During the summer, seven student team members of the Bass Connections project on Displacement, Resettlement and Global Mental Health will spend six weeks working with Jordanian and international organizations responding to the refugee crisis and conducting life story interviews with Iraqi and Syrian refugee families. Another three team members traveled to Oxford University to present research at the Oxford Migration Studies Society conference. Learn about the students and read their periodic blog updates below.
Lily Doron is a sophomore from Durham, North Carolina. She is a Program II major with a focus on ethics, human rights, and documentary studies and she is also a campus tour guide, on the club soccer team, and a tutor for MASTERY.
Leena El-Sadek graduated from Duke this May with a double major in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health. From Jackson, Mississippi, she helped establish the SuWA partnership with local refugees.
Noura Elsayed is a senior studying Psychology and Cultural Anthropology. Noura is from St. Petersburg, Florida.
Nali Gillespie graduated from Duke this May majoring in Program II, focusing on the intersection of health and conflict in the Middle East. She enjoys dancing, traveling, and a good book to get lost in.
Olivia Johnson is a junior from Washington, D.C., majoring in International Comparative Studies. She has been a MASTERY tutor, and a student member of the SuWA partnership.
Josephine Ramseyer is a senior at Duke from Paris, France majoring in English with plans to become an international human rights lawyer. When on campus, she divides her time between directing MASTERY and the Coalition for Preserving Memory and planning her next trip abroad.
Maura Smyles is a sophomore public policy major with a Spanish minor and a certificate in child policy research. She is from Annapolis, MD and is a member of the Duke Moot Court Team and the Student Advisory Board to the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.
Tra Tran graduated from Duke this May with a double major in psychology and cultural anthropology. From New Mexico, she plans to attend graduate school after a year or two. She loves to eat and read novels.
Oxford – Leena, Olivia, Michelle
This was one of the first statements we heard as we rushed into the Mawby Room in Kellogg College on May 16, 2015 at 9:16 am. Because of a canceled flight from RDU airport, we missed the first day of the Oxford Migration Studies Society conference. To make the second day of the conference, we needed to get dressed on the plane, run through customs, and go directly to the conference.
If our ~2 hours of sleep and cup of caffeine did not take us there, our unwavering determination certainly would. The three of us invested months into our research and this conference afforded us an opportunity to share our work with others. Even if luck was not exactly on our side at the beginning of this trip, we were going to get to Oxford.
Professor Heaven Crawley, Chair in International Migration at Coventry University, set the tone for the entire day with her discussion on labels. She stressed that we need to look at where the margins are drawn in society. We often view “integration” as a defining characteristic of resettlement. Yet often migrants and refugees integrate along the margins of society–with those citizens who are members of the society but different from the normative identity of society. In order to reframe this discussion we must define what “our society” is composed of.
Rather than focusing on political labels imposed on migrants and refugees, the conference was centered on the unique challenges and barriers of migration. This moved us away from a dialogue that homogenizes all migrants and refugees and allowed us to engage in a greater conversation about the implications of migrations. One presenter discussed the discourse of “living at the margins,” which was a theme throughout the conference. This discourse suggests that displaced individuals are geopolitically disadvantaged because they live at the margins of society. However, the presenter argued that, although this is prevalent, many migrants and refugees live among citizens of the host community. This reminded us of our own research with Iraqi refugees. Though they are marginalized, they live among Egyptians and Jordanians; their marginalization is a product of many forces. Another presenter discussed the categorization of migrants and refugees. There are groups more vulnerable than others, but our discourse diminishes this difference. The presenter discussed women, especially those who have been trafficked. Again, this reminded us of our own research in which we compared refugees in Nepal to refugees in Egypt. Though both are labeled as “refugees,” this comparison highlighted how the lived experiences of refugee groups are different.
After five hours of soaking in the discussions, it was finally our turn to share our work. We spent about 10 minutes explaining our research. We then joined a panel of 4 other presenters for the Q&A session. Our group answered about 3-4 questions from the audience. Some questions included: “Why did you do a comparison study?” “What can you tell us about refugees’ self-resiliency?” “Why is social identity different in Egypt?” “What can you tell us about refugees in the USA, particularly in North Carolina?” Referring back to our research, we answered each question with enough confidence to support our explanations.
The journey to the OMSS conference was not a particularly easy one. The paper, the plane, and the presentation were all mini-journeys contributing to a larger goal we had envisioned back when we embarked on our Bass Connections experience in the fall. Despite us being the only non-PhD presenters, despite a canceled plane, despite the long nights and weekends working on our paper, this conference helped us realize that our research is meaningful and important. Whether a student or a professor, we all have unique perspectives and we are all contributing to a larger conversation. This has been a remarkable experience, both academically and personally, and we cannot wait to continue this journey.
Until we meet again,
Leena, Olivia and Michelle
Balancing Scale – Tra
Let’s say you are interested in getting into humanitarian work, and you need to choose between working with an individual, working with a group of individuals, and doing research and advocacy. Now, to contextualize the situation in which you would be working: you are planning to work in Jordan; Syrian refugees have been flowing into the country for the past 4 years in the thousands. There are now over 600,000 UNHCR registered Syrians in Jordan, living in and out of the camps throughout the country. This does not include Syrians who do not wish to register, making the UNHCR number much smaller than the reality on the ground— organizations you work with will tell you there are at least 1 million Syrians living in Jordan. To make things more difficult, Iraqi, Palestinian, and Somali refugees have already stressed Jordan’s infrastructure, making resources low and tensions high. Your task now is to figure out which category will help the most number of people in the shortest amount of time, and devote your time to that category.
So what do these categories look like in practice? While the larger organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) have express goals and limited budgets to provide basic needs to the entire Syrian refugee population, it is impossible to provide full physical and psychosocial support to every refugee. So to fill the gaps, there are hundreds of local NGOs that work towards providing this support where there is none. We met with a few of these organizations, all working towards the same goal of filling in the gaps that larger international NGOs cannot fill, with different methods of outreach.
Some humanitarians we have met with have the ability to be benefactors for individuals, providing stable-yet-illegal occupations so that they can live a fuller life in Amman. The few Syrians we have met that are lucky enough to have a benefactor are doing much better than those we met last year. When we ask about their seven most significant events in the life story interview, moments of happiness are intertwined with sadness, and their events are less focused on their displacement. These individuals are close with their benefactors, and the relationships can be ones of mutual respect and friendship. Yet not everyone has the ability to find a benefactor – there are still hundreds of thousands in Jordan without the right to work, the ability to go to school, and/or the ability to live in spaces they can call home.
Other organizations focus on providing education for children, giving them the stability necessary for catching up. Due to the nature of the educational programs only a select number are able to participate in this ‘catch-up’ school. The school is able to provide support for a greater number of people than the benefactor, with around 60 students participating in the classes. Even though the ability to get to know the kids and their families and form lasting relationships exists, it becomes increasingly harder to do so. And while teaching 60 children might seem like a lot, putting this in the context of a million refugees, with almost half being under the age of 18, the degree of impact is not nearly as large as one might hope for.
In a different vein, there are organizations that focus on advocating for and within disadvantaged communities, generating reports and creating initiatives with the intent of improving the lives of as many people as possible. These organizations work to empower communities, transforming them into active participants in their legal and social rights. Their methods of outreach vary, but the one we met with focuses on awareness sessions, focus groups, and media campaigns. Despite their larger range, they lose the ability to really connect with individuals and build lasting relationships. Yet these organizations can lobby for significant and positive change. Through their incredibly hard work, they have managed to establish a legal system in Zaatari refugee camp, making this camp the only refugee camp in the world to have such a system. While the individuals who worked on lobbying the Jordanian government will never meet all those that have used the legal system within the camp, they have created lasting and effective change on a large scale.
While it is easy to see the impact when working with the same individuals, the difference research and changes in policy can make could be the motivating factor. So what to choose? If I work with the individual, I can see the direct impact and create lasting relationships. If I work in research, I have the chance to effect policy. With individuals, my reach is limited. With research, the change in policy might take too long, and I don’t have as much time to connect with the people I am researching. Is there a place on the spectrum that one person can find that adequately balances the desire to make lasting human connections and the drive to make structural and effective change? Is it possible to do both?
When thinking about humanitarian crises in abstract terms, the numbers of those ‘in need’ are almost always overwhelming. With this in mind, going into research would seem to be the most effective use of my time, seeing as how it is the best way to reach the most people. Yet sometimes it is easy to lose sight of your purpose when you stop interacting and connecting with the people; even worse, you see them as research subjects rather than individuals with agency. Is it selfish for me to want to focus on individuals? Maybe. But if I have learned anything at Duke, it is that the power of the narrative can be more motivating than any statistically heavy report. The fact that there are approximately 1 million Syrian refugees living in Jordan can seem abstract. A million people can be almost overwhelming to think about. A million in need, a million who potentially suffer(ed) enormous amounts of pain and stress. At a certain point, my mind becomes overwhelmed and I think, “Why bother? A million is too many.” Yet listening to someone explain about how his cousin had to watch as ISIS threw her children out of her 5th floor apartment only to get her head cut off is emotionally evocative, and motivational. How many more people have to live through that before people try and do something about it? The narrative puts in perspective the abstract number – one million people have fled a devastating war, and many have similar stories. Connecting the abstract research through human interaction and conversation seems to be the best way to combine the different outreach methods that we have seen. The narratives not only reinforce the need for the research, but also puts the numbers into perspective. This combination is what gives me purpose; it is why I wanted to come back to Jordan and why I want to pursue a PhD in cultural or medical anthropology. It is the ‘human’ part of ‘humanitarianism’ that I find pushes me to continue.
Jordan’s infrastructure challenges – Noura
On the second day we were at Azraq catch-up school, the children had a science quiz. The Bass team and I were outside the caravan-turned-classroom preparing to paint when the students finished their science quiz. Rama*, a 10-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs, Syria, was one of the first children out of the caravan. In her greeting to me, she added a boastful “I got a 16 out of 20 on my quiz.” Soon after I greeted Rama, I started to greet Mohamed*, her 14-year-old Syrian classmate. Just as I was greeting Mohamed, Rama quickly emphasized that he’d received a zero out of 20 on his quiz. Mohamed quickly rebutted, “Just go ask the miss! I got a 20,” and pulled the sleeve of her shirt, resultantly dragging her inside so that she could ask the teacher about his results.
Throughout my day at Azraq, I realized this playful banter was typical. These children were members of the same class at Azraq catch-up school and like any pre-adolescent-aged classmates; these children were very competitive. While I typically don’t support child-on-child competition, I was excited to see Mohamed and Rama demonstrated a competitive edge about their schooling. This competition seemed to be an example of the way these children cared about their education. Later that day, I met Mohamed’s father and he commented on encouraging Mohamed to focus on his studies. His comments, and Mohamed’s clear focus on his schooling, assured me that despite the unfathomable circumstances of being victims of the Syrian humanitarian crisis, and despite being displaced to a new country with little to no resources, the family had remained focused on the schooling of its children. It was clear to me that education was a priority for these children and their families, and that these families wanted their children to integrate into the Jordanian education system.
Mohamed and Rama, along with 50 other children of the Azraq village and Azraq refugee camps, are all beneficiaries of a school catch-up program that functions to prepare refugee children and children from Azraq village to perform at the grade level of Jordanian children their age. It is sponsored by a small local NGO with help from MercyCorps and Unicef and provides basic science, Arabic, and math to the children in year-round classes so that the children do not continue to fall behind in their schooling. Unfortunately, due to laws in Jordan which deny Syrian children access to Jordanian schools, the efforts of this school are not enough to ensure these children access to education. During my time at Azraq catch-up school, I learned that the Jordanian school system simply did not have the infrastructure to deal with the influx of Syrian children.
As I listened to Mohamed and Rama’s playful competition, and to Mohamed’s father talking about the importance of schooling, I tried not to think about the realities of Mohamed and Rama’s educational future.
This catch-up school approaches the issues of the Syrian refugee crisis by trying to prepare the children for integration into Jordanian life. This organization’s approach to the crisis, however, is severely handicapped by Jordan’s lack of infrastructural capacity to accommodate the, according to UNHCR, almost 800,000 Syrian refugees who have entered its borders. Throughout the week I learned that despite the Jordanian government’s best efforts, Jordan’s infrastructural issues placed severe limitations on the types of services that could be provided to refugees. Jordan was a country that was once home to only 7 million people, and the influx of Syrian refugees has created a massive burden on the Jordanian economic, education and work sectors.
Knowing this, I thought the clear solution to the crisis of Syrian refugees was to resettle refugees to other countries. I thought that in Mohamed’s case for example, resettling Mohamed and his family to the US, or another European country, would ensure these children access to education. As we continued to meet with organizations throughout the week, however, I realized that this approach to solving the crisis also did not address the Syrian refugee crisis in its entirety, because it did not address the long-term development of Syria.
Throughout this week, different organizations informed us about their approaches to dealing with the crisis. It seemed like each NGO was choosing to address the issue in one of three ways: promoting integration of refugees into the larger Jordanian society; encouraging the Syrian refugees to prepare to be productive members of the Syrian population who can (one day) rebuild Syria; or preparing refugees to resettle to new host countries. As I learned about the approaches, each seemed to have its strengths and limitations.
In thinking through these approaches, I’d often returned to my interactions with Mohamed. I tried to imagine what I thought would be best for his future. Mohamed mentioned his desire to one day return to Syria. Mohamed said he wants to go back to Syria where life was good. Even though I knew that the Syria Mohamed remembers, and yearns to return to, is not the Syria he would be returning to, it was momentarily encouraging to know that there are organizations approaching this conflict from that perspective. In a meeting with one NGO, the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD), project managers at the NGO told us how the organization approaches the crisis from a holistic perspective. The organization offered that its civil citizen workshops and women’s empowerment workshops prepared Syrian refuges for return to Syria with the skills to build a strong civil society. As we continued to talk with ARDD, and as I continued to think about Mohamed’s future educational prospects, this approach seemed as limited to me as the approach of trying to integrate Syrians into Jordan’s infrastructure. It was limited because this approach to the conflict depended on the end of the crisis in Syria. But with no end to the conflict in sight, I wondered if it was fair to put refugees’ lives on hold to prepare them for a (maybe) future. I wondered how Mohamed would feel if a few years down the road at 18 or 19, he realized he had only the skills to be a productive member of Syrian society, but no outlet on which to use those skills.
As I reflected on the limitations of this approach to the conflict, which prepares refugees for life in Syria, I again wished for resettlement for Mohamed and his family. At the International Organization for Migration (IOM) we were told that each year the US and other countries resettle refugees and that the speed at which Syrian refugees were being resettled was unprecedented. I again reflected however, on Mohamed. His sharp desire to return home to Syria made clear that for Mohamed resettling elsewhere was not an ideal option. Additionally, arguments about brain-drain and its implications in hindering Syria’s redevelopment made me wonder if the approach to dealing with the conflict that aims to resettle refugees is the best one for Syria and the Middle East’s long-term development. Yet again, I returned to Mohamed and I wondered how he would feel if a few years down the road, the conflict in Syria had ended, and he was not able to return to his country to aid in its redevelopment.
