’s seen don’t define her experience. She loved living there. She loved the people. She loved her job.

“That’s not the Turkey I know. That’s not the Istanbul I know,” LeBaron says.


Colleen Sinsky ’10 is LeBaron’s best friend. The two met their first year at SCU in an economics class but found common ground discussing social justice issues – everything from the rights of Mexican immigrants to the importance of empowerment over service.

“We would stay up until 3 a.m. talking,” LeBaron says. “We were totally aligned.”

After graduation, Sinsky volunteered with JVC as a homeless-outreach advocate in Portland while LeBaron traveled to rural villages in Northern Ghana and Burkina Faso for six months on a Hackworth Grant. There she researched literacy promotion with Professor Kevane—the professor who first piqued her interest in economic development.

Fast forward a couple years and their career paths had gone in different directions. LeBaron traded in her flip-flops for a business suit, she says, and in 2012, started work at Accenture as a business strategy analyst.

Meanwhile, Sinsky was still in her flip-flops (or hiking boots, rather) working directly with refugee aid. (For more on Colleen’s experiences, read her piece from our summer 2016 edition.)

“When we graduated, we both got our ‘front lines’ experience but I craved the opportunity to create more of an impact and I knew I didn’t have the skills to do that at the time,” LeBaron remembers. “So, I decided to work for an ‘evil’ Fortune 500 company to give me the tools I needed to move the needle.”

Then in 2015, LeBaron got a chance to revisit the ideals that brought her and Sinsky together as students and friends. She got the call to join Accenture’s Development Partnerships division. That next week, she moved to New York. Her first clients: the United Nations and the International Rescue Committee.

Now, the best friends essentially work in different capacities fighting for the same cause: LeBaron on the backend with strategy and policymaking, Sinsky still on the frontlines. It can be emotionally jarring but it helps that they’re in it together and can provide the other with insight.

“We do sanity checks on each other,” says LeBaron, who keeps with her a poem that Sinsky wrote in college, called “Disturb Us, Oh Lord.”

LeBaron visited Sinsky in Greece right after the Idomeni refugee camp had been shut down. Together, they went on salvage missions, collected supplies, worked distribution lines, and visited families. LeBaron saw firsthand what it means to live as a refugee.

“Their entire life is just waiting in line. You wait in line for food. You wait in line for water. You wait in line to use the bathroom—if they even have a bathroom. You wait in line to get any type of clothes. That’s just what it is,” LeBaron explains. “Waiting for what? I have no idea. For something better?”

And seeing what her friend does up close gave her an even greater respect for the impact she has.

“I don’t know how she does it day in and day out,” LeBaron says. “She is just mentally the toughest person I know. She gets a backstage pass into the worst days of a person’s life. She’s stability for people who have had their whole worlds pulled out from under their feet. ”

Best friends, even 10 years later. Photo by Francesca LeBaron


The average refugee is displaced for 17 years. LeBaron believes that change will only happen through livelihood. Let the refugees contribute to their communities.

“People think it’s a food, water, and blankets type of problem. This is a lifetime problem,” she says. “I want to be in that breaking-the-cycle position.”

LeBaron’s most recent project, in collaboration with the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, took her to Turkey. It is the number one host country of refugees—about 3 million. Syrian refugees make up more than 2.7 million of those.

What also makes Turkey unique: it’s one of the few countries that gives refugees the legal right to work. Businesses can hire up to 10 percent Syrian refugees. And in 2014, more than 26 percent of new businesses started in Turkey by foreigners were set up by Syrians.

LeBaron’s team partnered with Habitat, a Turkish NGO, to create a youth entrepreneurship program for Syrian refugees. Habitat, founded in 1997, already had a similar program for the underserved Turkish population.

Accenture’s role was to help with strategy and design of a 2-year program for almost 7,000 refugees. The end goal: give Syrian refugees the tools and support network they need to sucessfully start their own business. Part of that included a needs assessment survey where they determined that they could improve the loan process for refugees by forming a partnership with an outside financial firm.

Another partner helped them adapt their curriculum to better reach traumatized individuals and develop a technology curriculum (which proved to be difficult, as working in Arabic required coding backward). The program also has the potential to be a two-way feeder program. Meaning, businesses can tell Habitat what skills they need and Habitat can help train participants in those areas.

LeBaron believes the program will also help alleviate the economic fear of refugees, many of whom are intelligent and skilled, particularly in business and agriculture. These are not job takers. They are job creators.

“We paint them as terrorists and people who are just going to drain our economy’s resources. They are not.” LeBaron says. “They don’t want a life of handouts. They don’t want a life of rotting in a refugee camp. They want to be in a position where they can succeed.”

Habitat plans to implement the program this fall across 12 different cities. They will still offer the program to their local Turkish community and hope to see both Syrians and Turks work together.

After the failed military coup, Accenture removed LeBaron and her two other colleagues from Turkey. She is currently in the Bay Area and continues to help Habitat remotely, but she is undeterred and plans to take a leave of absence from Accenture in a few months to go back to volunteer either in Turkey or Jordan.

“It makes me better at my job to see what’s actually going on on the ground,” LeBaron says. “And, again, so much of what I learned in the refugee camp I apply to my job. So much.”

LeBaron has so many stories from her work. Some of the hardest workers and most innovative minds she’s ever encountered are wasting away in these refugee camps. She views it as her calling to change this.

“The life of a refugee is so different than anything we could fathom,” LeBaron says. “(I want to) bring those experiences and the story of what they’re going through to people that can move the needle.”


Grace Ogihara ’16 and Eryn Olson ’16 are editorial assistants for Santa Clara Magazine.

A makeshift refugee camp sets up in an old gas station. Note the ironic welcome sign above. Photo by Francesca LeBaron
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