At the end of this week, after viewing the different approaches to dealing with the refugee crisis, I’m still not sure which approach to serving refugees is the right approach. Each approach has its limitations, and each has its strengths. I was motivated at the approach of the Azraq catch-up school, which aims to prepare children for integration into Jordanian schools, but the reality of the severe pressure on the Jordanian infrastructure makes me wonder if the approach of preparing refugees for Jordanian integration is a feasible one. Furthermore, even if the idea of promoting the development of Syrians who can rebuild Syria is enticing, I wonder is it reasonable to try to build civil citizens of a Syria that doesn’t exist? I also wonder, is it negligent to encourage the resettling of refugees to countries where they cannot rebuild Syria if and when the conflict does end?
For now, I don’t know which approach to the Syrian refugee crisis is the best one. I’m not sure which approach gives Mohamed, Rama and the hundreds of thousands of other children like them the opportunity at the most fulfilling future.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
Refugees and Employment – Nali
Returning to Amman for the fourth time to explore refugee issues has uncovered even deeper complexities facing this landlocked country than I had realized. Over the past week and a half, the Bass Connections Jordan team and I visited several organizations in Amman working with Syrian refugees, providing services ranging from education to legal assistance to resettlement opportunities. Additionally, we began interviewing Syrian refugees themselves two days ago. I am struck by the disparity between refugees’ needs that organizations are able to meet versus those they are not able to meet. To put this in context, UNHCR data suggests Jordan is currently hosting close to seven hundred thousand Syrian refugees, about fifty thousand Iraqi refugees, and several thousand Sudanese and Somali refugees. Furthermore, surrounded by Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Israel, Jordan has been vulnerable to effects of conflicts spilling over, particularly with the rise of extremist groups in neighboring countries and uncertainties regarding the future leadership in the region. Yet Jordan also faces a myriad of its own domestic challenges, including those related to a high unemployment rate, water shortages, and reduced investment opportunities due to regional instability. Thus, hosting a large number of refugees has hardly been easy on the country, and its responses to the refugee crises have been affected by the burden it faces, which in turn, have affected the responses of humanitarian organizations, such as the ones we visited.
The first Syrian man I interviewed spoke of the challenges of coming to Jordan and struggling to survive. Current Jordanian policy puts strict stipulations on when Syrians can legally leave the refugee camps, although many leave illegially because of the harsh conditions in the camp. Like many other Syrian families, he and his family still fled the Zaatari refugee camp after only several nights there and came to Amman, where he could not find suitable work, so he ended up selling bananas on the streets for 10 JD a day (approximately $14/day). But with a family of five trying to live in Jordan, a country that is relatively expensive, survival on such limited means becomes very difficult. Yet he is one of the lucky ones; through a friend, he was able to get a job with a local humanitarian organization. However, steady and adequate employment is a reality for few; most Syrians, despite desperately needing and desiring work, are not able to obtain legal employment. In general, refugees in Jordan are not legally allowed to work, so most employment opportunities are illegal, low paying jobs. As easy as it is for me to imagine the perfect solution is letting refugees work, Jordan is already finding it challenging to absorb a large population; to absorb a working population would be exceedingly difficult. Additionally, Jordan is afraid that the more benefits they give to the Syrians, the less likely they would be to leave the country, even if the situation in Syria improved; the Jordanian government does not wish for a repeat of the Palestinian situation, in which it absorbed a large number of Palestinians who fled during the 1948 and 1967 wars.
Thus, while the organizations we visited are doing an impressive job in fulfilling some of the needs of Syrian refugees, whether it is through building safe community spaces, providing specially tailored classes for Syrian children, or distributing clothing, there is still the issue of livelihood that they have no way of easily “fixing.” The war in Syria has no clear end in sight, so how will organizations continue to provide for the Syrian refugees for the years to come, when the vast majority of Syrians cannot work and have limited means of sustaining themselves? The Syrian conflict is no longer an emergency crisis; it is a long-term crisis that is bound to keep refugees in countries like Jordan for many more years. Yet it is likely that soon donors will become fatigued as a different crisis grasps their dwindling attention, and it is just as likely that Jordan’s policies toward the Syrians will become more and more restrictive as it struggles with security issues and limited resources. I suspect that I might hear in upcoming interviews with Syrian refugees that they have no choice but to return to Syria, not because the situation in Syria has improved recently, but because life in Jordan is unbearable and unsustainable; people have limited ability to create a livelihood. If that ends up being so, then the international community’s inability to devise a solution to the Syrian crisis will have had truly tragic consequences.
Aid & Dignity – Lily
A couple of days ago I went with Julie, who works for Mercy Corps, to distribute water containers to families near Azraq. At our last stop, she dropped off a flat-screen TV to a family Mercy Corps had been working with for some time. As soon as one of the other volunteers got out of her car, three of the children ran up to her and gave her big hugs and kisses. While Maher, another Mercy Corp worker, was carrying the TV into the house, Julie reached into the car and pulled out two bags of diapers to give to the family, because they have a small baby. The TV can provide an emotional release that can be an essential and necessary escape from the reality of one’s situation and provide entertainment in an otherwise boring daily routine; the diapers are the solution to the physical need of having a baby without having the resources to be able to independently care for it. These two donations demonstrate two types of aid that organizations are giving to Syrian refugees to fill differing categories of need: supplying physical resources and providing psychological and emotional support.
For the Syrian refugees who have crossed the border into Jordan, many have next to nothing. Because of the trauma they have faced and the fear they have experienced, these refugees need emotional support and healing. Physical aid is also often necessary because when Syrians fled their homes, they could only bring a few possessions, so they need basic things such as clothing, shelter, and water. Because these needs are so many, so varied, and can be different on a case-by-case basis, it is impossible for an organization to meet all of the refugees’ needs at once. This is where individual beliefs about the ‘best’ or most important types of aid enter into the organizational response to the crisis. I do not believe that one—emotional or material—is more important than the other, but this is the question that I have been constantly struggling with since coming to Jordan.
I first ran into this dilemma when we were sorting clothing donations to be given to Syrian refugees at Catherine Ashcroft’s house. She runs a variety of programs to aid Syrian refugees, including distributing clothes and other resources, and implementing a catch-up school in Azraq Village. Right when we arrived, Catherine said that one of her most important goals is to maintain the dignity of the refugees. In the context of this project, this meant not giving them something too worn, dirty, or revealing. Getting nice clothing can make refugees feel valued at a time when they are so vulnerable and when it is possible to feel that no one wants them or appreciates them.
When we were sorting, we had to put clothes into piles to go to the refugees or to be thrown away. Catherine believed it would hurt the refugees’ pride and dignity if they were given something very clearly used and unwanted. I do not know much about the kinds of donations available to the refugees, but I have the impression that aid organizations do not have enough resources to meet the growing demand. So, if the refugees have nothing, is something, even if it is a little stained or worn, better? Do the physical needs in this case outweigh the emotional ones?
At one point, when I was sorting through a big, black trash bag full of donations, I found a light pink shirt that had an orange stain on the front. I was debating whether to put it into the trash pile or the white and blue “Women’s clothes” bag to be sent off to the refugees. I asked Sheila, a volunteer who sorted clothes. She said that it was not the best, but the refugees have nothing; she pointed to “Women’s clothes.” If the dignity of the refugees was maintained purely by getting pristine clothes, then why is getting something less than ‘like new’ important? This scene suggested that dignity is not only emotional, but also physical.
So maybe even my dichotomy between emotional and physical needs that organizations can focus on is not so black and white. To fulfill the physical need, perhaps a baseline of emotional stability and closure is necessary, maybe to appreciate what is given or to take care of what one has. To provide emotional support and healing, it is possible that a certain amount of physical resources must be available so one can move beyond purely physical survival to a place where deeper emotional healing can begin. Or it could be something completely different. But whatever the rationale, I believe emotional and physical aid must go together. I am still struggling with this balance, however, and the questions and choices about which type of aid organizations decide to provide.
For example, when we were painting caravan trailers for Mercy Corps’ catch-up school in Azraq Village, I was struggling with the question of why we were painting. The school will function the same; we are not giving any resources; we are not acting as teachers; so what is the point? It was at these moments when I was questioning our work that I had to remind myself that there are two types of need, emotional as well as physical. Even though we were not giving to the school in a way that could help it function, reach more children, or teach the students already there, we were adding bright, colorful images of trees, flowers, a butterfly, and more. The purpose of our small mural was to provide emotional support for the children who have already experienced so much. We painted a scene that embodied how childhood should be, and when they see it, maybe the children can embrace a little bit of the joy. This also raises the issue of the uncertainties and variability of what individuals need and experience in terms of emotional support. While one child might get hope from the picture we painted, it could make another feel sad that the place they live is not like the image. With emotional aid, the giver attempts to imagine what might work to make the receiver feel better, but there are always uncertainties. This uncertainty often disappears when material aid is given because it is much easier to know if someone has a tent or has been given food than if they are emotionally healing. Goals can be more quantitatively measured, and therefore it is easier to know if one’s job is done.
Throughout all of my work here, sorting clothes, painting, and playing soccer with young girls at Habaybi, I have had to reevaluate my priorities of which types of aid are most important. Before I came to Jordan I was mostly focused on material needs, but this experience has made me realize the equally valuable demands of emotional needs that also require help and support. I have realized that there is no right answer or solution to which type is most valuable or necessary; physical and emotional aid must go together to provide the greatest depth of support, and the organizations’ varying methods and emphases of one type of aid or another does not necessarily make one more effective or useful. Instead the two must go hand in hand.
Even when organizations with different focuses work together, there is no guarantee that all of the refugee’s needs will be met because of the great variety and number of their needs. From what I have seen, many different organizations do work together to aid a refugee holistically (for example, a mental health organization will work with the UNHCR so that the refugee can get therapy and financial support to afford their house and food), but even with the strength of these collaborations, the organizations cannot fulfill every need.
Children of the Camps – Maura
“We don’t like to open wounds we can’t close,” Julie, a young French woman who works for Mercy Corps, explained in response to a question about psychosocial support for Syrian refugees.
Standing in a small compound enclosed by a chain-link fence in Azraq, Jordan, I was surrounded by humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees. The caravans at the edges of the compound served as catch-up schools for Syrian children. The trucks parked near the road were used to deliver large canisters that local families used to store clean water. The main office was used to coordinate the delivery of food and clothes to Syrian families living nearby. This was a seemingly comprehensive resource center for Syrian refugees, individuals who have been forced into Jordan by war and violence in their own country, and yet there was no attempt to address the mental trauma associated with that journey for fear of “opening wounds we can’t close.”
“For some of the kids, this is sensitive because they lost a loved one,” warned Abby, another Mercy Corps employee and the volunteer coordinator for Habaybi, a program that provides fun activities for kids who live in Zaatari village, just outside of the Zaatari Refugee Camp. “Just try to avoid mentioning their dads,” she continued.
Abby spoke to a bus full of volunteers on its way to Habaybi’s semiweekly children’s day in Zaatari village. The day would be full of games of soccer and arts and crafts projects. One project, the one that I would be helping to facilitate, involved drawing the children’s family members on popsicle sticks and taping them inside cardboard houses that they had decorated. This was meant to be a celebration of World Family Day. But as Abby pointed out, family is a tricky thing to discuss with a room full of kids who have lost various family members to murder and armed conflict. So rather than provide any sort of psychological support, we would avoid the topic altogether and focus on coloring their cardboard houses in cheerful colors and passing out packaged snacks that we had picked up at a grocery store near the village.
“Their town in Syria was just taken by the Islamic State yesterday, so try to avoid bringing up their personal lives if you can,” Catherine Ashcroft requested, with reference to two of her Syrian employees, the first time we visited her house to help sort clothing donations for Syrian refugees.
I was immediately overwhelmed by sadness and concern and about a hundred other negative emotions on their behalf. The Syrian man and woman, who would later be sorting clothes alongside us as if everything was normal, still had family back in Syria, in a town that was now controlled by ISIS. They hadn’t been able to reach their family members yet, so they had no way of knowing whether their loved ones were dead or alive. And yet here they were, working hard to assemble bags of clothes that would be delivered to refugee camps and local resource centers that serve Syrian refugees.
It wasn’t until we met with representatives of Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD), that the important role of psychosocial support for Syrian refugees was fully recognized. Lana and Sofia, the two women from ARDD, emphasized the need for a holistic approach to supporting refugees and other marginalized groups in Jordan, insisting that providing legal services alone does not adequately increase access to justice when the beneficiaries have been disempowered and traumatized by events in their past.
Thinking back on all of the humanitarian aid organizations that we have met with and worked alongside since arriving in Jordan, I wonder why only one of them recognizes psychological needs. The physical needs of Syrian refugees are not being ignored; food, water, clothing, and shelter seem to be the top priorities of most of the NGOs operating in Jordan. Education is a priority as well, as shown by the catch-up schools that Mercy Corps and UNICEF sponsor together. I have even seen items like DVD players, flat screen TVs, and art supplies provided to Syrian families. Why, then, does mental health seem to be excluded from the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis?
Could this be cultural? Julie did in fact suggest that there is a stigma surrounding mental health resources among the Syrian refugee population that she works with. She thinks that parents might object if the schools were to provide psychological counseling. Perhaps the Syrian people themselves have indicated that they would prefer to have their physical needs met over their psychological needs. But did anyone ever ask them? And who would be able to answer this question for every one of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan? I can’t imagine that they would all answer this question the same way. Surely there are Syrians who would want grief counseling, right?
Is this a matter of availability? Maybe there aren’t qualified mental health professionals coming to Jordan to help address psychosocial concerns. But have the organizations even tried to recruit counselors? With the exception of ARDD, none of the organizations even expressed a desire to address mental health issues.
Perhaps physical needs are prioritized because they really are more important? When a person does not have access to food and other basic needs, his or her life is in jeopardy; however, in many cases of psychological trauma, though there is suffering, the person is not at risk of death. But then there are extreme cases, such as severe depression, in which suicide might end the victim’s life before starvation would. For those refugees, how can meeting physical needs be seen as the priority? And is it right for humanitarian organizations to keep people alive without helping them work toward an enjoyable life? Are people being kept alive only to suffer through their trauma over and over again with no opportunities to heal?
Maybe organizations prefer to do projects that they know are making a positive impact, like delivering supplies to communities that need them, rather than projects whose effects are more long-term and unknown, like psychological counseling. The impact assessment would certainly be easier for organizations that meet basic physical needs compared to those that meet mental health needs. It could be that projects with less clear and immediate impacts do not receive as much funding from the international community because people and organizations want to be sure that their money is being put to good use. But if that is the case, then how will a holistic approach to humanitarian aid ever be actualized?
In the coming weeks, as I continue to interact with humanitarian organizations that are assisting Syrian refugees in Jordan, I hope to gain more insight about why psychosocial support appears to be largely excluded from the organizational response to the Syrian crisis.
Immediate vs. Longterm – Maha
We often speak to white females who are leading the effort to provide humanitarian support to Syrians fleeing from the country. I’ve noticed this trend quite a bit in the organizations we’ve interacted with that focus on providing humanitarian relief to Syrian refugees. Take Catherine Ashcroft, for example. She is a middle-aged British woman with blonde hair who has begun an effort to aid Syrian refugees in Jordan by opening up her garage as a sorting place for all kinds of donations from expatriates and rich Jordanians. And then again, we have Julie, a young French woman who helps direct operations at the “catch-up” school at Azraq camp for Syrian kids who have lost years of education because of the crisis at home. I was even surprised to find that Abby, a peppy, young British lady, was the one leading us through our day at Zaatari village, where we did arts and crafts with refugee children. All of these strong female activists are well-intentioned people looking to relieve the suffering of Syrian refugees in any capacity they can. However, I don’t know what to make of the fact that a bulk of the humanitarian response comes from outsiders whose aim is to provide immediate support and relief to Syrians. The “first responder” response that is coming largely from outsiders seems to be directed at immediate relief rather than on the development of a comprehensive plan that returns Syrians back to their home.
The other day while we were in Azraq, about to begin painting one of the school caravans, we were talking to Julie and questioning why the Jordanian government doesn’t provide any educational support to Syrian child refugees. I was caught off guard when she replied that it was important that the government doesn’t provide the Syrians with everything or else they won’t go back to their home country. I hadn’t thought about the long-term consequences of educational support and humanitarian relief. To me it was black and white. The government was “bad” for not absorbing refugees into their public education system. I had not considered the adverse effects of providing relief to large populations who were looking for security in another land. Moreover, it intrigued me that the organizations we have worked with have been aimed more at providing humanitarian support and relief. Could this humanitarian support be considered a pull factor that generates more refugees? If so, what can be done to help people in need who are fleeing Syria while also making sure that Syria doesn’t just become a war-torn region with millions of people evacuated and no hope of returning and rebuilding the thriving civilization it once was? I question if the form of humanitarian support for Syrian refugees here is creating a strong pull factor that is draining the country of its people, while not exactly promoting a long-term solution for the country to get back on its feet.
When I consider all of the people, and especially the outsiders, who are leading the effort to provide relief to Syrians I wonder what their goal is here. The caring nature of these people convinces me that they are truly committed to relieving in any way they can the suffering of women, children, and innocent civilians. Whether it be by providing clothes, interacting with the kids, supporting them in education, or endorsing them with resettlement, the nature of the response to the Syrian crisis seems to be immediate and looking to keep people away from danger and towards security. This kind of response is natural and reflects the beautiful way in which people support one another in times of hardship. But I wonder, does this kind of response solve the long-term issue of returning a country to its prior state of stability? I’m not sure if there even is an alternate way of trying to help from the humanitarian perspective that could make the situation better in the long run. Everyone here seems to look at the situation in Syria with hopelessness. No one knows when this conflict is going to end and many feel the best we can do is provide immediate aid to those who have left. It almost seems as though the people who are trying to aid have given up on the country of Syria itself.
Over the last few weeks we have been reminded time and time again that Syrians are different from other refugees. Unlike the Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis, and Palestinians (for the most part), the Syrians are very tied to their land and dream of returning to their home country. They are primarily an agricultural people who envision a day when they can one day return to their soil and continue their way of life in their homeland. Many refuse to accept resettlement, and unlike other refugees, have hope for a future in Syria. The aspirations of the Syrian people are important considerations when analyzing the nature of the humanitarian response here in Jordan. Are these organizations and their outsider leaders primarily interested in providing long-term solutions so that Syria can rebuild itself? Is it even feasible for them to be thinking about the long-term when people are fearful for their lives, don’t have a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and food on the table? Most importantly, what is being done to help actualize the dreams of millions of Syrian refugees whose greatest and most burning wish is to return to their homeland? Will the goals of these organizations have an impact on restoring the thriving, civil society that Syria once was before the conflict? From the perspective of an outsider humanitarian, there seems to be nothing else that can be done than focus on immediate relief. This realization has burdened me deeply. There is no right or wrong solution, and no response seems to come without its fair share of problems.
Displacement Limbo – Josephine
In the desert region of Azraq, a once-oasis squeezed dry by the government and home to 18,000 (registered) refugees, there is a girl who fled Syria without her high school diploma. The Jordanian government, taking its cue from the only documents she was able to bring, would have her enroll in a sixth-grade class; her intellect, experience, and eighteen years of age would have her entering college. Yasmeen* is one of the many victims of such staunch bureaucratic procedures: in a world where papers and stamps and signatures override personal circumstance—even when said circumstance is fleeing war or persecution—and a country crumbling under the burden of five (and increasingly, six) refugee populations, there is no room for exceptions within the educational system. Like so many refugees living in a country of asylum, Yasmeen finds her life at a standstill: incapable of moving forward in Jordan, unable to go back to Syria, she is trapped in displacement limbo, a state punctuated by the beep of an absent official’s answering machine, who is probably also waiting on a response on how to respond to her.
This is the plight of a young woman who has completed her secondary education; now imagine the situation for those who have not. The crisis in Syria has interrupted educations across the board, forcing kids out of school for months or even years, and inflicting psychological trauma that not only makes children unable to cope with new learning environments but also has them forget what they have already learned. Sixteen-year-olds are at the level of third-graders, and twelve-year-olds are no longer able to read. Some children have forgotten how to behave in a classroom; others have lost the ability to speak, and almost all of them are not afforded the opportunity to go to school in Jordan, which would need an estimated 75 more public schools in order to accommodate the Syrian population alone. Jordan is a country in need of assistance without the added pressure of being the Middle East’s biggest country of asylum: it is the third poorest country in the world in regards to access to water, and yet circumstance and international obligation has it sharing this scarce and precious resource with its 1,000,630 (registered) Palestinian, Iraqi, Syrian, Sudanese, Somali, and now Yemeni refugees. With the government struggling to provide the means to satisfy this basic need (it drained Azraq dry in the eighties in an attempt to supplement the lack of water), how could it possibly provide Syrian children with the resources they need when said need is both educational and psychosocial? This is but one example of the kind of aid impediments this population, the government, and NGOs are forced to face.
As a means to fill this gap, a catch-up school, run by a local organization originally designed to aid women in the community and sponsored by Mercy Corps, was created in Azraq with Syrian refugees in mind. Currently educating 52 refugee children in the hopes of one day enrolling them in Jordanian schools at a grade level suitable for their age, the school’s mission is to create an environment that will allow the students to become comfortable in a classroom setting again, and to acquire the tools they need in order to succeed on a regular study track. However, Jordan has yet to recognize the efforts of the school in Azraq and refuses to accept any diploma it bestows upon its students, which means that even for students like Yasmeen who are up to grade level and have completed the necessary requirements to graduate (from the Azraq school or otherwise), there is no official acknowledgement whatsoever. The government treats her as if she has had no education past primary school, and she is left with a job at the catch-up school as her only alternative, teaching children in Azraq who, as of now, by the end of their education will find themselves in the same situation as her if they stay in Jordan. Even if she were able to go on to college, as a Syrian asylum-seeker she is only recognized as a refugee by UNHCR and not by the Jordanian government which truly cannot afford to provide the benefits that title allows to any more populations. So even with a viable degree, she would not be able to work in Jordan, which presents a host of entirely separate issues in and of itself for both her and the larger population in her same situation.
As far as I see it, the plight of organizations working to help Syrian refugees is this: no one has been able to agree upon a viable method for providing aid, as expected outcomes differ greatly from organization to organization. As such, resources are being spent in all different directions and with distinct end goals in mind. For example, while the IOM sees no end to the war and seeks to encourage resettlement, other organizations such as ARDD and initiatives such as the Azraq catch-up school are focusing their efforts on making asylum in Jordan livable and post-conflict life in Syria fruitful. These opposing views not only pull refugee aid in two separate directions, they also offer two completely different solutions for Jordan. Simplistically stated, the two come down to this: resettling the majority, thereby relieving stress from the country but dispersing a population that as of now has no desire to stray from its homeland, or keeping them all here in the hopes that Jordan will allow the Syrians refugee status and the rights it affords, that the war end soon, and that resources do not dry up before it does.
There are 3 million externally displaced Syrians, 3 million more still residing within Syria, and limited resources that are restricted even more by the split in aid initiatives to service them. Is it wrong to hold out hope for an end to the war? Is it right to give up on Syria? Will Jordan have to sustain the population for much longer? Can it? When will the waiting game end? Like Yasmeen and her education, applicants and resettlement, Jordan and a return to normalcy, organizations are trapped in displacement limbo, incapable of moving forward without predicting the future, and unable to go back to how it once was. The question remains: what now? As ever, so does the answer: wait and see.
*The name has been changed to protect anonymity
The Right Kind of Foreign – Tra
Have you ever stepped off a plane in a foreign country, and felt at home? Amman seems to have combined a lifetime of unique environments to create one that instantly made me comfortable, something I was not expecting as the U.S. narrative of the Middle East is usually confined to human rights violations, conflict, or religious conservatism. From the desert that reminded me of New Mexico, to the urban sprawl and city planning similar to Durham, this city combines physical aspects of two areas I call home. But beyond the physical aspects, the city is welcoming. Many people are more than willing to help you if you are lost, and impromptu Arabic lessons are not uncommon. Be it my very obvious status as a foreigner, or the general hospitality culture of Jordan, the city and people seem to greet you with open arms.
Yet as I sit here and contemplate how comfortable this country has made me feel, I can’t help but wonder why. Are people here so pleasant because of my foreignness? Is the hospitality dependent on the type of foreignness you present? At times, it seems that my inability to blend in makes me a target for hospitality, rather than hostility. This of course makes a lot of sense. As an obvious foreigner, I come with the prospect of generating local economy through my spending. Unlike the Syrians and Iraqis, I cannot speak the language. I do not look even remotely similar to the majority population, and yet I seem to receive better treatment from the locals than these populations. As the country continues to swallow the neighboring populations to the point of overwhelming itself, there seems to be a particular brand of foreign that the population does not seem to greet with open arms.
Why can I feel at home here, when Iraqis and Syrians cannot? In comparing Jordan to the U.S., and coming from the American perspective, I find it interesting to consider the way race seems to permeate the American migration narrative, while in Jordan the conversation is rarely about race but rather about resources. While American narratives intertwine resources and race, race itself is most prominent in the conversation about migrants. For people wishing to emigrate to the U.S., it is rare for someone who is not socially coded as “white” by American standards to be able to fully integrate within the society. In direct contrast to the U.S., foreigners who look similar to Jordanians and can speak the language do not integrate into the community. Many Jordanians use stereotypes to differentiate between them and the foreigner, and slight accents can be detected in their Arabic. Unlike my experience here last year, both Syrians and Iraqis are now being blamed for the rise in cost of living and rent. Many living in Amman now see certain areas in their city as ‘Iraqi’ or ‘Syrian’ territory. Instead, they are generally ostracized by both institutions and local communities because of the amount of resources they are allocated. They continue to live on the boundaries of society, either physically or socially.
As we continue to interact with the Jordanian population, many have expressed discontent with the newer refugee populations. Iraqis and Syrians are seen as taking up space, and the narrative that Syrians are increasing the cost of living and skyrocketing rent in the larger cities while taking jobs from Jordanians is omnipresent. Compared to last year, this narrative has grown louder, and it has become increasingly similar to the narrative of Mexican/Latin American migrants in the Southwest border states of the U.S. Yet even though Jordanians do not necessarily want these populations in their country, many are able to recognize that these people are fleeing conflict, violence, and a total lack of resources, something many migration narratives in the U.S. do not recognize as true with the Latin American migrant population. Both populations are fleeing their homes for the hope of stability and safety, but as they enter these countries, they find that obtaining their hopes is more difficult than expected. With this understanding in mind, many Syrians and Iraqis face discrimination in their local communities, be it in school or on the streets. At this point, no one seems happy with the situation, refugees and Jordanians alike, yet both sides still understand that it is impossible for these refugees to safely return. And so I wonder about the different spaces I occupy both in the U.S. and in Jordan. I, who am seen as foreign in both, still have the privilege to freely move within the confines of these nations’ borders with little to no worry about being harassed for being foreign. This in mind, I cannot help but wonder about the trajectory of the Syrian and Iraqi narrative. While I don’t expect the narrative to create an environment in which Syrians and Iraqis are deported just for being in the country, I am worried that the already high tensions will create extreme backlash against populations that are extremely vulnerable. I can only hope that the conversation will shift into one of cooperation and unity rather than ethnic division and discrimination.
Being an Arab Researcher – Noura
I had just tried to buy a ticket to enter Petra. I didn’t have proof I was Egyptian, but I thought the clerk would take my Egyptian Arabic, my very clearly Arab facial-features and my hijab as enough proof. At Petra, Arab nationals can buy entry at the cost of just one Jordanian Dinar (JD), while non-Arab foreigners must pay 50 JDs. After the clerk had denied my plea to buy a 1 JD ticket, I turned to Suzanne and Nadia and, in English, offered them that I would have to pay the 50 JD.
The day before, I had reflected on how nice it was to just blend in as an Arab in Jordan, and how nice it was to not be so obviously American. The day before as I was walking down Rainbow Street, no one was glaring at me. This experience was very different than any other experience I’ve had in Jordan. Typically, walking down Rainbow Street, the Bass team and I would be stared at. People driving by would honk their horns, and occasionally men in the street would say a quick “I love you” in broken, Arabized English. Typically when we walked into a store, the shop owners would ask where we were from, and upon hearing our English, attempt to communicate with us in English. But walking down Rainbow Street alone on my way to go get yogurt, I looked like I belonged in Jordan.
Ironically, I was surprised by people’s lack of staring. In the US, My hijab often leads people to stare at me, and I’m never shocked when people say, “Wow, you speak perfect English,” not knowing that I’ve spent a majority of my life in the States. In Amman, the staring of people at the Bass team seemed strangely familiar. In this city, our group’s clear “foreignness” functioned to draw the attention and stares of others the way my hijab does in the States. But on that quick trip to buy yogurt, people’s lack of staring shocked me. For the first time in my life, I had run an errand and had been largely unnoticed. I realized that no one was staring because no one thought I looked out of place. The feeling was comforting, as I imagined that this is what it felt like to belong somewhere.
But as days passed and time went by in Jordan, I realized that this comfort in belonging is not without its downsides. My uncomfortable encounter at Petra had been largely the result of my deceiving belongingness to this culture, because I was mistaken for a tour guide trying to run an illegal tour for a group of Americans. When I passed a fruit stand, it took me five minutes to get the attention of the clerk, but when I had been with others in the Bass team, the clerk immediately approached us as we walked by his shop. On my way to work one morning, two cabs said they “weren’t going that way” when I told them where I was going and asked if they had a meter. When I am with the rest of the Bass team, I have never experienced a cab driver say they’re “not going that way.” Other times, when I’m with the Bass team, I feel our clear foreignness earns us forgiveness, and natives are willing to help us. When I am alone, I often feel as if people assume I don’t need help and assume I know the law of the land.
Other times, looking like I belong here has its perks. When I entered a scarf store downtown, I was able to haggle the cost of my hijabs down to almost half their original price. The others in my group were not as successful. On our visit to Jerrash, I was able to pay the .5 JD price for entrance while those in my group paid 8 JDs. When I am able to speak Arabic with shop owners or when I am able to ask questions in Arabic, I again feel the comfort of belonging in this culture.
I had to pay 50JDs when I entered Petra, just like any American. For this reason, when the security guard at Petra bothered me about my entrance, I told him that while in Jordan I was “just like any other American.” But unlike the others in my group, my time in Jordan has been a practice in liminality. I am surprised that just like in the States, I feel myself walking the line between American and Arab at different points during my trip in Jordan. Before I came to Jordan, I expected to blend into this culture. While the realization that I could blend in caught me off guard at first, I suppose I should not have been surprised when I realized I could inconspicuously blend in with the Jordanian people but also was subject to both the benefits and the downfalls of belonging with the larger Jordanian Arab population. It has been more surprising to me, however, that at times being American has its advantages, and there are times when I want more than anything to be able to wear my American-ness on my shoulders. When I want Jordanians to treat me with the same politeness as when I’m with my very clearly foreign Bass team, when I want cab drivers to agree to take me where I’m going, and when I want to be noticed enough to have Jordanians eager to help me find my way around Amman, I want to be foreign.
In some ways, my time in Jordan has been a practice in walking the line between American and Arab in Amman. There are times when, despite my desire to identify strongly with one side of the spectrum or the either, I get stuck in a space of liminality where I am simultaneously both Arab and American and neither Arab nor American. For example, when the Bass team and I are running errands and I’m American enough to be as confused as the rest of the group, and Arab enough that I can see the skepticism in Jordanian’s eyes when I ask for help in Arabic.
As I spend time in Jordan, I’ll continue to explore what it means to be partially Arab, partially just like “any other American” and partially neither Arab enough or American enough.
Next Generation? – Nali
“It is like babysitting, there is not a good level of education here.” Sitting on the grey, frayed couch, a small petite woman about forty years old describes the fears she has about her children’s future, with tears misting in her eyes. I was interviewing an Iraqi family for the first time since coming to Jordan this summer. Each time I interview families I am a caught by surprise at particular moments in time that seem to be the most difficult for people to talk about; the moments people describe as the most hopeless and challenging aspects of forced displacement. Often, it is not the horror stories of violence and death they escaped or that their loved ones encountered. Instead, it is the realization that surviving and escaping war and violence doesn’t ensure a life of normalcy.
Becoming a refugee decimates people’s imagined futures of a life beyond living as an outsider with limited rights, no matter how humble those dreams may be. In this interview, the mother of two children, ten and thirteen years old, was overcome with emotion by what she believed was a lack of a future for her children. The family had come from Baghdad in 2007 from a middle class status, but because of the threats and continued precarious security situation, the family has been unable to return to Iraq and are living without the comforts and opportunities they are used to. For the past seven years the family has been awaiting a response from the UNHCR on the outcome of their resettlement application to either the US or Europe, but as yet, there has been no response. In the meantime, life has come to a standstill without opportunities for the parents to legally work or find a sense of stability or livelihood. Yet the most distressing part of the family’s displacement was not the lack of work or the their destroyed homes in Iraq; it was because the family could not afford to send their two children to a private school in Jordan, and so it appeared any chance of a bright, meaningful future for her children were dashed. Indeed, public schools in Jordan are known to be fraught with immense challenges impacting the education quality, including overcrowding, shortened school hours to deal with huge influxes of refugee children in the system, and underprepared and overwhelmed teachers. The mother described how she regularly has to ensure that her children are actually learning something in school and provide supplemental lessons to them because the public schools had essentially become day care centers where “no one cares.” Through her tears, she explained she feels that her children will have no future if they continue to stay in the public schools, because the quality of education is so low, but there is nothing she can do unless her family is resettled to another country.
The interview reminded me of a young Iraqi man I had interviewed the previous summer, who was only two years older than I was at the time. He had done remarkably well in high school, receiving the highest marks, and was about to take his final exams before graduating, but because his house was bombed by militias, he was forced to leave Iraq and come to Jordan. Because of limited finances, limited paperwork to prove how much schooling he had completed, and unwillingness of local high schools to admit him as a student, up till now he has not been able to finish his last year of high school. And thus, for the past two years, he has worked illegally in low paying jobs that do not require any education, putting his dreams of becoming an engineer and rebuilding his country indefinitely on hold because he will never be able to go to college while a refugee in Jordan. This too he said through a veil of tears.
And this here is what I continue to mull over. Even for protracted refugee situations, such as with the Syrian or Iraqi refugees, there is focus on providing food, shelter and healthcare as forms of humanitarian assistance. Yet what is the future of Iraq and Syria when its children abroad waiting for their countries to heal are not being prepared to become educated, competent and engaged citizens? How will these post-conflict countries develop and steer away from further conflict is we are likely to see lost generations of both the Syrian and Iraqi children as the conflicts continue to drag on and on? This is certainly a casualty of war.
Exporting American Ideals – Lily
Galleria Mall has eight floors. Two floors are occupied with an indoor amusement park; one is a food court. The other four are filled with clothing stores, which, for the most part, do not sell long pants, long dresses, or long-sleeved shirts. When I was wandering through the mall for over two hours, I did not see a single shop that sold the headscarves or long dresses that I have seen the majority of women wearing. However, these shops did sell short shorts, shorter than anything I would wear even in the United States. I saw tank tops, crop tops, and bikinis. Going beyond the clothing, the advertisements in the windows featured blond-haired, blue-eyed women. If there were anything different about the model, she would have light brown hair. Either way, she always had light skin and was wearing clothes common to Western cultures. And these women would be on the beach wearing the bikinis and the short shorts while their hair was blowing in the wind.
This mall felt like it had been picked up from an American city and placed in Amman; the clothes followed American trends, the models appeared to be American, the Backstreet Boys and Taylor Swift were being played in different stores, and there was a McDonald’s in the food court. While I am used to this type of clothing and was not shocked by the styles and immodesty, my first thought was, “Who buys this?” While I have seen a couple of young women in tank tops, I have never seen anyone in shorts. Maybe I just haven’t been to the right places or maybe women wear these clothes in private; I do not know. But even so, from what I have seen, these are not commonly worn. So why is there a whole eight-storied mall filled with them? Why are all the models Western? And why were there so few stores that sold the types of clothes that are more commonly seen in public? I still do not know the answers.
In thinking about these questions, what I have experienced walking on the streets may lead to some answers. While here, I try dress modestly, at least by American standards. I wear either maxi skirts or pants to ensure my legs are covered. I wear long sleeved-shirts or short-sleeved shirts or tank tops covered with a sweater. If my shirt is cut so that it shows a little bit of my chest, I make sure to wear a scarf. Despite this, I am clearly a foreigner. Though my hair is definitely brown, it has a few blond highlights from being out in the sun; I speak English; and I am usually walking with a large group of other English-speaking, laughing girls who are dressed as I am. It is impossible to blend in.
While I certainly was not expecting to be mistaken for Jordanian, I did not expect how much my American identity would get me. About one in every three times I go into Al Quds Falafel shop I get a free falafel with a dab of tahini sauce. When I was in a jewelry shop downtown with a couple of other people from our team, we were given free earrings or rings; the earrings I chose were worth five Jordanian dinars (about seven dollars). Two girls from my Bass team were given free espressos at the restaurant they went to for lunch. These cases are interesting because I do not believe that the motives of the givers were selfish. I get falafel almost every day and I am always given the free samples after I had already ordered; we had already been in the jewelry store for at least half an hour and were done making purchases; and my friends were in the process of asking for the check when given free drinks.
Not only have I gotten free things, but people have been especially helpful and accommodating. While waiting for an interview about a week ago, Maura and I went into a hotel and asked if we could sit down for a while. The concierge invited us upstairs into the third floor café, and we were given free water. We later found out that this café was not even open yet, but they still let us take over a couch and table. After we had been sitting there for around forty-five minutes, the manager walked up and told us to follow him. He took us into his air-conditioned office, where we stayed for an hour. This is just one example of the special treatment that I have noticed because we are clearly foreign.
Perhaps more negatively, whenever I walk down the street, even Rainbow Street, which is always full of tourists, I get stared at and men make comments (of course I have no idea what they are saying because they speak Arabic, but it is clear they are talking about me). While this does not particularly bother me, I have still noticed it.
Today, when I was at dinner with the assistant teacher of my Arabic language class, he said that people like us not because we leave tips everywhere we go (which he said was not necessary here), but because they just like foreigners.
I understand that I could just be getting this attention because I am not Arab, but I wonder if it is specifically because I am American, which is pretty obvious, I am told by my non-American friends, because of the way that I dress, the way that I hold myself when I walk (perhaps slightly slouched without a commanding attitude), my resting facial expressions, the fact that I smile all the time, and more. I know that, technically, I could be from anywhere, Canada or England could be strong contenders, but apparently the way that I act, beyond my skin color and medium brown hair with naturally blond highlights, clearly leads to the ‘American’ conclusion.
It seems that American things – people, clothing, the English language spoken loudly and in American accents – are held on a high pedestal. This hypothesis can give a reason for the Galleria Mall selling American clothing – perhaps even if people cannot wear it in public, they can wear the clothes in private to embrace a part of American culture? But if this is true (which it certainly might not be, and I still want to understand the true reason behind the clothing stores at the mall), this still does not answer the question of why America and American standards of beauty are held in such high regard. Is it because people still believe in the American Dream and want to go? It is because we have exported more than just our clothes and our language, but also the idea that we are richer or more powerful and thus should be held that way in all aspects of society? This experience is all the more surprising to me because of America’s history of interference, or lack there of, in the Middle East, which has created a feeling of resentment for some. While these are just a few of my hypotheses, I have no clear answers to my questions. But I still want to understand the truth behind the clothes and the mall because hopefully this could provide me with an insight into the larger attitudes and reasons behind my experiences.
An Implicated America – Maura
“The US government robbed Iraq of its safety,” explained an ex-ambassador from the Iraqi government, speaking of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, during a life story interview. Despite this strong and unapologetic statement, the man went on to make a clear distinction between his blame for the American government and his forgiveness of the American people. “I saw from the media that most Americans did not support the war in Iraq, so I know it was not their fault,” he clarified.
These sentiments had been echoed almost exactly by a taxi driver a few days earlier. When he asked what we were doing in Jordan, we explained that we are here to study forced migration and hear the stories of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. “You know who created these populations?” he asked as he wove in and out of traffic. “The US government.” Then he passionately outlined a history of strategic destabilization of Middle Eastern nations by the US government. But just as the ex-ambassador had done, the taxi driver followed these critical statements with an assurance that he did not fault us or other individual American people, just the US government and military.
I’m not surprised by the resentment toward the US government and other Western institutions that I have seen in Jordan. I too blame Western imperialism for a lot of the conflict that plagues this region of the world today. And I too fault Western nations for allowing too much of the burden of the refugee crisis to fall on the nations of first asylum, including Jordan, while picking and choosing which refugees they will accept into their borders. But what I didn’t expect was the way that this negative perception of the US government and other Western institutions, which seems to be held by the majority of people here, is so strongly separated from their perception of the American people.
My first instinct when these distinctions were made was to feel grateful that I was not being held personally accountable for the unfavorable actions of the US government. That would be unfair, I thought, because I did not choose any of the past foreign policies that may have weakened Middle Eastern nations. I did not choose to invade Iraq. I did not choose to overthrow any of the Middle Eastern leaders that the US military helped take down. Just because I’m from America does not mean I should be held responsible for these actions by the US government. I was glad that the Jordanian people, or at least the people we spoke to about US foreign policy, seemed to understand this.
But the more I think about it, the more unsure I am about the separation of the US government and the American people. The more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I feel because of the implications that go along with blaming the US government without blaming the American people. After all, as a nation that prides itself in its “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” how can the actions of our government be blamed on anyone but the individuals that it governs?
To agree with these men and say that the American people are not to blame for actions by the American military is to say that when the American military does something problematic, it’s not because the American people wanted it to. It’s because the US government wanted it to. This seems to be how the Iraqi ex-ambassador and the Jordanian taxi driver perceive our country, judging by the juxtaposition between their disapproval toward US actions in the Middle East and their forgiveness of individual Americans. If this were the case, however, it would imply that the US government does not act in line with the American people. Even more importantly, this way of thinking implies that there is nothing that the American people can do to stop their government when it is acting out of line with their wishes. We cannot be blamed because we have no way of preventing our government from doing harmful things abroad.
I don’t want to believe this because I don’t want to believe that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is a myth. But the alternative is to disagree with the men and instead assume personal responsibility for actions by the US government, which would go against my original relief about their forgiveness of me and other American individuals. Such a disagreement would leave me vulnerable to the sting of every criticism of US foreign policy, which is exactly what these men have been shielding me from by making a distinction between government and people.
But maybe I should feel the sting of their criticism. Maybe every American should feel that sting. It seems that the facade of a separation between government and people allows Americans to feel too removed from the political process and prevents us from feeling accountable for the actions of our own government and our own military. By making us apathetic to America’s role in foreign affairs, maybe this separation is exactly what allows the US government to wage a war that its people don’t support or destabilize a region that the American people wouldn’t want to destabilize. We find comfort in the idea that it’s not our fault what the American government does abroad, but maybe that very comfort is what makes it entirely our fault.
Cultural Perceptions & Reality – Maha
I had always heard about Arab hospitality and had been told stories about the generosity and warmth of Arab culture. However, I could never have expected the sheer warmth and open arms with which we are welcomed when we enter a house, an office, or even a school here in Jordan. People here not only open up their physical spaces to us, but also generously open their hearts by sharing their lives, their pasts, and their future worries. Even strangers like taxi drivers and store employees greet us with warm smiles, insist on not accepting tips, and give us “samples” of their falafel to enjoy. The fact that both strangers on the street and people in whose homes we are welcomed treat us in the same warm manner convinces me that we are welcome here not just as tourists serving their economic benefit. Locals simply greet us with genuine warmth and go out of their way to make us feel at home.
One of my favorite rituals of Arab culture is the practice of always offering tea to guests. No matter where we go people always offer us tea. At first when someone asked if we wanted something to drink we sometimes would politely decline. One of the first times we tried to do this was at the refugee “catch-up school” in Azraq. The lady who offered simply responded that that wasn’t going to work and brought out the delicious, sweet tea in the tiny glass cups to us anyway. Now, we have grown accustomed to this tea ritual that always begins any conversation, meeting, or interview. It is a beautiful aspect of Arab culture that reminds me that people are important. Before we get down to business, per se, we need to make the time to first enjoy each other’s company.
It is not this warm and welcoming culture that altogether surprises me, but rather the lack of resentment that I see from people. I expected Arabs would be hospitable, but I didn’t expect so much warmth, especially to a group of Americans. The antagonism between the Arab world and America that is prominently featured in the American media was something that I thought would be more apparent here. Ever since I was young I have heard a lot of media portrayals in the States about the Middle East, and Muslims in general, hating Americans. Even when I was in grade school in Arizona, I remember being asked by one of my peers if I was a Muslim and then subsequently being asked why I hated Americans. I knew that such generalizations were ridiculous and ignorant, but I guess even I had been fed the same prejudice for thinking that people in the Middle East would not like Americans. This also says a lot about me for being so impressionable in allowing pervasive stereotypes to affect me the same way it did the people I had resented for not accepting me as both Muslim and American. This makes me think of how powerful simplistic outsiders’ understandings and stories can be in shaping ideas and thoughts. No matter how hard I tried to tell myself that I didn’t grow up making generalizations about people, the fact that it surprises me that Arabs are so warm to Americans tells me that I was doing exactly that. What I have found here is the exact opposite and has defied many of my preconceived ideas about the tensions between Arabs/Muslims and Americans that I seemed to have played up in my head as well. Over the past few weeks, I have experienced no resentment towards American people. This was initially very surprising to me considering the wars, economic turmoil, and destruction that the U.S. government has brought to this region of the world.
In many of the interviews people say that they are only against the U.S. government, not the American people. Some even go so far as to say that they know that Americans are good. When we attended the cultural orientation class at IOM for refugees resettling to the United States, all of the refugees were excited to move to a place where people were “good” and where everyone was “equal.” These are the ways in which Arabs here have described America and American people to me. Moreover, almost every family that we have interviewed dreams of resettling to the United States to make a better life for themselves in a place where people are good and opportunities are available. This is all quite contrary to the West’s portrayal of people here.
What really surprised me, however, was meeting with a man who was in a wheelchair, who had been shot by an American soldier in Iraq and could no longer walk, and who still dreamed of resettling to the United States. I had expected him to have some hostile feelings towards the country whose military had taken away his ability to walk. I guess even I had bought into the media bias at home for thinking that people would be angry here. Considering how much the U.S. government has screwed things up why wouldn’t they be? It made sense that people on this side of the world wouldn’t particularly like Americans, right? To my surprise, people do not share this view here. Most here simply want to see better futures for themselves and don’t hold on to any bitter feelings associated with a certain country or group of people. Every interaction we’ve had with an Arab here, whether it be a Jordanian, a Syrian, an Iraqi, or a Palestinian, has been extremely positive and welcoming. Why did I bring this perception of hostility with me to Jordan, then?
From my understanding of it, people here not only like American culture, but also idealize it. Seeing this was something that threw me off guard. News reports at home portray something completely different that doesn’t fall in line with what I have experienced here. When it comes down to it, I believe most people at their heart are good. But that individual goodness seems to be easy to lose once people form large institutions like governments. However, from the interactions I have had with people here, individuals (be it a local Jordanian or a displaced person) look for the best in others, are optimistic about the future, and let go of impersonal resentments easily. These surprising findings give me hope for the future and convince me that the good in human nature can overcome even the powerful ideologies that try to break us apart.
Roles of a Tourist – Josephine
Walking through the red-rose ruins of Petra, an ancient city in the south of Jordan considered by many as one of the world’s Seven Wonders, most of the people that I encountered fit into one of two categories: foreign tourist or native Bedouin, and everyone played their part perfectly. The combination of short-short-sporting, Nikon-toting tourists—a group from which we were by no means exempt as we pranced around with a selfie stick all day—and Keffiyeh- and kohl-wearing workers contributed to the constructed world of the tourist industry, which, like the entertainment business, runs on the consumption of a subtle mix between reality and performance. Much like how we planned our outfits with the intention of attaining the perfect traveler-chic to enhance our future profile pictures, the Bedouins also played into the mystique of Petra by renting donkey rides and offering to trade a hundred camels for tourists’ hands in marriage.
At least, that is how I saw it at first: I was sure that we were all playing the same game. In my mind, the situation was this: as a tourist, I had come to Petra to see the ruins, but I had also come for the experience that being at the site would afford me, which is where the Bedouins came in. I suspected that they knew that I wanted the most “authentic traditional” experience I could get, and they probably knew that the experience I wanted had to fit my vision of the ruins and how life amongst them used to be—think of it like a checklist. Desert landscape? Check. Ancient rock constructs? Check. Woven rugs and camel rides and Jack Sparrow eyeliner? Check, check, check. They know what I want to buy, and as master merchandisers, they know how to sell it me. I assumed that this was something about which everyone was cognizant, them especially; as such, I went through the day only slightly uncomfortable with the role I had taken on. The tourism industry is just as much a part of the service sectors as everything else: some buy, some sell.
As I fulfilled one of my tourist’s duties by riding a camel through the ancient city, I became rather friendly with the man who was leading us. I asked him where he lived and who his family was. He told me he lived in a cave a little bit north of the amphitheater, that his brothers and sisters and wife and children all worked around Petra too, selling traditional jewelry or cardamom, just as his parents had done, and their parents before that. He gestured around the ruins and proudly said: “this is my home, and I share it with everyone.” I asked him where he had learned to speak English so well. “Giving the tours,” he said. “I also speak French, Spanish, and German. It’s what I need for business.” I asked him if this was specific to only him, and he said: “Some people around here, they speak seven languages fluently, so they can give all the tours. Everyone in my community speaks at least three languages.”
I tried to picture a community of artisans and camel herders learning languages in the conditions he described for the sake of giving tours of their home: it was an idea I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. The way he told it, the whole community seemed to be engaged in bolstering their tourism, learning upwards of seven languages and renting out their livestock for the benefit of vacationers. While I was sure that most of what they showed to me was a part of the act, it occurred to me that maybe what I was seeing was less of an act than I had originally thought. This isn’t to say that maybe they actually are like the stereotypes they play into when tourists are around, but that perhaps tourism itself has become so embedded in their daily lives and legacy that now it is a part of their very culture. When I saw them around Petra dressed in “traditional” garb and selling old Roman coins, I imagined them going home at the end of the day, taking off their stage makeup, and shaking off the work day just like any actor would, going back to their “actual” lives (whatever that means) in the process. I imagined them having a whole other life, one that didn’t involve the likes of me, and my consumption of their “faux” culture—one that was entirely untouched by tourists. However, after probing the issue even minimally, I realized that this notion might be idealized, too. Tourism makes up a large part of the community’s livelihood, and in this respect was it mere wishful thinking on my part to believe that I, like so many tourists before me, had not contributed to the evolution of their culture, one they had shaped in order to meet the demand? Somehow this made me feel responsible, but for what? What does it matter that the culture at Petra is shaped around tourism? Isn’t that just what happens to historical artifacts, the world’s wonders?
Fractured Families – Tra
He was kidnapped in Iraq, four years ago. No one knows where he is, or who took him. Despite this, her hope for his return to the family is unwavering. She explains that, for her, the possibility of his return is something she dreams of. As we continue her interview, she explains that her father in-law was captured by Iranian forces in the Iraq-Iran war and was held captive for 11 years without anyone knowing what happened. By sheer force of nature, there was an earthquake in the area where he was being held, and that is how the Red Cross found them. They repatriated the prisoners of war after 11 years. She believes that her husband might be stuck in a similar situation. Sometimes, she dreams of him knocking on the door to her home, and she talks to him every night before she goes to bed. It is a story of true love, and despite the circumstances she believes that there is still the chance that he is alive and making his way to her. Her hope, beautiful and strong, is also something I cannot help but question. How is it possible to believe that he will return? And is it really my place to question her hope? Who am I to think that she should give up on this dream and move on?
As someone who has always seen myself as teetering on the edge of pragmatism and cynicism, I cannot help but think about the probability of her husband returning and thinking about how rare events like that are. And then, I think about if he does return. What happens then? She tells us that after he disappeared, she laid in bed for 6 months unable to move or carry on. Eventually she raised herself up for her children, and learned how to manage a household while raising her 5 children. She began a small catering business, and now does designs for clothing. She explains that she has grown since he vanished, becoming independent and more receptive to her children. So I wonder, will they be able to make things work if he returns? Granted, this line of thought is in the hypothetical whirlpool of “what ifs.” Yet it seems to me that her hope is a part of why she wakes up every day, and continues to live and provide for her children. And there is something beautiful in just that. Even if her husband never returns, and even if she dreams of him every day for the rest of her life, her hope seems to be one of the best coping mechanisms she has for the everyday hardships she must endure. Her hope gives her the will to continue, with or without him. And this, I think, is what one of the most important roles hope can play in life. Even without the ability to definitively say her husband will come back, or that the Syrian civil war will end, there is always hope to push people to continue living.
LGBTQ Refugees – Noura
“When I talk to you, I feel like I’m a human,” a transgender Iraqi refugee was describing her progress to Dima, a clinical psychologist working with the International Medical Corps (IMC). The client has generalized anxiety disorder, and through IMC she is able to receive free mental health care via therapy and psychotropic medication. IMC is the leading NGO in Jordan that provides direct mental health care to refugees. Although other NGOs like the The Center for Victims of Torture provide psychosocial counseling, and although almost every NGO we have interacted with have mentioned the importance of psychosocial well being, IMC is the only NGO in Jordan which provides free psychotropic medications and an unlimited number of sessions of individual therapy.
Throughout the therapy session with a client, Dima encouraged her to positively reframe thoughts and told her that the key to dealing with the discrimination she was feeling was to understand that her ability to deal with others had to come from a conviction that she was a human being worthy of respect and understanding. She encouraged her to understand that all change comes from slow and steady transitions, and that she would have to remain strong in order to be able to deal with the difficulties she was facing in life. Dima simultaneously acknowledged her client’s concern, encouraged her to continue to pursue life-stability, and to hold on to the dream of a better life.
As the therapy session proceeded, Dima’s interactions with the client were very different than what I had anticipated when I heard that Dima was working with a transgender refugee. Dima’s interactions with this patient were no different than interactions with any other patient. She listened to her concerns, validated them, and then cognitively reframed the situation to encourage her to empower herself and know her rights. I have to admit, going into the session, I was skeptical of the treatment the client would be receiving. Everything I have ever read about LGBTQ populations in the Middle East is not encouraging. I mentally prepared myself for the worst. This is because I knew that by all standards this client is considered one of the most vulnerable populations in Jordan, because she is carrying the baggage of being both an Iraqi refugee and being transgender. I was correct to assume that the vulnerability of this client would be striking. Even more so than any of the other refugees I had heard talk, this client shared stories of deep, unfathomable pain. Throughout the therapy session I sat through, the client’s vulnerability presented itself in stories of homelessness, beatings in the streets of Jordan, and lack of access to care due to homophobia at NGOs.
I was wrong however, to assume that this client’s treatment would not acknowledge the client’s right to live life as they choose and the right to be protected from harm. To be honest, I remained in a state of pleasant surprise throughout the entire 55-minute therapy session. I had expected this client to be encouraged to lead a heterosexual life as a man and I had expected Dima to tell this client to hide her sexuality. I was then surprised that Dima interacted with this client with unconditional positive regard and with the desire to validate this client’s feelings of isolation and sadness, while still empowering the client to take charge of their mental health.
When the client left the office, I asked Dima questions about her interactions with LGBTQ clients in Jordan. She said that it was hard to find therapists willing to treat these clients and that it was one of the reasons IMC struggles to find therapists to hire. She explained to me that in her eyes, these clients are people who are suffering, and it is her job to alleviate the suffering of anyone she can, regardless of the larger societies’ view on these people’s living conditions. She offered that this client was one of the few clients who she feels she is truly helping.
In hearing Dima offer these statements, I reflected on my own desire to practice clinical psychology and to do as Dima does, that is to alleviate the suffering of others. Very often, since my arrival to Jordan, I have questioned my desire to enter the mental health care field, because I questioned the “real” value of psychosocial well being. I often find myself questioning how valuable it was to treat someone’s mental and emotional well being without first ensuring they have food and shelter.
However, more so than with any other interactions I have had with refugees, with each therapy session I sit in on, and with each case I hear the IMC staff discussing, I feel a sense of hope that these clients will be able to overcome their circumstances and live a better life. In reflecting on my experience and in hearing comments offered by clients, I realized that this is because with each tragic story of loss and pain, clients are able to feel like they are worthy of feeling pain and that their tragedy is worth listening too.
One afternoon, I asked Dima about her satisfaction with her job. Among her responses was that Dima makes sure that she is as hopeful at the end of each therapy session as she encourages her clients to be. She offered that she knows that for many of her clients, their struggles don’t end once they’ve received mental health care, but that she finds hope in trying to make sure that each client she sees recognizes their humanity and their self worth when they leave her office.
Despite the sense of hope I feel when at the IMC, I still sometimes find myself questioning how practical it is to serve the mental health care needs of refugees when they have so many other seemingly “more pressing concerns.” I question if my own feelings of comfort when I see psychosocial care being offered really mean that psychosocial care is valuable to refugees. For now however, as I continue to question the value of psychosocial care to the aid provided to refugees, I will also continue to ponder the role of affirmation and hope in aid provided to refuges.
Urge for Apology – Nali
Four years ago, when I began college, I had little knowledge about the world beyond the borders of my own country, home of the brave and land of the free. Now, having graduated a mere month ago, I am far from being knowledgeable on all things, but I am much more cognizant of the world around me and the role America has played in it. All my life, I never felt a sense of culpability for my country’s actions and policies, until I began interviewing people who have been profoundly affected by them as I sit powerless to right the wrong. It is one thing to read on the news that the Iraq War was never really about the weapons of mass destruction that were never found or about the removal of a harsh dictator or ties to Al Qaeda. It is an entirely different thing to hear story after story of how your country’s decisions to invade and govern a country—rooted in greed, incompetence and jingoism—have devastated, upturned and rerouted the life of every Iraqi family you interview. I’ve sat through interviews in which people describe being held in Abu Ghraib prison or young teenage boys being paralyzed after being shot by Americans because they were mistaken as insurgents. But most haunting are the common, ordinary stories, about how America’s decision to invade Iraq has meant every family I interview has lost someone in the war, has had their educations interrupted, has lost their job, has watched their home be destroyed, has lost the belief their will ever be a future for them in Iraq, the country they still love and dream of after twelve years of chaos. I do not hesitate to say the most ordinary stories of dreams killed by violence and displacement are extraordinary causalities of war. And all for what? All for an unknown reason, that can be at best described as gross incompetence?
For each Iraqi refugee family I visit here in Jordan, I come to their home away from home, shake hands, and am welcomed warmly by everyone as they share their story. At the end of each interview, I confess I am ashamed of America and to be American. I am overcome with the urge to personally apologize to each family for the damage wrought to their lives on behalf of my country: for its decision not only to invade but to govern and support corrupt leaders with utter ineptitude for years, paving the way for the civil war and terrorism we see in Iraq today. In an almost Dante-like journey, each interview exemplifies a different aspect of the Hell-like experience of war and displacement. Life was better under Saddam Hussein, even if he was bad. At least we could live a somewhat normal life. Now, we cannot even live in our homes in Iraq. Those words haunt me. It’s why depictions such as that of the movie American Sniper, glorifying American war “heroes” in Iraq, revolt and scare me; all I can think about are the very human and nuanced stories about the struggle of Iraqis to survive and rebuild their lives amidst America’s hubris. I cannot see the heroism in the mentality that privileges American soldiers as the real heroes when to me, the most heroic displays of hope are shown by the Iraqis themselves. Their stories of sacrifice, such as using their entire life-savings and working illegally in Jordan at low paying jobs to pay for their children’s schooling so they may have a chance at a future, and the ability to go on and not descend into unrestrained anger and resentment, despite so much tragedy, is real hope and heroism.
New Families, New Hope – Lily
If your life were a book, what would its title be?
After a long pause Leyla (not her real name) said, “I want to go to America.” Since she was a child, she always dreamed of going to England or to the United States, because in Iraq, she says her life was “a mix of everything: good, bad… Even when they ask my mom where I am from, I always tell them I’m from UK or America. Even though I’m Iraqi.” She had this dream because she “know[s] that there is a lot of chances. They are very open minded, not closed minded like the people where I lived. Even with my friends, when they were listening to Iraqi singer and, you know, I was not. Listening to Backstreet Boys, even the Beatles. And they told me ‘What you are thinking about?’ I told them no, I love that culture.”
It is this dream, which started when Leyla was a child, that has developed and grown as her life and her responsibilities have. While she continues to be motivated partly for herself, to get a job so her days are not so monotonous (it is illegal for Iraqis to work in Jordan), to get her PhD in management information systems (she already has her masters, but in Jordan it is too expensive to continue), and to live with people who are “open-minded,” these same hopes are given greater weight because of her new family.
When Leyla was young, America was all about the culture and opportunities, but now it is about survival. She got married about a year and a half ago, and just had her first child, a son who was forty days old yesterday. With this added joy in her life also comes added responsibility. Her husband’s extremely low-paying job could barely support the family before the baby was born, but since it has become even harder to survive. The baby’s milk and diapers alone cost about half of her husband’s monthly paycheck, and Leyla cannot work because of Jordanian laws. And when her son grows older, there are even more things to worry about: school is expensive for Iraqi refugees in Jordan and he has neither Iraqi nor Jordanian citizenship (his father does not have his Iraqi papers in Jordan, so the son does not have “Iraqi nationality”) so he has no papers if anything happens. So what is there to do?
For Leyla, the only solution, the only hope, the only dream is to go to America. In America, she says, her son can go to kindergarten, both she and her husband can work in jobs that can make use of their high levels of education to get good salaries to support their family, and they can “live better.” But, all of these dreams are for her son. She wants him to be able to have a true future, because in Jordan there is nothing: “no development,” no chances, no opportunities. He is still a baby, so there is still a little bit of time before the difference between growing up in Jordan versus growing up in America can be felt: for example, he is still too young to start school anywhere and is still young enough to be able to learn English (and his mother speaks English). But this is why Leyla is hoping to start the resettlement process as soon as possible, before her son gets stuck.
Despite the immense sadness and fear she has experienced, when Leyla shared the most important events in her life, they were all happy. Three out of the four on her list were her marriage, her son, and her parents – “the first magnificent thing in [her] life.” When asked how she can maintain this happiness instead of being overcome by the sadness she has witnessed, an unfortunate trend I have seen in interviews with Iraqi refugees, she simply said, “Because of them,” while pointing to her mother who was holding her son in her lap and feeding him with a bottle. This demonstrates the depth of the importance of her family, and shows why resettlement is so important to her: her family is her strength and her magnificence, and so all she hopes for is for them to have the best life and the most opportunities. For her, this means America.
Leyla started the resettlement process once before, and she made it through to the very final stages of the process; she was even scheduled to go to New Orleans, but when they discovered that her husband was half Jordanian and did not have his Iraqi papers, the International Organization for Migration (the resettlement agency) said she no longer qualified for resettlement. But because her husband’s Jordanian papers are not complete, he cannot work for full pay or gain other benefits of full Jordanian citizenship. So Leyla is currently working to get her husband’s Iraqi papers, and the second she receives them, she will start a new case with the IOM to get her chance to go to America.
For me, what is so powerful about Leyla’s story is the fact that she keeps fighting for her hopes and dreams to become a reality. I see so much strength and love in her story, which makes her stand out from a painful and defeating trend. In many other interviews with Iraqi refugees that I have talked to, they have lost a lot of their initial hope for resettlement. Many people applied to go to the United States years ago and have still not heard anything back one way or another. This constant waiting has caused some people’s dreams to slowly be extinguished; they may still want to go to America for a better life, but with more and more passing time, they can feel it is no longer a potential reality, and with this realization, their hope for this new life fades too. It can be too painful to constantly hope for a dream that can never come true. But Leyla is different. Though she was rejected to go to American when she was so close, she will not give up and is doing everything she can to apply again.
I have talked to many Iraqi refugees here in Jordan who have children and families, but many have lost some of this hope for resettlement that Leyla has managed to maintain. So is it just her will and her fight that keeps her dreams alive? If so, is it possible to spread it to others who feel trapped and stuck without dreams to live for? Could this add something shiny in a life that is so dark? And would this even be a good thing, because so few people are resettled in comparison to the number of people who apply that many people’s dreams might never come true? Could this destroy them even more?
A View into Resettlement – Maura
American Dream: Friend or Foe?
The International Office of Migration’s cultural orientation classes for refugees who are to be resettled to the US were on break when we arrived, so we went to the break room and met people as they sipped water and smoked cigarettes. Most of them were either Syrian or Iraqi, but there were also a few Sudanese families. Everyone told us excitedly where they would be moving to in the US, which ranged from Sacramento, CA to Houston, TX. I asked the female trainer who had showed us to the break room if all of these people were certainly being resettled, and she said unfortunately no. Everyone who comes to cultural orientation has passed the initial security clearance, but there is a second clearance required in order to depart for the US. It is unknown how long it will take to receive the second clearance. Some get it during the week of cultural orientation, and others don’t get it for 6 months. Still others fail their second clearance and can never be resettled, or even pass the second clearance and then have it revoked days before departure.
The classroom I joined for cultural orientation was taught by a woman named Dalia, who wore a long black skirt, a dark blazer over a bright blouse, and a white hijab. The room was about the size of a classroom at a school in the US, with white tile floors, plain white walls, and two small windows covered by blue blinds. Bright fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling and cast an artificial glow on everything below. The room was empty of furniture except for a large circle of chairs that faced inward and a teacher’s desk at the front of the room, covered with a laptop, large speakers, and neat stacks of papers. An American flag stood proudly in the corner behind the teacher’s desk, a reminder of the future that everyone in the audience was reaching towards. The walls were covered with bulletin boards with information about the US, including “Finding a Place to Live in the United States,” and “Cities in the United States” featuring a variety of colorful pictures of iconic American city scenes. There was a board dedicated solely to signs discouraging discrimination and harassment in the United States, including pictures of same-sex couples holding hands in the street. At the front of the room was a projector that displayed videos about life in the United States on a screen at various points throughout the class. Beside the screen was an easel with a large white pad of paper, where the teacher would write pros and cons of various things throughout the lesson, such as the pros and cons of assimilating to American culture for the newly resettled refugees and the pros and cons of hiring refugees for American employers.
The lesson that day was all about employment. Dalia discussed the three E’s of employment: English, experience, and education. She said that all three of these things are important to American employers, and unfortunately all three are things that American applicants will have over refugee applicants. They discussed that they must be patient with their job hunt, and must accept any job they can get in the beginning, even though it will likely be one that they are over-qualified for. A doctor from Iraq might not even be able to get an entry level position in the US. These are challenges that must be overcome by patience and perseverance. To get an understanding of their expectations, the teacher had everyone go around the circle and say what they want to do as a job in the US and how long they expect it to take to get to that position. Responses varied from teacher to hair dresser, but everyone expected to be able to have their desired position within a few months or a year of arriving in the country.
The American Dream. Whether it’s a myth or a reality, we all know the idea behind it. Anyone who works hard enough in the United States, no matter what his or her background is, can be successful. America is a land of opportunity where even children from the poorest of families can grow up to be a doctor or a CEO or even the President. Everyone is equal in America.
In reality, however, this is not the case for so many Americans. Whether because of the neighborhood children grow up in, the school they attend, or the income and education of their parents, all people do not have the same opportunities for success. Whether because of gender, race, sexuality, or religion, Americans still struggle with discrimination every day. Thus, considering the American Dream in the context of refugees being resettled to the United States adds a whole new level of nuance and complication to the implications of this narrative.
It breaks my heart to imagine any of the people I sat with in class today receiving news that they are no longer allowed to be resettled. The excitement and determination to start a new life in the US was so strong in that room, I wanted so badly for all of them to be cleared and leave for the US as soon as possible. But at the same point, I also worry for the people who do get resettled. They have so much hope about what their lives will be like in America, and this hope will almost certainly lead to disillusionment when they arrive in America and find themselves stranded with no one available to help them, especially after 5 pm and on the weekends. They will most likely find themselves in some of the poorest neighborhoods, in situations of discrimination against Muslims, and in an extended period of unemployment and poverty. Sure, they will no longer be in a war zone, but their hopes for America were so much more than that.
What is the role of the American Dream in the experiences of refugees resettled in the US? Does the hope that they hold about being able to improve their lives and achieve success serve to support positive mental health and perseverance through adversity? Or does it simply mislead them about the reality of life in the US, rendering them unable to cope with the hardships that go along with resettlement and culture shock? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do know that there is an obvious disconnect between the hope I see in refugees waiting to come to the US and the distress I see in many of the recently resettled families that participate in MASTERY and SuWA.
Heaviness of Hope – Maha
When talking to Hassan, it was clear that he still had hope. He was hopeful that his brother, mother, father, and sister were still alive in Palmyra. His demeanor, his worry, and all of his affectations were signs that he had hope in the face of the unknown. It is only when someone is devoid of hope that he or she can stop worrying and come to terms with what has happened. I’ve always thought of hope as a positive and beautiful thing to hold on to. In some instances it can give a person the will to go on and provide the means to perhaps see a brighter tomorrow. But what was this same hope doing to Hassan? The worry, the anxiety, the hope were all breaking him down and making him go insane. Can worry of the unknown be more debilitating than the simple resignation to a tragedy? Hassan told us that the only time he could breathe was when he threw himself into his work and didn’t allow himself to think. I wondered if this was any way to live a life even if there was still hope. If he only knew what had happened to his family, if he had no hope at all, would he be able to relax or at least breathe again? Had he known what had happened would he still be as tormented as he was now? In this case it seemed as though the hope was toxic.
These few weeks have forced me to consider how hope can be a negative force when someone is going through a difficult time. All of the refugees looking for resettlement have told us how hopeful they are about the future in a place other than Jordan. The refugees we met at IOM were extremely hopeful about their prospects in America and were sure that they could, within a few years get, back to work in their previous fields. Moreover, many were eager to go to a “land of equality” where they assumed they would face little to no discrimination. This worries me because the hope may be what is helping them cope now, but when reality strikes, will the hope they have make the disappointment even worse? Is it better to accept the hardship that is to come or to dream of a brighter tomorrow even if you have a very slim shot at it? I fear that the strong hope that people who have been through tremendous hardship have will only lead to another crushing moment of realization or moment of tragedy. When this realization occurs will they be able to cope? In this way hope is a terrible monster that strings people along and makes the next tragedy even worse. It torments the hopeful in the face of the unknown and then breaks that person down again when all that person has to keep them going was hope in the first place. After a string of tragedies when hope was the only thing dragging them along, what will happen when hope disappears? Would it have been better to just let go earlier on, skip all of the worrying, and simply resign oneself? I think not. But these past few weeks have made me see hope in a different light. What I have seen too much of and what has disillusioned me greatly is that hope disguises itself as a prospect for a better tomorrow and then suddenly darts away, leaving a person with nothing. For some reason though, I still cannot accept that hope is useless.
Changing Healthcare Restrictions – Josephine
Between the time we arrived at the Jordan Health Aid Society (JHAS) clinic in Amman at 10 am to the time we left at noon, clinic manager Aref Jaber’s phone rang upwards of fifty times. We were sitting in his office, a simple yet spacious room filled with a desk and a notable amount of extra chairs lined up against the back wall, as he briefed us on the workings of the Madina clinic, our conversation regularly halted by receptionist-chased patients coming in to speak with him. He explained that there used to be two additional clinics in Amman for refugees, one through JHAS and one through CARITAS, but at the beginning of the year, for reasons unbeknownst to him, they closed. Since then, the influx of patients at Madina has tripled. On average, four hundred people per day come into the clinic seeking treatment, which only comprises two floors, with no more than six examination rooms and twenty-three caretakers. Every staff member and medical provider has had to increase his or her workday by at least two days, and UNHCR has set up an overnight hotline to accommodate all of the calls. As for the daytime calls and in-office requests, those are up to Jaber and his staff.
“All refugees ask the reception, ask doctors, ask nurses, ask clinic managers to make sure,” he said. He told us they seek him out when they are not given the answer for which they were hoping, and look to him to skirt around policies and make allowances in order for them to receive aid from the clinic, particularly in regards to the “vulnerable” vs. “non-vulnerable” qualification. As the rapid increase of Syrian asylum seekers continues to add to the strain put on the Jordanian government and aid organizations alike, since September 2013, UNHCR has had to separate refugees into two distinct categories in order to determine who is the most in need of receiving healthcare from institutions that cater specifically to them, such as JHAS, based on an assessment of their living and financial situations. Initially, this was not such a drawback for those deemed “non-vulnerable” as healthcare was free for all Syrians in Jordan. However, as of November 2014 (a cut-off point we have heard much about since our arrival in Jordan), protocol for Syrian refugee healthcare has drastically changed, going from all inclusive to full-priced (refugees are not given any sort of insurance either) within a matter of what has been described to us as days.
“There was no fallback plan,” one man told us. “No plan B. One day Syrian refugees simply couldn’t receive free healthcare.”
This new law exacerbated the issue, not because JHAS services are free where governmental ones are not (according to Jaber, the prices are comparable), but because JHAS is not only able to provide faster care, since it targets a specific population it also has the knowledge and connections to other aid organizations that give the financial aid to refugees that allows them to seek out the care they need. Jordanian hospitals typically do not have the links to give out referrals to UNHCR or IMC or CARITAS for refugees who cannot pay for their healthcare, and refugees typically do not know to seek out these resources, or who is the appropriate person to call, as Jaber explained to us when he talked about the kinds of calls he receives. This is where the likes of JHAS are so important, and this is where the current healthcare policies—a service so vital and basic—act as a dropped lifeline. Like Jaber’s phone number, which is posted online and commonly shared amongst the refugee community but never answered, these services are specifically set up in order to aid refugees, yet in the current legal climate, many, specifically Syrians, cannot access them. Aid organizations are the institutional representation of hope for them, a supposed promise to refugees that they will get the help they need in their time of crisis; but the sheer volume of calls and requests and refugees themselves in Jordan makes benefitting all of them infeasible. What must it feel like to have those calls go unanswered? How could it be done otherwise?
When Jaber told us that the biggest challenge the clinic faced were the phones, I thought he was making a joke of the number of times our conversation had been interrupted by the incoming calls—I think I may have even laughed. But it was no joke; in fact, it was something he felt very strongly about: “if I answered every call, I’d never get anything done here,” he said. This is the paradox with which I struggle: despite the fact that the calls he receives are from the population he works to help, there is no way he could answer and run a clinic designed to help them at the same time. However, the fact still remains: those calls go unanswered, and the hope his number represents for refugees seeking healthcare, aid, or even just support is also abandoned.
To Take the Photo or Not – Tra
Part 1: “Oh, take a photo of them! And make sure to get the background!”*
As we walk through one of the well-known areas for urban refugees in Amman, someone we were with was snapping photos of everything, and everyone, we passed. The area is what many would consider to be a “bad neighborhood,” with poverty clearly visible in the streets. Children without shoes, trash lining the narrow streets. It seems that the Jordanian government has all but forgotten or given up on providing decent governmental services in the area, leading to a classic cycle of poverty. So who in the community would have the access to resources to tell the government and the international community about the living conditions in the area? Is it my responsibility (and that of others like me, international and independent researchers) to bring to light the living conditions of the area? And if it is my responsibility, how can I do so without taking a few photos, even if I am not given consent? In the age of the Internet, it has become increasingly simple for people to bring to light the plight and despair of humanity around the world, yet with this in mind, one has to wonder if just documenting is enough. Of course, if people do not document it, then who would necessarily believe that it happened? Is it my duty to take their photo and post it on social media, or by doing this, am I exploiting them and their situation?
To break it down, while I think intentions are the most significant factor in considering the line between exposing realities and exploitation, at the end of the day intentions don’t really matter, because what matters is how the world sees the photo. A photo taken by someone who just wants to become famous can still highlight huge issues within society, while a photo taken by someone who wants to help a community can still create huge issues for that community. So where is the line? Consenting to the photo seems to be the most ethical way to approach photo taking, yet sometimes the beauty of photography is that people can capture fleeting moments. Sometimes, a photo can be made beautiful through aspects that do not have anything to do with the individuals in the photo, such as lighting and general composition. Many times when I ask if I can take their photo, people will stop what they’re doing and pose for the camera. For me, my love for photography comes out of those moments when people do not necessarily know they’re being photographed. If I were to stop the moment to ask for consent, I feel like it would ruin the moment I want to capture. Of course, there’s always asking for consent after the photo, but other than asking the photographer to delete the photo, those in the photo have little to no agency to stop someone from putting their image out in the world. And what happens when that image is out there? Even if the person consents to the image, who am I or who is the subject to dictate what others will see? Despite receiving consent, the photo I put out into the world could still look like exploitation, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So what do you do? Photos can be the quickest and most captivating way to generate action, but at what cost to the photograph(ed/er)?
Part 2: “We try to keep the photos volunteers take to a minimum, because we want to control the images of the event.”*
As we work with local NGOs, some that struggle with funding while others flourish, it is an interesting idea to think about how branding and formal representation can be crucial in developing and sustaining programs. As the NGO we worked with relies solely on volunteers to implement their activities, it’s easy to see why promoting a positive image would be necessary. Without the volunteers, there would not be enough people to implement the program. Yet I wonder, what photos do they post, and why? What is the purpose of their photography, if not to show the realities of displacement? Or, are the photos they share more of a way to encourage people to volunteer? And in that light, are they being deceptive or are they being reasonable in their concerns for the future of the NGO? Or, and probably most realistically, is it both?
If we are to assume that NGOs want to control the photos that come out of events because they want to protect the identities of the children, then their reasons seem to be valid and they can dictate what should and should not be on the Internet. However, if we are to assume that they would like to control the images coming out of the event because they do not want certain things damaging their reputation or they are trying to promote an idealized version of their events, this can also become problematic. By being open about the realities of the events they put on, it would prepare volunteers more thoroughly for understanding what happens on the ground. Yet, would they have enough volunteers if there was an accurate representation of what happens throughout the events? At what point is the censorship of volunteers necessary, if it even is necessary?
Part 3: Consent & Censorship, and the Ethics of Photography
As I am positioned as a researcher, I have been trained to always ask for consent, and to critically examine orders concerning censorship. Yet as I continue to work in these fields, my world becomes less about the stark black and white and more about the hybrid gray. I can see the need and reasons behind taking photos without consent, and I understand why local and non-local NGOs need to protect the integrity of their programs. I know that a photo has incredible power, but after the photographed and photographer put it into the world, it is the world’s choice to decide what that photo represents. So here I sit, coming to no conclusion but rather more questions and things to consider.
*These are quotes from my memory, so while the wording might not be exact the content is represented.
Ethics of Interviewing – Noura
Wafa’a has brown, almond-shaped eyes and stereotypically beautiful, soft Syrian facial features. When she cried the creases in her left eye twitched just a little bit and it pained me not to be able to hug her. With tearful eyes she offered “It’s been four years since I’ve seen my mother, I just want to see my mother.” Wafa’a herself is a mother of four, and her oldest daughter has epilepsy. Throughout the interview, Wafa’a became teary-eyed as she spoke of her mother. She also became teary-eyed at the thought of her daughters, and she became teary-eyed as she spoke of leaving her home in Damascus.
Each time she became teary-eyed, I felt my eyes want to water. I consistently reminded myself that it was not my struggle to cry over and that it was unfair to make this interview about my emotions and not her emotions.
After we completed Wafa’a’s emotional interview, she hugged fellow researcher Josephine (Jojo) and I and said we offered her so much throughout the interview because we had smiled at her and heard her story. Human empathy for Wafa’a’s struggles shaped the emotional landscape of the interview until Wafa’a offered this thank you. As words of gratitude spewed from Wafa’a, an overwhelming sense of guilt overtook the feelings of empathy I was feeling.
I wanted to scream at Wafa’a “Don’t thank me! I didn’t do anything!” I wanted to reiterate over and over, as I had many times before the interview, that there was no benefit to Wafa’a for her willingness to share her life story with us. I had made a point to tell our translator to explain to Wafa’a and to her friends that Jojo and I came with no benefits. We could not help with providing resources, could not help with paperwork, and our connection to the US was of no benefit to Wafa’a and her family. Although our translator conveyed this, he did offer that there would be benefit from other NGOs, which now have her name because they now know that she is a refugee. In retrospect, it feels coercive to me that Wafa’a may have believed that if she had stopped the interview, she would not have received the resources promised to her if she decided not to partake in the interview.
Though I was comforted to know that Wafa’a would receive resources because she talked to me, I couldn’t help but wonder if Wafa’a’s receiving resources as a byproduct of the process of interviewing with us was a form of coercion. She didn’t know that she would receive resources when she began interviewing with us, but it felt unethical for her to know that through interviewing with us she would receive resources.
Wafa’a’s interview caused me more discomfort than interviews typically cause me. Her adamant gratitude toward Jojo and me felt displaced. There are two forms of ethical discomfort that Wafa’a’s interview caused me. Wafa’a’s gratitude toward me made me want to stop the interview. I wanted to say to her “you’re thanking me for just listening to your story.” I wanted to tell her that I felt it inappropriate to be asking her to tell me the most painful parts of her story without there being any benefit to her specifically.
Although I cannot be sure that Wafa’a minded sharing, knowing what I know about Arab culture, I know it is taboo to share experiences of pain with strangers. Furthermore, I know in some ways those who share their pain are looked down upon. A part of me couldn’t help but wonder if in some ways I was crossing multiple barriers, cultural and ethical, by asking Wafa’a to share with me without there being any seemingly tangible benefit to her.
Perhaps it was Wafa’a’s incessant gratitude that made me feel especially uncomfortable in this interview. However, with each interview in which I attend, I feel a sense of severe guilt for my inability to deal with the interviewees real concerns about poverty, resettlement and the future. More so, I feel as if it was unfair to ask clients to share their deepest tragedies for nothing more than for me to gain research information. With Wafa’a for example, as we left her home, I felt as if I had just stolen something. The woman shared her story of leaving Syria and of pain, sickness and illness. She offered us sweets and tea as we sat in her living room apartment and told us her stories with the utmost willingness to share. We offered only forceful questions, imperfect translations and 6 empty cups of tea.
Despite my discomfort with the exchange that took place between Wafa’a and I, her gratitude and her seeming comfortability in sharing seemed to suggest that she was happy there was someone willing to listen to her story. There were points during Wafa’a’s extensive “thank you” and during talking to the rest of the Bass team about my feelings of guilt, where I thought that perhaps Wafa’a thought that my listening to her was a service. After all, I am humbled when people listen to me attentively. However, I struggled with the nature of this interpretation, of Wafa’a’s potential interpretation of this event as a service, because after all, Jojo and I had been given the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to come to Jordan. Perhaps Wafa’a did enjoy talking to us, and perhaps it was irrelevant if she knew that Jojo and I had benefited greatly from her time. I still struggle to find total comfort in the possibility that Wafa’a may have been moved by our visit.
Each refugee we meet through the interview process has a different set of concerns. Some refugees struggle with illness, some struggle with poverty, some with separation with family. Although the solution to the problem is never easy, oftentimes it seems as if resettlement or a few hundred JD’s could solve their problems of poverty. Although I know refugees know that I cannot help them, Oftentimes, I feel responsible for the inability to help these interviewees. Wafa’a’s gratitude for the interview increased the sense of responsibility.
The second discomfort I feel with interviews is the nature of imperfect translation. Given that I am an Arabic speaker, it often feels like I am responsible to make sure that anything being translated to the refugees is translated as properly as possible, and that anything translated back from the refugees in the interview transcript is translated properly. With Wafa’a’s interview, for example, I felt myself get uneasy with the interpretation being offered. Although our interpreter did a good job offering us a translated interview script, I unreasonably wanted every word Wafa’a said to be translated directly. It felt unethical to me to have the words of such a kind women be simply summarized instead of described with the vivid description and detail she offered. The nature of translation is that there are things that do not translate and that may not make sense in the new language. Although I know it is impractical to want our translators to perfectly translate what our interviewees say, I can’t help but feel a sense of responsibility for proper translation.
The afternoon after Wafa’a’s interview, I talked to the team about my feelings of guilt from interviews. As I spoke to the team, the team reminded me that listening to someone is a gift and that for many refugees, listening to them and giving the opportunity to tell their story is much more than many organizations give them, which for them is an honor. They offered to me that even though I cannot help them directly; I am offering them peace of mind that their story is worth listening to. They offered that I have to trust the translators and trust that the interviewees know that no one can offer a perfect translation.
Although I am still unsure of my level of comfort with interviews, I am aware that as with any interaction with refugees, there is no perfect interaction, and there is no way for the relationship between me and the refugees to be entirely reciprocal.
Making a Difference? – Nali
It is hard not to get nostalgic as my last week with the group approaches. Having traveled to Jordan several times throughout my time at Duke, but having recently graduated, I realize this may be one of the last times I am in the country in the near future. Over the past year and half I have spent over four months in Amman studying refugee issues. But the longer I stay here, the more I realize how much I still don’t know. Coming to Jordan to conduct research, as well as having the opportunity to meet and collaborate with local organizations has been an incredibly unique and invaluable experience and has defined the path I am hoping to take in the future. But it has also made me aware of the scale of refugee issues facing Jordan, and my inability as one person, a recently graduated student at that, to “make a difference” by just simply coming to Jordan and hoping for better conditions for refugees and their host communities. It has also challenged me to consider whether I am even in a position to do so.
Indeed, there are so many local NGOs, Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis, even international NGOs that are better equipped and much more knowledgeable about the issues facing Jordan and the people who are most affected by them. That is not to say these organizations are doing a perfect job and do not deserve any critique; it is just to say I still have so much to learn. I discovered my primary role here has been to humbly learn from them, with the hopes that it will prepare me to work in this field, not as a person who magically solves every issue, but as someone who can work these people and organizations. Yet at the same time, I cannot help but wonder, at what point have I learned “enough” so that I am capable of meaningfully and appropriately contributing to this type of work? And at what point is the ability to make a difference enough? At this point in my life, I am tempted to say the ability to make even a small difference in one person’s life is enough, but realistically, this type of work is about doing a lot more than that. I cannot help but think back to a conversation I had with a friend earlier in the week. From his point of view, no one single person will be able to solve the global problems that are causing refugee crises, and the best we can hope for is the ability to help the people who have been affected by these crises, one at a time. Perhaps he is right: this type of work might necessitate the humble realization that broad, sweeping change is achingly slow, but there are abundant opportunities to assist people at the individual, basic level, even if it’s less glamorous than change at a policy or legal level.
In another vein, I often find myself thinking about the refugees we have interviewed as a team as well as the people we have met along the way and become close to. Even after doing life story interviews for about a year now, it doesn’t get any easier to put space between the research and the human connection. Listening to a life story is a profoundly intimate experience, and the knowledge that I will likely never know the ending to their stories as well as being unable to offer any tangible, concrete assistance to them, makes it difficult to just walk out the door when the interview is over. The longer I stay in Jordan, the closer my relationships become to people who are deeply affected by the issues I am researching, and the harder it becomes not to feel angry or frustrated at every waking moment at the seemingly arbitrariness of the system governing the lives of refugees, whether it’s the resettlement process, the healthcare system or the visa system. Then it becomes harder to put away the stories when you return home and resume your own life, because these people become part of your life.
When the people experiencing that arbitrariness are your friends, I find the issues we are researching to take shape in a very different way than if one simply interviews a stranger; it is almost as if I live through them in a third person view. Although I will never be able to fully understand and empathize with their experiences, I can begin to imagine a tiny fraction of the frustration that drives people to make seemingly incomprehensible decisions, such as taking a boat across the Mediterranean in order to escape the hellish choice of either staying in a country where there are no possibilities of a meaningful future or returning to a war-ravaged country. What people making policy decisions often seem to forget is that people’s decision to return home, to stay in countries like Jordan, or to attempt to go to Western countries is largely dependent on the landscape of their everyday life. Even if they are receiving basic necessities in Jordan, such as food and shelter, it is a life devoid of meaning for many if they do not have opportunities for a “normal life:” opportunities to work, opportunities for their children to go to school, etc. Thus, seemingly arbitrary policies and systems that fate large numbers of people (but still people with incredibly textured and human stories) to these kind of listless lives seems especially cruel to me nowadays, as I have seen few “success” stories. It seems that so much policy regarding refugee issues is framed without intimately knowing how the individual stories come together to create the larger refugee experience. For example, the resettlement process by UNHCR and IOM is so shrouded in mystery to many refugees (in many cases, there is little communication by the organization to refugees for years at a time) it drives people nearly to the point of insanity. They hold onto the hope that their resettlement case will come through one day because they haven’t been told “no” by the UNHCR and thus continue trying to survive in Jordan by all means possible, even though it is likely they will never be resettled. Is this the best can we do? Surely it would be possible to create a situation where people were not agonized on a daily basis in a purgatory-like wait, so that they could move on with their lives if their case was rejected.
Furthermore, when people I have become close to describe frustrations of not being able to pursue their dreams, of being stuck without any opportunities for employment, of everything, even food, being so expensive that they cannot afford it, I find myself despairing that these are real, everyday experiences for so many people. And yet my role as a researcher means I am essentially powerless to do anything or alleviate their burden, aside from hoping that our research will one day contribute meaningfully in improving livelihoods. Still, I wonder if I have a moral obligation to act, despite the limitations set forth by my role as a researcher. Isn’t something better than nothing? Yet what can I do? After all I yearn to give things I cannot give: not food, not a house to live in, but opportunity for a humble, normal, happy future, as so many wish for.
Ethics of ‘Voluntourism’ – Lily
Habaybi is a project that is run by the organization Dar Al Yasmin (DAY). Every other Saturday, volunteers can sign up to play with Syrian refugee youth at the center DAY rents in Zaatari Village. Volunteers can play soccer, make different types of crafts, play games outside, and do other activities with the children.
While incredibly fun for me and, based on the children’s excitement when they see the bus arriving with the volunteers and their attitudes throughout the day, I still can’t shake the feeling that the children are being treated as a sight for foreign tourists to ogle and as an experience that can help tourists experience the “real” Jordan and its problems. Even though I am volunteering for Habaybi as part of a greater research experience, to learn more about how refugees are treated in Jordan by a variety of people and organizations, every time I go I still feel like I am somehow dehumanizing the children and exploiting their situation for my own benefit.
There are two main reasons, I think, why I get this feeling. The first has to do with the volunteers and the second is about the cost of participating. The volunteers can be anyone. In the two days I volunteered with Habaybi, I estimate that about half of the volunteers spoke Arabic; some were Jordanian but others had learned the language in other ways. There were people from places all over the world: the United States, France, Algeria, Singapore, England, Japan, Germany, and more. Some of the other volunteers I talked to were doing work focused on refugees (for example one woman is doing her PhD research on Syrian refugee children), others were in Jordan to study Arabic, and a few were in Jordan solely as tourists.
I do think this system of weekly volunteer sign-ups has some benefits. First, it greatly limits the costs of running the program, because they do not have to hire workers. This means that the program can be sustainable long-term, especially since the volunteer force appears to be steady, as there is usually a waitlist each week. Secondly, it can serve to raise awareness about the personal faces of the refugees, which can help to spur a greater call to action both by Jordanian citizens and by people who can bring their Habaybi stories back to their home countries.
However, I also feel that this system of getting volunteers makes the children and their situation feel like a tourist attraction. People come from all over the world to spend half a day with Syrian children, and then they can go back to their lives without any long-term commitment. I do believe that everyone who does Habaybi truly does want to help. But there is something about playing with a group of Syrian refugee children for a couple of hours (never to return again, or to come back only a couple of times like I did) that creates a degree of separation from the children and gives the impression that it is just for a short “I helped” moment, and that one doesn’t have the obligation to care any more or do anything else. This can be seen in the photograph that accompanies this letter, because just as an experience can create this type of self-gratification, photographs like this one can perpetuate the public image of someone who is “humanitarian,” even if there is no deeper connection or commitment.
The second part of Habaybi that serves as a source of discomfort has to do with the money that is asked of the volunteers. First let me preface by saying that I have absolutely no problem with giving money to DAY to support the children. I believe DAY is a valuable organization and that the children truly deserve support, and our group is in a place to provide it. However, what bothers me is the timing and the way that the money is demanded.
The first time that donations are asked for is on the drive to the center when the bus stops at a gas station or another store so the volunteers can buy snacks for the children. This felt okay to me because how much one buys is dependent on their generosity and ability (though people are expected to contribute, it is not technically mandatory), because it is as if people are simply donating food, not money, and because we got to see the children eat the snacks that we bought at the end of our trip. In short, we were donating goods, not just money, and we got to see the donations be used and accepted in a positive way.
But the second time that money is asked for on each trip really made me question the whole day that I had just spent with the children and my purpose for being there. On the bus ride back to Amman, everyone is told that each volunteer owes seven Jordanian dinars as their fee for participating. (This money goes towards the cost of transportation to Zaatari Village and implementation of the project.) Especially on my first trip, because the demand took me by surprise, this made me feel that we were taking a day trip into the life of people and the conflict, and the kids were the attraction that we paid to experience. It felt the same as paying an entrance fee into Petra: we pay for the views and the trip; we pay for the story, for the photographs, and to say that we have gone there or done that. To me, rightly or wrongly, this distanced me from the kids that I had a great day with and that they, seemingly, enjoyed too. It felt like I was dehumanizing them and turning them into something to serve my own benefit or sense of humanitarian achievement. Because of this I honestly do not know if Habaybi is more for me, the volunteer, or for the children. Can it be for both?
I’m not necessarily saying that this type of money raising is negative or positive, that it is better or worse than more traditional ways of funding, such as donations by a larger international aid organization. However, because it relies on funding that comes from individuals, and because the individuals have direct contact with the people who theoretically benefit from their aid, it adds a different level of emotional connection to the money and the recipients. This adds nuance to the purely monetary aid that is given. I feel that this can be exploiting the children’s situation because the organization uses the children, the people themselves, as a way to get money.
Because of this, after each time I went with Habaybi to Zaatari Village, I have struggled with the question: Is it acceptable to use the Syrian children as a tourist attraction? Is it okay to exploit their situation to get tourists’ money and time in order to successfully implement a positive program? And finally, is it even valid for me to feel guilty about this if I fully support both the program and donating money to it? I do not know any of the answers to these questions. I am still working through all of this, but all I know for sure is that I’m left with negative feelings after such a fun and positive day with a wonderful group of children.
Research with Vulnerable Populations – Maura
When I travelled to the Jordan Health Aid Society (JHAS) clinic in Amman, the only medical clinic in the area that specifically serves refugees, I looked forward to the opportunity to get a first-hand look at the organization’s work. We had already met with the director of JHAS a few days before, so I had been briefed on the mission, structure, and services of the organization, but I was confident that touring the clinic, meeting the doctors, and seeing the patients would give me a whole new level of understanding.
And it did. I did walk out of the clinic with a much deeper awareness of the challenges and triumphs of this non-profit medical group. But at what cost was I made aware of these things? The discomfort of the already vulnerable patients, whose appointments we barged into as the clinic director introduced us to each of the doctors? The decreased efficiency of the office because its director stopped working to answer our questions and walk us around the clinic? The twenty or so minutes of the young man’s time who stood on the street to hail us a taxi at the end of our visit, under the directions of his boss, even after we insisted that we could find a taxi by ourselves? I would say these are all costs associated with my new understanding of the clinic’s work.
So if those are the costs, what are the benefits? Does my increased awareness justify these costs in any way? Thinking of the patients who shifted in their seats when the door was opened, I tend to say no. My knowledge of the medical services being provided does not improve said services in any way, and does not ease the discomfort of the patients. Thinking of the director and the time he sacrificed to meet with us, I once again think no. I appreciated learning about his job and his responsibilities, but I don’t know that he benefitted at all from the meeting. Sure, he seemed happy to meet us. But was he happy later in the day when he had to face the paperwork that had piled up that morning while he was busy hosting a group of American students? And finally, thinking of the man who waited outside for our taxi, once again I would say no. I can’t imagine that he enjoyed standing in the hot sun for that long, and although he is employed by JHAS, so he was probably being paid for his time, it seems that he would have been better off inside, out of the sun.
So why then did the JHAS clinic in Amman agree to meet with us? We aren’t potential donors. We aren’t governmental inspectors. We aren’t UNHCR representatives. We’re just students. What if they expected our visit to bring some sort of benefit to their office that went unrealized? In this case, it might seem unethical that we allowed them to give us a tour and bring us drinks and hail us a taxi without giving them something in return. Maybe hosting us at the center was a favor to another organization, and they expected some sort of reciprocity from that organization in the future? Or did they enter the meeting with the expectation that they would simply be helping us learn about the organizational response to the Syrian refugee crisis? If so, then I suppose we didn’t do anything wrong by taking up their time. They voluntarily agreed to meet with us. But it’s so difficult to try to understand the nuances of this interaction with JHAS and exactly what motivated their willingness to generously host us, so I honestly don’t know where to begin sorting through the ethics of the visit.
But even if the clinic staff had entered into the meeting voluntarily, without any pretenses that anyone would be donating to their organization or otherwise support their work in exchange for their time, the patients certainly did not. No one asked the patients if it was ok to show us their medical records, which the clinic manager did to a Sudanese man who entered his office while he was speaking with us. The man approached the manager’s desk for a signature on his referral form for Glaucoma treatment at the hospital, and the manager took it upon himself to hold the form out to us and explain what each line meant and what the man’s condition was. No one asked the patients if they minded having four American college students enter the room in which they were speaking privately with their doctor. And judging by their expressions, they did mind.
So what is my responsibility in this situation? I didn’t ask the clinic staff to give me access to their patients’ information, and yet they did. And I benefitted from it. As a researcher, the insights I gained at the JHAS clinic were great. But as a person who values the ethical implications of my work, maybe not. Should I have stopped the man from opening doors during patient consultations and told him that this made me feel uncomfortable? Or would that have been worse because it would have challenged his moral integrity as the clinic manager? In the moment, I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing… But was that right?
Child Beggars and Poverty at Large – Maha
This has happened countless times since we have come here. We are always approached by the same three or four boys and we always turn away pretending not to notice them. Every time I make eye contact with one of the boys, I can’t help feeling dissatisfied with my response. In the face of this difficult situation, I don’t think it’s okay to completely disregard a child in need of help. So, the other day when I was walking down Rainbow near the busy traffic circle where our taxi had dropped us off and a boy approached me for money, I told him that I would buy him a sandwich. He agreed and he began walking alongside me as we walked together to a place where I could buy him some food. After we had walked a block or so, the boy anxiously looked around, stopped, and said he could not go any further or else he would get in trouble. At this point I told him that I was sorry and he just sulked away looking disheartened and scared. I was really upset and discomfited by this, because he was clearly very afraid of someone. Another time a boy approached me a little closer to our hotel. I told him I didn’t have money to give him but that I could buy him some patata (French fries). I took him into the French fry store and he smirked as he chose a sauce to go along with his fries. He was even bold enough to grab a Mirinda orange soda and slide it over to the cashier as I was paying for his fries. The cashier told me that the kid was using me and told me not to do it again.
I felt foolish and sheepish that people thought that the little boy was taking advantage of me. All he had gotten out of me was food and I was happy that he could at least enjoy a snack, but his overall attitude made me think twice about his motives when other people brought up the concern to me. I know this doesn’t make complete sense because I have nothing to lose, but it simply bothers me that he is deceiving me about his material need. Again, I cannot blame the child for this, because he has been forced into this position, but something still does not feel right about the entire situation. Moreover, I do not feel as though what the boy is doing is immoral. I know that if I had to beg or even steal to feed myself or my family that I most certainly would.
After all this, I am deeply disturbed that my attitude has changed towards them, and that I have become desensitized to seeing begging boys on the street. I still feel uncomfortable whenever they approach me, but I no longer harbor the same feeling that I need to do something. This desensitization is extremely problematic. The fact that I don’t have an appropriate way to deal with the begging boys makes me feel guilty about just ignoring them. I feel as though I am playing into the whole problem of evil in that something is clearly wrong in this situation and I don’t do anything to act on it. To compensate, I ignore the evil and convince myself it’s okay. I know the boys are put into this situation through no fault of their own, but I can’t help but feel lied to whenever they approach me. I am still confused as to what the best solution is in such a circumstance. Is there anything else I can do than just walk by pretending not to notice that there is a hungry child asking me for money? This is certainly not the right solution, but I can’t seem to figure out what else to do.
Detached Engagement and Doing What’s “Right” – Josephine
The first time we assisted Habaibi, a volunteer-based initiative that fosters community amongst refugee youth in Zatari village, project manager Abby told us to not be afraid to discipline the children. “Sometimes they just need to be shouted at,” she said, “especially the boys.” I have heard throughout my time here from friends we have met and even our Arabic teacher that parenting tends to be a bit harsher than it is in the U.S., and if it is anything like what I experienced with my own Mediterranean upbringing, I know the tougher methods come from a place of love. However, there was an instance during our time here when one of the Jordanian volunteers grabbed a ten-year-old boy by the biceps, picked him up, and slammed him repeatedly into the side of the bus, red-faced and screaming his admonishments at him. I was shocked by his display of what I can only describe as violence. While the child was undoubtedly in need of restraint, and while I later learned of the crime that prompted his punishment and understood the volunteer’s actions a little better, the fact remained that a near-thirty-year-old man unabashedly, brutally berated a child in my presence, and my natural instinct—call it maternal, if you will—was inciting me to stop it.
Yet I am not his mother, or any parental figure of any kind to him; in fact, in that circumstance, as in every other in Jordan, I was a researcher, a label that prescribes that I do the opposite of what my raw inclination was calling for me to do: observe, not intervene. I watched the man shake the sobbing boy and tried to rationalize my decision to stand by. My job is to be culturally sensitive and this, surely (maybe, hopefully), was just a cultural moment instead of a hostile one. You see, of what I have observed, fights break out all the time amongst these kids, but this boy had hit one of the girls, wherein lies the difference. Almost every aid organization with which we have met has spoken to the prevalence of gender-based violence within these communities, and has stressed the importance it places on rectifying this behavior. In that respect, the volunteer’s outburst was probably in response to a deeply seeded issue, perhaps even a behavioral pattern that he had seen not only in that boy but in the larger group of rowdy boys who I regularly see beating on each other, and who might periodically be hitting the girls, too.
Maybe the volunteer knew something about the boy’s family that I don’t; maybe hitting women is a common practice in his household, and he figured the best way to keep him from emulating forceful behaviors was through using force himself. Maybe he was trying to make an example of him to the other boys who engage in similar behaviors. Does that mean that I was right to not get involved? These are all assumptions after all, and as aware as I was of what I didn’t know, my level of comfort with the situation rested in the trust that I placed in the volunteer’s knowledge and intentions, of which I also knew nothing. Yet my trust in this violent stranger somehow amounted to enough to not intervene at all. How did that happen? Was it really my faith in him that kept me from protecting the child? Or was it my desire to be a “good researcher” that let me allow that scene to unfold as it did? Somewhere there must be a line between interfering with a cultural occurrence and enabling an injustice: had I crossed it?